Saturday, 13 April 2013

Interview with The Kennedys

 In March 2012 I first experienced Pete and Maura Kennedy's wonderful music when they opened for Nanci Griffith during her UK tour. Since then I have been a huge fan of their beautiful lyrics and powerful melodies. 

 This year I am hoping to come and see them again on their own UK and Ireland tour. Meanwhile, I have had the huge honour of interviewing this folk-rock duo about their musical journey.

Photo: Shelagh Gibson

 1 Pete, Maura, thank you so much for letting me interview you. It is a great honour as I adore your music and have a great deal of respect for you both as musicians. 

 I want to begin - well, at the beginning. How did each of you first get into making music, and which artists inspired you when you were younger?

Maura: I'm from a big family, but I'm the only one who got into music. There was no record player in my house growing up, so the only music I heard when I was really young was on TV - reruns of the Monkeys and the Partridge family! I think that's why I like poppy melodies. When I was older, I gravitated towards school chorus and musicals. 

 Then in my junior year of high school, I discovered a used record store on the campus of Syracuse University. At least three times a week my friends and I would take a city bus from the northern suburbs down to Syracuse University and spend hours looking through the vinyl there. 

 The people who worked there would always play anything that looked interesting to us. That's where I first heard everything from Badfinger to The Clash to Fairport Convention to Joan Jett. I just loved so many kinds of music, and I found a musical treasure trove in that store. 

Pete:  I was inspired by The Beatles, who seemed to be creating a new kind of lifestyle, based on music and camaraderie, and also by Bob Dylan, who seemed to be speaking with courage for my generation. Those artists gave me a feeling that by playing music, I was joining a global artistic community that offered inspiration and support.

2 Would you mind telling me how the two of you met; did you know at once that you would make a good partnership?

Pete: Maura and I met at the Continental Club in Austin Texas, while I was in town playing a solo gig between Nanci Griffith tours. We wrote a song right away, and realized at once that we had a certain perfect chemistry both musically and personally. 

 I left town shortly afterwards to play a festival in the Rocky mountains, and after that we each drove five hundred miles to meet up at Buddy Holly's grave site in Lubbock, a remote town in Texas. A few months later, Maura joined  Nanci's band, and we have been together ever since!

3 You have had the chance to work with some of the most respected folk/country/rock and roll artists of the 90s/00s; this video especially for me is a summing up of why I love country music! 

 How did it feel to be working with such incredible musicians, and do you feel they have influenced you musically?

Pete: Working with Nanci has given me the chance to play with and observe John Prine, Guy Clark, Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, Townes Van Zandt, Lyle Lovett and many other great artists. 

 I have been able to see how each one prepared and put together a performance, so I have had a broad and deep overview of the singer-songwriter genre.

Maura: That was one of my very first shows with Nanci Griffith. What an introduction! I kept thinking there was some mistake that they let me on that stage to sing with all those musical giants. 

 At one point, I was sharing a microphone with my one of my musical idols, Emmylou Harris. I was in awe of her, and I remember feeling unworthy at the time. I stood further back from the mic than her so that my voice wouldn't cover hers up, and I'll never forget, at one point, her hand on my back, nudging me closer to the mic! 

 I just kept my ears and eyes opened those two nights, and tried to memorize every moment as it was happening. It was 20 years ago now, but I do remember every detail. And thank goodness that video exists!

 4 Following on from the above; I noticed that you both featured in Nanci Griffith’s Other Voices Other Rooms concert film; in which she and contemporary artists interpreted songs by artists who had inspired her. 

 I imagine taking part in that show must have been an amazing experience? Would you consider organising such an event one day about artists who have inspired you?

Maura: Sure we'd consider it, but I don't know if such a thing could come together as well as it did for Nanci. There was definitely an aligning of planets that happened with that project. 

 Sharing the stage with Nanci, Townes Van Zandt, Odetta, Emmylou Harris, Guy Clark, Alison Krauss, Iris DeMent, Jimmy Dale Gilmore and on and on... I'm still amazed to think of it now. 

5 On the theme of collaborations; who is the person you are happiest to have had the pleasure of working with? And who is your dream collaborator? 

Maura: I have a photo of me singing with Patti Smith, Joan Osborne and Cyndi Lauper from an annual John Lennon tribute concert that we participated in a few years ago.

Photo: Theo Wargo

 It's apparent by the look on my face just how amazing that moment was for me. It was a once-in-a-lifetime event that I'll never ever forget. 

 But I'm also extremely grateful and amazed that I've spent so many good years collaborating with one of my earliest heroes, Nanci Griffith. 

 Whenever she asks me to co-write a song with her or take us along on a tour, both as her opening act and as band members, I always think of my 19-year-old self, and wonder how I would have responded back then if someone had told me this would be such a big part of my future. It's been a dream come true for me. 

 But I'm happiest still to have had the good fortune to have spent the past 20 years (!) making music and touring with my husband, Pete. 

 I always think, "how long can this last?" and every year that we find we still have people who are interested in our music enough to keep us working as full-time-musicians, is a great big gift of a year -- a gift I never expected from the universe, and am always grateful for.

Pete: Of course Maura is my favorite person with whom to collaborate, but I have also learned a tremendous amount about pure artistry from working with Nanci, as well. 

 My dream collaboration would be to play with The Band, back when they were known as The Hawks, and played rock and roll in small clubs on Canada, but I don't think that will ever happen now!

6 You both write some beautiful, beautiful songs - which we will get on to in a minute - but you have also been known to cover such artists as Dave Carter, The Byrds and Bob Dylan. 

 When you cover a song, do you think it is important to conserve the feeling and intention of the original, or do you feel free to perhaps come up with a new interpretation of your own?

Pete: We only cover songs that express our own feelings, when we are fortunate enough to find one, so we don't feel compelled to copy the original. We turn it into a Kennedys song for our version.

Maura: At the same time, we don't feel like we have to drastically change the original either. If the lyrics and the melody speak to us enough to want to cover, we'll play and sing the song "in our style", which is usually more of a feeling or mood.

7 Now for your own songs - you have written some amazing material. My personal favourites include “Life is Large,” “River of Fallen Stars,” and “A Bend in the River.” 

 I wanted to ask how the song writing process works for each of you: say you want to write a song; do you sit down and write, or do you wait for inspiration to come to you? 

 How often, on average, so you write a new song, and how does your partnership work when song writing?

Pete: Maura writes from inspiration when she feels strongly about something that she can express in poetic terms. I tend to write to fill out a mental template for an album, our live show, or maybe a certain style of music that would add variety to our repertoire.

Maura: Pete is very disciplined. If he thinks we need a new song, or a new kind of song in our repertoire, he'll just be able to sit down and write one. For me, I have to NEED to write a song, emotionally, intellectually. Usually, the song screams to be written by the time I actually sit down and do it.

8 Are the people in “Life is Large” (“I knew a man...”) based on real people you have known? Could you tell me what inspired you to write Life is Large; a song I find really beautiful?

Maura: One of Pete's oldest friends used to play and sing with us. One day he told us a story about being on tour when he was younger. He was with a whole band, and somewhere in the middle of the U.S. he met a woman and fell in love with her, and so he left the tour then and there and stayed with the woman. 

 I remember asking him, "Weren't you worried about leaving the band in the middle of a tour?" He just laughed and said, "Life is large!" 

9 You have both produced solo material over the years; does your style of music/songwriting vary between your solo material and that recorded as The Kennedys?

Pete: I have a degree in History, so I study musical styles and gravitate towards roots music, with bits of Jazz and Classical. 

 Maura is interested in contemporary indie rock and pop, but also has broad knowledge of roots music, so we meet in the middle with a synthesis of past styles and forward looking pop music.

10 You have a new album out, Closer Than You Know. I personally love it, especially the tracks “Winter,” “Sigh” and “Big Star Song.” Could you tell me what inspired this album?

Pete: Our new CD was inspired by a desire to blend our folk/pop sound with the Impressionist sounds of Paris in the early 20th Century, so there is a little bit of both.

Maura: Pete's talking about the musical aspect of the album. Lyrically speaking, there's a theme running through the album that is one of encouragement. That came from a few years of noticing and reacting to close friends who have been going through difficult times. 

 I've seen more and more of that in the past few years, and I've come to realize that you can't always make your friends' problems go away. But being a friend means listening empathetically, and offering encouragement and hope. 

 The title "Closer Than You Know" comes from a line in our song, "Happy Again", which states that a return to happiness is "Closer than you know, but it seems so far."

11 You’ve also recently contributed a track to Trouble in the Fields: An Artists’ Tribute to Nanci Griffith. The track in question is “I’m Not Drivin’ These Wheels,” a favourite of mine. 

 Why did this particular track appeal to you, and why did you choose to get involved in this project?

Pete: Many of Nanci's classic songs have a repeated structure of three or four chords that create a foundation over which the singer can phrase freely, and I'm Not Drivin' These Wheels is a good example.

Maura: We not only contributed to it, we conceptualized and produced the project, and we got all the artists together and collected their tracks. In some cases, as in the case of John Stewart and Amy Rigby, for example, we recorded their tracks in our own studio. 

 We just felt that Nanci should be recognized as a songwriter, and that the musicians playing on this tribute should be mostly musicians who have a personal or musical connection to Nanci directly. 

 There were so many Nanci songs we could have chosen, but I wanted to do a lesser-known song, and this one speaks to me, as it's a song about touring the Northeast U.S. in the winter - something we've done a ton of!

12 One thing that endears me to you as a group is that you seem to have a very strong relationship with your fans - you let me have a photograph and signed my copy of your album when I went to see you for my birthday, and you keep in touch with fans via Facebook and YouTube. 

 Do you feel this contact and communication with your fans is important? In addition; as your success has grown over the years, do you feel it has become harder to maintain that relationship?

Pete: The direct relationship with fans became possible because of the Internet and social networks, which came online right at the time that we started playing together, so that has been our way of staying in touch with our audience from the beginning.

Maura: I agree. Social networking has made it much easier for us to stay in touch with our fans. 

13 You are touring the UK and Ireland in May/June 2013, as you have done in the past; also your new album features a U2 song - do you feel that British and Irish music has been a big influence on you?

Pete: The folk, country, rock and pop music of the US are a mixture of Celtic melodies and African rhythms, reflecting America's cultural diversity. Celtic melodies, filtered through the modernist energy of British rock and pop, are the basis for our music.

14 What do you feel is your greatest achievement, musically or otherwise? And if you each had to pick a favourite of your own songs (as The Kennedys or solo), which would it be?

Pete: Our greatest achievements have been instances in which we inspired or empowered an individual to move confidently to a better place in their own life. That means more to us than record sales, awards etc.

Maura: I agree. I think maybe our greatest achievements are ones we're not even aware of. Last night, after a show, a woman came up to me and was sobbing, and she just grabbed me and hugged me and cried. I asked her if she was OK, and she said, "You have no idea what a powerful energy you're putting out into the world!" She was right! I had no idea! 

 Every now and then, someone as generous as that woman will let me know what our music means to them, and we're very lucky for those glimpses. 

 My two favorite Kennedys songs are "Breathe", which is about death-as-a-kind-of-birth, and "I'll Come Over" from our new album. That one is very emotional for me.

15 As a student of French and Spanish, I am interested to know; does either of you have a second language, and would you consider recording songs in a language other than English?

Pete: We both speak a little French, enough to visit the country as tourists, but not enough to compose convincing lyrics!

16 What are your plans for the future? Do you think you will be in the music industry for the rest of your lives, or are there other projects planned? Do you have one lifelong ambition you really want to fulfil?

Pete: We will both always play music, and Maura is involved in acting in New York, as well.

Maura: All I ever wanted to do was play music. I am constantly amazed and grateful that I have made my living from it for the past 20 years. 

 I hope I never have to stop. I don't think I will, though. I always say to Pete, "if things ever slow down to the point where we need a day job, we can always just go down into the subway and busk for coins. All you have to do is play until you have enough money to eat or pay your rent, and I like playing and singing enough that I wouldn't have to stop."

17 Finally, why do you think, sometime in early civilisation, humans invented music? 

 Music is not essential to our survival, yet across different continents, different cultures, music developed and it has survived so many changes in the world and they way we live. 

 Why is music pleasing to us? And, I guess the killer question; what is music?

Pete:  Joseph Campbell commented that when we use our brains and bodies for anything other than basic survival, we are approaching the realm of art, so I think that the process goes back to the Lascaux cave paintings, the African Earth Mother figurines, and beyond. 

 Rhythmic grooves probably developed out of the rhythms of the body, starting with the heartbeat, and some scholars think that the first human communication may have sounded like what we call singing, so music is a basic impulse to communicate, and also to create.

Maura: I was walking down the street yesterday and thinking about my life and about, really, EVERYONE'S lives, and I thought, everything we do as humans is either to pay our expenses (survival), or to enjoy the experience of being human (being happy, making others happy). 

 If you can combine the two in your life's work, then you've really got something. That's what music is to me. It's my whole way of life. I'm glad I figured it out before I was told that it wasn't practical!

Thank you again for your time, and I wish you the very best – may you continue to be as amazing as you have been for twenty years, and may you keep blowing us away with your incredible talent and compassion.

Interview by Liz Gibson, March 2013

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