Major chords, minor confessions

Chelsea Paolini of People Skills and Thomas Forbes of Harsh Armadillo unite to make a therapeutic pop album

The songs on Chelsea Paolini’s new album are a much brighter and more optimistic brand of pop than fans of her band People Skills are used to. But, upon closer inspection, listeners will notice that the message behind “One More Before the Therapy Kicks In” is a shade darker.

“I always say my songs are more of an ‘oh, well’ sadness than an ‘everything is doomed’ sadness,” Paolini said. “Because there’s humor in the ‘oh, well’ factor, and it makes it bearably over-emotional in contrast to an overwhelmingly depressing — yet always completely brilliant — Elliott Smith song.”

“One More Before the Therapy Kicks In” boasts 10 heart-on-sleeve songs that open up about themes like guilt, shame, embarrassment, failure, and barely scraping by financially. While Paolini said she touches on similar topics with People Skills, the new songs are more direct, as though stripping away her band removed the guard from her feelings — though she still retains her self-deprecating humor.

“It’s funny because I write about the same subjects in People Skills songs, but more cryptically, so I think I’m either becoming less clever, or else maybe I want to get a clearer message across,” she said.

Paolini has been fronting, singing, and shredding guitar in the Brentwood-based People Skills for six years. Though the band is still active, Paolini constantly feels the itch to perform. Now based in Portsmouth, she recently took her music on a solo tour that brought her as far south as North Carolina.

Paolini will play a solo show at the Newmarket Mills during the Wrong Brain Spring Bizarre on Saturday, May 13. Her sister, Sam Paolini, founder of the Wrong Brain artist collective, designed the cover art for the new album.

Chelsea Paolini One More Before the Therapy Kicks In

album art by Sam Paolini

Paolini created her new album for the 2017 RPM Challenge, which encourages artists to write and record an entire album in the month of February. For help in the rhythm section, she enlisted Thomas Forbes, the bass player and vocalist for local band Harsh Armadillo, who also produces boom-bap inspired hip-hop beats under the name “Teeba.”

“I approached Tom because I knew he made beats, and my original idea was to play acoustic guitar and sing over his beats, since I’ve been doing more and more solo acoustic gigs,” said Paolini.

A fan of Paolini’s music, Forbes jumped at the chance.

“I had no idea what to expect, but was available and interested so I said ‘yes,’” he said. “I’ve also wanted to work with/jam with Chelsea for a while, so I figured this is a perfect opportunity to do so.”

Paolini’s penchant for pop sensibilities and major chords creates an interesting atmosphere for her tragic lyrics. For Forbes, the two motifs work hand in hand.

“(The songs) reminded me a lot of all the ’90s pop-rock and pop-punk that I grew up with,” said Forbes. “Positive and energetic music is the best to write heavy lyrics to. Kind of reminds me of ska and punk music, where you can sing about some real heavy stuff, but warping that into an outlet of positive energy.

“I think some of the best music comes from the darkest places and times, and the greatest thing about music is you can take all of that darkness and spin it into something incredibly positive just by playing major chords,” he continued.

Chelsea Paolini and Tom Forbes

Chelsea Paolini and Thomas Forbes at work on Paolini’s new solo album. photo by Carly Johnson Strathdee

The two came into the project inspired by a wide range of artists. Paolini wrote many of her songs in tribute to bands like Ween and Wilco, but was also obsessing over Depeche Mode’s “Songs of Faith and Devotion.” Forbes, meanwhile, clung to contemporary hip-hop/neo-soul artist Anderson Paak and producer Knxwledge.

“One More Before the Therapy Kicks In” highlights what is understated about both musicians. The powerful sound and ripping guitar solos of People Skills are gone. The flash and flair of Harsh Armadillo’s live performances are boiled down. The project condenses these two powerhouse bands into their simple sugars: catchy, confessional music set to beautifully bright melodies and funky rhythms.

Paolini recorded her song ideas and vocals to a click track and sent it off to Forbes, who produced the drum beats with the aim of achieving a “real and homemade feel.”

“I tried (programming the drums), but since the guitar was a little off the metronome — which I personally like — a perfectly programmed drum pattern just didn’t sound right. So I did it all live, one drum sound at a time. Usually, first the snare, then the kick, then the hi hat and/or shaker.”

Paolini and Forbes convened to record the final tracks at Forbes’ apartment in Newmarket (the Teeba Studios, as he calls it). Peppered in between the songs are a few intros and interludes that give listeners a behind-the-scenes look at the recording process, showing how the two musicians consult with each other and work out issues.

“The interludes/intros really give you an idea and feel for how the final tracks were built,” Forbes said.

The intros also cushion the blow of the songs’ emotional impact.

Honestly, the hope and optimism I kind of threw in there for my parents and anyone who might be worried,” Paolini said. “It’s hard to write from the heart when your biggest fans are the people closest to you … honestly, I swear I’m not a bummer to hang out with, although these lyrical confessions make it seem so.”

“One More Before The Therapy Kicks In is available on Bandcamp, at The Drift Collective in Portsmouth, and at Wrong Brain Headquarters in the Washington Street Mills in Dover. Chelsea Paolini will perform at the Wrong Brain Spring Bizarre in the Newmarket Mills on Saturday, May 13, at 1 pm.