The Poet at 33: An Interview with Drew Kennedy

Juli Thanki | September 3rd, 2013

dkgrandcanyonThe last time we spoke with singer-songwriter Drew Kennedy, he’d just published his first novel, Fresh Water in the Salton Sea. Two other projects occupy his time now: a new album, Wide Listener (out September 10), and a new son – Hank. “Both were fun to make, but they’re different kinds of fun,” he laughs.

Wide Listener, which was funded by a Kickstarter campaign, is Kennedy’s sixth album, and it’s his strongest one to date thanks to expressive, evocative, and constantly improving songwriting—for this record, he worked with Lori McKenna and Josh Grider, among others—and a top-notch backing band of some of Texas’ best, including cellist Steve Bernal and Sons of Fathers’ David Beck. “The best part of living in an area that has such a vibrant music scene is that if you can dream a part, you know someone—or know someone who knows someone—who can play it,” Kennedy explains. The sounds Kennedy dreamed about are stellar, ranging from the Guy Clark-ish “Good Carpentry” to “Jesus Can See You,” a song that veers from loud, angry rock to alt-country heartbreak.

In between planning the album release, assembling a concert schedule that includes an appearance on Mountain Stage this fall, waking up for midnight feedings, and helping organize the annual Red River Songwriters’ Festival, Kennedy’s busier than ever. However, the up-and-coming artist’s plans for his future are simple. “I want to be a good dad, see a little more of the world, and maybe write a song or two.”

The songs on Wide Listener are more reflective and introspective than your past records. Was that a response to the life-changing nature of impending parenthood?

I recorded my last record, Fresh Water in the Salton Sea, in January 2011. A couple days before I went into the studio, we found out that my wife, Holly, was pregnant. So I made that record feeling like things were really about to change, and I didn’t know what to expect. A few weeks after we got out of the studio, she lost the baby. She had her second miscarriage last June. You expect things like childbirth to happen without a hitch. You expect things to work out, and when something as seemingly natural as procreating doesn’t work out, it kind of puts a lot of the expectations that you had in your life up in the air. The guarantees aren’t there anymore, which makes you look at things differently. Experiences like those make you wonder about how you fit into everything; it happens to more people than you’d expect, but when it happens to you, you feel very alone.

The songs on Wide Listener were written from that place of struggling to make something work out that seemed like it wasn’t going to work out.

You have a rule about not recording an album until you have at least two up-tempo songs. Why is that?

I’ve always loved writing sad songs. I’ve heard songwriters say that if they could put the euphoria they feel after completing a song in pill form, we’d all be pill-poppers instead of songwriters because it’s such a great feeling. For me, that feeling is intensified when I can write something that is sad. A sad song has more emotional weight for me than something that’s more upbeat. The “feel good hit of the summer” is great, but those rarely speak to me. They might catch my ear, but I don’t usually find myself going back to those songs after that time has passed.

I probably listen to Guy Clark’s “Dublin Blues” 100 times a year. It’s just one of those songs I can go back to, and that’s something I can’t say for a lot of up-tempo songs. I like listening to songs like that, so it’s natural that I would like writing songs like that. But I think it’s limiting if all I do is come up with tearjerkers and lower tempo songs, pigeonholing myself into one type of thing. It tends to make for a boring record, so I promise myself that I have to do two uptempo songs. Two out of ten isn’t too much to ask. For Wide Listener, I had probably 16 songs written, I had the studio booked, I had the players scheduled, I had all my production notes mapped out, and I had no up-tempo songs. So I wrote “Age and Color” and “Love on the Highway” on the same day, just so I could meet my self-appointed goals.

Of course, neither of those songs are about particularly positive or happy topics.

You co-wrote with Lori McKenna for the first time. What was that like?

It was an incredible experience. I had a show in New York City and got the opportunity to spend two days writing with Lori, so I tagged a couple days onto my trip and went to her house in Stoughton, Massachusetts. In about 20 minutes, I felt like I’d known her for years. She’s one of those kind and welcoming people that you meet all too rarely these days. On top of that, she’s a complete genius. The stuff that comes out of her mouth in a writing session is fantastic, and it brought out the best in me as a co-writer. I found myself trying to kick my brain into overdrive to come up with a line that would get her to say, “Man, that was good.” I think my favorite compliment I’ve ever received was when I suggested the last line in “Rose of Jericho,” she said, “That sounds like it should be a fortune cookie. I love it.”

We wrote three songs in two days. We wrote a song called “When Salvation Finds Me” first, then on the second day, we wrote “Rose of Jericho,” which we started after I told Lori a story about the time my wife and I went to Marfa, which is a town out in West Texas.

We went to the Marfa farmers’ market and there was this old guy with a table full of desert succulents. We started asking questions about the plants, but we couldn’t understand any of his responses. It wasn’t a language barrier—he seemed to be speaking English—but we just couldn’t understand what he was saying.

Finally Holly points to one plant and asks, “How much is this?” He says, “Five dollars,” perfectly clear. So I pay him five bucks and he reaches into this plastic bag, pulls out a dead, balled up plant, puts it into the palm of my hand, and smiles. We walk away, thinking “We just bought a dead plant for five dollars.” So we laugh it off because we got taken by the old guy, get back in the car, and go to an art gallery. Two hours later, we come back to the car, and I guess some time during the drive, one of us had knocked the dead plant—which was unceremoniously placed on the center console—into what had been a cup of ice and was now a cup of water. The plant was slowly turning green and starting to open up. We were like, “We bought a magic plant for five dollars!” We were pretty excited about it, but when we got home, a buddy of mine told me it was a resurrection plant called a Rose of Jericho. They can live in the desert balled up for decades, and when it gets the opportunity to find itself in a little pool of water, it will open up and turn green, and when the water dries up, it’ll close back up and turn brown again.

I just loved the idea of that plant and the different ways you can apply that to people. I told Lori the story and she said, “I started writing that song before you came over this morning.” She showed me the lyrics of the first verse and it was perfect.

Six albums and ten years into this, how have you evolved as an artist?

I’ve gotten better at traveling; I’ve gotten better at understanding the business; I’ve gotten better as a guitar player, a singer, and a performer; I hope I’ve gotten better as a writer. Honoring the craft of songwriting is so important to me. I may not make a style of music that someone like Guy Clark—who is probably my favorite songwriter—would sit down and listen to, but I surely hope that I’m on a path where he might nod and say, “Not bad.”

Despite the downsides of the digital age, there’s a good chance that what we record is going to last for a really, really long time. Audiophile arguments aside, you better take your work seriously, because you may not be able to buy a mansion, but if you’re lucky enough to have grandchildren, those kids will have a pretty good idea what kind of person their grandfather or grandmother was through their songwriting. I think that’s a pretty heavy responsibility, and that’s what I think about every time I sit down to write a song. I hope that my next record is ten times better than this one, and I feel like on Wide Listener, I’m ten times better than I was on Fresh Water in the Salton Sea. That’s my goal: to keep improving. I study songwriting it like Roy Halladay studies a spray chart from all of the batters he’s faced.

Great songwriters amaze me. People who can say so much with so few words or say something in a way that I’ve never heard before, but immediately understand is amazing to me. It’s a gift you get to share with people. I love words. I love great songwriting. Every day I try to write the best song I can write, and don’t give a damn about styles or what’s popular, because that kind of success is fleeting, but if you care about what you’re trying to do and trying to say, it’ll stick around for a long time.

  1. Arlene
    September 3, 2013 at 10:40 am

    I was fortunate to win the book and CD, “Fresh Water in the Salton Sea,” in a contest on this site last year (thanks, Juli) and as a result, I’m very earer to hear Drew Kennedy’s new album, “Wide Listener;” the Lori McKenna co-writes are an added inducement but after reading and listening to his prior work, I’m happy to pay for the privilege this time around.

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