“Usually, when I tell people that I make music, I don’t reference Primary Colors,” says the polite, affable sophomore. “Instead I say, ‘Check me out on Soundcloud.’” Sitting in front of me with his work neatly put aside to accommodate this impromptu interview is Paul Russell, who is an opinion columnist for The Sun and is otherwise known by the name ‘Paulitics’ under which he raps, sings and writes music. We’re sitting at a table in Temple of Zeus on Friday afternoon, the last day of class before Spring Break.
Over the course of this winter break, I grew familiar with Paul’s work, after he granted me permission to use some of his songs in a feature-length film I was co-directing. Naturally, this level of familiarity with his work made me want to learn more about the artist behind the music I was so generously given access to; Hence this interview.
To know Paul is to know someone whose organized, outgoing nature contrasts with the classic stereotype of a disorganized, self-obsessed artist. While undoubtedly an extravert, Paulitics’ music reveals a depth of associations, thoughtfulness and pensive tendency that rewards listeners who remember or are currently navigating the uncertainty of young adulthood. Indeed, when first presented with Paul’s entirely-digital discography, one is likely to be struck by his apparent desire to conjure a certain moment. While he admits that each song generally has a different process of conception, he acknowledges that most aren’t begun out of a desire to push a certain theme.
“When I make music, half the time it’s because I want to feel a certain mood. I’ll make music as if I felt some sort of mood, and that puts me into it,” says Paul. “I mean, sometimes there are themes I want to communicate, but I generally think it’s either the mood I want to create that motivates me, or I’m walking home late at night and I start rapping to myself or singing to myself and say, ‘Oh, that’s cool, I like that.’”
Explaining how his own taste is the foremost guiding inspiration for his music, Paul creates beats and songs featuring instrumentation that we, as he explains, “Don’t usually hear in a song of that type.” Upon first hearing the electric piano and the “sense of peppiness” it brings to the otherwise melancholically retrospective song Youth, I couldn’t help but note the beguiling assortment of unusual sounds that constitute Paul’s work. It’s apparent that throughout his music, sonic novelty remains as important as lyrical inquiry, evident in how Paul himself admits that, during the writing stage, it’s often the melody that emerges first. This guiding desire to experiment with certain sounds explains his reluctance to introduce people to his music through his debut album, Primary Colors. “For one, the recordings aren’t up to par with what I think they should and could be … And I do regret not having the more interesting sounds in it. [In] my music now, I like the production of it a lot better.”
However, despite his answer suggesting that the instruments precede the lyrics, Paul would be first to admit that his creative process doesn’t really have a strict definition. “‘Hotels’ is a song I recorded when I was driving and pulled over to the side of the road in mood,” he recounts. “I made a beat on my computer and ended up recording in my car.” For how long was he sitting there? “Hours,” he laughed. “When recording in a small space like that, it sounds sort of weird, so I rolled down the windows to avoid the echo. So, in the song, you can hear faint cricket noises from outside. Whenever I hear that song, I think back to myself sitting in the car — it was in a cool little area too. I was next to a field, so it has a cool, nostalgic feel to it.”
When asked whether he prefers rapping or singing, Paul answers by revealing something I hadn’t realized about the technicality of rapping. “I like singing more,” he shrugs.
“Just because, sometimes when I rap in a song I’m less satisfied with the song afterwards. I think in rapping it’s weird that even though there’s less inflection in your voice and all that, there’s still a specific way that things need to be said. In a way, it’s more technical. So, in rap, you want your voice to sound cool the whole time, while in singing, it’s okay for that to fluctuate.” He then pauses, before punctuating his definite answer with tentative humility. “It’s hard to explain, I guess.”
I ask Paul if he feels more self-conscious when he raps than when he sings. “Oh definitely … Sometimes I’ll think my voice didn’t sound low enough, or cool enough. ‘I sounded like a kid when I said that,’ sometimes I think to myself. But with singing, because you have that melody that’s more important than anything else, it’s possible to hide behind that.” Is it possible that because the most famous rappers are predominantly male, and attempt to project an image of strength through both the subject and style of their music, he feels a bit more constricted when approaching that form? “When I’m rapping, a lot of times I’m trying to fit within this mold of what a rapper sounds like, while there’s more freedom with singing, where there are so many diverse types of singers and voices.” Indeed, one of the first things I noticed about Paul’s music, even when he raps, is that he never swears, which is unusual because such language acts as punctuation for many rappers. When this is raised, Paul’s response is reasonable in its self-assured frankness: “I generally don’t use that language when I talk, and so I’m trying to be as real as possible … When I make my music, I don’t want to be that guy who’s a completely different person.”
So if today’s rappers aren’t his primary source of inspiration, then who is? “I really like Daniel Caesar, an R&B singer… There’s some sort of guitar or piano in his music, but it’s generally not what you’d expect to be R&B. Another big influence has been Shakey Graves, a singer from Austin. I really like the way he conveys emotion in his music, through very much describing a moment, in the way. For instance, he has a song called House of Winston, in which he’s describing a moment with a girl. It’s nothing very sexual or anything crazy, but it’s more him setting the stage of what’s happening in there. There are too many love songs that are all ‘I love you, you’re so great,’ or tell a long narrative that goes ‘First I did this, then I did that.’”
Considering influences beyond other musicians, Paul lists fashion as an influence that people might be surprised by. Whether it’s the song ‘Pyjamas on a Thursday’ or sporadic references to denim, he describes how “In a way, clothing communicates a specific culture. In a lot of music, I find myself mentioning clothing to bring people into the world that I’m thinking of — into the cultural sphere I’m imagining myself in when I write this song.” Looking back through his work after learning of this, it becomes impossible to ignore his mentions of fashion as a detail of the moment, a means by which his music situates him in a previous episode in his life. “The only way I know how to capture and emotion is through a moment, I guess. I wrote the song ‘Okay,’over the summer. In trying to communicate a certain feeling of being relaxed and being sorta happy, I talk about the past, me as a child and being carefree. Within that, I talk about looking at a screen with an old friend, and wearing twenty dollar jeans.”
“There was a song I wrote, the ‘Laces,’ in my Outfit EP, about me realizing I shouldn’t worry about the future.” As one of his earliest pieces of music, Outfit is currently not distributed, but it is a formative episode in Paulitics’ artistic and personal growth. “To me that was a very profound feeling that I didn’t think I’d feel again. Even now, when I go back and hear that song, I remember how much uncertainty I felt at that time in my life. Another one, even more recent than that, is the song ‘Youth.’ In a lot of ways, it’s me trying to capture this whole ‘me-as-a-musician’ thing. Because this whole time it’s never been my goal to be a professional musician … I feel sometimes like I just ended up in this crazy place and can’t help but think ‘Wow, how did this happen?’ This amazement feels like something I really need to remember for when I’m forty and saying ‘Remember when I used to do these crazy concerts in Ithaca, New York?’ … I think writing a song is a way to communicate every feeling I have, and even specific moments within that. In ‘Youth,’ I mention specific, real things that’ve happened as my time as a musician and that’s something I really like.”
It is interesting and gratifying to have conversations about art with people who don’t approach it from a vocational or strictly professional context, but who just seem to do it out of the most earnest and pure of motivations: self-expression. When asked about the possibility of a forthcoming album or mixtape, Paul remains tentatively optimistic: “Potentially. I make music very sporadically … Most of the songs I make are made in the spur of a moment.”
Paul Russell’s latest music is available via SoundCloud, and his album Primary Colors is distributed by Electric Buffalo Records, accessible on Spotify and Apple Music.
Lorenzo Benitez is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.