“Memories and Birds”: Kenny Roby talks about the Return of Kenny Roby
Kenny Roby’s Six String Drag released two excellent albums including High Hat on Steve Earle’s E-Squared label. Ryan Adams namechecked Roby in Rolling Stone as “the best songwriter that not enough people have heard yet”. But Six String Drag broke up in spite of the critical acclaim and then Kenny released several solo albums following the split before taking a break from recording for the last seven years. That long gap is thankfully broken with the release of Memories and Birds (release date: 4/3/13 on Little Criminal Records). With Six String Drag and on his solo albums Roby rocked and twanged although there were suggestions that Kenny had something different, something more, to offer. That promise is fulfilled on his latest and most fully developed record to date which is currently streaming here on the ND site so you can check it out.
Memories and Birds is not the stripped down alt-country effort some fans might have expected. Utilizing viola, clarinet, cello, saxophones, flute, clavinet and background vocals to supplement the bass, guitar and drums Kenny and Jason Merritt have produced an album that rivals the stark narrative of Springsteen’s Nebraska while the instruments, rich production and Roby’s voice recall and rival the best work of Randy Newman, Leonard Cohen and Elvis Costello.
“Tired of Being in Love” illustrates the toll war takes on a family told from the viewpoint of a wife as she deals with her emotionally remote husband and his PTSD.
“The Craziest Kid In Town” is a kid, maybe not so crazy (yet), trying to sort out some of the hateful nonsense he overhears adults spewing.
But things don’t work out so well as the character (the craziest kid?) in “Colorado” states “I’ve got a flair for fucking up a plan”.
HB– On my first quick listen to “Memories and Birds” I thought Kenny’s mellowed. With a more focused listen, the themes of loss of love, passing of time and regret remind me of some tracks from your previous solo discs so maybe not mellowed but matured. Kenny’s (almost) a crooner?
KR-Honestly, I feel these characters are heavier than any characters I have written. I think your “matured but not mellowed” assessment is pretty accurate. I don’t think this record is really mellow intellectually. I think it’s my most intense work, but it doesn’t scream at you “I’m intense!” The folks in these songs live in a somewhat dark town so to speak. In a different time than now. There is a certain acceptance and vulnerability in their voices. Like “This doesn’t just hurt, but this could kill me eventually.” I think on my other records there was a little more hope in the characters, but a little less acceptance. These characters are a little more melancholic. I heard the characters and their stories on my earlier records. On this record I feel them a little more. I think that shows me I have become a better writer and a better arranger also, because on this record I arranged more toward the story. Much more like you would in scoring or selecting music for film than you would arranging typical rock music.
As far as the crooner thing, I think part of the reason for that is that the keys are generally lower than most of my older material, so that kind of lends itself to singing smoother and having more room to move around within them. The men in my family have deep speaking voices and my dad and brother were both pretty natural bass and baritone singers. I think singing lower comes pretty natural to me. It just took me 25 years of writing and singing to figure that out. I guess I’m pretty stubborn, huh?
HB-The rich lush layered production with strings and woodwinds is a step away from Six String Drag and your previous solo albums (not that those discs didn’t use some of the elements). I’m not sure how you felt about the alt country label. Any ideas what genre (feel free to make one up) to file this disc under?
KR-What I liked least about the alt-country label was that it implied that the music was, well, a different kind of “country music”. But 6 String Drag wasn’t. It was a melting pot of sounds and even pretty manic at times. I think Americana or Modern Roots Music might have fit our band a little better. At least in the second half of our existence. I am not really sure what you would call Memories & Birds. I think some of these songs could even be cut by crooners like a Tony Bennett in so much as some of the music and melodies. Maybe not as much with the lyrics. And some of the songs could be covered by bands such as The National or Magnetic Fields. Which happen to be two of my favorite “contemporary” acts. At least in my little daydream. It’s weird. I think this record is completely modern but is in a completely classic vein at the same time. It is not typical singer/songwriter music to me though. I would rather it be more in line with the first Randy Newman record or even a Brill Building artist or an old movie music writer and singer than a guy singing about his feelings. I would rather write about somewhat else’s feelings. Mine have grown pretty boring.
HB-“Memories and Birds” is a late night/rainy day disc. No matter how much I turn up the stereo it is not a “loud disc” if that makes any sense.
KR-Yeah, I think I get where you are coming from. I always think of it as a very early morning record. Like when you first wake up, maybe way earlier than you should, but don’t go back to sleep. Just before the coffee kicks in and things are a little hazy still.
HB-Cell phones. A necessary evil? I saw you live at the Broad St. Cafe in Durham several years ago and you made a comment (I paraphrase) about “kids being born with a cell phone attached to their penis”. On “Bein’ Alone” from 2006’s The Mercy Filter you sing “Cell phone’s selfish, it interrupts my thoughts”.
KR-I hate my cell phone. I mean I love it and I hate it. “Like junkies who hate their heroin!” We all might just freak out and kill each other without our smart phones now. Pacifiers.
HB-Except for the Sixties soul sound complete with girl group backing vocals on “Tired of Being in Love” you’ve recorded a disc with a timeless quality.
KR-Well thanks. I hoped that was the case. As I said above I think many different kinds of artists could cut songs off of this record. I wanted to arrange the record for the song, for the character, and in a way that sounded completely appropriate for them in their time period or scene. But if you imagined them in a different time period than what I had in mind it would still work. I think it helped me that in classic movies from the 30s to 60s we have come to accept certain things in the music. Like orchestral arrangements in westerns or broadway tunes. So when, you use those elements in a song such as the title track “Memories & Birds” or “Colorado” you can picture that character in a scene in West Side Story or a John Ford film or spaghetti western.
HB-There’s a literary quality to your work. Could you mention some songwriters or authors that have inspired you?
KR-I’m inspired by songwriters like Randy Newman, Leonard Cohen, Townes Van Zandt etc. And of course the classic pop writers from Motown, southern soul, classic pop, country and early rock n roll etc. I also have always liked and taken from aspects of more contemporary pop and rock ‘n’ roll songwriting too. I am not a fan of songwriting that sounds too literary usually if it isn’t a great song without knowing its background. A song about a story in the bible or mythology or “what if this character in this piece of literature had not killed this other character?” that does not move me at first on some base level emotionally is hard for me to hold on to. There are very very few writers who can pull off both and not come off like they are flexing their muscles. With that said, some writers can write songs that give the feel of literature. Great storytellers who take you somewhere else. Townes was very good at this. It very rarely comes off as him trying to impress the listener.
When I do have the time and energy to read I tend to read authors like Cormac McCarthy, Steinbeck, Harry Crews, etc. I like some Chuck Palahniuk too. I guess I like dark and kind of twisted novels. I read modern crime novels sometimes too. I have gone on historical novel kicks in the past. On the lighter side I love Carl Hiaasen. But the last few years I have been so busy with making music, working and being married with two kids that I haven’t been reading as many books. When I go on the road I will borrow audio books from the library to listen to while driving.
HB-You’ve been doing this for a few years Kenny: solo and with Six String Drag. Are there any really weird gig stories you could share?
KR-Oh there are plenty of weird gig stories. Maybe not REALLY weird. Many of them happen when on stage opening for other artists. 6 String Drag opened for Robert Earl Keen in the late 90s and the audience was yelling out Robert Earl Keen requests to us. Really? Maybe his diehard fans are really from another planet. The sky in their world is the color of Shiner Bock labels I think. The V-Roys and 6 String Drag used to play shows together when we were label mates but I don’t remember most of those stories. We also did some shows at First Avenue in Minneapolis with Son Volt. Michael Hurley and 6 String Drag flip flopped those nights for opening and middle slot. Seeing Michael Hurley play mouth trumpet solos to over 1500 people in front of the Son Volt crowd in the place where Prince filmed Purple Rain was pretty surreal. I also just played a short run of shows with Citizen Cope. In Charlotte, NC there was some guy in the crowd who kept yelling “Seth Rogan” between songs at me. I guess when you’re drunk all of us bearded slightly overweight guys look the same. I’m a better dresser though. Maybe even funnier. Hard to say. Oh yeah, there was also that time in East Tennessee at the hotel that had the magic fingers vibrating bed. I put my quarter in just to see ya know? It was loud as hell and wouldn’t cut off. I think the hotel was so cheap we each had our own room that night and one of my bandmates came over from next door it was so loud…. and we were cracking up and couldn’t turn it off. He said “call the front office!” I called the front office and asked what the hell I was supposed to do. They said “unplug it.” More laughter. Rock ‘n’ roll isn’t always very smart. And it has been known to drink a little. Oh and I dressed up like Madonna in my old punk rock band when we opened for Suicidal Tendencies in 1987. But I try to block that out. We opened for Jane’s Addiction once too…that was pretty weird in and of itself. I can’t really tell that whole story. We also opened up for Danzig a few times and there are some good stories there. I’m gonna stop now before I get myself in trouble. I just remembered a bunch more.
HB-It’s been seven years since your last disc. It’s great to have you back.. Any plans to tour in 2013?
KR-Thanks! Yes, I plan on touring as much as possible for most of 2013. Just keep an eye on the website for dates and details. I will tour with the band and also solo.
Kenny’s new album (as well as both Six String Drag discs and his previous solo releases) can be ordered/downloaded at kennyroby.bandcamp.com/music.