Once upon a cloudy day, I found myself after many years away from covering live performances, back on the road speeding to a new destination. This assignment was very different. With little more than a few samples from random Internet sites and short promotional e-mails, my knowledge of the band, Paper Tongues, was minimal. Though as my research widened I found out more that left me wondering who they were and where I felt they would be found in the broad arena of today’s music. Under the clouds, behind the wheel, with a cheeseburger in my lap, I would find out quickly since I would meet and further appreciate the band behind the mystery in a short few hours.
I arrive at the Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa in the late afternoon of February 22nd wondering what is in store for me over the next several hours. After pushing the remaining two bites of a heart doctor’s worst nightmare down my throat, I get myself together and begin a short walk down the far end of North Main. Walking past a few young kids who have obviously camped out to catch a glimpse of anyone who has arrived on a tour bus, I enter the Cain’s front door and hear that familiar tone of sound check guitar. As you walk into this room for the first time, you become overwhelmed with a feeling of importance and time. By reputation, the venue and it’s sound is legendary. I knew from the mix of the guitars over this brilliant sound system I was to be in a happy state of mind by the end of the show.
Paper Tongues consist of seven individuals with a very specific set of skills. Aswan North (vocals), Devin Forbes (guitar), Cody Blackler (Rhodes keyboards), Joey Signa (guitar), Clayton Simon (synthesizer keyboards), Jordan Hardee (drums), and Danny Santell (bass) are the components of a well-oiled machine that uses the fuel of music to perpetuate a movement of positivity and strength to its listeners. As I settled down to look over my notes and check the levels on my small tape recorder, Devin, the band’s guitarist, who had just returned from a quick bite at a local café, greeted me with a smile and handshake. Forbes looked tired and worn much like any rock musician would after the distance and time spent at his craft. Never judge a book by its cover. As he opened his mouth to answer the first of my standard questions, I felt the presence of an energized artist, inspired to demonstrate his love for his band and their music. Void of ego and rock star persona, Devin instantly projected energy of warmth, which pulled me in quickly to the heart of their story.
Originally from Charlotte North Carolina, Paper Tongues was born from the days of street performing for the homeless at a busy downtown area in the city. He explained their birth to me like a proud parent,
“Cody and I had been in a band together before. Aswan was running this thing Uptown Charlotte which was basically this big get-together where every Saturday night we would set up the P.A. system right in the heart of downtown on the street corner. Anybody was welcome to come and play. We would have drums, amps and microphones set up. You could come and bring whatever-bring your congas, your rain stick, or anything. We would literally have twenty or thirty people out there just banging away and playing music. Eventually somebody would take the lead, create a melody and vamp on that for a while-improv for a few hours. All of us came into that community that Aswan had created, met each other and formed a group out of it.”
The mix of influences that fuel this band is extremely hot and inspiring. It is really hard to place them all at first listen because of the eclectic combinations and interwoven themes, which construct the dynamics and sound. Whether you hear U2, Rage Against the Machine, Outkast, Timbaland, or The Black Eyed Peas, there is a good chance these boys have pulled some of their spirit forward to help fuel their creativity. Many factors come into play during the song writing process and most don’t follow the rules.
“We write songs differently every time we meet.” Forbes said. “We will get together, us as a band, and we will write scores of music. We will write a soundtrack to Aswan’s inspiration...We will loop something he really felt and he will write a song in like ten minutes. Then the structure will come into play. So many eclectic influences. There are seven of us… which is a lot. Everybody has their piece in it so it meshes together kinda well.”
Their music meshed together just enough to gain the friendship and support of a few heavy hitters along their journey.
Randy Jackson, American Idol judge, and A-list record producer, was interrupted one day as he was enjoying lunch in an L.A. restaurant. Jackson was surprised as the band’s vocalist confidently submitted their demo during his meal. Later that day after returning to his office and impressed by North’s introduction, Jackson listened to the demo and was struck immediately by what he heard. Within two hours, according to North, Jackson was on the phone discussing their music. After spending time with Paper Tongues, Jackson began to manage the band and work hard to point them in the right direction.
“Randy has been amazing,” Devin adds. “Basically, from the beginning nobody wanted Paper Tongues as a band…Randy was the first person who took a liking to a seven piece band. From the minute he saw it and really saw what it was and what it needed to be...He said this is how you start a movement. Randy has been a huge supporter of what we are and what we’ve always been. Randy is so much more than a manager too. He’s a producer, he’s a musician, and he’s like an uncle basically… He has really brought a ton, not just in connections and getting us hooked up with labels and agencies…We really probably wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for him. Aside from that, he’s been huge in the production of the album…some of the writing sessions and advice on just about everything.”
Between the band’s positive spirit, Adwan’s confidence and determination, and the support of Jackson, the band had quickly established a solid grip on their reaching their goals.
With the prospect of success in front of them, the next task was the recording process, and the support of a new release, which for some new artists can be daunting and exhausting. For Paper Tongues, the process was encouraging. Working with multiple producers including Jackson, Brian West, John Fields, Nicholas Balachandran, and Mark Endert made the sessions reach a level that many involved felt would change their lives for the better.
“Nicholas and Brian were the key producers. Nicholas is like our Brian Eno,” adds Forbes graciously complimenting each member of the production team. “Brian West was the producer who basically gave us a sound. It has been really fun working with them in the studio and writing. We’ve written one hundred tunes and ten of them are on the record. The rest we are really excited about. We have album two, album three, and album four already pre-written. We have a ton of ideas for the future that we haven’t shown anybody.”
Also, the band is beginning to be known for their phenomenally driven live performances. Currently supporting Switchfoot’s Hello Hurricane tour has exposed them to a very dedicated fan base that has accepted them with open arms. This can be rare especially for an unknown band riding only on an E.P. release.
“In general this tour with Switchfoot has been the most compatible tour that we’ve had…whatever we are trying to do has been taken very well by the Switchfoot fans. It’s been very memorable…to have the crowd go crazy for an opening band that they haven’t heard before. They’ve come to see Switchfoot and it takes them a couple of songs to figure it out. Then its like, wow. Encore. It’s been memorable and awesome having that,” Forbes says with confidence.
As I watched their sound check from the mixing booth, I finally could understand the reasons for the constant wave of accolades. When the crowd of people began to filter into the room and take there places on the floor in front of the stage, I could hear the comments randomly enter my ears indicating that the movement has been carried to a new family of listeners. “Paper Tongues are amazing.” I heard from one young girl as she grabbed her friend’s arm with excitement. “They blew me away when I saw them at the last show,” I heard from another, who was definitely a die hard fan attending one of many shows in a string of dates as they follow across the band across the region.
When the band finally took the stage, the energy was magnetic. Aswan North has command immediately as his vocal power rivals those with twice the performance experience of his own. The brilliant mechanics of the band are evident as each note; vocal stab and lyrical change are executed effortlessly and with masterful confidence. An organic machine propelled on pure spirit makes the stage illuminate with energy and power. Exploding out of the gate with “For the People,” Aswan’s vocal soared over the ballroom floor sweeping up everything in its wake. The hot, rhythmic pounding of “Trinity” quickly takes hold of the crowd as they raise their hands in trusting unison. The conversion and love affair has just begun. “What If” is dedicated to the ladies in the audience; not like a lounge singer but like a caring brother with an endearing manner. The vocals, harmonies, chorus and overall message of the song was staggering. “Everybody” finally turns the switch and propelled the crowd to a sold out stadium show with its brilliant rhythmic textures, chorus and vocals. “Get Higher” and the infectious “Ride to California” has the crowd mesmerized and hopelessly smitten. As I scanned the faces of the front row, a picture of an awe inspired audience was printed in my mind forever. After a career of writing and music listening, my single word definition for the evening would be “Epic.”
As the last note was cast into the air and the band began to breakdown and leave the stage one thing was clear to me. Paper Tongues is more than just seven talented musicians from North Carolina who busily shuffle from one stage to another, working hard to earn their place, and keeping faith that good fortune will continue. This is truly an energy, an inspiration, a gift, and a movement beyond those laced with status and pride. The common thread that runs through this band is healing. Is Paper Tongues a vehicle for healing the masses with positivity?
With a sincere tone, and sensitive smile, Devin Forbes laid down the answer for me with honesty, heart and extreme vulnerability: “I don’t think that anyone would disagree with me that it is a very broken world at the moment, you know? I mean I am a broken person. You know we are all broken and need healing. Music can do that. Music heals me every single day by listening to my favorite musicians, favorite writers, favorite vocalists and instrumentalists. There is definite healing in that. It’s something that you can’t get anywhere else. We want to bring healing and bring hope. We want people to achieve. Ride to California is about that. It is about us…It is about hope, healing, and dropping what we’re doing to chase this one dream that we have.”- an encouraging and sincere message that rarely comes from anyone today.
The full length, self-titled release from A&M/Octone Records is due to drop on March 30th. A collection of ten powerful songs that tell stories of hopes, dreams, inspirations, and the desire to reach out and give to someone else who shares the same ground. Paper Tongues was a mystery to me when I first walked into their world. They now are an example of success built on pure desire, determination and the willingness to give back. I predict an amazing future and see a road lined with healing though the message of music