On his new, long-in-the-making solo album the versatile North Carolina songwriter gets personal.
BY JOHN SCHACHT
Most musicians, when they release a record, will follow it with some promotion and a tour — these days the latter is just about the only way to make recording costs back. But when Kenny Roby — who first got our attention with 6 String Drag’s alt-country gem High Hat in 1997 — released his third solo record, 2006’s The Mercy Filter, he chose a different path.
“Of course, the perfect Kenny Roby business move, I make a record and right when it comes out stop playing music and go get a real job,” the gregarious 41-year-old North Carolinian says. “No big career decision there.”
But judging by what Roby had percolating in the interim between The Mercy Filter and his stunning new record, Memories & Birds (issued by Brooklyn’s Little Criminal Records), putting the business of touring and promotion on hold was the right choice. Not that there’s anything wrong with what came before, but the eight thematically related tracks on Memories & Birds represent a serious songwriting and arranging growth spurt, one that may even move Roby into the upper echelon of American songwriters.
Roby has always been a versatile songwriter. After High Hat pigeon-holed him with the rest of the country-rock songwriters of the 90s, Roby’s solo records — The Mercy Filter, 2000’s Mercury Blues and 2002’s Rather Not Know —were united by his ease with lyrics, an often dark sense of humor, and an ability to channel everybody from the Beatles and Elvis Costello to Doug Sahm and the old country masters into his own unique vision.
“The records are crazy from one to the next, or even within the record – ‘God, he’s all over the place’,” Roby says, laughing at some of the critical backhanded compliments he’s received. “But a lot of the stuff I like is like that. I’ve always been, apparently, a little bit manic, a little bit spazzy.”
Maybe, but on Memories & Birds what emerges most is an individual vision that happens to embrace some familiar Roby influences — here, though, they seem to form a natural bridge to sonic layers we’ve not heard before.
“It went from simple chords, punk rock, and straight rock & roll mixed with these country influences, to pushing it,” Roby says, providing a quick career arc from his early days as frontman for Carolina punk act The Lubricators to the present. “Before you know it, it’s King Oliver, Snooks Eaglin. There’s that transition — I’ve always liked that stuff, now I’m going to get more luscious and start doing some of those arrangements on the slicker side, or the more metropolitan side of the country equation.”
But Memories & Birds transcends simple countrypolitan influences. Roby makes judicious use of horns and strings to expand his sonic palette beyond anything he’s tried previously. From the sinister flute-and-clarinet-accented gun-for-hire tale “Colorado” and the beats-prominent self-laceration of “Me & the Monkey” to more trad fare like the Motown-flavored “Tired of Being In Love” and Randy Newman-like title track, the record reads like a career retrospective that uses the past as a springboard to fertile new territory.
Blurt sat down with Roby before a gig at Asheville’s Grey Eagle to check in with Roby and his new sounds and outlook. (Click on the link to view the haunting official video for the title track to Roby’s Memories & Birds: http://vimeo.com/60424619)
BLURT: Tell us about the genesis of this record – it’s been seven years since the last one, The Mercy Filter.
ROBY: I started to write a little bit more in ‘06 – of course, the perfect Kenny Roby business move, I make a record and right when it comes out stop playing music and go get a real job. No big career decision there. No, it just got to the point where I couldn’t afford it — mentally —anymore. It’s not that I’m crying about the music business, this isn’t about the business. It was just I needed the discipline. I’d kind of gotten my head straight, not really partying or drinking anymore — I don’t want to go into that too much, I’m light about it because I’m not going to sit there and talk about addiction in the press — I’ve got a family, you know? I’m not saying you can’t write it, but I just mean this isn’t going to be like my Steve Earle comeback, any of that kind of stuff. The war stories are not the story, to me. To me it’s more I just got away from that side of things — nightclubs, hanging out and staying up, that part of the music scene. And when I did, I realized I just didn’t enjoy being around it that much anymore. And now I have a 15 year old, he’s almost 16, and a 13-year-old. And this decision was almost nine years ago; I mean The Mercy Filter was more the quit-drinking and partying record, self-evaluation kind of thing. The ‘clean’ record or whatever you want to say.
What do you mean by discipline?
Back then I didn’t have a lot of discipline, things to do every day. I needed to support my family a little better, and I needed to be around them. It’s not like I thought about it all the time, I just felt that. So I got a job working in the mailroom at an insurance company. The mailroom story — you can do the Bukowksi thing! No. The sober version of Bukowksi: ‘Twisted aging man goes to join freaky people in mailroom.’ I was there for a little bit, and then moved up a couple steps. Learned some computer stuff on my own, got another job. I stayed there for like six years. And about a year before I left the job I went to massage therapy school. I had a little hip problem, and just decided I was fascinated by human anatomy. I’ve been a practicing therapist now for a year-and-a-half.
Were you writing that whole time?
Oddly enough, when I started doing all that all of a sudden I started writing again, pulling back old songs — and I think maybe the focus of working and school kind of got my head into writing focus. You know about writers, it’s a discipline; you’ve got to do it every day. If you’re a songwriter, you’ve got to do it Tom T. Hall style, or any novelist — even if it sucks, they work. It’s not like, ‘oh I thought of this great idea while I was working on something else.’ You just don’t walk around and shit just comes to you — when you’re in the creative process it does, but you’ve been thinking about it. You’re percolating, fermenting or whatever. When I left the job, I felt I had enough material — some old songs, some things I’d fixed up, some newer stuff — to give it another shot.
What was the moment you realized you had something special and different this time?
“Colorado” was the song that got the record going. I wrote that and I was like, ‘fucking holy shit, I’m a songwriter.’ I played it acoustic in front of like 50 people who would not shut the fuck up and I did the song and it was crickets – you could hear cars going by the place. It was like, ‘where the fuck did that come from?’ So I started getting more into, not even just what characters were saying, but it was more like their emotional aspects, feeling a little bit of what was going on with the characters.
When did these themes emerge?
I’d recorded songs before the record, like “Short Mile,” I’d done it, written it the year before. But I realized with “Colorado,” ‘there’s a thread, a little bit.’ On the record, it’s not a conscious effort, but in the sequence it is — songs that go together. I imagine that this guy would do that, or this song was a reaction to that thing. It’s laid out conceptually, or like a song-cycle, but it wasn’t like, ‘oh, now I have to write one of these songs.’ It was a little bit after the fact. But the characters have a current, just like in a book. Though I’ve never written a novel or short stories, I imagine the characters often walk into the story — and I think that’s what they did here. So, “I’m Tired of Being In Love,” that was older too, it was more of a rockin’ song that I’d done way back with my old band, but that one and others I said, ‘I want this to fit.’
Tell me about the title track – the one Citizen Cope was so blown away by… [Ed. note: In an interview with American Songwriter last year, Cope was quoted as saying, “I recently heard a song called “Memories and Birds” by a North Carolina songwriter named Kenny Roby that floored me.”]
“Memories & Birds” I wrote at a coffee shop where I’d written a lot of older songs back in the day — I’d go at 7 in the morning when I was half-awake and go have some coffee and sit in a corner and look at people and wait for shit to happen. Try to tap it loose. But I was actually driving to the coffee shop, and I was on an iPod that had a voice-recorder, and I started humming a little bit, then I had a line — and I left it alone. I was writing something else —you know you always write the best stuff when you’re supposed to be writing something else — as I’m driving, singing some melodies, blah-blah-blah. In the coffee shop, I start writing that song, and I need a line — and all of a sudden it was, “wrote a letter to my mother.” Okay. And then I literally wrote that song in half an hour. Front to back. Drove home with the melody for it, while I was writing the melody was kind of coming to me. Sat down, recorded on acoustic, piano, drums, vocals — and by noon that day I was done with the arrangement of the song. It wasn’t the real recording, it was the demo, but I’d recorded four instruments and played a little bit on the piano.
It reminded me of Boatman’s Call, like Nick Cave, the way I did it, because it was real simple, nothing complex, just acoustic strumming, a little synth bass on a computer, and I sat there playing a little soft drumbeat along with it. Just enough to make a demo. But I don’t think I changed anything — just one of those things, you know, ‘lightning? Grab that one!’
What were some of the inspirations for this one?
I really had the whole Border Trilogy in my head for “Colorado.” I think I read No Country for Old Men and I read The Road right after that — so it was that kind of under-current that you feel when you read Cormac McCarthy books. It’s not anything he would say in his books, it’s not like that kind of thing: it was, ‘this is dark and I’m not going to figure out what’s going on. Is this guy a decent guy, or is he a killer? Is he a hired killer? I imagine that he’s been a hired killer who wants to get away, doesn’t want to get caught. “Stay Down,” is what he’s telling the girl — I see them outside a bar, just people that got into trouble together, the co-dependent kind of thing. She’s like his young lover, like a classic movie scene where they work together, just in a really sketchy way — ‘Let’s get rid of this fucking body and get out of here and go to Colorado — and you’re probably getting dumped off somewhere on the way.’ That’s the vibe that I had. He’s reluctant about it, but it’s what he does now. Maybe he’s only done it once or twice or whatever, but he’s been on the dark side and he didn’t get there overnight. He’s not the cold-blooded killer, he’s got some redeeming qualities deep down, or used to. He’s maybe between Javier Bardem and some of the guys in The Crossing or All the Pretty Horses: somebody who grew up a little fucked-up and has just kept going.
How does it relate to the theme, then?
It was building, in my mind — like “The Craziest Kid” thing; nobody paid attention to him and he had this weird mountain upbringing, all these strange and dark people in his town. And probably from reading Chuck Palahniuk books, too. So it’s gonna be dark, twisted, and a little funny sometimes. I imagined they were from the same town — a lot of this is like a fucked-up Our Town.
When did you decide on the arrangement of “Colorado?” They’re so stark, and really put the emphasis on the story – was there anyone or anything you were channeling?
It’s got elements enough of the cliché Western thing, the Native American influence, without being too cliché. It’s got the flute in there, for one, and that evokes something in our subconscious that’s there, we’ve grown up with — but I had to have like a weird aspect of that. Instrumentally, you could throw that in one of the Cormac movies, or a Western, a weird version of a John Ford movie. And I love Randy Newman’s early arrangements — (Creates Something New Under the Sun), “Cowboy” —that him and his uncle did. And he was 21 when it came out. ‘Really, you’re 21?’ You look at Springsteen, he had a great sense of things, pretty mature for his age, and he had a rhyming dictionary — as he says himself for the first couple records before Landau created the myth with him. But comparing that, to me, to Randy Newman’s first record is not even close, as far as way beyond his years. You could have somebody 65 years old who had been writing all their life arranging those songs, and still not even touch that record. It still blows me away. Not even Brian Wilson had it that young — how do you have the complete package at 21, you know?
That arrangement is just one of many that sort of signal a whole new approach for you, yes?
The first thing we recorded, Scott McCall (Two Dollar Pistols, Tift Merritt) and I were thinking, like on “Our Fading Fighter,” of a dark acoustic record. He had twins a year ago, he was just busy, so he pulled away from the project, just didn’t have the time. So it went back into my lap, and I was like, what do I want to do with this stuff and what is it calling for? With “Colorado,” I realized I can do it because of modern technology, to some degree. I suppose I could have scored it on piano, but I don’t score, I don’t read or write music. But because of having learned modern midi stuff keyboards, I was able to play the parts out and come up with the melodies and tell them to other people later – some of it I did on midi, like the intro to “Colorado,” I grabbed the flute part, grabbed a whatever, and made up the melodies and harmonies that work together that I thought moved me. I didn’t totally know why it was working, but it was.
Then we got into the studio and did it with all the string players and woodwinds doing overdubs, Matt Douglas did some pretty cool things on the flutes and clarinets, those weird harmonies on the “fucking up a plan” part, the ascending things. But a lot that stuff was them just copying what I’d done on the computer. Or, I would say, right here, on this verse, I’m going to have you guys do this, and then this.’ It’s not what a real arranger may have done, but it works and there’s some tension in there. And that’s part of it — it needed to be cinematic, it needed to paint a picture, and it needed to have the right tension at the right times. It couldn’t be ‘we have strings because we can, or woodwinds because we have them.’ They had to paint it.
Ever find yourself changed by living with a song that intensely?
On this record, for sure. You’ve got to watch out on this record (laughs). “Memories & Birds,” I always pictured this kid’s like 14 or 15 — he’s not mature, he’s infatuated. He’s depressed and he doesn’t know why, because he’s 14 or 15, so who knows? I see it taking place in, like, an 1870 church — it could be whenever, but I always picture it there. You know, there’s a church, everybody meets at the country church. And he’s sitting there looking at her, but he’s too young, that’s why he says, ‘I thought of you there in church, but it wasn’t in that way.’ He’s young. Very, easily, he could be the kid in “The Craziest Kid,” who could’ve been nine, or 14, or he could be in “Colorado” when he’s 26, or 18 or 19.
Is this the guy who ends up as the Fading Fighter?
That one could be any of them. It could be the guy in “Tired of Being in Love.” “Short Mile” and that one kind of go together — “Tired” is the woman, the veteran’s wife, and “Short Mile” is the shell-shocked husband; ‘I can’t explain to you why I’m this way, why I’m this dark, why I can’t do anything for you or anybody else.’
What was the impetus for “Short Mile?”
It was probably personal, but it’s a little bit like an artist trying to explain to someone — it’s trying to use things that don’t make sense to explain how you are. “It’s the cough that won’t go away/chasing, chronic ache/itching skin for no reason/a fear that won’t break you.” It’s bad enough, it’s not going to kill you, but it’s like this undercurrent – “flutter in your ear/deeper than any fear/that you were not made to hear/and I can’t sing that low.” In other words, I can’t explain it. But that also works for the guy who’s come back from war — ‘I just can’t explain this stuff to you, I just can’t tell you what’s going on with me. I have no idea.’ If you don’t know, you don’t know.
Kind of ironic that as you felt better, your songs reflected these wonderfully damaged characters…
I think that might be why. Because I’m more disciplined, I don’t have to be a wreck —they can be wrecks, and I can write about the wrecks. Also just being one of those people – no matter how happy I am, there’s that undercurrent of a dark soul just rolling around. There’s always that thought — it’s not suicidal, nothing like that — but maybe everything’s not okay. And not because of things, just because of feelings about it. As a friend of mine said about another friend of ours, ‘he can find the dark cloud inside any silver lining.’ You can find the negative in anything, or that there is some darkness in everything.
“Tired of Being Alone” – that could’ve fit comfortably on previous Kenny Roby LPs, but then you’ve got this other stuff…
That could’ve been rocked-out, straight version, you know, Richard Thompson doing a rock song. At one point I had that vibe in my head — “I Feel So Good” — could’ve gone that route, or the Tom Petty route, just a straightforward rock pop song. But it’s kind of like that one idea pushes the next idea pushes the next idea, and a lot of that stuff started to have a real 50s vibe, 50s-60s pop, R&B. Then I was like, a lot of these characters could be from the 40s, 50s, 60s — a little noir. “Memories & Birds” can be anything, you can make up whatever, but what I pictured originally when I wrote it is different from whatever it was later. “Tired” was Korean War to me, not Vietnam. It was WWII or Korea — 40s or 50s, returning from war. It kind of had that vibe. The 50s thing after Korea, you didn’t talk about it. So what would the man be doing? He’d be in the other room, or with his buddies, not talking about it. He’d just be a shell. And the woman would be at the counter, listening to pop music, holding the baby, making dinner — ‘Why am I falling apart? Where’s mommy’s little helper?’ It wasn’t spoken about – this woman is this wreck, but the irony is the gloss of the bubble gum. That’s why it works. You never know if it’s going to come across, though —all artists think they’re too smart for their audience.
What struck me is how well this sticks together – it feels to me ‘of a piece.’
Doesn’t matter if I tell you there is or is not on this one. I didn’t have to tell you. It still feels like a song cycle.
Your voice seems to have really come into its own on this one, like these arrangements really fit your style…
It’s probably no coincidence, but I’ve always loved early rock & roll and rockabilly and those guys who sing at deeper keys, a little croonier. When I was at work I’d listen to, the only modern stuff I listened to was Stephen Merritt and Magnetic Fields. A little bit of that when I wasn’t writing that much but was listening some after The Mercy Filter. The National, too. At first I thought the record was going to be a little more modern like that, but it just didn’t want to. I was like, ‘fuck it, it’s got to go where it’s going to go.’ “The Craziest Kid Around,” we did this weird “Tomorrow Never Knows”-meets-Tinariwen kind of tribal beat with all this weird stuff, almost sitar-like parts. (Drummer) David Kim and Shawn Lynch (bass) came in and did these weird drum parts, and I was like, ‘this kid would not like this music.’ And that’s part of how the arrangements came about — now with the way the record’s going, it’s cool, but it just doesn’t match what the song is about.
You didn’t really promote The Mercy Filter, but what are your plans for this one?I played this record for my manager and he said, ‘You’ve got to do this right. We’ve got to find somebody to put this out, like a national and world-wide level.’ He’s loved my stuff for years, but he was like, ‘this is going to be different audience.’ Some of the same audiences, still NPR stuff but not going to be in that pocket necessarily. You could put “Memories & Birds” on a local jazz program – not that I’m a jazz guy, but it’s stylistically similar. When Citizen Cope heard it, he said, “I’ve never heard that song, but I’ve heard that song.” It was classic without sounding like anybody else. He said ‘it’s like I’ve heard it since I was a kid.’ To paraphrase what he told me. To me, I tried to make a classic record without being retro — that’s the vibe I wanted.