Kim Richey – Voices carry
Maybe all Kim Richey wants to do is have some fun.
She’s contended that her 1995 self-titled debut, produced by Steve Earle collaborator Richard Bennett, was considered a country album only because she was signed to a country label — though that discount neatly begs the question of why a country label signed her in the first place. Radney Foster, with whom she co-wrote his top-ten hit “Nobody Wins”, characterized her as an imminent country luminary in an article he penned for Countrystars.com, an online magazine.
Richey’s widely praised 1997 album, Bitter Sweet, continued to mine the country vein, but with a bit more folk rock, a lot more layers, and the considerable heft and influence of co-writing and production by Nashville denizen Angelo. With 1999’s Glimmer, though, Richey sounded more like the Ohio-bred fan of rock singles she professed to be. In interview after interview, she declared herself an avid XTC follower, and extolled Mercury Nashville’s bravery in sending her to London to record with Hugh Padgham (XTC, Genesis, Police, David Bowie). She asserted again and again that the glossy Glimmer, with its more irregular song structures and cascading vocals, represented the sound she felt most at home in making, her “natural” sound.
The October release of Rise on Mercury’s Lost Highway imprint suggests that “natural” is, for Richey, perhaps a relative thing. For Rise, she tapped producer Bill Bottrell, renowned for his work with Sheryl Crow and Shelby Lynne. Yet the result is nothing like those two artists’ records; rather, it’s a festival of muses — an exploration of sound, melody and vocal treatments that may itself actually be Richey’s natural habitat. Her own lyric taste, and her objectively gorgeous voice, are powerful catalysts; her natural process, it now seems, is simply to put those to work in a variety of settings, and see what happens.
This July Richey moved from Nashville to Austin, a thriving nest for fledgling music of all sorts. She says her move had nothing to do with the Austin music scene; she just wanted to be nearer to several close, non-music friends who’ve wound up with jobs there over the past few years. But one can only imagine what impact the locals may have.
It was friends who had drawn her Nashville, too, in the first place. Her former bandmate Bill Lloyd and his duo partner at the time, Foster, lured her there in 1988 from the Seattle area, where she settled after a peripatetic life had led her through Columbia and Sweden, Boston and Colorado. The pair sent her a Steve Earle tape, the first she’d heard, and persuaded her that a career awaited her as a session singer and songwriter. At that point, though, she hadn’t performed for years.
“Radney and Bill came through Washington when they were touring [as Foster & Lloyd],” she recalls, “and I…sold T-shirts a couple nights for them. That was really fun. Just hangin’ out. They were saying I should come to Nashville and get back into music.” Richey and Lloyd had played together in a band in college in Bowling Green, Kentucky. “Everybody in the band wrote, and we would do all original stuff, which pretty much assured us of never getting any gigs,” she says. “The first song I ever wrote was just like a minute long. One guy called it an FTD song. He said it would make a perfect one-minute flower commercial. I didn’t want to take up a lot of space — just kind of testing the waters, I guess. Everybody else wrote, and I just thought, well, maybe I’ll try writing, too, so I’d have some stuff to sing.”
Then Richey figured out that learning to write songs was a bit like learning to ride a bike. “If you’ve never written songs before, you just have no idea how to go about it, really. I didn’t. It just seems like some magical thing. When I was a little kid and started riding a bicycle and everything, until I knew about bicycles and could work on them, it just seemed like magic if I squeezed this handle on the handlebars, my bike would stop. Until I knew these are the brake cables, they’re hooked up to this — you know, it just demystified it a little bit.
“Once you’ve written, it’s a lot less mysterious. It maybe just doesn’t seem so unapproachable. Find a place to start and go about it. Usually, a little bit of music is the beginning point for me, messing around on the guitar or something, or when I’m writing with someone else the music kind of gets going first, and makes me think of something.
“The first time I ever wrote with somebody, I wrote with Bill [Lloyd],” she continues. “That was a really different kind of thing, writing songs with someone. That’s a whole ‘nother ballgame. I do like to do it now, but first starting out doing it, it was pretty odd. I think a lot of people who haven’t written with people before feel that way.”
Richey left the band, Bowling Green and Western Kentucky to finish her education at Ohio University, eventually pursuing an environmental education career and giving up music entirely. “I was doing other things,” she says. “I was living out in Colorado mostly during that time and the group of people I hung out with, we cycled all the time and went cross-country skiing, and that was kind of more what I was doing. We listened to music and stuff, but I wasn’t hanging out with musicians.
It wasn’t for lack of trying, though, at least once. “There was this band…I would go see, and I got up the courage to say, ‘Do you guys think maybe I could — I play music and sing and I was just wondering if I could get together and sing with you guys sometime or something,’ and they just totally shot me down, so that was it for me.” You can still hear the hurt in her voice.
In Nashville, by contrast, there were at least two musicians eager to have her sit in. When Richey finally heeded the call of Lloyd and Foster, she found loads of musicians delighted to have her get together with them and sing. Lloyd turned out to be merely the first co-writer of a string of them stretching as far as Richey’s horizon.
After adding backup vocals to Lloyd’s 1990 disc Feeling The Elephant, Richey began working steadily as a songwriter and session singer in Nashville, credited on dozens of tracks recorded by artists ranging from Martina McBride to Inger Nordstrom & Her Rhinestone Band. She also seemed to find an endless source of inspiration in working with other songwriters, including Angelo, Bottrell, Lloyd, Foster, Larry Gottlieb, Tom Littlefield, Jolene’s John Crooke, Maia Sharp, Tim Krekel, Chuck Prophet and Pete Droge.