Drew Kennedy talks with C&I about his upcoming album, At Home in the Big Lonesome, out November 3.
Finding a happy medium between being self-centered and selfless, Drew Kennedy drew from his experience as an artist and as an expectant father to create his highly anticipated eighth album, At Home in the Big Lonesome.
An artistic masterpiece for the Texas-based singer-songwriter, the album explores musical territory Kennedy has not ventured to record and release before now. With a dizzying array of pop piano, symphonic strings, and dramatic percussion, the sound is closer to Kennedy’s personal taste than it is to anything else he’s created before.
Recently, C&I talked with Kennedy about the new album, his songwriting process, and what happened to recording when he got the call his wife was in labor.
Cowboys & Indians: What do you hope your fans will get from your new album, At Home in the Big Lonesome?
Drew Kennedy: I hope they’ll find something to connect with on a personal level, and I hope they love how it sounds — I know I do. I’ve been working on crafting these little vignettes based on things that I see or hear that set my creative gears in motion while I’ve been out on the road — kind of taking that initial spark of inspiration and allowing my imagination to draw it out into a fully formed story.
In addition to those songs, I’ve also gone a little more personal than I have in the past. I wrote a song that touches on a few tiny hopes that I have for my children with my friend Lisa Carver (“Miles to Go”), and I also explore the perspective that age allows you to gain on some of the important moments of youth, specifically when it comes to relationships.
Overall, everything I do is centered around my passion for writing songs. It’s a great labor of love for me, and I hope anyone that listens to this album feels that love in every word and in every note we recorded.
C&I: How do you think this new album stands out from your last albums, specifically your most recent one, Sad Songs Happily Played?
Kennedy: Well, Sad Songs Happily Played is a live album — just me and a guitar — and it covers a decent number of songs from my last few records. So these are two inherently different records from the outset. Sonic presentation aside, I think the writing on this record stands on its own as the best collection of songs I’ve knitted together to date. I’m always working to refine my written voice within the confines of a song. I think that with both the direct and indirect help of my co-writers and writers that I look up to ... if you looked at a Venn diagram of those two groups, I’m really lucky that their circles have started to intersect and that I’ve been able to write with some of the people who have influenced me for a very long time. I've really started hitting my stride in the last few years, I think. I just love everything about the endeavor of writing songs.
C&I: Where did you gain inspiration for this album?
Kennedy: Everywhere, and I mean that quite literally. From tiny snippets of conversations I’ve overheard during my travels, to a co-writer saving a piece of music specifically for me (as Davis Naish did with his piano part on the very first album track, “When I’ll Miss You Most”), to things that stand out visually to me as I’m taking in my surroundings. Sometimes songs walk themselves right by you — a guy wearing two watches on his wrist — and you think, OK, OK, assignment accepted, and you get to work finding a story behind what you just saw.
I have no way of knowing, but surely hundreds of millions of songs have been written to this point in history, and thankfully for people like me songs seem to be a renewable resource. There are hundreds of millions more just out there waiting to be caught, and I get to be one of the people trying to catch them. The brilliant Lori McKenna sometimes calls herself a “song chaser,” and that’s a perfect description of what writing songs feels like. Before you get started, you have to chase down a spark and figure out why it caught your eye.
C&I: How do you go about songwriting? Do you start with the melody or the lyrics first?
Kennedy: They usually both show up around the same time. I’ll grab onto an idea or a thought, and I guess I sort of naturally find a musical feeling that lends itself in a complementary way to it. Later on, as the song develops, you usually make a few specific musical choices — like, Oh, the chorus should lift a little more here, or, I wonder what it would sound like if I went to the minor right here. All of that informs the final result, but for the most part, when I begin messing around with an idea to see what’s there, it’s all a simultaneous thing.
To tell you the truth, the whole thing is a bit of a mystery to me, and I’m not really too keen on trying to dissect how it happens. I’m just happy that it keeps happening, and that’s good enough for me.
C&I: How did you develop your sound?
Kennedy: A lot of time on the road. Learning what works in a live situation has been huge for me, but also learning what I enjoy the most during a live performance. I love telling stories between songs — making people laugh right before I play a sad song or sharing a bit of that initial piece of inspiration before I show them where it took me. People throw around descriptors like troubadour and storyteller a lot when they try to describe what it is that I do for others, so I guess that’s what I am. Learning all of that on the road really has helped me home in on my sound. Because if it isn’t going to work on the road, I’m probably not going to try to make it work in the studio.
C&I: Your wife, Holly, went into labor during the making of At Home in the Big Lonesome. How do you feel that experience affected the rest of your album when you went back to recording?
Kennedy: I got the news after our very first take on the first song on the first day of recording. It was happening early, and we weren’t expecting to become parents for a second time that soon. I made it home from Nashville to Texas before he arrived, thanks to the help of a lot of friends and a few on-time flights.
We had the entire project lined out to be recorded in a week. After the birth and a lengthy stay in the NICU, my producer, Dave Brainard; my manager, Scott Gunter; and I all put our heads together on how we should proceed. What we ended up doing was recording it in a few different segments and living with, and subsequently adjusting what we had on tape and where we’d be going with it.
Dave is a brilliant guy, so I have no doubt that I would’ve had a great record on my hands if things had gone as planned, but in hindsight what we ended up with feels very thoughtful to me. When I listen back, it almost feels like it plays like a conversation you might have with someone over a long period of time, rather than over dinner or a few drinks. And that’s my favorite thing about it — that it feels like something bigger than a brief moment in time. It feels like something that took us years to build, almost like you would with a really strong relationship. I got the best of both worlds: a record and a kid that will both last a whole lot longer than I will.
C&I: Do you have a favorite song or a song you are most proud of on the album?
Kennedy: I look at the songs on the record like I would a chapter in a book. Without one, the rest of it would feel incomplete. I’m just incredibly proud of the whole thing. Maybe you can ask me that question a year from now, and if one particular song has taken off I’ll be able to point to it as a definitive favorite. Just don’t tell the other songs.
C&I: Are there any tracks that didn’t make the album that we can expect sometime soon?
Kennedy: We picked this batch out of a pool of maybe 30 of the strongest songs I had written over the last two or three years. I still play a lot of the songs that didn’t make it at my shows. The goal in making an album is to find a handful of songs that fit together in a unique and interesting way, and I think we accomplished that goal with this one. The songs that didn’t make it are first in line for the next one, so it might not be soon, but I definitely think you’ll be hearing them at some point down the road.
C&I: What can we expect in terms of touring? Any places you’re excited to play?
Kennedy: I think it’s safe to say that I’ll keep touring a lot. I’ve always been a road dog. I’m most excited to see if this record opens any new doors for me. I just got off of the road doing some support dates for Sean McConnell, who is just incredible (and with whom I wrote “24 Hours in New York City”), and I would really love it if I could do more of that kind of thing — play with some really exciting and talented artists in markets that I’ve only scratched the surface of. If this record does that for my touring, I’ll definitely consider it a big win.
C&I: Lastly, what are some of your favorite Texas hot spots?
Kennedy: Anderson Fair in Houston is one of my favorite spots to play; the list of incredible songwriters that have sprung from its stage is so inspiring to me. Lubbock has one of the greatest music communities going around today, and it traces its lineage all the way back to Buddy Holly and The Crickets. I feel a little bit of that coursing through my veins every time I step on stage at The Blue Light. The House of FiFi DuBois in San Angelo feels like someone plucked it straight out of my imagination — I love it there. Send me out to Far West Texas and I’m a happy man. The Gage Hotel in Marathon, Big Bend, Alpine, Marfa — for my money (and, more important, for my soul), you really can’t go wrong in that part of the world. And I haven’t played it in years, but Arkey Blue’s Silver Dollar in Bandera is the greatest honky-tonk in the world and has the best jukebox on earth. I love stopping in there for a cold beer whenever I’m cruising through town. You’ve got to check it out.
Fans won't have to wait long to hear some tunes. With an iTunes pre-order of the album At Home in the Big Lonesome, listeners will get the songs "House", "24 Hours in New York City", and "Open Road" instantly.
Watch the video below for a look at Kennedy's music video for "Stars in California" from his Fresh Water in the Salton Sea album.
For more information on Drew Kennedy and his upcoming tour dates, visit his website.