I’ve been in love with The Loving Paupers since they burst onto the scene in 2016 with their magnificent eponymous debut EP. Well, actually, burst may not be the right word. While they certainly burst into my consciousness, rocking my world with their instantly enthralling, unique sound, they released this music with very little hype or publicity. Hell, they didn’t even open an Instagram account until a year and a half later.
Admittedly, promoting themselves is not the band’s strong suit. They seem to approach that aspect of the music business with enthusiasm that matches their low-key, brooding sound. As quoted by guitarist Jorge Pezzimenti from a recent interview on my Rootfire colleague, James Pasqua’s podcast, A Conversation in Dub, “We’re pretty bad at it, actually. We are like the worst self-promoters. We enjoy making the music, but we’re just like ‘Man, wouldn’t it be great if someone came to my front door with a million-dollar check and just knocked on it and handed it to me.’”
In a world where nearly everyone seems to be constantly trying to make a name for themselves, amass social media followers, and/or build a brand, The Loving Paupers do not even list the names of their band members or sell merchandise on their bare-bones website.
Yet don’t mistake that quietude for a lack of passion. These are seasoned musicians that have been playing one form of Jamaican music or another for decades, not years. The fact that The Loving Paupers have dedicated much of their lives to this craft yet do it happily under the radar proves that they are all about substance, not image, which is the polar opposite of too many up-and-coming artists these days.
I first had the opportunity to write about The Loving Paupers when Rootfire premiered a music video for their song, “Don’t Care,” off of their 2020 Valuables EP. I concluded that article by mentioning that the band was “currently writing songs at a swift pace and will be back in the studio again soon.”
The music referred to three and a half years ago has finally been brought to fruition and released on September 15 with their latest LP, titled Ladders. While I certainly understand the challenges involved in putting out music for independent artists (more accurately, formerly independent, since Easy Star Records ended up putting out this record), Pezzimenti acknowledged the “glacial” pace with which things progressed by saying that Covid really slowed their roll.
Well, I’m stoked to say that it’s been worth the wait. Ladders is simply beautiful and, now with Easy Star behind it, should hopefully reach the ears of exponentially more people. This pleases me, because this album and all Loving Paupers music deserves to be heard, hallowed and hailed.
The Loving Paupers derive part of their signature sound from their engineer, virtuoso Victor Rice, who has not only mixed all of their music, but also provided the catalyst to partner with Easy Star. According to label co-founder and CEO, Eric Smith, “We were turned onto The Loving Paupers by way of our longtime collaborator and friend, Victor Rice. Victor has acted as an (unpaid!) A&R for Easy Star over the years, putting artists on our radar through his dubs of their projects. If Victor dubs it, we inevitably dig it. Loving Paupers is a shining example of that.”
Continuing, Smith revealed, “I have a burnout threshold with music, ruining a song I love with too many listens. I have to actively stop listening to cherished tracks to keep the burnout threat at bay. But there are those very special exceptions, songs that I just can’t seem to get sick of, no matter how many times I hear them. The Loving Paupers had already produced several such songs, like ‘The Words’ and ‘Myself, Alone,’ so I was more than ready to partner up with them for Ladders and hopefully get more songs to add to my fatigue-proof playlist. I’m happy to say that songs from the new album like ‘Ladder,’ ‘Mary’ and ‘Groan Beneath the Weight’ have been added to that list.”
The band seems equally stoked and flattered by the partnership. Said Pezzimenti, “We are excited to be part of Easy Star’s storied history. When you are on a label with the likes of Johnny Osbourne, you know you’re doing something right.”
In typical Loving Paupers fashion, “doing something right” massively understates the brilliance of this music. Over the years, whenever I played this band for someone, people would inevitably instantly respond with delighted astonishment.
Ladders remains consistent with the Loving Paupers sound but seems just a bit more upbeat than previous output. To my ear, this LP has some bigger hooks as evidenced by songs that have been getting stuck in my head more frequently. The other difference from previous releases would be the tone of the keys played by Daniel Schneider, which largely carry the memorable melodies. “I think Ladders fits well in the Paupers cannon overall,” said Pezzimenti. “A lot of the sound of each record is based on the keyboards that Dan is doing the leads on. The Lines album is very saturated in Mellotron, whereas the overwhelming keyboard sound of Ladders is a Yamaha Portasound PSS-370 — basically a shitty little keyboard that’s a glorified toy. We affectionally call it the ‘Jahmaha.’”
Of course, at the forefront of all Loving Paupers music is the very distinct and alluring voice of singer Kelly DiFilippo. To the bands’ credit as producers along with engineer Sean Russell and the aforementioned Rice, the uncluttered music leaves ample space for her enchanting vocals to captivate listeners. With such incredible talent, DiFilippo could bring her singing skills to any genre, and about that idea, she offered, “I write my own sad pop melodies over trap beats, lots of harmonies. I often use the upbeat, which is easy for me to play on guitar and adds a percussive element. There is country in me, and a psychedelic side, so I hope to be undefinable.”
Ladders opens with “Mary,” which joins haunting verses with a striking chorus in which the narrator brags, “I got the hands in the pockets of my hometown.” According to DeFilippo, the song “is about the social masks that most wear, and the fear of being intimately known.” She added that “It’s about manipulation and our relationships with our coping mechanisms. About running barefoot at 12 years old, peeking into adulthood.”
Next comes “Ladder,” the first single that had been released in early August, from which the album derives its title. With a bubbly melody, the song ironically tells the story of someone who has lived a promiscuous, perhaps even selfish, non-committal lifestyle, but has now come to the end of their life and finds themselves alone and empty. I interpreted these sentiments as sad, but Pezzimenti disagreed. “I don’t know if I would call it sad, as much as reflective.” He then explained that “the message of any given song tends to just be from one moment in time. At the moment we wrote ‘Ladder,’ the singer is certainly sending the message you described, but we may have just as easily written an alternate message about independence on the other side of the coin, so we don’t really commit to either theme.”
The third song, “Big Boys,” opens with a fanfare of horns followed by a playful keyboard fill before settling into a steady skank aboard a bouncy bassline. It similarly uses lyrics to look back upon a life lived, but it’s more of a coming-of-age tale and cleverly tells its story through the lens of cars driven. When asked about the inspiration of this tune, DiFillippo responded, “Pulled from personal experiences — freedom vs risk. Loss of innocence. Need for acceptance vs acknowledging personal unlimited value.” Pezzimenti added, “We got together and talked about different stages of our lives, and how you can get more power as you get older. We’ve really enjoyed hearing everyone’s connections to this song. We like to think that people really look back to themselves at 15, 18, 21, 25, etc. What car you were driving or riding in can be a good barometer of where you are in life.”
From here, Loving Paupers drop into the lower register of a Fender Rhodes electric piano for the banger, “Mr. Selector.” The song amusingly depicts a scenario that finds both a selector and a listener mutually disgruntled with each other. I can attest that Loving Paupers are keenly on point with this witty tale as one of my selector friends gets really annoyed about people who request songs at their soundsystem events. His feeling is that, as the proprietors of the soundsystem, they have earned the right to decide what to play, and they carefully craft their sets, so when people request songs, it shows a lack of respect and understanding of soundsystem culture. “Mr. Selector” expresses similar views but also juxtaposes those with the views of an unhappy listener.
Said Pezzimenti, “‘Mr. Selector’ is our attempt at Rashomon style storytelling—different people’s perspective of the same event. We’ve utilized that technique before, and we find it to be effective in telling a wide range of stories. In this particular case, I imagined both parties to be honestly a little insufferable for different reasons. The requester is ignorant, the DJ is arrogant. And sometimes, vice versa.” As for the vibe of song, he added that “the chorus can be considered our attempt at a club anthem.”
The fifth song, “Groan Beneath the Weight” pairs up-tempo music with bleak lyrics, such as:
Baby is torn is from mother’s arms
Sound the alarm
Grandfather pleads for a life
Engulfed by the swarm
A notion drops to his knees
Too much to endure
The cure is the same as the disease
A winding detour
About the song, Pezzimenti commented that they were “just trying to think of like the saddest scenarios possible and how difficult it is to take on those realities.” As someone who, perhaps unfortunately, consumes a lot of true crime content, I spend a significant amount of time empathetically wrestling with these types of thoughts, and I have to agree with Pezzimenti who stated that the line “groan beneath the weight” feels “emblematic of the human condition.”
Next, “Flying my Friends,” has an awesome groove while expanding The Loving Paupers typical sound by utilizing more electronic instrumentation including a Simmons drum pad. Pezzimenti acknowledges, “The feel of this one is our approximation of a Sleng Teng riddim, aka the birth of electric synthesized reggae, in the mid-80s.” Searching for meaning in the song, I admittedly came up empty, but DiFilippo offered, “I wrote the line ‘flying my friends out for free’ after my now ex and I agreed not to visit each other for financial reasons, but later that day, he offered to pay for a friend of mine to visit him.” This track effectively pairs an upbeat and merry melody with discontented sentiments.
Unlike the dichotomy of the previous song, the following track “Enveloped in Darkness,” which had the equally appropriate working title of “The Abyss,” fittingly speaks to mental illness over a gloomy vibe accentuated with keyboard tones that conjure up The Addams Family. About the lyrics, DeFilippo shared, “I thought my depression was eternal. I used to wake up in despair, unable to leave my bed. But I was able to climb out of the hole.”
Depression and anxiety are amongst the most misunderstood and under-addressed issues plaguing our society that sadly too many people can relate to, and when I mentioned this, Pezzimenti responded by saying “I think most people can find therapy in music, and we know that therapy is not always accessible to all, so the idea of someone possibly listening to a song of ours and feeling seen and heard, is one of the greatest byproducts of art.” About the crafting of the song, he also somewhat surprisingly revealed “I was trying to write a tango lyric. People often think tango is people dancing cheek to cheek with a rose between their teeth. As an Argentine who grew up on the genre, I know the lyrics to most tango songs to be philosophical, existential, and fatalistic.”
From the gravity of “Enveloped in Darkness,” Ladders satisfyingly pivots to one of the most cheerful melodies on the record, “I’m Up Here,” which strongly brings to mind the music of Gregory Isaacs, for whose song the band is named. (Starting as a rock steady number in the late 60s, “Loving Pauper” was also performed by several other singers.) Of course, listeners shouldn’t be fooled by the music into thinking this is a love song with a joyous narrative. In true Paupers style, this modern-day anti-lovers rock gem with a highly addictive chorus laments a relationship that has never come to fruition – a situation where one person longs for the other but it’s not reciprocated. The lyrics of this gem came from DiFilippo, who shared, “This was written when my ex started dating my neighbor, after we opened up our relationship.”
“Still Today” is probably the only reggae song that references Dionysian fables and mentions “diplomatic pillows.” Beyond the quiet beauty of their music, with Loving Paupers, fans can count on meticulously crafted, imaginative lyrics that offer astute observations about society and embrace the angst of the human spirit. Pezzimenti told me that he prefers their lyrics to be purposely vague while at the same time” something that everyone can attach a meaning to.” He also revealed that “it wasn’t always like that” for him – he wasn’t someone who really paid attention to lyrics, until he once dated a girl that told him she only listened to lyrics. “That kind of blew my mind,” he said, “So, from then on, I was like, we need to give the lyrics equal consideration.”
That has led to the practice of DeFilippo and Pezzimenti “painstakingly” pouring over the words of their songs, which can be written at any stage of a song’s development. As mentioned on the same podcast episode reference earlier, he said that he and DeFilippo sound like “insane people” on their text threads going over the lyrics because they are constantly questioning whether there is a better way to say something.
These qualities are undoubtedly exemplified in “Still Today,” which provides commentary on our divided society in a very broad, opaque and poetic way. “We were imagining the seemingly unsolvable crises and stalemates in society, commenting that, still today, they beleaguer us,” recalled Pezzimenti. “Issues that likely give insomnia to even an expert at alliances and treaties.”
Finally, “Beauty/Pain” perfectly wraps up the record with a quintessential Loving Paupers song, a subdued, dulcet ballad that speaks to the dichotomy of life. With so much thought going into every aspect of each song, I had to assume that similar strategizing went into the sequence of the tracks on Ladders. Pezzimenti confirmed, “The track order was very calculated. We always knew it would end with this song very early in the process. We wanted to have a similar feel to the first Specials album ending with ‘You’re Wondering Now.’”
It should be noted that, differing from the vinyl LP, the streaming version on Spotify embedded above adds a bonus track at the end, a rousing Victor Rice dub of “Mr. Selector” titled “Come My Selector” featuring the iconic chatting of Ranking Joe which dynamically compliments DeFilippo’s singing in a wildly opposite way. Pezzimenti admitted that the placement of this track caused him much inner turmoil. “We knew we wanted to include the Ranking Joe tune, but thought it would fuck with the flow if we stuck it in the middle of the album, as opposed to just tacking it on the end.”
Continuing, he said, “We spent a lot of time ordering all the songs, but we always knew ‘Beauty/Pain’ would be the last song. We like to think of ourselves as an album band. Ideally, we’ve written quality songs and placed them in such an order that the listener will listen to the album to completion and then start it over again.”
And again. And again. And again…