Words and interview by Lucy Hittle
The music video for Paige Beller’s single “I’ll Be Better” (which shares its title with her latest album) begins with a shot of the Ohio-based musician at a piano playing a stripped-back melody that calls to mind a grungy dream of a carnival. Long hair falling across her cheek as she leans over the keys, we see Beller’s face for the first time as she sings, “I love you, please don’t go,” in a distorted, vulnerable wail; her lyrics are distinctively simple, honest, and heartbreaking, layered simultaneously with tenderness and deeply compelling acidity. Then the video opens to a wide shot.
The camera reveals four Bellers, each playing a different instrument. One, sporting a baseball cap and a black sweatshirt, plays drums. Another perches atop an amp with a helmet and tiny keyboard. Performing a sparse, penetrating solo on a pink Stratocaster is a third Beller, who is dressed in black and masterfully commands the array of pedals at her feet. The forlorn singer from the beginning of the video, clad in turquoise, hunches over a child’s toy piano (also pink).
The song crescendos into desperation and heartbreak before the other musical elements disappear along with Beller’s sister selves, revealing the mournful singer alone at the toy piano before the image fades to black. In her wake, the artist leaves behind a distinct sense of her refreshing lack of self-seriousness, balanced with musical talent and emotional honesty.
I was recently fortunate enough to have a conversation with Beller regarding her process, artistic philosophy, and musical inspiration. Below is an edited version of our conversation.
You're an incredibly talented multi-instrumentalist. What was the first instrument you picked up and what was that process like for you? Do you find yourself turning first to the guitar or the piano (or another instrument?) to write?
I've been tinkering around with different instruments for most of my life. I think I had a keyboard first, then played cello and saxophone in the school band. I picked up guitar in my early teens and faked my way into my first band. I don't technically know what I'm doing on any instrument outside of the basics. I just try to play what I hear in my head. There's a lot of trial and error in my writing.
Although you grew up in Cincinnati, you're currently living in Dayton. What's kept you in Ohio?
I actually just moved back to Cincinnati after living in Dayton. I moved from Cincinnati to Dayton to go to school and fell in love with the local art scene. You used to be able to see a show any night of the week. I found the city to be really supportive, and it's still affordable to live and tour.
You've said previously that you're heavily inspired by doo-wop. How did you originally discover and connect with that genre? Are there any particular artists that influence your sound?
My family had an old jukebox in our basement and my dad was super into doo-wop and big band. One of my earliest favorites was Dion and the Belmonts. I think I've been influenced by just about everything. I fall in love with songs.
As a solo act, what's it like to share your vision with producers or MV collaborators like Katie Marks and Aaron Cline? Do you have a guiding philosophy when it comes to production, image, and/or art direction? Is there a specific person in your life who hears your music first?
I like to give a lot of creative control to people I work with. I told Katie that the song "Failed Attempts and Cigarettes" was inspired by the movie Being John Malkovich and they took it from there. Aaron Cline and I have worked on numerous projects together throughout our friendship, so I trusted his eye and ability. He and I were hanging out at his studio one day and I casually mentioned I'd like to have a video with a bunch of me and he just kind of pointed around and said "I can do that."
How long does it take for you to write a song that you're happy with? What typically comes first: a lyric or a melody?
I've had songs pour out of me in hours and I've held onto guitar riffs for years. There isn't much predictability for me writing-wise. I wish I had the discipline to say "I'm going to sit down and write something" but typically it's just me humming something in my car for weeks on end.
On your Bandcamp, you describe yourself as a "sad song writer." How do you reconcile this emotional vulnerability with the obvious love and care that you put into your craft?
I think the craft and the sadness go hand in hand. I began writing as a way to keep my emotions from rotting in my guts. To put that sadness into song is to sit in that sadness. To really feel it. I don't set out to write exclusively bummer material, it just kind of worked out that way. There's also something really special about being that vulnerable in a public setting. Being melodramatic can be cathartic, and it has allowed me to connect to total strangers in a really interesting way. I think maybe people don't always know how to talk about intense emotions because they're not always rational and can feel embarrassing.
Aside from the cancellation of live shows, would you say that the pandemic/lockdown has affected your music? Your album I'll Be Better came out this past fall; would you call it a "lockdown album" or an extension of your previous musical trajectory?
I'll Be Better sat on the shelf for quite a while, unfortunately. I had hoped to release it right before things started getting weird. Then I kept going "well, maybe it'll get better" and then it kind of just kept going. Live shows are incredibly important to me. It's my favorite way to ingest music, and it's by far my favorite way to present it. I'm really hoping to be able to take this album out in the coming year.
The cover for I'll Be Better and its singles all share a common location. Is it a real place or a set? There are lots of tiny details in the images - are any in particular meaningful to you?
That's the doorway to my practice space in Dayton, and it's only slightly messier than it normally is. I did include my dad's Russian doll frogs because they're one of my favorite things. My friend Jonathan Brown has an album called Aggressively Vulnerable which is just a phrase that I love and am fully inspired by, so I snuck that hat in there. The dinosaur is a nod to my band Jasper the Colossal. I love that hoodie so much and now it has a coffee stain on it which is probably sadder than the whole album.
If you had to sum I'll Be Better up in one word, what would it be?
Lastly: do you have a favorite song/songs of all time?
This answer changes for me constantly but here are some albums that I think are perfect.
Left and Leaving - The Weakerthans
First Band on the Moon - The Cardigans
The Story - Brandi Carlile
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill - Ms. Lauryn Hill
Goddammit - Alkaline Trio
Destruction by Definition - The Suicide Machines
More Adventurous - Rilo Kiley
Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes Featuring Veronica - The Ronettes
When the Pawn… - Fiona Apple