Paper Flowers, the latest from Stephen Hero, takes its inspiration from Saint John’s many colourful characters and urban legends.
Saint John rapper Stephen Hero has maintained a staggering pace of albums, singles, live shows and collaborations for the past few years while matching his admirable stride with equal parts musical diversity and sheer excitement. In doing so, he has taught all who follow him to expect the unexpected.
Paper Flowers is a prime example of what makes Hero’s career the (musical) spectator sport it has become. Writing a concept album inspired by some of his hometown’s most colourful characters and urban legends doesn’t necessarily stray too far from his brand as the unofficial poet laureate of blue collar, working class Saint Johners. But pair that with a theatrical, one-man stage show and things reach a whole new level.
Hero’s latest album takes its title from the work of Nellie Mann, a perennial figure of uptown Saint John’s famous City Market, known for selling handmade paper flowers to shoppers and tourists up until her death in 1969.
“I’d known about her for a long time through local lore,” said Hero, whose father knew Mann when he was a kid. “She used to sell paper flowers at the top of the City Market. I liked the idea of doing something about her, maybe just a song, and I thought Paper Flowers would be a great title.”
After researching Mann’s story, Hero started seeking out other historical figures and local legends through various Facebook groups, books and friends. The discoveries he made proved to be the ideal inspiration for his next album.
“At some point I realized I could do a whole project about urban legends from the city, so I pursued an ArtsNB grant to try to get some funding for it,” he said.
After receiving a grant, Hero started working on creating samples and beats that could reflect the characters and events that inspired this project. Slightly unusual and a bit off kilter while retaining enough familiarity to satisfy his existing audience and (hopefully) appeal to new listeners, Paper Flowers blends experimental hip hop with elements of fringe folk, jazz, beat poetry, and avant garde.
“I was trying to take a Tom Waits kind of approach to the album. I thought a Tom Waits rap album sounded fun,” he said.
As a strictly creative endeavor, Paper Flowers is nothing short of a resounding success. Stepping outside his comfort zone, slightly, and bringing in the help of a few friends including Motherhood’s Brydon Crain who has been a near-constant collaborator of Hero’s from the beginning, Paper Flowers stands as something completely unique among Hero’s wide ranging output. And for an artist whose work at times speaks for those struggling economically, socially and mentally, giving a voice to a few mythical and the misunderstood characters from the city’s past only serves to broaden his unofficial poet laureate position. (Maybe he actually should be the poet laureate?)
Following the release of two advanced singles, Scissor John and Ug Wug, Paper Flowers arrives on digital streaming services October 27. To celebrate the release, Hero will be playing a pair of New Brunswick shows in Fredericton (The Cap, Oct. 27) and Saint John (Haven Music Hall, Nov. 9). Both shows will feature the entire album performed as a theatrical stage show complete with props, costumes, and projections.
“I’m super proud of it,” said Hero, commenting on the album’s accompanying stage production. “We had a great first showing at Halifax Fringe. It was really well received out there. Definitely nerve wracking and a completely new thing for me as a performer. I gotta say, I can already feel that I’ve grown through the process. We have costume changes, props, beautiful projection pieces, some storytelling in between to add more context. Really, it’s a pretty cool show and I’m so excited for more people to see it!”
October 27 | The Cap | Fredericton, NB | View Event
November 9 | Haven Music Hall | Saint John, NB