The latest release from Merge Records — arguably the most admired and influential indie-rock label in the United States, maybe in the world — is the self-titled debut LP from a Brooklyn trio called Hospitality. The album is full of cheery-sounding guitar-pop songs with a melancholy streak, and it has a fresh and casual way of evoking the feelings of being a 20-something urbanite. The band's charms can largely be credited to its singer, songwriter and guitarist, Amber Papini, who was raised in Kansas City. (Older readers might remember Papini's father, the late Rano Papini, who had a long tenure as the house pianist at the American Restaurant.) The Pitch recently spoke with Amber Papini about how everything has come together.
The Pitch: So you grew up in KC. How long did you live here?
Papini: Yeah, I lived in Kansas City until I was 25. I grew up in, I guess you'd call it Armour Hills, 70th and Main area.
Were you playing in bands and going to shows around town?
My dad was always playing music in the house, like Cole Porter or Gershwin, and we'd sing around the piano a lot. Those kinds of sounds have been in my ears all my life. And I played piano, took lessons. Then my sister got a guitar for her birthday, and suddenly there was this guitar in the house, and I kind of stole it from her and adopted it and taught myself how to play. Probably when I was around 13. I just was really fascinated with it, and it was more immediate and easy for me than piano. I started writing songs around then. Then, in my later teens, I became a really curious music lover and started hanging out at Recycled Sounds and Streetside and places like that, going to the Bottleneck and Liberty Hall, going to all-ages shows downtown.
Were you performing at any of those shows or just watching?
No, never performing. I was really shy about playing and writing songs. Nobody really knew I was doing it. I only showed a few people a song or two back then. I didn't pursue music really at all until after I left Kansas City and started working in theater. I wrote some music for plays, did some sound design. And I started to get some compliments and encouragement from colleagues, so I kept writing songs. When I moved to New York, I had a job at a bank and a job as a secretary, and I would try to write as many songs as I could in my spare time. A lot of the songs on this record came out of that.
Did you write all the songs on the debut?
Yes, but Nathan [Michel, drums] also writes songs — he's made some kind of electronic, avant-garde records in the past. And he's been writing more songs for us, and we're playing some of them live lately.
How'd you get hooked up with Merge?
This guy, Scott Jacobson, heard one of our songs — I think it was "Betty Wang" — on a mix that a blog did. And he contacted us back in 2009, and we started e-mailing back and forth. He's a comedy writer and a really talented guy, and he'd directed a Superchunk video in the past. So after we recorded and mixed the record in 2011, we sent it to Scott, and he was really into it. And he volunteered to contact different labels. And Merge liked it.
Are Mac and Laura [Merge founders] as great as they seem?
Yeah, they're just really down-to-earth, nice people. Mac came up from North Carolina for our release show; we've been down there a couple times. It's a wonderful group of people at Merge. There's definitely a reason they have such a great reputation and such longevity. It's just a really solid company.
How did you get Alia Shawkat [Maeby Fünke, from Arrested Development] to be in the video for "Friends of Friends"?
That was Scott, too. He directed it, and the whole thing was his idea and creation. He got all the actors together for it.
You'll be touring for the record. Do you have a job?
We all have jobs, although I recently quit mine due to the tour. The tour right now isn't that big, but we're sort of accumulating more and more dates. At a certain point, I just had to make the choice.
Will the expanded tour include a stop around here?
We've done the Upper Midwest tour before, but, yeah, I still haven't played in KC or Lawrence yet. Hopefully it'll work out with these new dates. I'm sure we'll make it out there.