Kim Richey – Sweetness follows
One day last December, a coffee house in Nashville called Bongo Java made national news. Someone who works there turned one of their freshly made cinnamon buns sideways and discovered that it bore a remarkable similarity to Mother Theresa. Bongo Java also happens to be Nashville resident Kim Richey’s favorite hangout. The counter help calls her by her last name and she doesn’t have to order; they know what she likes. And yes, the cinnamon bun enshrined below the counter does bear a striking resemblance to the blessed Mother.
Bongo Java is precisely the kind of slightly off-center kind of place you’d expect an artist like Richey to frequent. An engaging singer-songwriter with a forceful yet pleasing voice, she may be signed to a major label (Mercury) out of Nashville, but her music is not exactly what passes for country, at least according to commercial radio these days. The lanky blonde has just released her second record, Bitter Sweet, a fine collection of pop songs that tugs at the heart in refreshing ways and twangs in all the right places.
Richey moved to Nashville nine years ago at the urging of her old Western Kentucky University friend Bill Lloyd, formerly of Foster And Lloyd. “I moved around a lot after college and didn’t have a lot to do with music,” she explains. “I can’t believe I’ve lived here that long, because it’s the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere. Anyway, Bill said, ‘Come on down here and try it.’ He also sent me the first two Steve Earle albums. At that point I’d never heard of Steve before. I just flipped over them, I thought they were amazing. So there was a combination of things that got me down here.
“But after I moved down here, I started writing songs and started learning a lot about songwriting. I started writing with Radney (Foster) and we co-wrote ‘Nobody Wins’, the song on his first record that went to No. 2 on the Billboard chart. I sang backup on a few cuts on that record, so that got me going.”
Her first record was produced by Richard Bennett, who also has worked extensively with Earle. But Bennett was not available to make Richey’s new album, which left her in a bit of a panic. “He told me over lunch that he decided to go out on tour with Mark Knopfler,” she says, “which was a great thing for him. But I was really bummed out because I had never even thought about making a record with anyone else.”
Here the story gets a little remarkable. Richey approached Luke Lewis, the president of Mercury Nashville, about the possibility of using Angelo, her band member and songwriting partner, as producer. “Angelo and I work really well together. We would make these demos up at Polygram Publishing, where he would play everything and they would end up sounding really great. We would go in there after Polygram closed and stay up all night and do what we wanted. When you have to book a studio to do demos, you only get to do one or two takes. There we could work on one song all night and make it sound really good. We actually got a cut or two from those demos.
“So, I think it was right after that lunch with Richard, I went up to Luke’s office and I hemmed and hawed a little bit. Finally I just blurt out, ‘What do you think about letting Angelo produce some sides?’ He goes, ‘Well, how much money do you need?’ And I go, ‘I don’t know.’ I didn’t actually get that far in my thinking. I didn’t figure that he was just gonna say yes.”
Angelo’s work on Bitter Sweet resulted in a natural follow-up to Richey’s first record. There are no big changes in her style, just a little more maturity in her songwriting. “I just do the music that kinda comes naturally to me,” Richey explains, “with all the different influences that I have. Being in this town for so long has been a huge influence, you know — just being part of this musical community. I’m really proud to be from here. It’s been a great place for me to be.”
Indeed, Richey has remained left-of-center enough to escape the cookie-cutter mold that all too often is applied to major-label country acts in Nashville. “You get in a lot of trouble if you try to pigeonhole something,” she acknowledges. Prime examples of her not getting caught up in that game are two songs on Bitter Sweet: “Fallin'”, which was co-written by John Crooke of North Carolina alternative-country band Jolene and also features him on vocals, and “I Know”, which was co-written and produced by John Leventhal (known for his work with Shawn Colvin and many others). Only a talent like Richey would be able to work with such disparate writers and make it seem natural.
Richey also appeared in a duet with Crooke on Jolene’s 1996 debut, Hell’s Half Acre. “I’m hoping that we can get it together and play some shows together sometime this year,” she says. “I discovered Jolene by accident, really. I mastered my first record at Ardent Studios in Memphis. That was the label that Jolene was on [Ardent Records], and they made their record there. I was up in Boston checking my messages and one was from Matt who works over at Ardent. He says, ‘I got a guy here who wants to know if you’ll sing on his record. Will you call me back?’ My reaction was, I don’t know. Who is this guy? What does his music sound like? So they got me a tape and I loved it. So of course I agreed to sing with them. We’ve become good friends. I think they’re really talented.”
With Bitter Sweet, Richey has avoided the dreaded sophomore slump; she has created a second record that defies categorization and done it on her own terms without any pressure. “Most of the pressure comes from within myself,” she says. “I feel a little bit more pressure to succeed now than with the first one, because with that one I didn’t feel any pressure. I felt that no matter what happened, I won. I got to make a record exactly how I wanted to and with the people that I wanted to. But with all the good stuff that happened to after that record came out, and after all the things that I learned about the music business, I expect more from this record.”