An Interview With Paul Shapera #
Paul Shapera is a composer, musician, and storyteller known for his unique musical style, which incorporates elements of classical, rock, electronica, and more. His most well-known works include the New Albion and Post-Human series, which are both sprawling concept albums that blend together music and storytelling to create immersive musical worlds.
Shapera’s music is known for its intricate plotlines, complex characters, and exploration of themes such as transhumanism, love, loss, and redemption. Over the years, Shapera has developed a dedicated fanbase, particularly among fans of steampunk and science fiction. In this interview, we’ll be talking to Shapera about his creative process, his musical inspirations, and his plans for the future.
Thank you for taking the time for this interview Paul. Your work is truly one-of a kind, making that intro-blurb quite the challenge to write. Plus there’s clearly more to the artist than the art, so how would you describe yourself?
Oh lord, i have no idea how to describe myself. Others would do a better job, although i shudder to think what they might answer. So here is a broad answer: From 6 to 14 i was completely dedicated to writing and drawing comic books. Then i wanted to be a writer, but by mid high school i had dedicated myself to music. When all is said and done, what i do now is an amalgamation of these three. I tell musical stories, pulp operas.
Despite being dedicated to this, it has never the less taken an extraordinarily long time to actually make a living off of it. Everyone i grew up with had long progressed to actual careers where they could buy cars and houses and live materially fruitful lives while i was still eating ramen noodles and waiting tables, refusing to get a decent job and career because it would be the end of the dream i had dedicated myself to. As inspiring as this might sound, it is a terrible idea. I had despaired of ever “making it” and made my peace with the fact that i would die having taken my shot and failed.
And then one day i made the thing that “hit”, that brought me an audience. Dolls of New Albion. And this audience wanted to hear more, so i’ve been making more. I’ve passed the need for a day job and am enormously happy to keep doing this forever.
I have a wife and two kids. I live in Serbia, where my wife was from, and while that doesn’t thrill me these days, moving here was instrumental in my success. I didn’t have to constantly scrounge for money to live like i did in New York, and was able to spend vastly more time making my albums, which is how i was able to make Dolls and the next few albums after it. It was a strange decision that did get me what i wanted ultimately. I love ancient history and i love to read.
The Dolls of New Albion, A Steampunk Opera, your first work set in New Albion, was released over a decade ago, since then you’ve released numerous albums set in the same multiverse. Do you feel like New Albion is running out of room to grow or are you getting bored of it at all?
The next series of albums i’m doing, and it could last for awhile, is a space opera. This will begin 300 years after the end of Fairypunk and will be a bit of a hard reset. There are elements and even characters who will carry over, although they wont come into play for awhile. It’s a brand new setting with brand new world building possibilities; alien races, weird places and politics, a new sandbox to play in.
I think that a new setting is good for me and to have another stab at world building. New Albion world building was haphazard and chaotic. Which may turn out to be how i operate best, who knows, but i want another chance to construct a world relatively close to scratch knowing what i know now about putting story and character elements in over time.
I don’t think that tiring of New Albion itself is a problem. I can move forward or backwards in time, linearly to other places in the same world, the possibilities are endless. I don’t need to leave the larger universe i’ve built because given the cosmology i’ve assembled, there’s enough opportunity to amuse myself in it for the rest of my days. The bigger problem is lore build up.
I am convinced you can jump into the series at multiple points and don’t need to always know lore that occurred previously to understand everything you need to understand easily, but still, the amount of lore is piling up pretty massively. So i’m going to do a semi-hard reset, while still bringing along some of the preexisting elements i want to continue to play with.
Having stories that span such a time with interwoven plots must pose certain planning challenges. To what extent has the Shaperaverse been planned ahead of time verses fallen into place?
15% planned vs 85% fallen into place. On one hand, you don’t need to plan so much ahead if you know one or two big eventualities. You know you’re going more or less in that direction and how you get there will solve itself as you go along. I don’t want to set too much in advance because i’ll have numerous ideas along the way that are better than what i can plan right now. Sitting with a work, working it over a stretch of time, this leads to new, interesting ideas i cant have in a single sitting at a single point in time.
Your stories often involve numerous characters which are performed by one person. What challenges do you face in combining voice acting with singing?
Finding singers is hard, particularly who i am sure are into continuing to do this type of stuff. So if i have someone who works well and is into it, i’ll keep using them. Plus it makes it easier to know how to write parts for them.
I like to play with how to tell stories using only audio, so singing, voice acting, these are just different elements i can use. I’ve tried with all shades of singing vs voice acting, more of this, more of that; it’s enormous fun to play and experiment with. I’m going to back off of voice acting for at least the first space opera album or so… i was going to leave it off for awhile but the second album conceptually might end up being a bit weird so a vague possibility exists that i’ll do some stuff with atmospheric speech samples… but i don’t know. I’m not there yet.
The challenge is that voice acting can be very cheesy in an album and you either have to negate that or lean into it, perhaps subvert it if you can. But suddenly breaking into speech can be jarring and break the music spell. The overt musical theater-ness of doing that can be off putting to some and it’s a fine line to balance on.
Also, singers that sing fantastically may not voice act at the same level. Theater performers tend not to have this problem, but i need some non theater voices in there and this can bring voice acting challenges. Also, half the things i’m asking them to say are probably ridiculous, which i’m sure doesn’t help.
Your music often tells intricate stories and explores complex ideas. How do you balance the demands of storytelling with the demands of creating music that is enjoyable to listen to on its own when crafting your lyrics?
The combination of storytelling and music is the whole joy of the craft for me. The music of course takes far, far longer to craft. Everyone sits and discusses the story elements but they take 5% of the time that the music does.
This makes sense if you think about it. A book writer has an idea for a book. Maybe it took them some time to come up with, maybe the basic idea came really fast but taking that idea and actually turning it into a 450 page novel word by word is where the real time is spent. For me, i don’t have to bang out the words so much as the music. I know before i start making a song what the plot point or the character point is that will happen during it. Nowaday i almost always knows what the sung melody is going to be, so i can deal with the lyrics later after i’ve assembled the basic track. The lyrics are something i will usually write in no more than a one hour stretch at a time. Best to sit in silence for an hour, stop, and come back to it later in the day or even tomorrow. Writing the initial verses is always the toughest because figuring out what a specific verse needs to say is challenging. It’s easier to come back and polish up the word choices or phrasing once the general idea is already down and solid. I do think, though, that my way is easier than writing a random song out of nowhere, because what the song will be about it is already set before i even begin writing a lyric.
Many of your songs explore complex themes, such as transhumanism and the nature of consciousness. How do you approach writing lyrics that engage with these complex ideas?
The trick of lyric writing for me is this: what do i want this verse to say and how do i make it rhyme? The themes to be explored are already suggested by the story itself. When it comes to just the words to the song, either i am getting across plot information, character information, or character feelings. Character feelings are the hardest. For plot and character information, i’m more likely to know what i need to say. It’s usually in the outline. (I write outlines for the albums. First i write a short story. Then i break the story down into songs. Then i start making the album.)
Character feelings are tough because i don’t want them to come across like lyrical cliches you’ve heard a thousand times before. Love songs are a particular hell. You have heard a gazillion love songs. What possibility do i have to say in a way you haven’t heard before. But okay, tough or not, i’ve sat down to write the lyrics. Here i am with a blank page that needs a verse. I ahve either four or eight lines. What am i going to say in it, and how do i make it rhyme? Are there times i’ve had to change what i wanted to to say because i couldn’t find a way to make it rhyme? Yes. I hate that. But it has definitely happened. Not so much in recent years as i’ve gotten better as i’ve gone.
Your albums use a mix of traditional musical elements, clear vocal delivery, and sound effects. Clearly, balancing each requires some skill to keep the words understandable. How do you approach deciding which should be the most important to the listener at any given moment? How, technically, do you do it - I imagine there’s a bit more fines than just adjusting the volume on each track?
I mean… don’t underestimate adjusting the volume. But obviously how you design it matters. If there’s a voice, you don’t want other instruments happening at the same range, and if you want the listener to really understand the voice, there shouldn’t be too much else that is interesting happening. The more you want the listener to comprehend what the voice is singing or saying, the less there should be happening. Once you have the ear hooked onto a sung bit, the more you can complexify the instrumentation behind it, because the listener is plugged in and with you on the little song journey. Additionally, it’s okay if some things become more understood upon further listens, just not the big strokes. Assuming the listener is paying attention, they should clearly understand the basics of what is happening at any given point.
From a sound perspective, you can picture all the sound happening in 4 shades: bass, low mid, high mid, and hi. The ear can hear all of these at once just fine. You can have plenty happening on all four levels and the ear will happily hear it all. But start adding too many things in the same shade and you lose clarity fast. Also, the lower you go, the more sound muddies.
When i was in high school, an older musician gave me this speech about the 4 sonic levels using Led Zeppelin as an example, He broke down how each player had their sonic range that they filled and was their room to move about in. You could always distinguish everything that was going on and together it created this full sonic rainbow. That speech has always stuck with me.
Your work spans many genres and styles. Has learning each style been a challenge? Which genre was the most difficult for you?
Learning a genre is one of the bits i look forward to most approaching an album. Biopunk was the hardest because i was trying to go somewhere a bit undefined. The Lost Fairy was a stretch, but because i knew it would be, i spent a lot of time in serious listening preparation and was well prepared by the time i began. A huge diet of future bass and instrumental trap for months.
I cant stress this enough: You cannot just learn the tropes of a style. You have to love it. Aping the style wont work. Imitation is not enough. You can imitate perfectly and it can even sound convincing, but it wont… “fucking rock”. If you don’t honestly love it, it will show. It will lack something undescribable, but unmissable. You cant just go through the motions, you have to be in love.
Katy Shaw was tough because while i had fallen in love with jazz sometime before, jazz is a particularly demanding genre that some of the greatest and most skilled musical minds of the past century have spent their lives exploring. You cant just… jump in and expect to be great. Fortunately, i wasn’t trying to make a true jazz album, just a story with jazz music tropes, and i had the love there. That was a trocky one, though.
What challenges have you faced in making your works that are meant to be performed live and listened to as recordings?
Most of it cant be performed live as is. The albums that can be performed live were made with that intention, most notably Dolls Of New Albion and Janissary. Janissary in particular. With that said, any of them could be performed live if you rework them creatively enough. As a life long piano player, i have the creed that any song can be replicated on a piano, you just have to rework it the right way.
What does your setup look like? Do you use more software or hardware music tools?
All software. I have a digital piano, a second controller with knobs (that gets much, much less use), a laptop, and a microphone. That and an external sound card is my entire hardware setup. Sounds and software instruments? Terrabytes. Why do i prefer it this way? Because i can go anywhere, set up in a corner, and make anything i can imagine. I did most of the The Fallen in a corner next to the bathroom in a small country house my wife’s parents have while she was pregnant.
As i’ve gone along, i have discovered the wisdom of farming out some instrument parts to other musicians to record. (Airgigs and Soundbetter are great for this.) Things like excellent guitar solos or horn solos cannot be properly replicated using software. You need the real deal. Just hire someone to do it. You can do that for about a hundred bucks, more or less.
Some of your tracks have many listed partners in crime, What special challenges does working with so many others present? How have you adapted to it?
Making the materials to send to the performers is a right pain. It’s a necessary evil, but it can get long and complicated. Sheet music, audio bits, so much to keep straight. Kicking and screaming, i have had to learn how to be organized. Then, if i am going to record them personally, i can’t forget to bring anything (though sooner or later i do). I must rent a space to record them or hope their living room works, and pray that isn’t the day some technical issue arises.
The actual recording of it is a breeze. All the parts were written and scratch versions performed on the demo, so the demo has already demonstrated that the parts will work. The singers are always well prepared, or talented enough that i don’t notice if they’re not, and i haven’t made a truly bad hiring mistake in several years. (You haven’t heard my mistakes, they never made it to the final album. I cannot over stress that the ultimate problem was with me, not the singer. If you hire the wrong voice with the wrong level of ability it’s your fault. They did their best, you should have seen that it wasn’t going to work before you hired them.)
Which story did you enjoy writing the most?
Impossible to answer. I fall madly, impossibly in love each time.
Your music has developed a dedicated fanbase, particularly among fans of steampunk and science fiction. How has fan response influenced your creative process over the years?
It was a problem when i first starting truly interacting with the fanbase. I had never had a fanabse before. It was a trip. Exhilarating and heady. And i discovered you will start doing stuff to please them. It’s hard to help. So i learned how to cut off from that. Keep it at a distance. Pick up some good suggestions here and there once in a blue moon, but stay apart, aloof, and keep most of it at arms length. If i’m asking for input, it’s either something very, very specialized (i have a dedicated desire to do good LGBTQ+ representation, the motivation for which exists outside the fanbase and involves a deep conversation about my father, but i will inevitably make stupid, ignorant screwups if i don’t get some interpersonal insights and feedback.) or i already know what im going to do and throwing out a request for opinions just to titillate and build interest.
Once the basic album idea has been decided upon, i don’t enter into any discussion about it until the demo is done, or it’s so far along in the process that it can’t be derailed. There are early points in the creative process in which the flapping of butterfly wings can sway me. I am aware of this and act accordingly so that i do not end up pulled in different directions by different voices. If you need to ask advice in the sensitive times, be quick and strategic.
Given the wide range of settings your stories take place in, you must have to do a fair amount of research and inspiration hunting. What does that look like for you? Where do you find new ideas?
I read a book before dieselpunk that inspired me a bit I-O by Simon Logan (very dark) and one before Biopunk, Ribofunk by Paul Di Filippo, but otherwise i mostly must sit down and start writing and see what comes out. I am the son of a librarian and i’ve been reading voraciously my entire life. There’s plenty of clutter filling up the space back there to draw from.
Is there any skill that you spent too much time developing that you wish you hadn’t?
Craftwise? Hell no, i need every little bit i’ve got or learned.
What’s the most important skill that you’ve taught yourself?
How to not suck at making music. How to tell a good story without screwing up the beginning, the end, or most of the middle.
Any books, movies, TV shows, etc. that you’d recommend?
God, i consume so much… my mom was a librarian and my lifelong love of reading is the greatest thing that ever happened to me. I love Peter Hamilton. I love new sci fi. The last few good book i’ve read were:
- Children of Time by Adran Tchaikovsky (yes, there is a relation)
- My Year Of Rest And Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfeg
- The Fifth Season trilogy by N.K. Jemisin
- The Murderbot Diaries (best character ever)
- The Gideon The Ninth novels.
And i stop whatever i’m doing for the new Sanderson Stormlight novel.
Dan Carlin’s history podcast. Go get The Punic Wars podcast trilogy. I’m a big history buff.
What’s the biggest ‘Oh Shit’ moment you’ve ever had, be it one you caught in time or not?
There is no mistake it is possible to make that i have not made. I have erased weeks of working on an album (Shadows & Flames long ago, back when i was working on a keyboard sequencer). I have had mics and cables fail during recording sessions, i have hired wildly wrong people, in one case someone who didn’t actually sing and whose entire shtick was speaking his lines. How did that get past me? I’m an idiot. I’ve forgotten every piece of equipment it’s possible to forget.
I lost an old version of my studio during a huge brownout in new york (my surge protector had apparently shorted some time before and was no longer doing any protecting) and had to work for an entire year at an airport coffee shop in san francisco (Peet’s Coffee, Gate 84) to buy another computer, keyboard, etc. another small digital studio. This is also while my wife was doing grad school, so every month i sent her half money to keep her from getting evicted back in new york. In fact, the way i finally managed to save the money was during the last 2 months, my roomate had stopped paying his rent, i couldn’t cover the place, so i just gave up having an apartment and lived at the airport for 2 months. I had very little personal stuff so it fit well in my car, and i had a good friend whose shower i would use every afternoon after work. This worked well, since i just took all the money i would have spent on rent and used it to buy the stuff i needed.
I have played a lot of piano bars in my past, a lot. I had a book of all the songs i covered that got stolen along with my backpack and passport in Prague. I’ve had sustain pedals break mid gig… it goes on and on. I have a whole system of organization in place to protect against my own idiocy, which i adheer to religiously because i have learned by experience i have to.
Who are your biggest inspirations? What creators do you think are way to underrated and deserve a shout out?
You are most blown away by the stuff you encounter between 15 and 25, because it’s all new then. After that the stuff you draw from is… endlessly vast but in smaller pieces.
I think i’m far most inspired by comics and graphic novels than even i realize. It was such a huge part of my growing up and taught how to tell a compelling story outside of prose. There are no SO many story oriented concept albums that i knew about and was aboe to draw from. I’m sort of figuring it out as i go, and i think the graphic novel medium in a weird and abstract way has helped a lot.
Probably 85% of the music i listen to is instrumental, or like, in the case of blackgaze, the lyrics are irrelevant.
Obviously, the artists i’ve worked with i not only owe incredible debts to, but in their own right are making incredible things. Three of them that make a lot of their own original music are Psyche Corp, who has a great pulp musical or her own, Refugees From The Otherworld.
Oliver Marsh who has a range of great tracks and releases.
and Liel Bar Z, who has been killing it and conquering the world. She’s blown up.
Kayleigh McKnight is a rising West End goddess.
Pixelwayve, the artist who has been designing all the albums for awhile now, is making an awesome online ongoing comic series, Stained Sky.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received? Worst?
Best: You should consider getting a practical, career oriented job to fall back on.
(It really is good advice. Young people romanticize living in poverty for your art, but as years turn into decades, the romance wears off. I watched almost everyone i came up with drop out eventually and make the smart decision. It’s like a battlefield that began with this great army and now is just a couple of us left nodding to each other over the dead bodies. And the ones who did the smart thing are legitimately happy with perfectly great lives.)
Worst: You should consider getting a practical, career oriented job to fall back on.
What advice do you have for anyone interested in making works similar to yours?
Sometimes a young person comes along who is enthusiastic to make a giant, epic universe like i have and their excitement and ambition is wonderful. But do not become blinded by the big vision. If you cannot tell a heartfelt, intimate tale with grace and style, none of it will matter. Intimate tale. Heartfelt. Grace and style. The rest of it is window dressing. Super fun window dressing, but if there is no emotional center, no hypnotic audio pulling you in, no one will care.
How do you stay motivated to keep doing cool things?
I would rather die than go back to a dayjob. I worked for SO long for SO hard to do Exactly This. Plus, what i do is an ecstatic process. Making music is an ecstatic experience. And i choose my own projects so i don’t embark on something which i’m not into doing. So… i could do exactly this, OR…. i could go back to waiting tables and making coffee drinks. Also, i have this thing where in order to not make an album that completely sucks, i consider that every album i’m currently making might be the very last one i will ever make, and so is this one here worthy of being that? The fear of death nipping at my heels is quite potent as a motivator. Dayjob… death… somewhere in there is some helpful motivation. And falling in love every album.
What hobby do you want to get into but haven’t had a chance to dive into yet?
I want to move to the states and play a TTRPG on a regular basis. One day…