by Marisa Torrieri Bloom
I have a love-hate relationship with pianos in rock n’ roll. Sure, I can acknowledge the greatness of Elton John, Stevie Wonder and Billy Joel — and the power of their music — but growing up, I didn’t feel super-connected to any of these artists. Piano, even on its angriest days, isn’t an electric guitar. As I began to cultivate my musical tastes as an adolescent, I longed only for artists who could empathize with my budding angst. Anything that veered too closely to Broadway territory wasn’t for me.
But when I discovered Tori Amos, something awakened inside of me, and a brand new affection for piano-driven alternative pop-rock emerged.
So recently, when a friend of mine turned me onto Passing Strange, a Southern Connecticut piano-and-drums duo that delivers the power of a four-piece rock band, I fell in love with the keys all over again.
Listening to singer/pianist Kate Mirabella and drummer Anthony Paolucci’s latest full-length album, The Water and the Woods (available on Spotify and Apple Music and most digital platforms) feels more like listening to Halsey — but with keys — than Tori. This is a good thing, as the record encompasses all of the moody swings I need in my music — high-energy songs that make you want to bop along, and more melancholy tracks that make you want to sink into your own nostalgic headspace. It’s like riding a roller coaster of sonic landscapes, from the uptempo “Weather Cold” to the heart-wrenching “They All Do” — my personal favorite, with its minor chord progressions and lyrics about broken love and longing.
We recently caught up with Passing Strange to talk about their songwriting process, and how they’re biding their time until live music resumes in the Nutmeg State.
Rockmommy: Your album The Water and The Woods is really great work. How did you come up with the songs and the concept for this particular body of work?
Kate Mirabella: It definitely wasn’t something I planned ahead of time. I was going through a very difficult time in my life and a painful breakup. Consequently, the songs seemed to all have a dark, gloomy sound and feel. That time in my life seemed like a maze of woods and fog, which inspired the album cover. The album title was inspired by a journal entry that I was looking back on. I was trying to describe the fundamental differences I was noticing in my current relationship. Despite having a deep level of love for each other, and years of making memories, we had different goals for the future and extremely different personalities. The line from my entry seemed to sum it up perfectly: “I liked the woods, he liked the water.”
Rockmommy: It’s amazing how you both sound so full — but you’re a duo. How do you write together? What’s the process like?
Anthony Paolucci: The song comes to me with piano and lyrics — finished, for the most part. Kate will play the song at band practice and I try to find the beat first, or the groove. After that, I play to the song, adjusting the tempo if necessary, complimenting what’s already there with as much or as little drums as possible — whatever it requires. My drumming style is actually a lot more aggressive, having played mostly in hard rock bands since I was a teenager. Back then, as a drummer playing with very technical guitarists and bassists, I always wanted to stand out. This band has been a wonderful challenge in that I only have one other instrument I need to accompany, and it’s a piano, something the drums can easily overpower if approached irresponsibly. Kate’s piano style is also very percussive, as she was originally a drummer too. So a lot of what she’s doing fills in what might be bass parts. It’s a delicate balance, but our chemistry is such that we’ve never had a problem doing the song justice.
Rockmommy: What are some of the topics that are near and dear to your heart as songwriters?
Kate Mirabella: I like when small, seemingly simple things invoke serious emotion. Some of my favorite writers and songwriters have a common theme of looking at something simple like a glove compartment in Death Cab for Cutie’s “Title and Registration,” or other observations in poems by Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Emily Dickinson. Something so small ends up creating existential questions. That’s something I definitely do in many of my songs.
Rockmommy: I’m digging the track ‘Weather Cold’ — is this a cautionary tale?
Kate Mirabella: This is as cautionary as it gets. “Weather Cold” is about the dangers of a young college girl who has nothing to lose and needs absolutely nothing from anyone. People think these types of girls can be tamed or just need a relationship to settle them down, but it will just leave you feeling like a train ran through your life.
Rockmommy: There’s something heart-wrenching about the song, “They All Do.” Can you tell me about that one?
Kate Mirabella: This song still breaks my heart every time I hear it. There’s something tough about playing a song years later and thinking about how much you were hurting at the time. The first line isn’t poetic license, I really was up at 4 in the morning when I wrote it. I had just ended a long relationship and was reflecting on how hard it had been to let that person in, tell them the most vulnerable things about myself, having them be a part of the family for years, and I just had this crushing realization that I didn’t have the strength or energy to go through it again with someone else. So, as someone who grew up on emo music, I went all-out on this song.
Rockmommy: I think my other favorite one is “June.” It’s dark but alluring, and I love it when you sing “the wrong time … will you ever make it right?” Can you tell us about that one?
Kate Mirabella: I had experienced a lot of loss during this time in my life. Friends dying far too young can really affect your outlook on life. When I wrote that line in the chorus, I was picturing myself running through the woods, trying to grab the hand of those who I wish I hadn’t lost, but their fingers always slip away. It was such a helpless feeling.
Rockmommy: You were playing a lot in Connecticut before the world changed in February. What’s your favorite thing about live performances?
Anthony Paolucci: For me, this is what I’ve always wanted to do, ever since my parents gave me my first KISS album at 3 years old. So I’m basically living my childhood dream – just without the millions of dollars and stage explosions. On a more artistic note, however, there is something profoundly gratifying about performing an original creation in front of an audience. It’s a form of artistic expression that I’ve always found incredibly satisfying, especially when the music is something you’re really proud of.
Kate Mirabella: I love mixing up the Connecticut music scene. There are a lot of genres reflected in the state, but I never felt like my music style was accurately reflected. I have extremely eclectic taste, and I’ve been to so many shows I can’t even count. I’ve been the girl moshing at a heavy metal concert, and the girl crowd-surfing up onto the stage. However, the shows that I hold closest to my heart are the quiet, lyric-driven artists who captivate the audience. While I had a blast at A Day to Remember and Blink-182 shows, Julien Baker, or City and Colour performances are life-changing for me. So, I love trying to change the minds of Connecticut concertgoers. There’s something so powerful about hearing the bar suddenly get quiet when we go into “Seven” and feeling their attentiveness to the lyrics.
Rockmommy: How are you making music during quarantine? Are you able to meet up and social distance, or using outlets like Zoom to jam?
Anthony Paolucci: All of this happened literally a week after we released our new album. Before that, we had mostly written our next album and had planned to work on that in between shows supporting the current album. So I’ve been sitting on my pad set at home, every night, with my headphones on, and playing along to both our albums, and band rehearsal recordings of our next album.
Kate Mirabella: Since we can’t really get together, I’ve been doing “Quarantine Covers” as often as I can on Instagram. It’s helped me stay distracted, connect with musicians with similar music taste, and actually sit down and learn other people’s songs, something I haven’t done in years since I started writing my own music.
[RELATED: Catching up with Kate Mirabella]
Rockmommy: What’s the first thing you hope to do once some of the restrictions are lifted?
Anthony Paolucci: Get back to hammering out the next album, and playing shows to support the current album — wherever we can, and as often as we can.
Kate Mirabella: I would love to do a mini-tour. After this is over, I’ll want to support local venues, travel and FINALLY play together. I think some road-tripping around New England would allow us to do all of that at once.
Marisa Torrieri Bloom is the editor and founder of Rockmommy.