“I have kind of a Texas attitude” – Talking with Kenny Roby about music and change
A few weeks ago on this site, we offered a free preview stream of the new disc from Kenny Roby – an artist most folks know from his old band 6 String Drag. That North Carolina-based alt-country troupe was loud and raw, embodying so many of the characteristics of the early alt-country movement which inspired the creation of the No Depression magazine. (Note Peter Blackstock’s review from issue #4 back in 1996.)
In the seven years since releasing his last studio project, Roby has been hanging out in the Triangle, making music in a basement, toying with the kind of melody and lyrical interplay that happens when one doesn’t have to battle sound systems, drummers, and electric guitars night after night. In the process, his voice found its way to a lower, more natural sort of a sling. It sounds at times a little Leonard Cohen-ish, other times akin to Elvis Costello. Behind him, the album, Memories and Birds, unfolds with the subtle support of woodwinds, strings, and other decidedly non-country elements. There are xylophones, arrangements at once warmly lush and remarkably delicate. There are many moments that feel like the sonic equivalent of holding a baby bird in your hand. You register the weight, but it’s also somewhat weightless. The juxtaposition of feeling rooted to something intangible and also ready to fly, pervades the disc, from its poetry to its sometimes new-jazz-like string parts.
“I know I’m breaking you,” he sings in one particularly emotionally precarious moment, “I can see it in your smile” (“A Short Mile”). It’s that kind of unexpected wordplay which sneaks up throughout the disc, through melodies which would seem almost incidental if they weren’t so natural and languid.
It’s the sort of album which is deceptively accessible. It welcomes you warmly, before guiding you down long labyrinthine hallways. For my part, I imagine I’ll still be taking it in months from now. You can stream it in its entirety on Kenny’ website. Or check out this video of the title track:
I was so taken by the stream of it here, I got a hold of Kenny’s publicist and set up a quick Q&A a couple of weeks ago. Then, for only the second time in my eight years of talking to artists about their work, the recording of our interview was somehow deleted from my recorder. One of those unexpected failures of technology. Luckily, Roby was willing to give it a second try. We hopped on the phone to try to recreate the interview we’d already had. Naturally, new ideas and discussions emerged, and you can read that interview below. It starts, however, where I reckon so many people’s interactions with Roby’s new disc will start – by trying to retrace some tracks:
Kim Ruehl: We started out last time by talking about how this record is different from what you did with 6 String Drag. It’s a little jarring, maybe, for people who aren’t aware of what you’ve been up to since then. What have you been up to since then?
Kenny Roby: There’s an evolution here that people don’t see as much. With six or seven years between albums, you’re going to change a little bit. I think that’s an okay thing. I would hope I’ll always change between records and not always put out the same records [one after another]. It’s not straight traditional music, and it’s not three-chord rock and roll the way you might hear from AC/DC or Bill Monroe. Bill Monroe pretty much stayed the same for 40 or 50 years, or however many years. The recordings changed a little bit, but that’s traditional music.
As a songwriter, lyrically it changed in that I started to take snapshots. The lyrics are just a snapshot of the characters in a specific time period. A five-minute song could be five minutes of them telling a story about what’s going on in their minds right then. That might be a little bit different – I tend to evaluate my own stuff too much. Musically, though, arrangement-wise, I listened to a lot of the old records I like, a little more focused in my listening. I was listening on headphones where I could really focus on listening to parts and getting into people’s arrangements. I’ve been picking up new influences. [From album to album] hopefully you have new and different influences, unless you’re an old bluegrass or blues guy. But, I’m in a modern era with all kinds of music and literature and media at my disposal. This wasn’t that far off for me. Singing in a lower key just sort of happened. I did a couple covers and I started to sing a little bit in a quieter voice, in a lower key, which felt more comfortable. I wasn’t playing this stuff live with a band. When I did play it live, it was solo acoustic and I could just turn the vocals up and it would be loud enough for the crowd to hear.
A lot of times when you arrange stuff for a band, you have to take the keys up higher because you have to be heard through a crappy PA in a bar. Rock and roll kind of becomes a necessity of trying to hear somebody’s vocals. Who’s to say what Joe Strummer would have sounded like when he first got into the Clash and stuff like that. They were playing rock and roll music, but…you can see my point. If they had a killer PA and could hear themselves really, really well…these things were formed in a loud environment, not a studio environment. [Memories and Birds] was formed in the basement. Not in the basement with a band, but in the basement with myself, so it was quieter. That evolved over time, but since the general public didn’t really see that, they think it was drastically different from the last record. I don’t see that so much because I was involved in the transition.
It sounds like you’re maybe saying this record was a little more deliberate and premeditated than 6 String Drag’s recordings, when you were just trying to capture the latest songs you’d written.
I think so, a little. The other records were deliberate, but they were in a different mindset. On this record, there were things that were done on the fly. There were string players sitting in front of me and I’d…come up with suggestions on the fly. It wasn’t all completely premeditated. Just because the other records were more rocking records, doesn’t mean they weren’t arranged [deliberately] as well. They were just louder.
You said you went back and listened to some of your favorite albums more closely. What albums were they?
Tons of stuff. Anything from going different eras of Springsteen to the Wailers, the Bob Marley records, to old Rolling Stones records and Dylan records. Some jazz and R&B records. I had a couple of friends at a place I worked who were having me listen to stuff too, Beatles records. I was turning them onto stuff – everything from Howlin’ Wolf to Bob Dylan & the Band records. But then newer records like Ron Sexsmith and the Magnetic Fields. Songwriters, but not what you would call singer-songwriters. I don’t gravitate too much to singer-songwriters. Not that that’s a totally bad word, but…
Well, you know this record is a little singer-songwritery.
Yeah, but to me a singer-songwriter is like a James Taylor type – a guy with a guitar in a coffee shop. I hate the term in general. To me, it’s a little pretentious. This record isn’t any more singer-songwritery than Leonard Cohen records. I don’t think of him that way. I just think of him as a writer and a performer and an artist…or Nick Cave, or something. I don’t think of those guys in any particular genre. They just make records.
You talked last time about the song “Colorado” and how you came up with the string arrangement for that specifically [alone, on a MIDI program]. Was that a jumping-off point for the rest of the record?
“Colorado” and “Memories and Birds” – those two songs were the jumping off point. “Colorado” was just different. I’d never written a song that long. I felt like there was no fat in it. It’s just such a slow song and the lyrics are so sparse, it really needs that space. There’s not a lot of words in the song, though. It’s not like a Dylan song that’s eight minutes long with 42 verses with 17 words per line or something. “Colorado” started off as more of an acoustic thing, in line with a Neil Young song – very simple, acoustic, sparse. I wrote the string intro to it on piano and keyboards, overdubbed a bunch of stuff and made some edits pretty much by myself. The string players came into the studio and we came up with a lot of it on the fly in the studio. There were some things I’d recorded that they copied, and there were other things we worked out together. That was the first one that made us go – Well, we did this. I guess we can do anything on this record.
Of course, I’m not a jazz player, but…we’d just do whatever we felt the song needed, whether it was strings or horns, or just percussion and vocals.
Do you feel like this is your new sound? Do you think going forward you’ll look for more opportunities to use strings? Or are you not even thinking about that yet?
I really haven’t thought about that yet. I don’t know if I want to know that answer.
Sometimes I want to be in the Clash again. Sometimes I would love to have a string quartet – very simple, just singing and playing a little guitar with a couple violins, a viola and a cello. Just a little chamber thing.
It’s tough. I live in a world where I feel like I’ll just do everything until I can’t. One minute it’s psychedelic, one minute it’s rock and roll, one minute it’s blues. I guess in that way I kind of have a Texas attitude. Not that any of my music sounds like what you’d call “Texas music,” but you’ve got to do whatever moves you. You’ve got to write that way and arrange that way to some degree and then, if a song doesn’t fit on a record, you just save it.
I read a great quote from Willie Nelson. Someone asked Willie how he’d feel if someone stole one of his songs, and Willie said I’m not going to get upset about that. Maybe if I was only going to write that one song…but I’m a songwriter. And if I’m a songwriter, I shouldn’t get upset about just one song getting lost. I feel that way about picking songs for records. If I’m going to be a songwriter, I should have plenty of material and not worry about if one of my really good, strong songs doesn’t make it on a record. An album, to me, can be just a collection of songs. But on this album, the songs needed to fit the record. Who knows what’ll happen on the next one. Maybe I’ll just record all the songs that never made it onto any record.
It looks like you have some dates coming up. Will you be adding more this summer.
Yeah, I’ve been hoping to play a little bit more, but it’s tough out there. It’s tough to get gigs, oddly enough. I’ve kind of been out of the game a little bit. My goal is to do 75-125 shows over the period of a year at least. So yeah, I’m touring a reasonable amount.
Below are Roby’s current dates, but you can visit Roby’s tour page for an updated list.
5/3 – Greensboro, NC – The Green Bean
5/24 – Durham, NC – Motorco Music Hall
5/31 – Newport, KY – Southgate House Revival
6/2 – Columbus, OH – Natalie’s
6/12 – Nashville, TN – Music City Roots
6/14 – Athens,GA – Caledonia
6/15 – Birmingham, AL – Moonlight on the Mountain
7/13 – Charlotte, NC – Double Door
7/17 – Durham, NC – Duke Gardens