Fantastic interview, Michele! I enjoyed the bits of relating music to beer and Paul seems like a well-rounded artist.
Everything is True: An Interview with Paul Dempsey
Everything is true and nothing is true. Truth is subjective, according to Australian singer/songwriter and Something for Kate front man Paul Dempsey. He has written high-energy, noise-rock-inspired pop tunes as head honcho of SFK, as well as mild-mannered acoustic guitar ballads flying solo. His recent US release Everything is True reflects intelligent and painstakingly fresh lyric-writing, beautiful interpretations of life’s most mysterious qualities, and artful arrangement and production. The record reached number five on the Australian Record Industry charts, number one on the iTunes chart, and spent almost four months on the ARIA chart. But let’s not focus on too many of those details. Let’s get to the good stuff. I recently sat down (in my kitchen) and had a lovely conversation (on the phone) with this versatile and talented artist.
Michele Zipkin: Can you talk a little about your songwriting process?
Paul Dempsey: I write songs because it’s a way to make sense of how I see the world. It’s like having conversations with myself and putting them on paper. I try and write in a way such that there’s room to interpret my song lyrics. I don’t see the point in writing lyrics like “Baby I love you…” You can write about love, but you can do it in a [symbolic] way that everyone can connect to, whether they’re in love, or have just fallen out of love.
MZ: What is the meaning behind the title of the album Everything is True?
PD: Again, it goes back to how I write music in general- trying to have conversations with myself and get to the core of something. I could be able to write a lyric or a line that I could find some [nugget] of meaning in, but nothing is true. I don’t necessarily think there is any truth- there are things that are quantifiable, but I can’t think of one thing that I can describe as true. I write these songs and some of them take the form of a dialogue where characters debate with each other. There’s a lot of truth going around- there are big truths and little truths and some of them dominate our lives [like war, and what a woman chooses to do with her own reproductive system.] So the title of the album is an oxymoron. Everyone throws the word around, but truth is just opinion, it’s not the same as the next person’s.
PD: I started playing a few instruments from a young age – guitar, piano, and drums. I listened to everything from death metal to grindcore – a lot of ‘80s noise rock [bands like Black Flag - raw, noisy, outpouring garage punk]. I was obsessed with technical ability and how good people were at their instruments, but realized that certain sounds could come from a more inspired place.
Something for Kate’s first album was pretty noisy and abrasive. But the way I want to express myself has changed. The songs I write are a documentation of where I am now. I don’t like being identified with the same songs that I wrote. Years go by and you change and you move away from things that you wrote.
MZ: You co-produced the album Everything Is True, as well as albums for other artists. How did your knowledge as a musician come into play in production?
PD: I wrote all the songs, played all the instruments, arranged everything on the album. Produced in my case applies to the sounds you use – this guitar sound, this effect. I co-produced with Wayne Connelly because I like the way he records drums and guitars. We did the record at a friend of mine’s house on the eastern coast of Australia. We spent three weeks on it and recorded everything in one room. It was like a beach holiday recording the album in a little shack. But we ran into some issues. There would be three hours at dusk where cockatoos would screech in the trees, so we couldn’t record then. We’d have to turn the refrigerator off, and the air conditioner. There was also a nine-foot python [living near the house], who liked to wrap itself around the porch pole in the evening.
It’s nice to make an album at your own pace, in your own living space, with no other bands there. The bigger studios get the more sterile it gets, the less personal. Mixing is good to do in the studio, but it’s better to do the tracking at home.
MZ: If you could share the stage with any other artist, who would it be and why?
PD: Levon Helm, the drummer from The Band. I would love to play anything with him playing drums behind me. He creates an incredible foundation, everyone else in the band could completely lose themselves and take a nap, and he’s laying down the most incredible solo you could imagine. I will play with Mavis Staples at the Melbourne Festival in October, so that should be fun.
As far as listening to music goes I’m much more interested in the music of the past. Everything now is so fast and diffused that nothing gets any real attention. Some of these older records existed in a different time and space where people listened to them and discussed them- there seems to be a lot of depth.
PD: I write all the music. When I get together with Steph and Clint, we work on it together. They push and pull on songs and they take on a different shape. When you have three people in a room with amplified instruments everything takes on a loud, amplified sound. That’s why I decided to make a solo album, to sit down with an acoustic guitar. I’ll risk comparing this to how Neil Young made records by himself, and when he wanted to get more abrasive he would collaborate with the rest of the band. When I sit down and write it’s usually just me and an acoustic guitar. There are things I wouldn’t write as Something for Kate, because they’re not reflective of the group as a whole.
MZ: Have you ever performed an acoustic cover of a complex song?
PD: I did a cover of MGMT’s “Time to Pretend”, which has synthesized keyboards, drums, a very grandiose sound; I stripped that down to just guitar. [The song stands well on its own] – The lyrics are funny, it’s a good song. You could play it on a child’s xylophone and it would still sound good.
MZ: Where does the name Something for Kate come from?
PD: I had a dog named Kate, and when people asked, that was my go-to response. But really I was on the phone with a night club owner one day who needed a name right then, so I picked up a post – it that just said “Something for Kate” on it. We played a show under that name, and we played a second and third and [the name spread] through word of mouth, and it came to a point that to change it would have been a drag.
MZ: If you could drive one famous car, (like the Bat Mobile or the DeLorean from Back to the Future) what would it be?
PD: The DeLorean was first thing that popped in my head, ’cause I like the idea of being able to time travel. I don’t know, maybe the big red convertible that Raoul Duke drives in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
MZ: If you could equate your music to a type of beer, what would it be?
PD: I have an instinct to say a strong pale ale. It’s strong, clear, and not cloudy, with a crisp color and taste. There’s a snap to it, it’s gentle, but it has a bit of a bite.
MZ: How do you feel right before you get on stage?
PD: I never really got nervous consciously, but this funny thing happens when I start to go into fits of yawning, and I feel like I want to go to sleep. That’s my body’s way of preparing for a nerve-racking event. I learned that when you yawn your body’s regulating oxygen to your brain. When I was younger I had panic attacks. [I guess yawning is a way to] try to contain my excitement.
What I love about performing is that you let everything go, and let everything out. You forget about time, time stops… you feel hyper aware of time, like you feel connected to the moment you’re in. When you’re on stage playing a show, or a riding a wave on a surfboard, you’re directly connected to the moment you’re in. If everything is going well, and it’s a good show, the audience is there with you. When that happens you forget that you’re on stage – its like you’re in the audience.
Paul is currently touring the US to promote Everything is True, and working on the next Something For Kate Album due for release this year. He is scheduled to perform at Kung Fu Necktie in Philadelphia on August 15th.