When I arrive at Kenna’s home/studio, dogs meet me at the door, and I am swiftly offered a cup of coffee. For artists, scheduling is key, I’m a little late for our appointment, so we are fitting a chat in before the imminent arrival of a piano student. Kenna shares the space with her partner who is also musician. The majority of the living room is occupied by keyboards of one kind or another, the kitchen table is occupied by computers and notebooks and functions Kenna’s de-facto office. Steve gets the office and also practices in there she informs me, describing how this actually encourage them to practice at the same time, each in their own space. She also mentions being grateful they are such different musicians, so they don’t feel they have to compete for who’s got the craziest licks (problems of the ridiculously talented…).
We settle around the upright piano, as if we are about to launch into a collection of parlour songs. Kenna describes being relieved that her ambitions to be a concert pianist failed, and it’s obvious that her talents have been put to good use from the numerous bands she has been a part of :Woodpigeon, The Brenda Vaqueros, Beaver Squadron, and the Pygmies, her early education is music has served her well. She has worked with the folk festival, produced her own festivals and and curated musicians for a variety of different events and organizations, If you have been lucky enough work with her, you will know what an awesome resource she is. We chat about how to make it as an artist and agree that maybe simply not “paying to play” is making it these days in some respect, we also chat how to navigate the complicated relationships required to be in a band, both as a collaborative member and now in her newer role as a front-woman. Then we commiserate about the fever-pitch of chaos and stress that precedes the delivery of any worthwhile creative endeavour: Kenna releases her first self titled solo album tonight for a sold out show at the Ironwood stage and grill, it is an important moment for her creatively, the culmination of some very well calculated risks.
You can get the album HERE
Jennifer: Tell me about your decision to quit the day job and dive headlong into life as a full time musician?
Kenna: It was one of the most important decisions I’ve ever made regarding my life as a musician. There was certainly a time where I thought I could hold down a day job and still have the time, energy and where-with-all to focus on my music. So for a number of years, just by virtue of how things work out paying the bills, I spent little time working on music. Sure I’d find time to rehearse and practice here and there, but my head was filled with work; other things that somehow seemed more pressing. Once I realized I didn’t want to be at my job anymore and ultimately assist and help other musicians careers (working for the Calgary Folk Fest), I decided to leave and focus on “being a musician”. Things changed for me quite drastically internally. At any given moment, instead of worrying about work, I was thinking about the next line I needed in a verse, the instrumentation for a chorus, or how I many words I could rhyme with “you”. And the funny thing is, once I made the decision to find work that would take the least amount of time out of my day, I was able to not be a part of the struggling/starving artist experience. I’d like to think that my creative process was just like sitting beside a river and dipping my cup into the river and pulling forth the music from there, but…
J: It’s been a busy year for you, the Pygmies just released a record, and now you are releasing a solo album.
K: Yes it has. I found the trick to be prioritizing each project. Anyone can play in three bands as long as they’re not all releasing albums and touring at the same time. Happily I was able to stagger things, which meant that late summer and fall I was focusing on The Pygmies and that upcoming release and then once 2014 hit, bow out of Pygmies rehearsals and focus on fine tuning my solo stuff. I do wish that I could get by on 4 hrs sleep. I’ve heard of those people….isn’t Hilary Clinton one of them or something? Anyway, I do find that often the only time I’m not moving fast is when I’m sleeping, which means that the frenetic pace sometimes catches up with me. Now that I’m into my 30’s I’ve come to terms with the fact I can rarely say no, or not fill each minute of my day. This realization means though that now I have a plan to combat the insanity; healthy eating, yoga, running with my dogs, 6-7 hrs of sleep. Then of course there’s playing in loud rock bands and drinking lots of beer that helps.
J: While bands are collaborative and the creative duties are somewhat dispersed between members, in a solo project, you have to personally take full responsibility for the work in its entirety, even if you are working with other musicians.
K: Fuck yeah. You’ve really nailed it. And yes, I’ve also really noticed that. In a band, it’s like the responsibility is diluted across the members. Sure, you may have specific roles; songwriter, arranger, booker of shows, etc, but you’re sharing everything. Going solo means that you can never expect your band to have the same personal investment in the project as you do. That’s not to say of course that I don’t have amazing, and dedicated band members. I do and they’re amazing, but as the band leader, I’m the one that shoulders the responsibilities. I mean, hell they are my songs, so I wouldn’t expect it to be any other way. But I have noticed my stress levels are a little more elevated than with The Pygmies release…..
J: How long has this current solo project been in the making, and what made now the right time to put it forward?
I’d say that the songs first started coming around the end of 2011 and then into 2012. The timing was pretty natural and again has a lot to do with what I was able to focus on. Woodpigeon had ceased the constant touring and I felt suddenly that I had time to fuck around with some stuff of my own. There’s a whole batch of songs that I wrote when I first started that will NEVER EVER see the light of the stage. It was almost a painful process at the beginning. Even though I had been in bands for years and had been a student of my instruments since I was seven, I had no idea what I was going really, what I wanted things to sound like and where I was going. I had the good fortune of living with (and still do) a fellow keyboard player, who was and still is brutally honest with me. The best words of wisdom I’ve received so far in life are “don’t try to sound like someone else because it sounds dumb” and “when all else fails, play with your face.” Funny enough, it’s advice I received from two separate people named Steve and I’ve taken both to heart.
J: What items in your studio are absolutely essential to the work you do here? (and why)
K: 1. 12-stave manuscript paper is an absolute must. For two reasons, first, I still notate much of what I write out. It’s a strange feeling actually because it’s calming to me to write the little note heads on the staff but it’s how I learned to compose music from my old days as a classical pianist. It’s how I read and see music, so I still do it. Secondly, my band are made up of a bunch of jazz musicians (mostly, Colin the guitar player is all rock, and Foon the violinist is a classical nerd like me), which means that their brains work in chart form. So once the song is done, it usually lives in three forms; notated manuscript for myself, charted (also on 12-stave manuscript) and then also in lyric + chord form. I figure the more ways I can present my music to the band, the better chance I’ll have of being able to communicate what I want.
2. The Voice memo app on my phone is a constant saviour. It depends on the situation but most song ideas come to me when I’m doing things other than sitting at the piano; mundane or at least soothing tasks a lot of times; driving, running, walking the dogs, eavesdropping on conversations, concerts and shows and having shit for memory, I can record it into the voice app and when I get home, continue with the idea in front of the piano. I ridiculously think of it as my little black book that I’ve read so many composers and artists used to jot down ideas. I also will use the app when I’m sitting at the piano and I’ve got the song fully formed, but want to make sure I capture it so that when I sit down at the piano tomorrow, I don’t have to think about how I sang a certain line. Again, it’s my terribly memory that usually makes these things essential.