by: Thomas D. Mooney
Drew Kennedy‘s songs are as good as Polaroids. Good songwriters, they’re able to throw out a photograph every song more or less. Kennedy, he’s grown into being able to snap one off with every line or thought.
Those vivid images of a song transport you to a spot on his shoulder as he points out the essentials of the scene. You’re not just seeing what he’s seeing, but in some instances, you can almost smell, taste, hear, and feel the moments. Lines and images stick with you for days on end after hearing them.
Perhaps most important to Kennedy’s formula and dedication for the craft of songwriting is his understanding of this simple, yet challenging creed–that words, lines, and songs should relay and be true to the initial inspiration. Being aware and disciplined is half the battle.
Kennedy’s command of language is the other. He writes in a way that’s simple, clean, and pure to the snapshot that he’s describing. It’s never too murky or clunky, hence the bright crispness to the lines. Still, he’s not just reusing or shuffling words around song to song. It’s a varied enough of a vocabulary that nourishes the brain as you take it in while not demanding you have a dictionary on hand.
We caught up with the prolific songwriter this past week to talk about recording his upcoming album, his involvement in The Red River Songwriter’s Festival, and evolving as a songwriter. Kennedy will be playing alongside fellow songwriters Susan Gibson, Josh Grider, Walt Wilkins, Kelley Mickwee and Brandy Zdan at the Louise Hopkins Underwood Center for the Arts this Thursday, Jan. 21. Tickets for the LHUCA show are currently $20 and can be purchased here. The show will be starting at 7:30pm with limited seating at the Firehouse Theatre within the LHUCA.
The Red River Songwriter’s Festival will be Jan 28-30 in Red River, New Mexico. For more information, click here.
New Slang: The Red River Songwriters’ Festival is coming up soon. You and some of the others, you come together and play as a collective from time to time. How’d all that start up? What’s the origin story of you six playing these shows together and the festival in general?
Drew Kennedy: The main lynchpin of the entire deal is in fact, Red River. There’s a guy who owns a hotel, two music venues, and a restaurant there named Steve Heglund who has always been one of those very rare patron saints of songwriters. Any time any of us are headed west or coming back east, he always has a warm bed, a place for you to play, and a hot meal ready. He just loves songwriters. We’ve all naturally gravitated to the town because of Steve.
Six years ago, I was having coffee with him after playing a show there. He mentioned how he always wanted to have a small songwriter’s festival in the winter because, believe it or not, even though it’s a ski town, there’s a couple of stretches of weeks where Red River is slow. He said he couldn’t necessarily put a ton of money into it at the beginning, but if they could grow it, he thought we could build something. He asked me to start putting a plan together and see if we could put something together.
I reached out to the core group that we have–who aren’t just some of my favorite human beings, but also some of my favorite human beings who also happen to write songs. They all have strong feelings for Steve and Red River. We decided we’d try it for a year, see what happens, and if we all want to do it again, we’ll be equal partners going forward. Everyone said sure, we’ll give it a shot. We had such a blast that first year even though it was a small crowd who followed us up there. We immediately recognized that with a little more structure and planning, we could turn it into a great event. This’ll be our fifth one.
NS: It feels very family oriented. The six of you have played shows in other places together–like the one here coming up. Obviously you knew everyone before this started up, but with something like this, you’re definitely spending more time with them all together. What’re some of the things you’ve learned from them by just hanging out with them?
DK: It’s a couple of things. Number one, it’s a great reminder that there are really smart, really talented, highly motivated, really kind people out there chasing after some of the same things I’m chasing after. When you can find a group of like-minded individuals like that, it kind of lends a little support to what you’re doing with your life. You’re not crazy because these people aren’t crazy. You develop a quick bond with like-minded people like that. For me, everybody is so remarkably talented. They’re such great writers and performers, when I’m on stage with them, it pushes me perform as best as I possibly can. If I don’t, I’m going to be embarrassed because everyone around me, they’re so great.
On top of that, the lessons you learn from hearing everyone’s new songs, for me, as a writer who is always looking to improve, it’s a constant source of new thoughts and new ways to do and say things for myself. The family angle is definitely true. We stay in touch, play shows, and talk constantly all year long. A lot of it’s about the festival, but a lot of it’s about other things. We really have developed this family feeling between us. I’m most thankful for that.
NS: What are you working on now? Feels like every time you’ve come to Lubbock the past year or so, you’ve had a new song or two that you’ve played. When are you collecting these up and recording them?
DK: I am going to be recording a new album in April. I’ll be working with a producer by the name of Dave Brainard. This’ll be the first time I’ve let the production reigns go in a couple of records. He recently had a Grammy nomination for the work he did on Brandy Clark’s last record, 12 Stories. I’m really excited to work with him because he really knows how to handle a storyteller. He knows how to frame the words. As you know, in all the conversations we’ve had over the last couple years, the words are so important to me. That’s really my favorite thing about what I do. He gets that. So I’ve been constantly writing with that record in mind so it won’t be too long before we hit that record button.
NS: Will you be doing that in Nashville?
DK: Yeah, I’ll be doing that in Nashville recording it at RCA Studio A, which you know, is probably the most famous recording room in the entire town.
NS: What made you ultimately decide on going with a producer this time around?
DK: I know what kind of record I would make for myself because I just made it twice. The songs are different, but the feel is very much the same [on those two albums]. There’s been this distinct change in my writing since the Wide Listener record. I feel like my writing ability has outpaced my production ability. I feel that I’d be doing the songs a disservice if I approached them with the same view as I have on the last couple records. That’s when I started thinking about a list of people who I’d love to work with. Someone like Dave was at the top of the list. From there, you reach out and start the conversation. We’ve done some pre-production a couple of different times, recording some songs bare bones.
NS: One of the things I think a lot of people appreciate about your live performance is your stage banter. You probably do the best job of explaining where a song comes from or where you were when the idea hit you, than really anyone else out there. Why do you think that is? Why have you been so comfortable in-between songs?
DK: I think it comes from a place that you might not expect. When I was really starting to figure out how to write songs, I had a tendency to write some stuff that was probably more cryptic than they were used to hearing in the folk or country world. I found that in order for people to understand the intention–not necessarily the meaning–but the intention of why a song came about, to make it clear, I found myself coming up with the story behind the inspiration. I’ve really tried not to say, “This song is about this feeling and this song is about this feeling.” I try and say what was happening around me that lead to this song. I think my writing has gotten clearer since then, but I really enjoy leaving the arc from the first song to last song in a night where it’s not just “Hey, here are 20 songs that I made up,” but rather, “here are 20 songs I made up and along the way, this is what I saw, heard, and felt.” It’s a supplemental story on top of the story you wrote in a song. I like doing that.
NS: Yeah. You never tell the audience what they should be feeling, but it’s always a good starting point–a framing in a sense.
DK: Yeah. I hear a lot of songwriters say they see their songs as little movies in their head. I try and give people the setting.
NS: A lot of songwriters really appreciate it too. Anytime you’re here, the room is filled with Lubbock songwriters. Obviously, there’s not a right or wrong way to write, but in a way, I think seeing you perform, it’s almost like a lesson–probably the biggest takeaway being that inspiration can come anytime and anywhere. Do a lot of young songwriters feel comfortable talking with you about the craft?
DK: I hope they do. When you start out, no matter how old you are, you start from that same starting point. You still go through that first song you ever wrote and first show you ever played. I certainly had a lot of questions answered by people with far more experience than I did at the time that was really valuable and encouraging. It helped me find out who I was as a writer along the way. I always have tried to return that favor. While a lot of your voice as a songwriter is innately inside of you, it takes a long time to bring that out. You don’t just wake up one day and hear a Guy Clark record and decide that you’re going to write at the level of Guy Clark. It’s not a decision. It takes years of work. I think the Malcolm Gladwell thing is absolutely true–I don’t think it’s a hard number like he says being 10,000 hours–but he’s absolutely on to something. Nothing you want to master comes with a decision and it’s mastered. It’s the decision to put in the time and effort it takes to master something. So I hope when I talk about songwriting with other people, I hope I’m able to give to them what people have given to me. Do I have the answers? No. No one has the answers. The solution is different for everyone, but if I can be resource for someone, I’m totally happy with that. It’s doing your part.
NS: I’ve heard you say that “Cincinnati” was really the first song you were proud of. What was it about it that really set it apart from the other material you were writing around the time?
DK: It really was the first song that I wrote that was not only about specific events that I had just experienced, but I felt that I was able to put the emotions that went along with the experience in a language that was other people could understand. I wasn’t just telling a story for the sake of storytelling. I was trying to relay my emotions through that experience. I felt that was really the first time I had done it. I had tried and failed a lot of times. The songs I was writing about at that point, I don’t think they had the thought or emotion in them that they needed. “Cincinnati” was the first time they all came together. Something is starting to make sense in my brain and I’m starting to get it.
NS: When you play that song now, does it take you back to that time or over time of playing it, does it gradually lose that?
DK: It does take me back. I see very specific images from that trip. I was still dating my wife at the time. We drove up there to see one of her cousins get married. There are very specific images that pop up in my head when I sing it. I like that. It was a nice little weekend in my life and glad I was able to capture that.
NS: One of the new songs you’ve played the last few times up here, is that song about the two watches. I don’t know the name of it–
DK: –I don’t either [laughs].
NS: [Laughs]. OK, that makes me feel better. That song, I feel every time I’ve seen you play it, it hits them in ways that they weren’t expecting on a Tuesday night in a music venue bar. Those images in that song I feel are so vivid and clear.
DK: That image is a powerful one. You look at something, and because of the location, it quite clearly leans toward something unfortunate happening in someone’s life. The optimist in me tried to explain it as maybe the guy is a pick-pocket or whatever. But the reality of the situation demanded me treat it for what it probably was. I don’t know who that guy was or the specific situation, but I wanted to try and respect the power of that image and the emotion behind it. Because of his age and setting, he probably lived a long and happy life with somebody who he most likely lost. There’s not too many reasons why somebody would be walking around with two watches on their wrist right in front of a hospital.
It’s a self-conditioned thing for me to be on the lookout for images and situations to use as fodder for songs. Or if the universe in some mystical way, puts that stuff in front of people who can actually do something with it. I feel like I see stuff like that for a reason–and whatever the reason is–I want to do it justice. When inspiration shows up, I want it to know it’s appreciated. Hopefully, that’s what that song is when people hear it.
I thought it was a powerful thing to write about. When I started playing it and seeing people emotionally reacting to it right away, that’s a fulfilling thing. I don’t necessarily want to make someone cry on purpose, but I do feel good when I treated the inspiration in a way that the emotion of the scene I saw, carries through to the song.