Paulsen-Shepler are the highly dynamic and experimental duo of Andrew J. Paulsen and Ben Shepler. With a quite unique singer-songwriter and producer-engineer combination, these two work in harmony with one another to create alternative folk music that lends itself to many a musical lover. They have just released their debut EP 'Undertow', a 5-track exploration into the minds of these two artists in their own right. The result is quite stunning, and we sat down with them to talk in-depth about the EP and what makes Paulsen-Shepler tick, exclusively for FLEX.
Hey Paulsen-Shepler! How are we today? Thanks for joining us here at FLEX!
Paulsen: Thanks for having us! We’re happy to be talking with you.
Your debut EP ‘Undertow’ is out now! Favourite song on the EP from you both?
Shepler: “Black Hole!” I’m a sucker for upbeat, cheerful sounding songs with lyrics that say the opposite, and I think Andrew nailed that dynamic in “Black Hole.” I love the whole second half of the song especially, with the total tone shift of the bridge, guitar solo, then the huge, chaotic build of the final choruses into the gang vocal outro.
Paulsen: We’re both in agreement on “Black Hole.” Ben put so much work into the track. I love the final chorus and outro with his trumpet and piano parts. And we had a lot of fun recording our vocals together with our resident background vocalist McKenzie Frazer. I think it’s 12 takes of the three of us overdubbed to make it sound like we’re a huge choir.
With you being a real dynamic duo to operate in similar and different fields within music, how have you found the recording and writing process in writing your debut record?
Paulsen: I’ve loved it. I’ll sketch a direction with lyrics and basic chords, and then Ben identifies the composition and production possibilities we could use to complete the picture. It’s very freeing as a songwriter to know that I don’t have to have a fully-formed idea about all the elements that will go on top of my vocals and guitar. Ben pinpoints counterpoint melodies, evolving rhythms, multi-layered harmonies and so many other things for us to heighten the emotions of the songs.
Shepler: I’ve really enjoyed it. I work alone on so many of the projects that I do, so it was great to collaborate and bounce ideas off of one another in real-time. It’s always fun to see how the songs grow from stripped down demos to finished songs. One of us will suggest a part or instrument, which sparks another idea, and another. It’s much harder to get stuck when you’re collaborating, which has been cool to discover. Also, most of the album was recorded over Zoom while Andrew was in New York and I was in Orlando, and it worked great! It’s exciting to see how that technology can open a lot of creative doors.
There’s so much to love about the title track ‘Undertow’ - it goes from acoustic-folk richness to upbeat, euphoric indie rock! Was this always the sonic direction the track was going in at the start?
Paulsen: Thank you! It was actually the first song we recorded together in fall 2020, but in a different form with some alternate lyrics. We met up in early 2021 to work on “Lost in a Moment,” “The Lake” and another unreleased song, and at the time decided that “Lost in a Moment” was our favourite as a lead single. After that came out, we revisited “Undertow” and decided we wanted to take a different approach.
Shepler: It originally just stayed in that folk groove. In the first drafts, we didn’t have the big moment in the verse before the bridge at “Too late to undo what I’d done.” And the bridge didn’t exist at all, so we never saw the build with drums, electric guitar, and the massive vocals that you hear in the EP version. We thankfully realised it needed something more, and are really happy with how it turned out.
Listen to 'Undertow' in full here:
What is ‘Black Hole’ about?
Paulsen: It’s a warning about a negative cycle that can entrap anybody seeking love, validation, or success. If you have to justify or forgive someone else’s repeated bad behavior because you think they’re the key to your happiness, you’re getting sucked into a toxic pit. The hard part isn’t realising you’re in a hole -- it’s discovering that there’s no floor.
What was your favourite part about making this EP, were there any tough times throughout the process?
Shepler: I’ve already mentioned it, but the collaboration between the two of us was one of my favourite things. I also really enjoyed all the electric guitars I got to lay down on the record. A lot of my guitar playing leans towards rock/pop-punk, so writing for these songs was a welcome departure from my comfort zone.
I think we felt a lot of pressure to get East Riverbend right, since it was our first single, so we got really nitty gritty on that arrangement and the mix especially. Nothings ever “perfect,” but you just want it to be as close as humanly possible before sharing it.
Paulsen: I loved our real-time collaboration too. All the moments where Ben would improvise and nail these piano and guitar licks on the spot. I loved getting to experience those elements coming alive for the first time and feeling, “That’s it!” It’s a thrill to hear a version of what you had in your head, but it’s infinitely better when a skilled musician brings in their education and experience to play something you couldn’t even conceive on your own.
I agree with Ben about East Riverbend and I’m indebted to him and his patience! We would listen to a mixed and mastered version and both be happy with it, but then we would listen again later and ask more questions. Pair that with troubleshooting a few technical issues and our track labels quickly went from “Final Version 1” to “Final Version 9,” haha.
Now that your debut EP is out in the world, are you planning to promote in the live circuit come 2023?
Paulsen: We’re both busy with other projects, but Ben is going to be performing his musical live in March!
Shepler: The rock musical I’ve been working on for a number of years, Queen of Swords, will be doing a concert-style version of the show in Orlando March 24-25, so I’m really excited about that!
Thanks for joining us Paulsen-Shepler!
Paulsen: See you down the road!