There are few things America loves more than genres — even better, artists who are easily classified as belonging to one. Nice, neat little checked boxes next to band names or AllMusic profile pages. But Hospitality? They're slightly baffling — defying easy categorization not due to some weird, ambient type of sound that, say, fuses rap and classical and frequently features cowbell (that might be orchestral dub-barnyard, anyway), but because they are utterly outside of trends. Possibly uncool, even. And in a time when most of her neighboring Brooklynites are either making spacey, lo-fi noise rock or anything with a banjo and fiddle, Hospitality's lead singer and songwriter Amber Papini is just fine with that.
"I don't really know how we fit into genres," Papini says via phone while en route to Seattle. Things on the road have been fairly calm for her and bandmates drummer/instrumentalist Nathan Michel and bassist Brian Betancourt, save for a rock to the windshield. "And I don't really think about it. I just try to make music that I would want to hear."
If it weren't for Papini & Co.'s ability to weave quirkiness with observational lyrics, catchy whimsicality and (gasp) fun melodies, things would have come out quite differently. All the elements for New York City Ivy League intellectu-pop are in place: Papini and Michel met while in grad school at Yale University (he later got a Ph.D. at Princeton), and they then married and moved to Red Hook, where Michel initially worked on solo electronic projects. But on Hospitality's self-titled debut, there's not a smarty-pants kiss-off in sight, nor elements of archetypal Brooklyn-band-ium. Yes, it's intelligent, but it's also a totally unironic, inviting swing at pop.
Anchoring it all together is Papini's voice — a mixture of Isobel Campbell-era Belle and Sebastian and a much more saccharine Liz Phair, if Phair spent her childhood in British primary school and cleaned up her language. This accent of sorts is a result of early self-training, which found Papini studying the likes of Richard Butler of The Psychedelic Furs. "I didn't really know that I could sing when I was young," says Papini. "So I was emulating male British singers. I was also influenced by older movies — the characters always had those mid-Atlantic accents, and I just really liked the way they talked." But Papini never really considered singing publicly until she discovered the power of amplification, thus realizing she "didn't have to have a really powerful voice to be heard." Indeed, microphones sure do the trick.
Lyrically, Papini often recounts New York lore, inspired by the streets of Red Hook and the revolving door of hectic, romanticized city life. So it's surprising to hear her talk about the allure of the countryside. The 'burbs, even. But then again, her sound isn't typical New York, and neither is she.
"I really do like it out in the country," Papini says. "I grew up in Kansas City in a quiet neighborhood with trees and yards and grass. I always want and crave that, the suburban quiet and rural life." She even hints that she'd like to "do something different" with their next record, maybe taking it out of New York entirely — recording, writing and all.
But amid all the conversation about the countryside and her influences, Papini sets the phone down for a moment to debate meal options with Betancourt and Michel. "Well, I really want Japanese," she laughs. "But I don't know if I'll get it. It's a democracy sometimes, in a band. You have to vote on things." How hospitable.