About a month ago, when 2013 was a near-blank slate with nothing but a week’s worth of scribbling on it, I posted a song by Richmond-based musician Stephen Frost. It was called “Age Of Gold,” and its release was accompanied by a YouTube video in which Frost pulled back the curtain to reveal how and why the song was created. Being the backstory junkie that I am, I was more than a little intrigued by this formula. Hearing a bright and engaging song and immediately looking under the hood to find out what makes it work so well? That’s about as good as it gets, and it’s precisely the recipe for Frost’s nascent “Paris Métro” project, which recently saw its second installment — the considerably darker “Wimyn Redux” — hit the Internet. I was so excited that I asked Frost if he would answer a few questions via email about the new song, his approach to writing and recording, and his plans for the Paris Métro project going forward.
You Hear That: There’s a really cool parallel between the track’s main theme as you describe it in the “Behind ‘Wimyn Redux'” video — “You don’t even know me” — and its variety of voices and sounds. What was the recording process for “Wimyn Redux” like? How did the vocals take shape? Was the song recorded around the same time as “Age Of Gold”?
Stephen Frost: I basically collaged the song together, which is generally how I work. There’s something about anything linear that I find achingly depressing. From the moment I first started recording at age 12 or so, the studio has been my instrument. I don’t sit down and write a full song at piano, I sit down at the studio and construct songs in layers and bits.
As for vocals, I honestly can’t remember, but recording vocals is always such a horrible experience. Doing them is like going to the post office, this thing you pretty much have to do but it’s so awful you repress the memory. I was probably using a $10 computer microphone because it was all I had at the time. It was actually recorded a full six years before “Age of Gold.” This is a night-time song for me. I associate songs with the weather-ness of when I made them… night or day count as weather, right? “Age of Gold” is a daytime song.
YHT: You also mention that when “Wimyn Redux” was written, it was “the first time I really had felt emotional about something and had the means of writing music about it.” How would you characterize that first writing experience? Which came first, the words or the music? How did the song change over time, from when it was conceived to when it was recorded?
SF: Like I said, the studio is my instrument, so there’s no line between conception and creation. But you have to understand, along with vocals, I really hate writing lyrics… lyrics always come last. I have piles of songs complete except for lyrics. I’ll write a line, record it, write the next. I waste time to avoid writing lyrics. The guys I work with, when it’s absolutely time to record vocals, I always suggest we all go to Wawa, and that buys me, like, one more hour of avoidance. And then I just do everything in one take, if possible.
There’s 7 versions of “Wimyn,” and in the early ones, all the vocals are like the last verse. They swim over the music. I was really into Bjork that month. I suspect I began changing the lyrics based on the influence of my buddy Neil Yeung, who got me listening to Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson and *NSYNC around that time. I was reading too much Kafka. I was a wreck. The words are honest, which is difficult to be.
It’s hard to write honest lyrics without realizing how stupid your feelings really are. Feelings are simple. Like, they hurt, but so does stubbing your toe, and there’s not much difference. The trick is nuance, I guess. There’s a million breakup songs, but only one really connects with you at this moment. I was in the parking lot of the grocery store and broke into tears because of some Gordon Lightfoot song on the radio. It connected at that moment, and never again.
YHT: I’m a huge fan of the way you’ve been releasing songs. How did the Paris Métro project get its name?
SF: I was reading about the Paris Metro system and was fascinated. There’s, firstly, so much history in that city and they represent it well. And history is nothing more than a collection of stories. We often forget that’s all it really is. It’s stories of little people doing great things. The difference between you getting laid and Napoleon conquering Egypt is really just a difference of scale. And it’s different than in New York, where you can hop on a train on the lower east side and an hour later you’re in the upper east side and all you can think of is, ‘Wow, I’ll bet Woody Allen walked here before.’ Paris, you’re like, ‘Rite of Spring debuted here, Nazis were here, Abelard invented modern education here, and Jim Morrison died a horrible death here.’ And those are just light tourist attractions within an easy 15 minutes of one another.
I began structuring this project so that each line of the metro would be a genre, and each arrondissement of Paris, with each line, would be an EP. That’s, like, between 2 and 7 songs per release. Way harder than I expected. To do or explain. So for the sake of simplicity, and to get the project moving as fast as possible, just one song dedicated per metro stop. “Wimyn” is for Louise Michel, this anarchist Kafka loved (like I said I was all about Kafka at the time) and an early feminist which just falls in with the title. “Age of Gold” is for Odeon, which is the theater built over the place where [the Marquis de] Sade was born, and Sade is in the song prominently…
The project gives me rules, and rules give me freedom because it gives people an excuse to accept songs that don’t sound alike, and then they give me second chances.
YHT: You mentioned in the project’s teaser video that you’d been waiting for the perfect set circumstances to align before releasing your music, but that you decided to move forward anyway. What inspired you to act? What is the perfect scenario for you for creating music?
SF: It’s like they say about having kids, that it’s never the right time. People want to put roadblocks up, and if you believe them, then you’re fucked. This producer told me I’d need a minimum of $50k to make a decent album, and that you only get one shot in this world, and if you don’t get it perfect the first time, nobody ever pays attention to you again, and you’re a failure and you die alone. I spent years believing that, and the result was me not doing anything, because if you don’t try then you can’t fail. And in the days leading up to this past New Year’s, I thought, you know, I might as well just try something — having faith enough that maybe, maybe if I put out a song someone doesn’t like, they’ll give me another chance in a few weeks. So far this plan is working.
It’s not just about music — it’s about life. I’ve gotten so many supportive notes from people inspired because I’m trying to do something. I’m a perfectionist, and I feel like I have this nest of baby birds and I’m pushing most of them out without teaching them how to fly… but each time I’m getting closer… My fans are writing me things like “I hate ‘Wimyn’ and I’m really looking forward to your next song, keep up the good work!” And that’s awesome — I’m being given a second chance.
YHT: As a fan of The Graduate, I’m dying to know what inspired you to include clips from that particular film in the teaser video. Is there something about that moment in which Ben bangs his head on the wall that strikes a chord with you?
SF: Haha! That’s right after he tries the ol’ boob-grab while she’s undressing, and she doesn’t react, and all at once it hits you that we have no idea what we’re doing. I mean, that sums up this project. And me in music. And my whole life. Everything I do is me gently clutching the clothed breast of an older woman and hoping for magic.
YHT: Do you have any plans for these songs to be played in a live setting? Released collectively at some point?
SF: Possibly released collectively. My hobby is forming bands and then not answering my phone. Half of the city is in make-believe bands with me and I’m afraid to answer the phone anymore. “Not tonight, dear.”
Tweaking [songs] as you go is overwhelming enough as it is. I’m sure you know this as a blogger — you release something and then just click refresh, refresh, refresh on your stats waiting for somebody to pay attention to you. And then it’s always people in India somehow. To be honest, I get more downloads from Japan than from anywhere else in the world. It’s difficult to get people to click Like on your facebook page, even your friends — and that’s like the commitment level of saying, “Will you wear my Ring Pop?”
I don’t know how live shows work. I’m used to just showing up with my bass and writing set list copies while everyone else does the hard stuff. But to play live, I’d want it to be perfect. Every time. I know, it sounds like I have painted horses and a lace canopy in my bedroom. Actually, I was dating a girl, and I wouldn’t let her in through the door, only over the balcony. It was more romantic… even when I accidentally locked her out while I was pretending to be asleep. When she started insisting on using the door I knew it was already over. That’s what I battle with — these last shreds of romanticism. If I’m lucky, then yeah, someday a show. Probably in Japan.
Listen to “Wimyn Redux” below and click here to snag the track via Bandcamp.
Stephen Frost — “Wimyn Redux” [Soundcloud/Bandcamp]