Nashville alt-rockers Paper Route titled their new album Real Emotion, and to fully appreciate its themes and emotions, the band wanted to craft a multi-sensory experience. Vocalist/keyboardist JT Daly, who is an established visual artist, decided to create a large art installation that embodied the album and allowed people to see and feel the vision they might normally only be able to hear. The ambitious project became the visual for every aspect of the album, from cover singles to merch, and the installation might be part of future shows and tours. (See a video about the installation here.)
In years past, the trio—rounded out by guitarist Nick Aranda and bassist-pianist Chad Howat—released albums on Motown that led to tours with Imagine Dragons and Passion Pit, but Real Emotion is their first on Kemosabe Records, the Sony-affiliated label by producer Dr. Luke (Katy Perry). Fans got a peek at the new album with the single “Chariots,” which was heard millions of times in the video trailer to FIFA 17, and additional singles—“Laugh About It,” “Balconies” and “Writing on the Wall”—have already made the rounds on different radio formats and channels. PROHBTD spoke with Daly to learn more about the album, art installation and the experiences that inspired it.
What was the spark that motivated you to create this art installation for the new album?
We wanted to make a world that you could get lost in. Physical albums are kind of dying off, but visual people are still intrigued with the art and are maybe willing to invest a little bit more time. I've done a lot of album art in the past, and I tend to approach an album cover like a painting or an album package like an installation. That's really just what it is. You're creating a theme you have to execute it, and then you give it away to people to view and critique.
For a lot of the stuff I was making, I would labor to make it look like it was large format at first, and the more art I did the more I would actually make them large format and then photograph them. It just made sense on this one to make it real, to make it actual size to where you could walk into it. I think everyone at first thought it was going to be way too much work. It was, don't get me wrong, I basically slept in the gallery for a couple of weeks, but in the end it kind of balances out. When you make album art, you have so much copy that has to get approved and then you do all the single covers and the merchandise. Really, every single thing that we will ever use on this album is in this one room. Every credit, every lyric, every single cover, so it's done.
Will the art installation be open to the public?
We had to take it down, it’s being set up right now for our album release party. How long it stays up is yet to be determined. We built the installation so that it can be taken down with as much ease as our budget allowed. Let's put it that way.
Tell me about your artistic background. You've done art and designs for many bands, including Paramore and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club.
I dropped out of college for a record deal, and when that band dissolved, I found myself working at a mall selling pants. It was a really interesting time, to say the least. I started questioning everything, whether or not I had something to say, whether or not I wanted to immerse myself in the arts again, because it's very consuming. The way my personality works, I'm either all in or I'm all out, so I debated getting away from everything.
I was folding pants one day and realized that maybe I should go back to visual art. I did a solo exhibition in Nashville called Rest Easy, and I needed music because the visual art for me is inspired by music. Even when I'm making music, I'm thinking about things visually. Someone introduced me to Darren King, and he did the music for my show. Afterwards he was like, "Man, I love your stuff. I would love it if you did the art for my band." I was like, "Yeah man." I had never heard his band's music, and that band's Mutemath. I've since become really good friends with those guys, and Darren's a talented musician and visual artist who’s gone off to do stuff with artists like Kanye West.
I got thrown into the fire of graphic design, visual art and the music world because I was doing all of their album covers, merchandise, branding. I realized that I had something to give here. Coming from a musician's perspective, I took it very seriously. I approached the album art process differently than a lot of other people. I would always try and present something that maybe the person I was working with hadn't considered before. I did screen printing for a while, but mostly I did small-batch trinkets and ideas for artists, like handmade stuff for Sufjan Stevens, for instance. I'm just a blue collar kid from Ohio, and I'm doing my best to keep up with the kind of life I've been given.
For the Real Emotion installation, how do the visuals reflect the emotion and themes of the album?
Right now would be an important time to mention that my partner in crime in all Paper Route visual art is this artist named Micah Bell. He was a huge part of the show. I throw a lot of things at Micah and feel very comfortable turning away because I know they're going to come to life. He was a huge part of it, as far as the visual representing this album, because he stepped into this. We flew him to Nashville, and I just threw at him the vision.
The overall theme here is mental health, and if you really dissect every image, you're going to find a lot of people, mainly even artists, are afraid of getting healthy because they feel like they’ll lose their edge. I would argue that we think you can actually go darker and have more edge and go to places you weren't able to go before because you were able to get healthier. I think that mental health is grossly overlooked, especially in the states, and that's something that needs to be remedied. That's the art show.
The mental health theme came from a discussion you had with David Dark, who's an author and theology professor. What specifically did he say at the circle chord with you?
I was engaged at that point, and I was talking to him about how I had weaned myself off medication. No one wants to admit they might be the best version of themselves because of a pill. It's a very embarrassing thing to embrace. I wanted to make sure I was doing the right thing and that I was the best me. I was able to get off meds, and, to be honest, the bottom fell out. My fiance said, "It seems like you can't find the appropriate emotion at the right time. When you're supposed to be happy, you're sad, and when you're supposed to be sad, you're happy. Everything's kind of backwards."
I was talking to David about this because it was the first time she had seen this version of me, and I was like, "Man, I hope she still wants to get married.” I said it kind of joking, but then I followed with, "I don't know how to explain it because this is real to me. I don't know how to undo it. This is a real emotion." David was like, "That, right there." He was like, "Real emotion—that’s an album title!” He got out his pencil and wrote it down on a newspaper and said, "I'm going to email you that." This was probably eight months before we had even written the song “Real Emotion,” but it just stuck with me. I felt a lot of people probably relate to, “It’s very real to me.” There's no other way to describe it.
The installation includes a lot of items, such as a boombox, pill capsules, flowers. Did any of these items have a special significance that might not be immediately apparent to a viewer?
Absolutely, man. All of them.
The boombox, for example.
[Author] Douglas Coupland talks about inspiration like a glass, and every mind-blowing moment that happens in your life is like a drop of water in that glass. By the time you reach your late 20s, early 30s, the glass is full. You might listen to the new Chance the Rapper album, and the drop hits and spills over the top and you're like, "Eh, it's okay." I don't know, fill in the blank. It doesn't impact you the way that it should because you maxed out. I think artists are always trying to come up with every way to go backwards and get some of that water out so we're still hit hard with these moments.
One night when we were making this album, we talked about what took up so much space in our glass. I talked about the time I ran upstairs to sneak a recording of [Oasis’] “Champagne Supernova” on my boombox. I grew up in a religious home and we weren't allowed to listen to Satan's radio, basically. I ran upstairs with my boombox because I knew that at this certain time “Champagne Supernova” was going to get played on the radio. I was overcome with inspiration, with these melodies, so that's why it's in there. We actually used the cassette tape a few times on the recording. We recorded drum fills on the boombox and played it back and mic'd it. Any way to kill the sound we did a lot.
The pills are obviously just medication. It's a way some people cope, heal and function. I'm all for medication, and I think more people need to be open about it. The flowers were just the absence of color. We painted them all white. There's nothing more boring than an erased flower. They're hung upside down. Basically, that piece is a shrine to a very horrible person that I had to endure in my life.
You mentioned your strict religious upbringing. How do you think that influenced who you are today, and wow have your views evolved?
Oh man. God is very complicated. I still haven't wrapped my head around, and I hope that I never do. Religion has impacted my art in every single way. It helped me appreciate community. It helped me appreciate seeing things with an eternal perspective which, even if you don't believe in a God, is a really important thing to have, to take care of the planet we inhabit. With music, it impacted me because I grew up in an environment where multiple voices wanted to sing together for one thing, and if you really step back, that's an insane idea. You go someplace every single week, and a huge portion of the day is dedicated to strangers singing the same thing they believe in. I guess sports is the closest you could get to that. I think a huge part of the music and melodies I write, without even knowing it, come from my background. When we first started, I was almost ashamed of that because it's not cool. It's pretty much the most uncool thing there is. In fact, there's probably no worse art than Christian art, but man, all I have is me. I can't hide that. I can't change that. I just have to embrace it.
David Jenison (email@example.com) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD. Band photo by Allister Ann.