If you were to ask us which upcoming act delivered infallible output over the course of 2014 – and who we’re most keen to hear more from in 2015 – Brooklyn duo Paperwhite would have to be up there. From their first track to their recently released Magic EP, brother-sister duo Ben and Katie Marshall have presented fully-formed, sun-kissed, throwback indie pop that feels fresh yet familiar.
Ironic, then, that the setting for our chat is quite the opposite: hidden away in the depths of Camden while a typically London rain hurtles down around us. In town for their first proper UK gig as part of the ace Duly Noted Records line-up, we managed to sit down with the duo to talk about their genesis and the magical brand of pop they produce.
Now then, we can’t imagine working with one of our siblings without wanting to throttle them. So how did you guys decide to start working together?
Ben: When it comes to Katie and I, we both have different skill-sets. Sam and I used to play in bands together and had similar skill-sets. We played in bands for years, and we were always getting around that sibling rivalry. But Katie and I…
Katie: We do different things. At the end of the day I respect Ben as a producer and he respects me as a songwriter, so we just know our main jobs.
Ben: Katie will influence the production, I’ll influence the songwriting. For the most part I come up with kernels of the production.
But there’s no brother-sister squabbling? You’re not pulling each other’s hair, we hope…
Ben: No! I guess we do annoy each other a little bit. But when it comes to music we do tend to agree.
Katie: Ben and Sam have been in bands forever, and I was always the little sister just watching. And then I started writing my own music. I just showed them a little something and they were like, “Oh, look at you in the corner there!”
Are you guys from a musical background?
Ben: Our parents are musical but they never pursued it as a career. Our brother is also a musician – he writes video game music for the Playstation. He did some remixes for Uncharted 3.
There’s a lot of 80s power-pop influence in Paperwhite. Is that what you guys grew up listening to?
Katie: Well, growing up with two older brothers, I kind of adapted to what they listened to. Our parents would play The Beatles and Tears For Fears, and Wilson Phillips. We’get in the car, our dad would put that on and we’d freak out. When I was six, Britney Spears came out and then they were more into Limp Bizkit.
Ben: I was actually into hip-hip pretty hard, like Busta Rhymes and Puff Daddy. I had my drumkit, but then I got into rock music. And then I had this phase of listening to horrible music like Limp Bizkit.
Well, they were very much ‘of the time’.
Ben: (laughs) But then I got into prog-rock, and also Aphex Twin and stuff. I always had this ear for electronic music. So we were circling back to that – Katie was really into Postal Service, and even circling back to Tears for Fears. Drawing on everything from our childhood
From the first song to blogger adoration – this has all happened very quickly hasn’t it? When did Paperwhite properly come to the fore?
Katie: I graduated from college in Spring 2013. I was more a singer-songwriter, so I’d go to Ben for drumming ideas or production ideas for years. As I was graduating we decided to go for this style because that’s what Ben was into. But really, it’s just been since January that we released our first song and had our first show. It’s a pretty new project, but when we look back we think, we’ve released six songs that have done fairly well!
Ben: Everything seems to have charted to some extent. Half of the year we were experimenting, we would send each other ideas back and forth, and we had one song that we really felt good about, which was Got Me Goin. We had a couple of demos and we just decided to put the one song out, we were eager to get something out there. We know of bands who have written a full-length record and never done anything with it. I don’t think we ever expected to have the reaction we did, and then follow it up with Magic which had an even bigger reaction.
Trying to describe Paperwhite to people, we sort of pitch you as the alternative end credits to The Breakfast Club…
Ben: Yeah, there’s obviously that 80s influence. Underneath that there’s also the heartfelt songwriting, and two or three things come together to bring that nostalgia.
Making a mark as a new band is unbelievably hard these days. Did you guys ever feel intimidated by what was around you?
Ben: Yeah. We always struggled to find our place. So that was the idea in the first place: my skills in electronic music, Katie’s skills in songwriting. I can’t produce stuff that sounds like Sara Bareilles, so I had to bring the stuff that I’d done with indie Brooklyn bands for years and bringing Katie into it. There’s so much music in the world, so what helps us in that respect is the really strong songwriting.
The nice thing about Paperwhite is that it just sounds so, well, happy. Like eavesdropping on a happy time in someone’s life.
Katie: Right! As a songwriter you tend to write ballads, so we needed a crossover – a song that sounds like a ballad but can bring energy. So the reaction that you get is more uplifting – it can still be deep…
Ben: There was a time when we were actively like, we don’t wanna write sad songs or minor songs, we wanna write songs that make people happy.
Katie: But even Take Me Back, the lyrical content is sad. Like a bad relationship. But we tried to make it in a more uplifting way.
Siblings in pop are quite the flavour these days. Did you get really pissed off when Broods came along?
Katie: There was a moment where I was like: “We kinda look like them! No, I’m making it up, I’m making it up!”
Ben: We can’t really help that, though. In collective consciousness though… we were a week away from releasing Magic and Coldplay came out with their song. And then the band MAGIC! came out. A lot of the band names we thought about were all on the same page for some reason.
Is it weird if you’re writing a song about a relationship and suddenly present it to each other with like, “Hey, so this happened to me…”
Katie: I don’t really write about specifics. I try and write about an emotion and create a story around it.
Ben: I always seem to think of it as not…
Katie: Real? Yeah. I mean, I’ve been a relationship for four years, so I don’t have much to write about except “we’re in love! Things are good!” (laughs) But if I do write about something like that it’s from years and years ago. Though I don’t want to dwell on the past. I don’t want to be a…
Ben: You don’t want to be a Taylor Swift.
Err, EVERYONE wants to be a Taylor Swift. The cheek of it. But that brings us to the next point: what are you listening to now?
Ben: Right now, I’m mostly listening to Kate Boy. They’re the only band I’ve seen that do the entire electronic setup really well. The production is all so good. The perfect combination of dance and great pop songwriting and high intensity.
Katie: Recently I’ve been trying to get inspiration from peers. I love St Lucia, I’ve been listening to Betty Who and Broods and ASTR. I’ve found that the thing I listen to most though is Paperwhite – that sounds ridiculous! But I feel fairly critical about a new idea and if we have a minute recorded, I spend the time listening to it and working it out. But my big popstar I’ll always love is Beyoncé. I’m not too big of a pop person though.
What’s your favourite song you’ve released so far?
Katie: I think my favourite is Magic.
Ben: I guess if I had to pick one, Galaxy might be my favourite. It’s coming back to that childhood thing. It’s got a very nostalgic feel.
If you had to collaborate with one act out there, who would it be?
Ben: Good question. If it was production, Kate Boy. Also, Oliver. It’d be pretty fun to work with them.
Katie: CHVRCHES are a role model for us. The level they’ve reached is amazing, they get to do the music they wanna do and keep it cool and fresh. Being able to play with someone like that would be cool.
What’s next for Paperwhite?
Ben: Writing a lot more for the next couple of months. We feel like we’ve established what we want to do – we’ve experimented, seen the reaction, and we want to jump into creating a full-length. It might not be the best idea for us right now but creatively it’s what we want to do. But I think it’d be great to have that much material, whether we decide to release it all or not. New music by February or March though, and keep building on that.
Katie: We’ve been thinking about potential small tours and see the people who have been supporting us. Hopefully after SXSW!
Paperwhite’s Magic EP is out now from wherever you like to buy your music these days.