click image above or album covers below to visit the artist's official website | all images © Paper Aeroplanes 2007-2013 | used with permission
review and interview © Russell W. Elliot 2013 | last updated 08 July 2013
.: music reviews and artist reflections :.
Our coverage of Sarah Howells music career began in 2003 when we found her singing the lead vocal part with the indie rock band Jylt's three-track EP Surrender (review). It was an extremely well-produced EP for the young Welsh band. Originally founded by Sarah and Nia George in Wales, Jylt also released a self-titled and even rockier EP in 2001. Additional Jylt tracks eventually emerged on the Nia George (commemtorative) album Messages (review) which was released in 2005. Our first interview with Sarah Howells was done in 2005.
Sarah Howells and Richard Llewellyn founded Halflight in 2003 and were based in Wales. Their songs were more lightly arranged than Jylt's material and initially were released on the 2004 Subside EP (review). But the band could also rock. The follow-up arrived just one year later with 2005's Pick Me Up EP. Sarah's vocals remained very distinct and the duo's songwriting became much stronger. Production was more sophisticated and layered harmonies accompanied several of the band's numbers. Our first interview interview with Sarah Howells was published in 2005.
As the artists matured further and consolodated in London, they decided to rebrand as Paper Aeroplanes. Their first EP Lifelight (2009) drew additional attention and led to both UK and US releases of their stunning debut album The Day We Ran Into The Sea (My First Records (UK) MFR004, 2009; OK! Good Records (USA) OK 90108-2, 2010). Further full length and EP releases continued to expand their international audience and they quickly enjoyed the fruits of a hectic UK tour schedule. See the cover artwork for their releases below. Their new album Little Letters (Navigator Records (UK) 081, 2013) is their latest offering. Our album review follows our own Sarah Howells interview below.
Sarah Howells Interview
Musical Discoveries: It is hard to believe that the last interview we did was about nine years ago. What can you tell us about the transition from Halflight to Paper Aeroplanes?
Sarah Howells: Wow! 9 years! Halflight to Paper Aeroplanes was meant to just be a name change but it also signified a few changes for us.
I moved to London, we got ready to release a full length album. Things were hotting up with our place in the big bad industry and we needed a new name for it all.
And how does music fit into your life these days?
Music is a much bigger part of my life these days. We're both full time musicians for the last few years. We tour far more regularly and play to bigger audiences. Feels more free and creative to be where we are now.
You have an incredible and very distinctive voice. Please tell us about the vocal work you contributed to other artists work with titles 'featuring Sarah Howells'?
That's very kind. Ooh there are far too many to mention but my favourites are "Out of the Sky" by Lange, "Find Yourself" by John O'Callaghan, "When I Go" by tyDi and "Seeing Stars" by First State.
It's a different world to Paper Aeroplanes. [Ed. Note: A longer list of Sarah's vocal contributions can be found here. Also note her contributions to Al Lewis album In The Wake (2011).]
What can you tell us about the Halflight My Desire collection available at BandCamp?
We still had a pile of Halflight's My Disguise EPs left in Rich's studio and we stared taking them to gigs to see if any fans were interested and we found they were!
So we made them available on line for our overseas fans as well. It's the last EP we made before the name change.
How would you say that the style of music evolved leading up to the first Paper Aeroplanes album The Day We Ran Into The Sea?
The songs evolved naturally but in some ways we started a whole new chapter with Paper Aeroplanes. We recorded a few songs at famous old Olympic Studios with a big pop producer. We co-wrote three of them for the first time ever so that added a new flavour.
We were much more professional about our approach to recording. More time and money was spent on it. There's definitely cross-over between this and the Halflight tracks. It's just a more considered and confident sound.
And the track list is different between US and UK releases!
The difference between UK and US releases is legal and fairly boring. It's a shame but we weren't able to release some of the songs via a record label--which we were doing in the US--without some red tape to get over. So we just added new songs!
How did your sound evolve from the first album to the We Are Ghosts release?
The first album was quite alternative pop, less folky and more shiny than WAG. I wanted We Are Ghosts to be much more stripped back and acoustic led. We started it as an EP in Rich's studio just as a way to record new songs and it just flowed into something longer.
We reissued the CD version lately with some of our B-sides and EP tracks on it so now it's a full length twelve track! The songs are lighter in tone but probably more personal than The Day we Ran Into The Sea.
What's been your strategy with the Paper Aeroplanes EPs?
We like releasing music. We dislike the pressure of an album and sometimes it's nice to make a collection of new songs to take on tour so people have something new to get hold of.
There's a story behind each of the EPs and those songs belong together in that group. [Ed.Note: We believe that Paper Aeroplanes have released six EPs including the first edition of We Are Ghosts.]
What can you share with us about the writing and production of your stunning new album Little Letters?
The writing took a while. Some of the songs date back to the beginning of 2012 and even before that so we started recording them in August of that year.
We did the drums and bass and early production with Phill Brown who has done some legendary work with the likes of Talk Talk, John Martyn and Bob Marley and more recently Brits like Laura Marling and Bombay Bicycle Club
The songs are more grown up I think this time. Less surface and more depth. They're really personal but also very open to interpretation.
The boolet is lovely!
Debbie Scanlan took the photos. Milford Haven my home town has always been somewhere in my creative juices when I write and especially with some tracks on Little Letters so we wanted to take it back there and show people where a lot of our music comes from.
It feels a bit forgotten out there in Westest Wales so I wanted to bring it to the big city in full colour as part of our album. The indoor shots are taken at my Grandad's house and some at a wonderful old pub called Tafarn Sinc in the Preselis.
How has the response been to the Paper Aeroplanes records?
The response to Little Letters has been brilliant. It's so lovely to feel that your latest work is your best and that's what we thought of this album and it's amazing to have that confirmed by fans and reviewers alike.
How have you dealt with the relentless touring schedule?
The touring has been hectic. It's always a roller-coaster of emotion for me. I let little things bother me and forget the wonder of what I'm doing--playing music to an enthusiastic audience for a living.
But once we get our heads around the emotional side of it, the logistics are ok really. We eat pretty well and sleep for cheap but always in a bed. This tour we've been pampered by better riders and nicer dressing rooms. We're going up in the world (smiles).
What's a Paper Aeroplanes live performance like?
This tour we've rocked out more. Our drummer and bassist, Ryan Aston and John Parker, have added a huge amount of energy to the performance. Its still dark and melancholic at times but definitely more movement on stage with them behind us.
And what can you tell us about your on-stage presence?
My stage persona is kinda personal. I am myself and that's how I'd like to stay on stage. I chat with the crowd like they're my friends because at best gigs it feels like they are.
The shows where the audience are less shy, move about, stand up and really connect with us are my favourite. We want the atmosphere to be open and connected even when the music can be intense and quiet at times.
As a female recording artist, how important do you find image these days?
I'm feeling way more comfortable in my skin these days. For a while I didn't know who I wanted to be on stage in terms of image but now I've realised it's just an extension of myself, that's how I dress. I dress a bit Tom-boy/goth girl/ lazy.
It just took me a while to realise I could do that on stage, for some reason. Our music is far from style over substance so I don't think image plays as big a role as it does for some artists.
How important has your official website and social media to the promotion of your material?
FaceBook and twitter have been our world for a good while. When its hard to get radio play or national press, social media is there to get your music out to the world.
I want people to have the chance to hear us and make up their own mind, so that's always my intention when posting on FaceBook. That and staying in touch with the people who've already found us.
We're starting to send more involved emails to our mailing list so that's going to become more important for us in the future. I want to get personal in writing.
When do you plan to tour the USA?
Argh as soon as someone books it!
As we begin to wrap up, please tell us, besides your music, what and who else rocks your world?
Patti Smith is rocking my world right now. I'm reading her novel Just Kids for the first time, although I've loved her poetry in the past.
Cocorosie are getting a lot of play on the record player. I'm becoming a bit of a vinyl junkie.
A British visual artist called Alex Knell makes work using prose and I've recently bought a piece of his art.
I'm also becoming obsessed with Pinterest and planning the inside of my dream house.
Is there anything that we should have asked but we inadvertently omitted?
My favourite food is risotto and my favourite colour is navy.
Thanks for the interview Sarah!
Little Letters Album Review
The latest full length album by Paper Aeroplanes is entitled Little Letters (Navigator Records (UK) 081, 2013). The CD is comprised of thirteen tracks. The digipak is accompanied 12-page full color booklet adorned with lovely photographs and all of the album's lyrics. A digital version includes two acoustic bonus tracks. The album clearly demonstrates the band's growth since their earlier releases and builds on the EPs released since We Are Ghosts (2011) and The Day We Ran Into The Sea (2010). Paper Aeroplanes have clearly found their strided.
Sarah Howells and Richard Llewellyn were ably assisted on the recording by guests including, Ryan Aston (drums); John Parker (double bass); Katy Rowe (violin); Emma Bryden (cello); Sion Llwyd (piano and bass); Kevin Pllard (piano and hammond); Andy Schrav (piano); Alastair Caplin (fiddle); and Martin Ditcham(percussion). All songs were written by Sarah Howells and Richard Llewellyn. Two of the tracks were produced by Paper Aeroplanes; five further tracks were produced by Paper Aeroplanes with Phill Brown; three more with Tom Loffman; and one was produced by Paper Aeroplanes with Andy Schrav.
Listeners will be drawn to this album for its outstanding production quality, stylistic diversity and the excellent treatment of Sarah Howells' stunning vocal parts. The album opens with the upbeat indie pop number "When The Windows Shook" with electric and acoustic guitar providing an excellent instrumental backdrop for Sarah's layered vocals. The harmonies are wonderful. "Red Rover" is a slower tempo brooding number favoring acoustic guitar and crisp percussion in the background. Harmonies add tremendous texture in the chorus. The folky ballad "Singing To Elvis" is lightly accompanied primarlily with acoustic guitar although harmony vocals and fiddle add warmth to the arrangement.
The first of the album's most gentle ballads is "Fable," sung atop light acoustic and electric guitar. Sarah's sensual lead vocal is tremendously produced. Whisps of harmony vocals provide depth to the otherwise stark arrangement. The album's title track builds intensity from ballad to a more robust indie rocker with vocals punctuated initially by piano and keys before the guitars and rhythm section join. Paper Aeroplanes delivers the mid-tempo "Silence The Bells" atop rich almost-country style arrangements.
The pace picks up with the upbeat number "At The Altar." It is richly arranged, combining all of the band's instrumentation--listen for the brooding cello in the background--with acoustic and electric guitars, and outstanding rhythm section, and lovely vocal harmonies. Small instrumental breaks let Sarah's vocals shine right through. Surely "Palm of Your Hand" is one of the album's standouts. It's rich electric guitar and string arrangements along with vocal harmonies perfectly support Sarah's powerful lead vocal lines.
In contrast, Sarah sings the ballad "Multiple Love" over a very light piano part with light harmonies joining only in the chorus. The gentle ballad "Sleeper Train" is evocatively sung over almost-lone acoustic guitar. Piano and vocal harmonies add further depth and texture to the track. The beginning of "Circus" is even gentler and more lightly arranged. Full power builds and is released mid-song and at the conclusion. Sarah's vocals are amazing.
Those that opt for the Deluxe Edition will also receive the lightly arranged but upbeat folk track "The Country Sings" and the more powerful rock track "Running Too Fast." These are stunning additions to everyone's Paper Aeroplanes collection. The band tour relentlessly. Catch a live show in the UK and support the band so they can tour internationally. Paper Aeroplanes are certain to delight both newcomers and long-standing fans with Little Letters. Bravo!
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