30 Nov Passing Strange’s Anthony Paolucci on Raising a Piano Prodigy, Songwriting, and His Band’s New Baby — ‘Afterthought’
by Marisa Torrieri Bloom
Connecticut indie-rock duo Passing Strange’s latest record is called Afterthought, but the 12-song collection is anything but. The album, which came out in October, encompasses an expansive sonic realm — impressively executed by just one vocalist/keyboardist (Kate Mirabella) and one drummer (Anthony Paolucci) — and feels wilder and more playful at times than The Water and The Woods, the band’s early pandemic full-length, though equally emotive.
On Afterthought (NeuroTronix Records), every song — from the low-key, intimate “Library Voice” and the punchy “Killing Spree” to the jazzy/upbeat “Ballroom Floor” — is thoughtfully crafted, the byproduct of two percussively minded songwriters who are as in tune with each other as a pair of longtime best friends.
It’s clear that in late 2021, Mirabella and Paolucci have become more comfortable as songwriters and performers, having played together since 2017. As a result, their ability to craft clever, imaginative lyrics that resonate with each song’s musical mood is evident in every verse, hook, and live show.
The album’s cheeky first single, “Karen In The Daytime” — which I originally assumed was a nod to the phenomenon of Karens in our post-2020 society — is actually a clever ode to the show ‘Californication,’ with Mirabella’s breathy voice soaring atop a cool, breezy melody. And I love the way she belts out, ‘I Wish I could be your Karen in the daytime’ with equal parts angsty conviction and joy.
And while I’ve enjoyed every track I’ve heard from Afterthought, my favorite is the stunning “Ivory & Blue.” When I heard this delightfully melancholy song for the first time, it totally captivated me. The chord changes and vocal turns are so beautifully unexpected, carrying a fantastical storyline, that I just had to keep listening.
For hours, I wracked my brain trying to come up with the right analogy to describe the way the song impacted me, and the best I can offer is this: It’s like going to a party and expecting plain, but pleasant, vanilla-frosted cake, and then being presented with tiramisu encrusted in sparkling, 14-karat gold.
And the surprises keep on coming: Just when I thought the “Ivory & Blue” had mellowed into a comfortable cadence, Paolucci’s drums make their entrance, ecstatically driving the song to toward its final destination.
Needless to say, I wasn’t surprised when Paolucci told me that he was a dad to a gifted, 17-year-old piano-playing daughter! Clearly, the good music genes run in the family. We recently caught up with him to talk more about fatherhood, the record, and what’s next for 2022.
Rockmommy: How is your latest record, Afterthought, different from 2020’s The Water and the Woods?
Anthony Paolucci: It’s a little-known fact that The Water and the Woods is technically our FIRST album. The first version was hastily written and recorded in two months, back in 2017. We wrote the songs, believed they were ready, and recorded them when we were offered a chance to do so by a personal friend with a studio. How wrong we were. The songs were given no time to mature and develop over time from playing them live, and we were eventually disappointed in our decision to record them when we did.
Our next batch of songs became “Come Whatever Storms,” which we wrote and recorded a year after writing them and playing them live. After that, we began writing songs for what would be our third album.
However, in 2019, we were signed to NeuroTronix Records, and we hadn’t finished writing the new album yet. So Rick [Demko] decided to re-record The Water and the Woods, an opportunity we leaped at. After its official re-release, the country went into lockdown and other than our album release show, we never had a chance to promote it live anywhere. So we went back to working on the third album.
Half the album was already written, but the rest of it was written in quarantine — and, in our opinion, it shows. The nature and tone of these songs is deeply personal and very intimate. Whereas many of the songs on the other two albums are fictional stories, most of the ones on Afterthought are about us and a lot of our life experiences. So when all is said and done, this third album technically took three years to write before we recorded it. In the meantime, the songs that were finished we played live many times. So as far as we’re concerned, it’s our best and proudest effort so far.
Rockmommy: How did you approach each track?
Anthony Paolucci: Each track was approached the same way we always write. Kate comes up with an idea or a series of parts and plays them for me. I “find the beat” in the song, and we ride out the groove, following the song wherever it takes us. Sometimes, in the end, it doesn’t sound anything like Kate originally intended, but it becomes a Passing Strange song, a creation that’s truly equal parts her and I.
Since half the album was recorded in quarantine, however, many of these songs were quite finished when they finally came to me, and I didn’t want to deviate from their original arrangement or sound. My job was to add to their depth and give them a percussive layer, without taking anything away from the original idea: One example is “Coming Up Roses.”
In the case of “Karen In The Daytime”, given the soft or subdued nature of many of our songs, I asked Kate to write a song, just for me, that I can rock out to on my drums. It took a while, but I couldn’t have been more pleased with the result, and I felt that I really got to flex my drumming arms on that one.
Rockmommy: What is the story behind the song ‘Karen In The Daytime’?
Anthony Paolucci: This song was inspired by the show Californication and is written from the perspective of the character Mia — a young, unstable, extorting, mistress as she realizes she’ll never live up to the main character’s ex-wife Karen. Instead, she is stuck seeing him at night when he can get away, while Karen gets him in the daytime.
Rockmommy: What are your goals for 2022?
Anthony Paolucci: With three albums under our belt, our main goal at this point is to just play out. We’re finally crossing the border and playing a different state for the first time next year, but we’d like to play as many new places with as many new bands and artists as possible. So if you’re reading this, and you like what you hear, reach out to us! We want to share a stage with you.
Rockmommy: What are yours and Kate’s favorite tracks on the album (at the moment)?
Anthony Paolucci: The first song completed for this album was “Library Voice,” and we both feel exactly the same way, in that this song best represents the essence of this album, and for that reason, is probably both our favorite song.
Rockmommy: How has your love of music rubbed off on your progeny?
Anthony Paolucci: Before I had Eden, it was already decided that music would be a big part of her life. A part of her education, if you will, the importance of which would be as stressed as English or Math, whether she learned music at school or an outside teacher. When she was a toddler, we made certain she had musical toys, and there was always music playing somewhere in the apartment: classical, blues, music with substance.
Eden never showed any interest in drums, but she liked the piano in the living room. When she was given an electric keyboard at five years old, she was already figuring out melodies from movies like “Spirited Away” and “Castle in the Sky.” At 6 years old, she took lessons from Pat Neznick, who used to play in the New Haven Symphony. Eden excelled quickly and she soon became a member of the piano guild — National level.
What’s cool is she also has perfect pitch, so she can pretty much tell you the key of any sound — a duck’s quack, a leaf blower, it doesn’t matter.
As far as where her and I connect musically, we had very similar taste in music for a while. We saw KISS together, H.I.M., Lindsay Sterling, and yes, the Wiggles. Her first concert was Yanni, and nowadays she mostly listens to the classic crooners, like Tony and Frank, and hip-hop.
I ambush her playing sessions sometimes with a cajon and force her to play with me, but I know she hates it, so I’ve backed off for the most part. I told her you’ll never grow as a musician unless you play with other people, but she doesn’t want to hear it. Ah, well. I’m just happy that she still loves the piano and plays it every day. I even wrote a Young Adult novel about her and the piano called “Piano Lessons,” so she’s as much an inspiration to me artistically as I’d like to think I’ve been to her.
Marisa Torrieri Bloom is the founder and editor of Rockmommy.