We speak to Fabiana Palladino, Ruthven, HIRA, and REINEN from Jai and A.K. Paul’s label
Back in 2016, the elusive Jai Paul was thrust into the limelight when he revealed a new venture, formed with his brother A.K. Paul and Muz Azar, called the Paul Institute. Considering how rarely the Pauls release music, this news was incredibly exciting; what was less clear, however, was what the Institute actually was. All it really had was a website instructing fans to sign up with a phone number, and a ‘work with us’ section at the bottom that provided an email address.
As it turned out, the brothers were looking for artists and creative people who might want to work with them on the venture. Later in 2016, the Paul Institute launched itself as a record label and music platform with a debut release from A.K. Paul himself, “Landcruisin”. Then, in 2017, it introduced the world to two new artists, Fabiana Palladino and Ruthven. Over the past week, the label has released two new singles from those artists, and brought two newcomers on-board: HIRA and REINEN, who also released a new track each.
Taken together, these tracks show that the Paul Institute is putting out some seriously advanced the pop music, with major songwriting chops and a sharp, hypermodern production sheen. While the Paul brothers have a hand in the music that goes out, each artist has a unique sound and individual perspective that they bring to their work. We caught up with the four of them to learn more.
HIRA won’t tell you what kind of music he makes. “That’s like describing your face to someone that hasn’t seen it,” he says. What he can tell you about is the music that inspired him early on. Justin Timberlake’s Justified, released when he was nine years old, was the first album he could call his own, while Usher’s early records “taught me how to sing”. Producers like The Neptunes and Timbaland were a major part of his youth, though he also grew up amidst a “big blur” of Indian music around the house. When he was 14, he bought a cheap MIDI keyboard and taught himself some Alicia Keys songs. “I still use that same keyboard today,” he says, “but I’ve forgotten those songs now.”
Those artists should give you a hint as to what to expect from HIRA’s music, all digital funk and cybernetic soul. It’s a huge, cinematic sound, which isn’t a major surprise when you learn that HIRA briefly went to film school, with his love of cult filmmakers like David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick, Harmony Korine, and Wong Kar-wai shining through. Cyberpunk is a reference point, too – the Paul Institute describe his new single “Red Light Drive” as a “cyberpunk symphony set in that night club in Strange Days” in a statement sent to press. “Cyberpunk is like the future before the future,” HIRA says. “I guess that’s the ethos for my music, and my graphic design work too. I love the textures.”
HIRA previously released music as Hira King, which caught the ear of A.K. Paul, who got in touch and helped produce last year’s “Eve”. “Red Light Drive”, however, is the first song that HIRA has produced himself. “I’m honoured that they both believe in it,” he says. The song is the first part in a trilogy, with a second soon to come, and was inspired by Control-era Janet Jackson. As HIRA explains, however, “I just wanted it to sound like how Akira looks.”
REINEN is a newcomer to the Paul Institute, but “Masquerade”, her first single for the label, is a startling and distinctive debut. As REINEN explains, the song stems from her love of all things dramatic – theatre, film, romance, comedy, and tragedy. “The mishmash of throwing all those elements into one song was irresistible,” she says. “The sounds we used while writing dictated to me straight away that this was a masquerade ball in a far-off land. I felt immediately like I was there, from the first throb of that synth.”
REINEN grew up in north west London, where she was able to invest herself in both her local music scene and in the city’s wider theatrical heritage. Besides a love of songwriting inspired by Annie Lennox, Stevie Nicks, and Cyndi Lauper, REINEN also acts and dances. “My relationship to music is simultaneous with movement as it is to voice, and that plays a huge part in the way I write,” she explains. Her main motivation in music, she says, is “to create worlds around each song where audiences can be immersed and lost for a few moments at a time.”
Lyrically, she cites Romantic literature (“Wuthering Heights struck a chord early on”), Ray Bradbury’s sci-fi novels (“his writing style is so unique and completely immerses you into another world”), and tragic romance films like Francis Coppola’s Dracula and Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge (“they all have that flamboyance and pomp where emotions are limitless”) as inspirations. “I love the idea that my lyrics could be read without the music and still sound like a poem,” she says.
“Masquerade” is a song about a chance meeting and the feeling that you’ve met before, “perhaps in another lifetime, transfixed by that moment”, REINEN says. The crescendo in the outro is “the burning desire to have that time again”. It was produced with A.K. Paul, a school acquaintance who she started writing with before the Paul Institute came to fruition. “It’s been incredible to watch it grow, and with a collaboration that’s lasted this long already, I’m thrilled to be part of this project,” she says. Currently, REINEN is working on a follow-up single, which she promises is “equally dramatic.”
Around three years ago, Fabiana Palladino got an email from Jai Paul out of nowhere saying that he’d been listening to her demos on Soundcloud. When they linked up at a studio in Kings Cross, Jai explained that he and A.K. were thinking of starting a label. It was, in Palladino’s own words, a very unassuming meeting. “I was totally aware of that ‘mystique’, but that’s just internet stuff,” Palladino says. “He’s a normal person. It’s funny that people think he’s a magical being.”
The two artists bonded over their shared music tastes and creative backgrounds, both having grown up in suburban London playing and writing music. In Palladino’s case, she’d learned music from a young age – her father, Pino Palladino, is a prolific session artist (he previously played bass for The Who). At home, her parents would listen to soul musicians like Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway, and she later went on to study music at Goldsmiths, where she made a discovery that would lead her to the sort of music she makes today.
“A friend at uni had Hounds of Love on CD and put it on,” she explains. “That led me into a different side of music – British pop/rock, people like David Bowie, Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel.” Like those artists, Palladino’s sound is incredibly distinctive, matching meticulously crafted melodic pop songwriting with bold and inventive production choices. “I think a lot of the music I like has that sound of one person,” she says. “They play and write and sing.”
After finishing university, Palladino worked as a session and touring musician, playing with the likes of Sampha (an old acquaintance from back in the Myspace days; he also also co-produced Palladino’s stellar early song “For You”), SBTRKT, and Jessie Ware, who she’s been touring with for the past year. Still, the desire to write her own music never went away while she was on the road. “Writing always feels like a release for me emotionally,” she says. “Whenever I write, these ideas and words come out of nowhere, and I’ll look back at it and think, ‘Shit, that was something that I was feeling that I didn’t realise.’”
Palladino has released two singles with the Paul Institute, last year’s “Mystery” (written and produced with Jai Paul) and her new single “Shimmer”. While “Shimmer” features additional instrumentation and production from Jai, the track itself was self-produced by Palladino. Musically, it was inspired by Sheila E, Chaka Khan, and Donna Summer’s “State of Independence”; lyrically, it sees Palladino respond to her frustration with people who were underestimating her own as a producer. “I wanted to write about power and standing up for yourself, to egg myself on a little,” she says. “I was struggling. ‘Do I need to get a producer, or does it just need a mix?’ I felt it maybe had something to do with being a girl.”
Palladino has a lot more songs that are close to being finished, which she hopes to release this year, and hopes to start playing shows again. “I’ve just been plugging away at music bit by bit, going on tour, and coming back to it,” she says. “Now, I’m at a point where I want to be doing it full-time.”
Ruthven grew up in Catford, south east London, and comes from a family of pianists and multi-instrumentalists. “The jazz my mum was teaching her students in the next room from me (was) the real soundtrack to my childhood,” he says. When he was younger, his mother taught piano to a young girl whose dad was tight for cash at the time. “He offered payment via giving me drum lessons,” Ruthven says. “I suppose that was the start of my music-making journey.”
This musicality shines through in the songs that Ruthven writes, a future funk style inspired by artists like Prince, D’Angelo, Kate Bush, and Peter Gabriel. “I’d like for musicians to hear my stuff and know that I’m a musician too based on the musicality in the recordings – the way instruments are played, the musical flourishes, harmonies. ,” he says. “That’s what drew me towards listening to Jai and Anup (A.K.)’s music. It spoke to me as a musician.” Lyrically, he rarely draws from real life. “It’s just my imagination,” he says. “I’ll figure out a hook or line, and make up a story or situation to fit in with it.”
Ruthven met Jai and A.K. Paul in a straightforward way – he hit up an email address on the Paul Institute’s website. “They hit me back up when I sent over a few demos and we chilled a few times after,” he says. By day, Ruthven works as a firefighter, and his new song “Hypothalamus” was inspired by an Immediate Emergency Care course he was taking as part of the job. The title refers to the part of the brain that signals to sweat when it’s hot and shiver when it’s cold. “It really stuck with me,” he says. “I just made up a storyline to communicate the feelings you’d have if coldness from a loved one in a relationship would cause proper physical coldness in your body.”
The song revolves around a skipping rhythm, and builds up to a wild guitar solo from A.K. Paul. “I think he was hesitant to fully go in at first, but we ended up all in agreement that a massive, fuck-off solo was required,” Ruthven jokes. “The first solo he recorded was live with us there. It was a bit of an epic moment, to be fair, but a few weeks down the line, being the perfectionist he is, he re-recorded it and gave himself a totally new guitar tone. I have both solos on my laptop, and I love both of ‘em. He’s a really talented guitarist.”
Ruthven won’t go into the specifics of what he has coming up, but says there’s plenty more music to come. “I can tell you I haven’t just started releasing to then stop,” he says. “There’s movement.”