At the right moment, a happy song can be especially cathartic, and that’s certainly true of “Sweetie,” the latest single from Brooklyn singer/songwriter Paulina Vo. In press for the track, she’s often called it her happiest song ever–it’s an unusually straightforward love song, positively flush with effervescent synths and stacks of sweet harmonies, a standout in Vo’s generally-moodier indie pop catalog.
It hits at the start of what’s hopefully shaping up to be a bubblier year and it follows some of Vo’s deepest self-exploration. During the pandemic and social justice movements of 2020, she revisited a dark trove of unreleased songs from a film soundtrack she contributed to, and found at least one of them–”Whisper Games”–had some lingering personal baggage attached to it, dealing with a history of being manipulated in her personal relationships.
She recorded a rawer rendition for the release of her EP Call You After, and it gave her a much needed boost–not just toward the release of happier songs, but out of a period of struggle where she was out of work and unable to perform in New York City at the height of a global health crisis.
After the release of “Sweetie,” Vo spoke to The All Scene Eye about finding ways to survive (and playing video games to stay sane) while her creativity was on hold. That is, after a lot of conversation about eggs that unfortunately didn’t get recorded (she likes them fried with the yolks broken, jsyk). You’ll have to settle for her takes on the importance of music publishing and her 90s R&B dream team.
It’s one of my go-to work meals. I do TV captioning, so my schedule is based around the TV schedule. The breaks are variable, so sometimes I’ve got a half-hour, and I’ll just run downstairs, make some rice in the instant pot, throw some eggs in there, and run back upstairs.
That’s–okay, I think you’re the only person I’ve ever met that does that. [laughs] That’s gotta be interesting.
[laughs] That may be true.
When I was a kid, I remember being like, “Who does the TV captions?” [laughs] I don’t know why, as a kid, I thought that was interesting, but I love hearing that you do that. I have so many questions, but I guess that’s a different conversation.
You can interview me some time, and then we can talk about TV captioning.
I work with a lot of writers–I mean, obviously, as a songwriter, but in my day job, so it’s very interesting every time there’s a unique writing role that people don’t even think about.
What’s your day job?
I actually work in music publishing, which is new. I used to work in tech, and I used to work with a lot of technical writers on my team, so that’s what I mean by kind of a niche thing, ’cause people are like, “What is a technical writer?” I’m like, “You know. Manuals. That’s what technical writers are.” [laughs] That’s why I can empathize with those types of roles. But yeah, now I’m in music publishing tech, and it’s awesome. I’m very happy doing that instead of just regular tech.
That’s cool that you get to cross over and do music in addition to doing your day job.
Yeah, and obviously music publishing is really important for us, you know? It’s very, very interesting to learn about, and there’s so much that musicians don’t think about–and I don’t blame musicians for not thinking about it, because it’s complicated. Outside of running your own business, basically, you have to also think about this other side. It’s very, very hard to navigate, and people who have been in it for years are still sometimes like, “I don’t even know what’s going on.”
What have you learned working there?
Well, prior to me joining, I was already pretty interested in publishing because as a songwriter, doing toplining and writing for other people, you have to know some publishing, right? You have to know how to manage song splits and even talk about song splits when you’re done writing, and that alone, I’ve found a lot of musicians are like, “I can’t believe that you’re even talking about song splits, that’s really great.” There’s that first step of even talking about that, let alone everything else that comes behind it, which is, “Cool, now that we have song splits, we have to register our song at this PRO, and then we have to register our song at this society–” to get paid. And you keep going down that rabbit hole.
It’s, again, extremely important, but no one wants to do that, right? That’s the boring, shitty, operational stuff. As artists and musicians, that’s the last thing you want to think about, is literally putting percentages into [laughs] a really archaic backend on some website. At the end of the day, though, that’s how you get paid these other royalties outside of your master royalties, which is what you get from your digital distributor. What I’ve learned is, A, no one even knows that first step [laughs] but then, B, now that I’m here, it’s kind of the inner workings of that. I’ve always been like, “Cool, so millions of musicians register this song with these percentages. How exactly do people get paid from that?”
Are we expecting Spotify or expecting this venue to report back and say, “Cool, Paulina performed this song,” or “Paulina’s song played x amount of times on Spotify.” Do we actually expect that from people? And we do, which is crazy, so then it’s matching those two things. Spotify is like, “Here’s x amount of money. Here you go.” [laughs] And we have to distribute that back to the artist, and it goes through a few people. Just explaining that to you exhausts me, and that’s what I’m learning, is like, trying to wrap my head around all of it.
I think that’s the perception among artists who are very into the art of music and less the business–that it’s exhausting and sort of takes the magic out of it.
For sure, and if it wasn’t for the fact that I had a normal day job, I don’t think I would ever care for it or be interested in it, but you know, my normal day job was literally doing this for a tech company. Now that I’m doing it for this world, it’s very interesting to me. I do want artists to get paid and I do want artists to be more educated, because without that, you’re really screwed, you know? If you’re not aware of these things, you can be an incredible artist and never get paid for anything, and that sucks! [laughs] No one should be stuck in that, but people choose not to know or do not know, and it’s a real bummer.
What specifically does your job entail?
I’m the director of client services, so it’s answering questions from artists, but our team kind of traffic-controls a lot of the feedback that we get from people, and like, questions and issues that people have, so you kind of have to become a generalist because you have to know where to go with what questions and how to fix things.
At its base, it’s customer service, but when you really pull back, you’re like, “Oh, wait, but to find the answer, we have to go talk to all these different people and understand how their process is, so that we can, in turn, answer the question for this person.” Again, normal tech world, it’s like, “Cool, you’re trying to log into your account,” but this is like, “You’re trying to log into your account, but also trying to figure out why your song didn’t get paid from this source,” and that becomes–
Yeah, exactly. You’re like, “Huh. You’re right. Why didn’t you get paid?” And suddenly you’re going down eight rabbit holes to try to figure out for an artist, and the artist will just be like, “Cool, am I going to get paid or not?” They don’t really care about all the other stuff we have to do. I’ve only been in the role for six months–it’s very cool, though. I’m very happy about being a weird music publishing detective. Baby detective. Junior detective. [laughs]
It’s been about a year now of life under pandemic conditions. How have you been holding up, and what has that been like for you, as an artist?
Oof. A fucking rollercoaster. I was unemployed for a portion of it, and I live in New York, right? I need my day job to stay here. [laughs] Part of me was like, “Oh, great, now you can do music while you’re just at home and not doing anything,” and the other side of me was like, “How am I going to survive?” Honestly, it took me a few months to sit with that. That was at the beginning of the pandemic, and then last summer, I was going through this back and forth–trying to keep my spirits up, but obviously, we’re all stuck inside, and I can’t even go see my family or go see my friends to figure it out.
I was very depressed and couldn’t really get out of it for a few weeks, months, so creatively, as you can imagine, it was hard. I couldn’t really get myself to write. It just was not really a question because when you get in that state, it’s so hard to convince yourself to do anything. Like, cooking dinner was a win. Just going outside for a walk was a win. I really dove into video games, though. Bright side of all this was that I love Animal Crossing, so [laughs] I was playing Animal Crossing nonstop for hours a day, which was super helpful for me and very therapeutic, I think, for a lot of people at that time.
Mid-summer, I was like, “Okay, I think I can start working on music again,” and it was–it sucked! [laughs] I was just like, “How do I write again?” And we were going so hard up until this point. As musicians in New York, you’re like–anywhere. You’re just hustling all the time. You’re going to sessions, you’re going to shows, you’re doing shows, going to networking events–you’re doing all this stuff full steam ahead, and suddenly it completely stops. I was admittedly already kind of burning out at the end of 2019, early 2020. I released a single at the top of 2020, I did a show at Mercury Lounge at the top of 2020, and things were going well–anyway, it kind of crashed and burned, and when I finally just was like, “Pick up a fucking guitar, please. Just pick up anything and try,” it took some time.
I had an album that was kind of sitting on my hard drive, so I was like, “Let me just get this out.” Obviously, with all the protests, with George Floyd’s murder, I was like, “Shit sucks right now. How do I give back? But also, how do I, of course, give something?” I was like, “You know what? Fuck it. I’m just going to put this album out and donate the proceeds to a few of the organizations I really care about,” which was The Okra Project and the [NAACP] legal defense fund. So in July and August, I did that, and that gave me a little bit of energy to write again and record again. Long story short, it’s been hard.
That was Call You After, right?
Yeah yeah yeah, so I was like, “You know what? This is just getting me in the right space. I need to get this record out and donate all these proceeds and more, just to remind people that I’m alive, also.” [laughs] But I’m really glad I did it, and one of the songs on there is one of my favorite songs I’ve produced, so it just worked out.
Which one is that?
The acoustic version of “Whisper Games.” I don’t know why, I just really love a solid acoustic, emotional song. I was like, “Let me attempt to do this as a way for me to get back into the groove,” and it definitely helped, but that being said, I kind of was like, “I need to just be real with myself and let myself take a fuckin’ break, because it’s been crazy.” So I just did the thing, found a job again, and then finally in October or September, I was like, “Okay, cool, I should probably finish working on a few things. Let’s get our shit together here.” [laughs] That’s what kind of kicked off the process of getting “Sweetie” out by early 2021. Like I said, a rollercoaster, right? That was 2020.
It helps to have something on your hard drive for those rainy day moments. Where did the songs come from for Call You After?
So, I wrote those in late–I guess it was literally Christmas vacation, so it was from 2018 to 2019, and it was, like, four days in between. One of my friends that I had worked on another project with, he’s a composer, and he literally messaged me and was like, “Hey, I need to write some pop-ish indie songs for this movie. I can’t do that. Can you do it?” [laughs] I was like, “What? Okay.” I wrote one of the songs in, like, a day or so earlier in that month, and he was like, “They want more from you.”
So I literally wrote it for a crime fiction, straight to Amazon Prime, funny drug drama–it’s not funny at all, actually, but it’s kind of like a Lifetime movie. It’s very dramatic, about prescription drugs in the suburbs–it’s great. Kind of cheesy, you know, and yeah, I was like, “I’ll do it. I’ll write these super moody, synthy songs.” That just sat on my hard drive for almost two years because I was just like, “I don’t know when I’m going to get this out. I have all these other songs to release.”
What was the title of that movie?
It’s Murder RX.
Okay, that’s great. [laughs] That sounds exactly like what you described.
[laughs] It’s out in the wild. I’ve gotten a few messages and comments on the main theme song that are pretty funny, but I appreciate it, and I’m really glad that people enjoyed the music. The movie itself is definitely–[laughs] I don’t want to say too much shit about it, but it definitely is exactly what I described.
What’s the difference between writing for sync and writing for yourself?
Sync is cool because you can put yourself in someone else’s shoes, right? You get guidelines. So, in this case–obviously there’s a theme of the movie, and then I’m writing for specific scenes. I’m not writing a score, so I don’t necessarily have to worry about the movement of the scene, but I’m getting guidelines as to what they’re looking for. Like, usually a few reference tracks, and then lyrically, they want me to talk about this, and in this case, it was awesome because I did get the scenes that I was writing music for.
It didn’t really drive my decision-making, but with the pacing of the music, I had to make sure it was in a specific BPM and had this driving force, or had this low-key energy, depending on the scene. I’d never done it like that, and that’s what makes it a little bit easier because you’re like–with “Heist,” for example, it was literally like, “Oh, they want this driving, synthy song, and they want it to be about being in a weird love relationship where it’s like, bad love, but you want to be in it.” I had to write with that mentality, and I was like, “Great, Bonnie and Clyde, obviously.” [laughs] You less have to worry about really digging deep into your mind. You can just kind of be like, “Character. What would character do?” But you can still add your personal flavor to it, which is also nice. I feel very lucky that I got to do it.
Tell me about the song “Whisper Games.” What were the references for that?
Yeah, so “Whisper Games”–there was a structure to the reference track, which I wish I remembered off the top of my head, but it was a lot of indie bands that they were looking at, which is great. With that track, the original version has this instrumental swell in place of a bridge, and it’s supposed to be a scene where there’s teenagers, and they [sighs] get into a fight about drug dealing–this is the movie. They get into a fight about one of the characters dealing drugs, and then the main character runs away. So that’s the scene, is this very climactic moment, and then she’s running away from him, so that was kind of the vibe.
The song that they sent me had nothing to do with that, so I just thought about–that song means something different to me, for some reason, when it’s acoustic versus what it is as an original song, but I just thought about what it’s like to be in a manipulative relationship. Very heavy, but you know, what it’s like to be with someone or be in a friendship with someone who is manipulating you. That’s awful, and it happens to a lot of people, and it has happened to me a lot, so in that moment, that scene just resonated back to me. I have had these really weird relationships with friends who are just, like, mean, evil people that you’re like, “I’m just a nice person, and I got stuck in this weird friendship.”
That’s why it’s called “Whisper Games,” because it’s just talking about how–oh, man. How you can be friends or in a relationship with someone who shows face really well, who can come across as charming or wonderful, but then behind closed doors or in text messages, treat you like shit. Tthen it’s about healing from that at the end of the day, or being able to to walk away from it, which is what the acoustic version becomes. In place of this instrumental, I added a bridge that more focuses on healing from that type of relationship.
You say in the album notes that the acoustic version was recorded over the course of a day last summer, 2020. What do you remember about that day?
I guess to harp back to 2020 in general, I was in a very sensitive place, right? Like, feeling very vulnerable and trying to get myself in a headspace to write again, and that’s probably why I was able to hone in on this alternative version. I love Julien Baker, I love Phoebe Bridgers, I love Death Cab–I love all these singer/songwriter indie folks, and I was kind of in that mode. I was listening to a lot of that, and have always wanted to write a record that can provide even 5% of that emotional impact that those songs have provided for me.
In addition to releasing the EP, I was hoping to do acoustic versions of these very synth-heavy songs, so leading up until that day, I was experimenting with acoustic versions of every song on that EP, and it was fine–I was just kind of hammering them out, playing them for a friend of mine who I was bouncing ideas off. The moment I started on “Whisper Games,” I changed the chord progression a little bit, and there was just something about its strumming pattern–I literally was like, “Oh, have I been listening to a lot of Phoebe Bridgers? I wonder if I have been.” [laughs] “Sounds right, Paulina.” The first time I played through “Whisper Games” acoustic, I played through it three or four times, and whereas the other ones I was kind of forcing myself to come up with this acoustic version, I really just was like, “Ah, this is it. Fuck all the other versions. I’m gonna put this on my album.”
When I went to record it, it was already so raw. It was a few days after I drafted it, and I was just so ready for it. I was like, “I’m so here for this song right now and I’m feeling the vibe,” and also inspired a little bit by Bon Iver–like, older Bon Iver. I mean, Bon Iver. Come on. “Skinny Love” Bon Iver is like, amazing Bon Iver, and I’ve always been really inspired by his–I mean, the first two whole records where it’s like, very ethereal acoustic stuff, very reverb-y, delayed, and then these echoing vocals intermingled–I’m literally putting my hands around my ears. I’m like, “You can’t see this, Taylor.”
I thought about that, like, “Okay, cool, this is exactly the vision I have,” so when I recorded it and I started producing it, it came together very quickly. Straight shot, perfect situation, almost like writing a song in one sitting, you know? It was 100% there, and by the end of the night, I had this demo, and I was like, “Wow. Wow, Paulina, good job.” [laughs] “You actually got something done.”
The new single “Sweetie” is so on the opposite end of the spectrum. It’s a very positive, upbeat song. It’s very sweet. Who are the artists who write those kinds of love songs that inspire you?
I wrote that, admittedly, a few years ago, literally took me just as long to write it as it did to sing it kind of thing, so it came out super naturally. At that time, I was really into the anti-chorus. I was really into–I’m always into harmonies, duh, but I was creating these little indie-alt-R&B-pop bops in GarageBand, so this is just the result of one of them. I love Lianne La Havas, and I know she’s probably not the most obvious inspiration for “Sweetie,” but I love her style of production, and that was one of the inspirations for sure.
She does the live band thing when she records, which is–not rare, but it’s different from a lot of regular pop music, and obviously, she has a great voice. That’s a whole other conversation, but also kind of inspired by HAIM, right? Like, the way their music sounds in general. I love the sweetness of their vocals sometimes, depending on who’s singing, obviously, against the indie rock production.
But then mixed in with–this is where it’s really weird. I love 90s R&B. I love 90s R&B. I love 90s R&B girl bands like TLC, love SWV, just love that old school harmonization vibe. The demo version of “Sweetie” is very, very bare, super focused on just the harmonies, cutesy, cutesy lyrics, and these synths, and then it morphed into this more R&B-sounding band song. It’s hard to say exactly where it begins, but I would say it started with my solid 90s R&B girl band influence and then ended on the Lianne La Havas HAIM world.
I have a challenging hypothetical: if you could be in a 90s R&B girl band with anybody, who would you want on your team?
Wow, that is so challenging. I would definitely have to say I love Left Eye from TLC. RIP–she was amazing, one of my favorite rappers as a kid. And Aaliyah, also RIP. This is not a trend, this is just two people I’m thinking about off the top of my head.
Oof, and you know what? On the songwriting side, I’m gonna have to pull in a little Babyface, for sure, and also Max Martin was coming up back then with Robin [S], “Show Me Love,” and I also love Robin. So on the songwriting and producing side, bring in the Babyface and Max Martin, maybe a little Robin on the songwriting. That would be a magical, magical thing. I’ll go with that, but honestly, if I could just have all of TLC, maybe someone from the Spice Girls team–like, any of the Spice Girls, honestly.
Any of them?
Any of them. I personally love Mel C. She was my favorite even though I don’t do sports [laughs] but literally, if anyone in the Spice Girls was like, “I’ll come hang out with you,” I’d be like, “Great.” There’s a few other thoughts, but those are the few people I would say.
What have you been up to since that single came out?
Working on the next single, of course. [laughs] When are we not doing the next thing, right? I was really happy with everything that came with “Sweetie” in terms of the animation that I was able to get out, and then I put out a vertical video, so some of that was trying to keep up with what works marketing-wise in 2021, and it’s kind of informing my decisions for this next single.
That actually just got mastered, very excited, and so now I’m in the ideation stage of what happens next. But also, working on the full album, which will have all these songs on it, plus my single last year, and obviously some new songs, and kind of building out the plan for the rest of the year when it comes to releasing music. So it’s crazy, and I’m so thankful that I can do this right now and try to get this album out, because it’s been a long time coming.
How about games? What are you playing?
I have been playing Hitman, which is, like, not a game that I would ever be into. It’s funny, I’m really bad at it, which is great [laughs] because I’m not a murderer, so that’s good.
You’re on the record now as saying that.
[laughs] I know, I know, if it ever happens–I’m also super into true crime, so there’s also that, where I’m just like, “Wow, I could never do that to someone.” Anyway, playing Hitman, playing Watch Dogs and Assassin’s Creed–I’ve switched over to Playstation for the time being, so catching up on those games.
PS5. I got one somehow.
It was a battle. [laughs] A true battle.
I’m a chronic late adopter of these things. I’m still on the PS4, but I have a friend who’s got a PS5 and is telling me, “You gotta come over when it’s safe, you’ve gotta try out the controller, it’s gonna change your life.” [Note: following this conversation, my partner bought a PS5. The controller did change my life.]
The controller is amazing. I have to admit though, I haven’t had a Playstation since, like, Playstation 2. The Switch was the first time in years that I’d even gotten a console again. The last console I had was Playstation 2 and, I kid you not, the N64. [laughs] that’s the gap. Then I was like, “I’m an adult now. I can buy the PS5 and be totally guilt-free.”
I watch a lot of gamers on YouTube and sometimes on Twitch, though, so for the last year it was like, “Man, I need to get back into this. I really love these stories and these games, and I don’t play them! I just watch someone else play them.” [laughs] But yeah, you’re good. Honestly, I was so frustrated, like, “Should I just get a PS4? Do I even want to do this anymore?” So I don’t blame you. It’s beautiful, though.
Your Spotify bio also says “I miss Game Boy Color,” which is a sentiment that I very much relate to.
Honestly, I had a proper bio up for a very long time, and then one day I was just like, “No, I don’t feel any of this anymore. I just miss Game Boy Color.” [laughs]
Let them know what’s really up.
It’s so true! I do miss Game Boy Color a lot. I thought about buying one and getting back into some Pokemon, but we’ll see.
There’s nothing like those translucent shell ones where you can see the insides. Aesthetically, I feel like video games peaked with that.
It was my favorite thing. I loved the aesthetic, and I was fully in. I didn’t even know what the word aesthetic was! I probably didn’t, actually, when I was that young, but I was into it, and I remember playing it in my closet. I don’t know why, specifically, but that was where I would play video games. [laughs] So weird.
My mom was very adamant about, like, “You’re gonna strain your eyes!” So she would always make sure I was using the light accessory that plugged into it.
Oh my god, I totally forgot about that! I had those too because my sister was like–same. Well, my sister’s about nine years older than me, but we shared a room. I was obviously a kid, and she was a teenager, and I just remember her being like, “We’re gonna get you a light so you can go sit over there and play, instead of playing next to me.” [laughs] That’s so funny.