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Paul Stanley: On His New Album with Soul Station and the ‘Perfect Imperfection’ of Soul/R&B (The Interview)
Paul Stanley gets “souled out” with his spectacular 15-piece band Soul Station on their debut album Now and Then, which is out on March 19.
While it may come as a surprise to many devotees in the KISS Army, Stanley is a lifelong time acolyte of soul and R&B music, and this passion project finds him in a sweet zone, beautifully interpreting classic songs by the likes of The Temptations, The Miracles, The Spinners, The Delfonics, Al Green and others.
The album also features five strong and radio-ready original songs penned by Stanley that perfectly capture the songwriting sophistication, vocal stylings and sumptuous production sheen of classic Motown and Philly International records.
Enjoy a deep-dive down Paul Stanley’s soul roots in our new feature interview.
Rock Cellar: When did the idea for the Soul Station project first come to mind?
Paul Stanley: Well, my roots are much more broad and varied than some people might realize. This is funny; I was having tea with Jimmy Page in London and we were talking about this. I said, “Before I ever saw Zeppelin or The Who or any of those bands I saw Otis Redding. I saw Solomon Burke. I saw the Temptations.” So it’s very much a part of my DNA.
Motown and Philly soul and Stax/Volt, all that music is really unfortunately too nostalgic at this point and used too often for loops and samples as opposed to hearing a great song. What’s missing nowadays so much is great live performances of that material.
What’s being passed off now as R&B is usually a computer and a drum machine. For a while I thought about that and I had an opportunity a few years ago to put together something that was in essence Soul Station. We did a couple of private shows and we all looked at each other said, “Why aren’t we doing more of this?” It’s great to have that coming from people who are not only in demand but working all the time with Stevie Wonder or Smokey (Robinson) or Pink or John Mayer. These are real crème de la crème players, but everybody has the same passion for this music.
The passion to be able to recreate it, not in a sterile way but with the same passion and intensity that it was made with is something that we all feel very close to.
Rock Cellar: There is a timeless appeal to much of this music, can you put your finger on why?
Paul Stanley: I think great music always touches a nerve. I think great music connects with you emotionally and perhaps you don’t always know why a melody can do that, a lyric can do that. It’s amazing to think of the vitality and the passion of the people who were writing those songs. It’s weird to think of Smokey Robinson in the ghettos of Detroit as a kid and coming up with the lyric “just like Pagliacci did, I try to keep my sadness hid” which is from the song “Tears Of A Clown.”
Pagliacci is a great Italian opera and that anybody would know that outside of opera buffs only shows how deeply [invested] these writers were. So for me, I found that a lot of that music was the voice of young America and it was colorblind. You had Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff in Philadelphia turning out the Stylistics, the O’Jays, the Spinners. They did an amazing album with Laura Nyro with Labelle of cover tunes [1971’s Gonna Take A Miracle]. So this is the kind of material where an audience might hear the title of a song and go, “I’m not familiar with that one” but as soon as the song starts you’re singing along because you know those songs and they bring that out of you.
Rock Cellar: I’ve seen Soul Station perform live three times and now upon listening to the record, I get such a sense of joy not only from you but from the entire band. It sounds like you’re all having a blast.
Paul Stanley: I think that there’s a palpable joy that the band has and the camaraderie that takes it to another place. This isn’t a matter of looking at a particular music genre under a microscope and then trying to duplicate it. This is really flesh and blood. People who at their core love the same music and through whatever musical divergences they’ve gone, are really thrilled to be making this music.
Everybody in the band has stellar pedigrees. Everybody in the band, to a man or woman, would tell you they’d rather be doing this than anything else they do. So to hear this music, either on the album or see the band live or watch the videos, somebody misinterpreted it as a vanity project. It’s a passion project.
Rock Cellar: Well, I’m sure you’d like the record to sell well on a commercial level, it feels that’s secondary to doing this record. Paul, is Soul Station a project you’ve wanted to do for a while?
Paul Stanley: Well, this music is the cornerstones of my music. I think that the best way to create music with depth, and that certainly is subjective, but I think the best way to do that is to bring as many diverse influences to it. Before I was listening to British blues or before I was an acoustic folkie and other things that I’ve done, the music that really hit me most profoundly was Motown and then Philly soul.
Motown, from the first time I heard Smokey and the Miracles do “You Really Got a Hold On Me” was a game changer for me. And granted, there so much so much great music came out of Motown and Philly International and as much as I loved some of the gruffer vocalists, I think there was poignancy and a vulnerability to the lead singers who sang more of the lighter melodies; whether it was Eddie Kendricks or Russell Thompkins or Smokey. There’s something about that sound. I felt that it was it was masculinity that wasn’t based on flexing muscles.
Rock Cellar: Your local record store, Triboro Records, was a nexus of music for you. That’s the store where you bought your first soul and R&B records.
Paul Stanley: Triboro Records was the last stop on the Q 44 going towards Jamaica, Queens. Jamaica, Queens was predominantly a black neighborhood. Triboro Records was a two-story old school record shop. This is before cassettes or anything. And they just had tens of thousands of vinyl records. And in that the community that it was in was predominantly black, you had a much more diversified selection of records. And I can remember the comedy section, (laughs) which was Pigmeat Markham, Moms Mabley and Redd Foxx, stuff I wasn’t accustomed to seeing.
Rock Cellar: Redd Foxx had a great comedy album titled You Gotta Wash Your Ass.
Paul Stanley: (laughs) Oh, yeah. The funny thing is the property that our house is on now was once Redd Foxx’s. (laughs) It all comes full circle.
Rock Cellar: Was Triboro Records a place you could go into a booth and play records and be turned on to things, or were their employees there saying, “hey, you should check this out?”
Paul Stanley: No, there was a place in New York City called the Record Hunter and that place was great because they actually had booths and turntables and you could ask them for records. And when I used to not find my way to school, I would find my way to record stores and listen to music and Triboro Records was such a place. There were James Brown albums there way before James Brown was in the consciousness of most of America.
It was a place that I loved going to. I also loved going to the music stores on 48th Street in Manhattan. There were two places where I would escape in Manhattan. I would go to 48th Street, where at one time there were probably about twelve music stores selling guitars and amps and drums. It was like going to a car showroom for a car nut, and the other one was Triboro Records. And if nothing else, it opened my eyes that there was much more music than what I was aware of.
Rock Cellar: Is there an overriding message with R&B and soul music that really connects deeply with you?
Paul Stanley: I think it deals with reality. Many of the songs deal with relationships, maybe somewhat romanticized, but when you hear Jimmy Ruffin doing “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted,” that’s heavy stuff.
I like the intimacy of a lot of it. With “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” by the Temptations, there’s a personal quality to a lot of it and there’s also, again, a vulnerability. If you hear the Delfonics “La La Means I Love You,” on the surface, it might not make sense, but it’s almost like an intimate confession.
Blue Magic, again, there’s an openness and a vulnerability of emotion that I always related to. “Tracks of My Tears,” same thing. A lot of it was brilliantly written. The song “Sideshow” to me sounded like I can visualize it. It was like a film. And when in the song “Tears Of A Clown” Smokey sang “just like Pagliacci did, I try to keep my sadness hid.” That’s crazy. When I heard that I went, this guy knows about Pagliacci? so there was an awareness and a depth and an intimacy, all of the above.
Rock Cellar: What was the greatest challenge of putting together the album for you?
Paul Stanley: I’m laughing because it originally started as basically the set we were doing live at the time. And as we were recording, I thought, I should write a song for this. And I did it and arranged it and did the strings and horns and it came out so good that I found myself going, “I should write another one” and that kept happening so we wound up with five original songs on the album and it really became a real body of work.
It encompasses enough of the live set and then is offset with new songs that seamlessly take it into 2021. In the midst of really focusing and immersing in Soul Station, I found writing these songs easy because it wasn’t a case of “Gee, let me write in the style of” thing. It’s very much a part of who we are and what we were doing. So it wasn’t second-guessing a style. I mean, it’s as much me is as pretty much any music.
It kind of goes back to what I’ve said before about singing. When I did Phantom of the Opera, somebody asked me if I was reinventing myself and I said “I’m not a rock singer, I’m a singer who sings rock” and that’s a choice and it’s no different now. It’s part of this journey.
Rock Cellar: All of these new songs are very sophisticated. Did you compose these on piano?
Paul Stanley: No, no. And that’s really a difference because I wrote them on guitar knowing that the chord structures and sequences would be piano-based. So although I wrote on the guitar, the idea was never to really feature the guitar, but rather by transitioning to piano voicings.
Rock Cellar: Let’s talk about some of the new songs starting with “I Do,” which sounds like a Philly International track, something The Stylistics or The Spinners would do.
Paul Stanley: “I Do” is definitely much more Philly International, Philly soul than a few of the others, and again, the Delfonics were just a killer [act], as was Blue Magic. The melodic quality and the lyrical content is very much in that vein and the string and horn arrangements, too. I love Gamble and Huff and Thom Bell and the writing he’d do with Linda Creed. But the orchestrations are so wonderful. They’re so melodic and lyrical and they often play against each other.
And, yeah, it was just a natural progression from when I started writing it.
Rock Cellar: “Save Me (From You)” has kind of a Four Tops/Temptations vibe but it also feels modern too.
Paul Stanley: “Save Me” was the first one that I wrote for the album. I just found it going towards Motown; the bridge in it comes out of left field. But that’s some of the beauty of the Motown music. It would breathe life into the middle of a song that you weren’t expecting and I think there’s some of “Bernadette” in there and there’s a bit of “Love Child.” It’s not using something else as a template.
If you absorb music, you have so much to draw from without imitating — you can be inspired.
Rock Cellar: “Whenever You’re Ready” features you in a duet with Crystal Starr.
Paul Stanley: Crystal’s dad comes to all the shows and Crystal’s dad backed up with Jackie Wilson so she’s got the DNA. He’s more than supportive, he’s kind of, if not in awe, just jubilant as what the band sounds like. I wanted a duet. I loved what Marvin Gaye did with Kim Weston or did with Tammi Terrell. I love that interplay; there’s something exciting about that. I wanted to write a song that captured this situation and two people saying with optimism, “whenever you’re ready, I’m here.”
Rock Cellar: These songs are beautifully produced. I’m curious, you’re a seasoned record maker, who were the people where you drew influence in terms of production of these songs? I even hear a little Laura Nyro influence in some of the stuff.
Paul Stanley: Oh sure, because Laura Nyro was based in Doc Pomus, Gamble and Huff and the greats. Laura Nyro was ridiculously talented. She’s the hidden secret that everybody in the industry knows about and that every singer and songwriter knows about.
Rock Cellar: Did you ever see her live?
Paul Stanley: I did and it was funny because I went backstage to meet her and I think because I was from such a different genre, I think she looked at me kind of like I’d landed from the moon. You know, it was it was disappointing in that sense. But I know Desmond (Child) has great stories of being with her. Laura did an album with Gamble and Huff and she did an amazing album with LaBelle. So she really got it.
And again, it’s not a coincidence that she went to them to do that album because those were her roots.
I think I wanted the sound to be true to the band. We can’t recreate the past, nor do we want to. I think the music has a sonic quality to it that is lacking a bit in some of the old tracks, although they are chock-full of passion and commitment. So I think we wanted that, and we also wanted a big sound because live, we’re massive. I mean, it really is a grand wall of sound.
I initially put this together selfishly because I wanted to hear these songs live — so I think what we were going for was honesty. I think we were going for something that captured the size and the vitality and the precision without trying to be perfect. I’ve heard people do these songs on albums, etc. and for me, a lot of them missed the point because they replaced passion with perfection. And that’s not what this is about.
Rock Cellar: It feels like you’re inhabiting the songs on the new record. This isn’t karaoke. I feel your spirit in these songs.
Paul Stanley: I agree. I think that to really pull this off as best you can, you can’t be with the music, you have to be in the music.
Van Gogh said something really interesting. In writing to his brother at one point, he said, “I’m no longer content to be the painter, I want to be the paint,” and that’s what it’s about. You have to be it and you have to you have to understand it, otherwise it’s just superficial and that’s not what this is. I’ve had some singers and performers I know who I don’t need to name drop, and they get it.
It’s not karaoke and it’s not covering tunes. It’s immersing, not just me, by the way, but perhaps with me it’s more of a surprise for some people. But everybody in the band is in the music. You know, we’re not just playing it. We’re in it.
Rock Cellar: I understand that Rod Stewart is now a believer. What were the songs that you played him?
Paul Stanley: I think Rod heard “Just My Imagination.” He’s away right now but when he’s back, he’ll get to hear the new songs. But, you know, it’s a hoot when when somebody is either baffled or kind of stopped in their tracks, and I understand it. I see Rod and we’ll sit at Starbucks and when I mentioned my 15-piece band, his first words were, “Well, who sings? “(laughs)
OK, I had to laugh. And I said, “me.” And he said, “Can you handle those songs?” And that’s when I pulled out my iPhone. And he talked to my wife Erin about it and he talked to his daughter. It was very funny but very gratifying. Rod used to spend time in Detroit with David Ruffin and Rod was a huge fan of David Ruffin. So Rod’s the real deal and there’s other people who I consider top tier and they’ve all been wowed.
Rock Cellar: When I first heard one of the new songs, “Lorelei,” with the opening lyrics I know you don’t know what I’m gonna do, I thought it must be an affectionate nod to the song “Hurts So Bad” by Little Anthony and the Imperials, was that a conscious thing?
Paul Stanley: Teddy Randazzo, Bobby Weinstein and Bobby Hart, the guys that wrote that song, “Hurts So Bad” and “On the Outside Looking In,” it’s a bit of a nod to that, to the situation and also that point of view.
Rock Cellar: “I Oh I” is another hit in an alternate universe. It carries a bounce to it like The Isley Brothers “This Old Heart of Mine.”
Paul Stanley: One of my friends who was backstage when KISS was out on the “End of the Road” tour heard that and said, “These are seamless The new songs sound seamless with the old ones.” And another one of my friends, after he heard the album, said to me that his favorite song on the album was “Lorelei” and he asked where did it come from and who did it first? And I said, “What do you mean? And he said, “Well what’s the story behind it?”
And I said, “I wrote it.” So you know, I’m very pleased. I don’t expect everybody to love the album, but honestly, I could care less. That’s a freedom I signed up for when I started playing in a band, that I get to do what I wanna do. Part of being true to myself is following the path I want to go on.
And thankfully, just finishing the album, to me, was an incredible victory and accomplishment because that’s all I really wanted to do. Anything else is icing on the cake and what I’m thrilled at is that so far, the people who I would hope would love the album do and the views on YouTube in a few days have been pretty great from the ground up and we’re only getting started.
Rock Cellar: For people that follow you in KISS, I don’t think it’s a surprise that you love soul music. And I’m going to give you some examples, starting with the use of falsetto, on a lot of KISS songs — whether it’s “Firehouse” or “Black Diamond” or “I Was Made For Loving You,” “Shandi” and even on “The Oath” you use your falsetto.
The chorus in “Shout It Out Loud” was something you’ve referenced as being akin to something the Four Tops would do. I also found it great being a huge Stevie Wonder fan that you paid homage to him in your rap on the live version of “100,000 Years,” reciting the “clap your hands just a little bit louder, clap your hands just a little bit louder” part.
Paul Stanley: When I first heard “Fingertips” it was so unlike anything on the radio because first of all, it was live and it was improvised. The song pretty much ends and falls apart and then one of the background musicians asks “What key?” and they start up again and then you hear the announcer announcing Little Stevie Wonder. That was exciting and painted a picture that I wanted to certainly be a part of.
Your musical influences come out and they should, over the course of your writing and your career. “What Makes the World Go Round” from Unmasked is like a Spinners song. The only thing we did differently was arrange it for guitars, and that very easily could have gone in a different direction.
Rock Cellar: “Easy As It Seems” is another one from Unmasked with a soul vibe.
Paul Stanley: Yes. “Easy As It Seems” is the same thing. The riff in “Tears Are Falling” is actually a little play on “Uptight” by Stevie Wonder but whether those influences are apparent or not is irrelevant because, in a perfect world you draw on your inspirations and that’s what makes music diverse and have depth to it. Otherwise, if you’re playing the exact same music that three or four bands that you like play, well, then that’s kind of like incest. (laughs) You’re going to wind up with some very peculiar looking kid.
Rock Cellar: To me, “Easy As It Seems” and “What Makes The World Go Round” could easily transition into being performed live by Soul Station in the soul manner they were originally intended.
Paul Stanley: Totally. But I believe that neither of those songs are anywhere near as good as what Soul Station is doing.
Rock Cellar: What are the greatest challenges you face in delivering this material in a live setting?
Paul Stanley: There’s a big weight on my shoulders because I’m singing songs by legends and if I can’t deliver them I shouldn’t be doing them. So if I’m gonna sing Smokey or if I’m gonna sing Al Green or David Ruffin or Eddie Kendricks, you better be on point or you shouldn’t be doing it, plus the rest of the band is so damn good.
They have played with Smokey, they’ve played with Stevie Wonder, with Natalie Cole, they’ve played with Whitney Houston and John Mayer and with Carlos Santana; I mean, the list goes on and on. For us all to be together as peers and be creating something this exciting, everybody on stage is smiling. We’re all just caught up in the moment.
To hear Crystal (Starr) sing “I Want You Back” is just mind boggling. Her dad was a backup singer for Jackie Wilson. Everybody’s got their roots. From the get go, anybody I ever called to be a part of this immediately said, “I’m in!” just to have the opportunity to recreate and revive these songs; you don’t get that chance.
Rock Cellar: You probably haven’t used your falsetto as much in a hundred KISS shows combined as you do in the Soul Station shows.
Paul Stanley: Yeah. It’s a change for me rather than singing songs by Edwin Starr or David Ruffin or Dennis Edwards. I’m kind of sticking more in the wheelhouse of doing the more falsetto soul/R&B stuff. It’s fun and first of all, it’s not easy, because your singing can’t be mechanical. There is an intent and an emotion in those vocals that you don’t want to miss.
Rock Cellar: Can you recall your first live exposure to R&B/soul music?
Paul Stanley: Boy, as a kid I saw Solomon Burke, which was really cool, and as a young teenager I saw Otis Redding.
Rock Cellar: You were one of the fortunate ones to have seen the legendary Otis Redding live, what are your memories of that show?
Paul Stanley: He was amazing. I saw him perform in Central Park. It was the Schaefer Music Festival or the Rheingold Music Festival; it went through different names over the years. But Otis was phenomenal. There was a power and a dynamic element to what he was doing you see in all of the greats. I also saw the Temptations live in concert.
Rock Cellar: At the same show?
Paul Stanley: No, I saw the Temptations a little later. But it was a tour-de-force. It was a bunch of guys totally in sync and I don’t mean that as a pun. (laughs) But totally in sync and choreographed to the beat and singing their asses off. It always points to me back to when people nowadays say, “Yeah, well I’m singing along with a track or I’m singing along with a vocal because you can’t dance and sing.” Well, tell that to all those bands ‘cause the Four Tops could do it, the Tempts could do it, the Spinners could do it, and the O’ Jays could do it. If you can’t sing and dance at the same time it’s probably because you can’t sing. (laughs)
Rock Cellar: What makes a great R&B/soul singer?
Paul Stanley: I guess communicating or telegraphing to people and honesty, whether it’s their voice or their phrasing. What comes across is either as honesty or as a confessional, which is what makes it so intriguing.
Rock Cellar: Back then it seems the classic R&B/soul singers were less worried about showing off with vocal acrobatics like the singers of today and more intent on delivering emotion and connecting with an audience.
Paul Stanley: Well, firstly, I think that you have to respect the melody, and if you become more about showing off what you can do at the expense of what you’re singing then you’ve lost the plot. So I’m not a fan of that at all.
Certainly I can remember a time in my career with KISS when I was more enthralled with some of the notes I could hit rather than whether they actually belonged in a song. (laughs) So I think it’s far more important to understand what you’re doing and certainly when you’re singing somebody else’s material that is so great there’s an eloquence to it and you don’t mess with that. I think sometimes when people re-record songs, besides trying to reinterpret them, sometimes it just comes down to somebody trying to replace passion with perfection and some people don’t realize that’s what they’re doing.
That’s why some re-records and recreations fall so flat, because the greatness of a lot of that music is that it wasn’t perfect.
Rock Cellar: It’s perfect in its imperfection.
Paul Stanley: Yeah, exactly. So you remove that and you remove everything.
Rock Cellar: You’ve described the songs you’re performing with Soul Station as “beautiful songs” and I agree. These are songs rich with melody, commanding singing and consummate production and instrumentation.
Paul Stanley: You could only write most of those songs I’m doing with Soul Station on a piano. They couldn’t be written on a guitar. They are naturally piano-based and there’s a brilliance to a lot of that writing and then on top of it to add these great arrangements and strings and horns. The embellishments on a lot of those songs made it so grand. That’s what I love with Soul Station is that the music is grand; it’s lush and yet it’s got incredible power and passion. I didn’t want anybody to think that this was gonna be sappy or soft.
Look, when you’ve got Sean Hurley and Eric (Singer) and Ramon (Yslas) playing percussion, you’ve got a foundation that kicks you in the stomach so this music encompasses everything. It’s got a great low end and kick to it and then you’ve got these amazing swirling strings and horns and vocals. It is beautiful music and the sentiments are beautiful and that doesn’t mean they’re sappy.
Rock Cellar: Paul, you’ve spoken about the legendary soul and R&B acts you got to see live, the Temptations, Solomon Burke and Otis Redding. But I’m curious, looking back, are there any soul and R&B acts that you didn’t see that you wish you saw?
Paul Stanley: Well, unfortunately, if you didn’t see some of those bands at the right time, you kind of didn’t really see the band because something was lost over time. So I would have loved to see the Four Tops with Levi Stubbs. You know, a lot of those groups at the time went on and voices change and falsettos become much not as good.
Rock Cellar: What are the plans for Soul Station in terms of playing shows?
Paul Stanley: In terms of playing, it’s much more realistic in the foreseeable future for Soul Station to go out and do shows than it is for KISS. I would say that’s very probable because right now the idea of arenas packed with people is a pipe dream. It’s just not in the cards for anybody.
And, you know, this pandemic and COVID is a changing scenario daily. So the idea of having mass crowds is not going to happen for a lot longer than most people probably have any idea. But in the meantime, could we go out and play? Probably. And that’s very much in in the world of possibility and probability.
September 16, 2021
September 8, 2021