AA: What got you into music? How did you progress from piano, to trumpet, and start singing?
KS: When I was about six years old, my mom made me take piano lessons. Although I hated them at the time, I am so happy that she forced me to play piano. I started singing in church and school choirs as a little kid. I was in an all-girls choir and the chamber in high school. My grandpa used to play trumpet and he taught me how to play. He was in University of Michigan’s marching band and various bands throughout his life. I started playing trumpet in 4th grade and played in high school marching band, jazz band, concert band and continued to play for fun after high school in my little folk-rock band, Paper Thick Walls (PTW). I love Sufjan Stevens and I think the simple horn lines he writes are brilliant, so that was a big influence on the trumpet lines I wrote for PTW. There truly is beauty in simplicity. After high school, I went to Loyola University where I studied music and philosophy. My main concentrations for my music major were in classical opera, classical piano, and composition. [Side note: my producer and friend, Stefan Clark, and I studied music together at Loyola.] I know my recording voice is kind of soft but, when I sing opera, I can be very loud.Sometimes I like to record some creepy operatic vocals in the background kind of like Cocorosie. So, I have been trained in classical music and that helped me find a way to manipulate my voice into something else. I have done a lot of voice-over work throughout the years, and I have my years of classical training to thank for that.
AA: What got you into songwriting?
KS: When I was 13 years old, my younger brother, Greg, was diagnosed with leukemia. He and I were best buds growing up (I was a big tomboy in my younger years). We would always be outside playing hockey or some other type of sport or game like hide-and-go-seek. Everything for my family changed when he was diagnosed. The song “Come to Me” was the first song I ever wrote, and it was about this experience. Because I was so used to being outside playing with Greg, I had to learn how to take all this emotional energy out on something. My parents have a piano and I would wait until everyone was gone and just play, write, and sing (I was embarrassed for my family to hear me). “Come to Me” took the longest for me to write because I wanted it to be absolutely perfect. It took me about one full year to finish it (I was 13 years old when I wrote it). This experience helped me find my one true passion. Everything happens for a reason.
AA: The first song you had written is "Come To Me" - what's your relationship with the song now?
KS: This song is the first song I ever wrote. It will remain close to my heart forever especially because of what it’s about. To this day, this song makes me feel hope. My brother, Greg, got through his cancer and the song will always be tied to that hope. When we come together with love as a family or group, we can’t lose. There is always hope for a cure.
AA: What can you tell me about the Paper Thick Walls (PTW) era of your life and the band in general?
KS: Paper Thick Walls began in 2008 with only two people: Eric Michaels (guitar, vocals) and me (piano, trumpet, vocals). We were the two main songwriters/singers of the group. Eric and I met in college and wrote music together for about eight years after college. Jacques-René Hébert (fiddle/guitar), Andrew Sabo (drums) and Roger Sherman (upright bass) joined the group about six months after Eric and I started the band. Paper Thick Walls was a great way for me to learn about the music business, make connections, and it taught me how to write music a little differently. Before PTW when I was a solo artist, I used to write the music before the lyrics. Everything I wrote was based off of what was going on in my life; it was very personal. PTW challenged me to open my mind up to the world of writing fictional stories in my lyrics. My writing process changed in the sense that I was writing lyrics before the music. I used to write really complicated piano parts but PTW helped me focus more on what I was trying to say. I used to be very abstract in my lyrics and now I am able to find beauty in simplicity. I am able to write lyrics that are poetic but also as if I am having a conversation with someone. I am able to connect with my audience a little bit better, I am more confident in my stage performance and I am a much stronger songwriter. I am grateful that I was a part of a group that helped me grow as an artist regardless of how the band ended.
AA: Since your time away from the band, you started writing Past Present Future - what do these songs mean to you?
KS: Some of the songs were written prior or even during my time with Paper Thick Walls. I have always been writing for myself and have always considered myself as a solo artist while still in a band. Some of the songs I wrote I needed to keep for myself. The first couple songs on Past Present Future (“Darkroom," "While I’m Away" and “Shoeboxes") were partially written before Paper Thick Walls even existed. After the band break-up, I perfected and changed some of my previous lyrics and chords because, at that point in time, I had changed and grown as an artist. The songs on this record mean everything to me. I started writing the first songs on my album 10 years ago but never recorded them. Past Present Future is a compilation of some old songs and some new songs. Some of the new songs touch on my experience with the break-up of Paper Thick Walls and “Salt” is one them. While you listen to the record, you can hear my style change from more of a folky approach into more of an electronica vibe. My perspective on life changed within the 10 years of writing the first songs on my record as did my perspective on songwriting. I am very happy with the changes I’ve made in my music and in my life. My producer and good friend, Stefan Clark, who produced some my solo music from the many years earlier, helped me with my change in style. My engineer from CRC, Mat Lejeune (also a good friend of mine), was also someone who recorded my first album, Emptier Streets, when I was 18 years old, so I have always had an amazing team between the two of them throughout the years. It definitely matters who you work with on your record. The fact that I was able to work on this album with the two of them made the record even more special for me. They know pretty much everything about me which makes the recording experience even more special.
AA: How do you write songs? I'm assuming at the piano.
KS: As I mentioned earlier, I used to write the piano lines before the lyrics, however, I now write the lyrics first. I think the majority of an audience really cares about what an artist is trying to say. After I write the words, I come up with a melody in my head that fits those words. Sometimes I’ll change the words to make the melody a little more interesting or ‘poppy.’ After the melody and lyrics are written, I’ll sit down at the piano and write the bass lines first. Which bass lines match the melody and emotion of lyrics best? After the bass lines are written out, then I will mess around with piano melodies and/or chords that complement the lyrical melody/emotion.
AA: I love "While I'm Away" - the piano is haunting (in a good way) - what can you tell me about writing the song?
KS: “While I’m Away” is a song that is very dear to me. Part A of this song makes this the oldest song on Past Present Future. I wrote the song about a place called Glennie, Michigan. My family has a cabin up there (yea, I’m from Michigan) and it is one of the most beautiful places on this earth. We call it ‘God’s country.’ While I’m away from that place and my favorite people, I can still dream about coming back to it. “While I’m away may you think of the place where the sky meets the lake upside down” (referring to the reflection of the tree line on the lake and the trees look like they’re upside down). “I could never be done loving you.” Another thing that makes this place so special is that the place was picked out my younger brother, Greg. My dad told Gregthat if he was able to survive his cancer, he would buy this place for him. He survived and every year I swear the place and people there get more and more beautiful. And I will never be done loving them and the place; they are at healthy and happy.
AA: Do you have a favorite song on the album?
KS: My favorite songs always switch up. ‘Salt,’ ‘Never Let Go,’ and ‘Wait’ are on the top of my list. They are also the most recent songs I’ve written and my attachment to these songs still feels new. My heart feels the story behind these songs the most because it’s as if I’m still there and still feeling it all.
AA: Are you playing any shows around Chicago or doing anything like that anytime soon?
KS: I have an upcoming show May 30th at Burlington Bar in Chicago. I’m currently working with my booking agent about lining up a summer tour, so I’ll keep you all posted. You can also see my upcoming shows at kateschellmusic.com