Sunday, June 27, 2010
A Sunday Conversation with Award-Winning Songwriter, Kevin Beadles
When I was a kid, growing up in a house with Cat Stevens, Neil Diamond, and Simon and Garfunkel, the first time I ever heard Kiss's "Detroit Rock City," it was a moment of musical epiphany. It was just so vicious, aggressive and mean. It changed the way I listened to music. I've had a few minor epiphanies since then, when you come across a band that just brings something new and revolutionary to your ears. What have been your musical epiphany moments?
About ten years ago, a recording engineer loaned me a copy of Lucinda Williams' Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. He had noticed that I sang and wrote in an affected style (much in keeping with the artists I grew up listening to such as David Bowie, Peter Gabriel, David Byrne). He thought Lucinda might shake me out of it and she did. What a marvel of singing and songwriting. Poetically stark, unflinching lyrics sung with a defiant vulnerability. There was a deceptive brilliance in the simplicity of the writing. She could twist a vowel in her mouth and run through two or three shades of emotion before the word was finished. Hearing her inspired me to seek greater honesty in my singing and songwriting.
Talk to us about the song-writing process for you. What comes first, the idea? A riff? The lyrics? How does it all fall into place?
All the above. Starting a song is usually the easy part, it's finishing where the work comes in. Sometimes I sit down to write a letter (full song) and find that all I have is just a postcard (maybe a verse or chorus). For me, writer's block isn't a lack of ideas, it's not knowing what to do with an idea. So if I'm stuck on one song, I just pick up another and see where it wants to go. And I keep doing that until it all falls in place. Sometimes it happens in one sitting and sometimes it takes years.
Where do you look for continuing inspiration? New ideas, new motivation?
Songwriting is just something I do. I don't worry about finding ideas; they seem to find me. In fact, I'm often distracted by whatever embryonic song is tumbling around in my head. Perhaps that's my way of processing life. But re-writing is where the real craft of songwriting comes in and that's where I need motivation to keep plugging away at a song, trying to realize its full potential, especially when it's stopped being fun. Here, my greatest resources are the West Coast Songwriters and my songwriting circle called Club Shred. Both are chock full of terrific tunesmiths who take vicious delight in tearing apart each other's babies. Their feedback is invaluable to me and hearing their new songs is a constant source of inspiration.
Genres are so misleading and such a way to pigeonhole bands. Without resorting to labels, how would you describe your music?
My music unites classic rock with the back porch drawl of gospel, blues and alt. country. It's roots music with plenty of branches. Picture Elvis Costello and Lucinda Williams getting in a faded blue '65 Ford pickup and driving across America writing songs about the strange thoughts and characters they meet along the way.
What is you musical intention? What are you trying to express or get your audience to feel?
I'm drawn to moments of transformation--that interval when a decision is made, an emotion discovered, or a life upended. There might be only a dozen decisions or events which make any significant difference to the overall arc of a person's experience. The rest is filler (the subject of "slice of life" songs) and the opportunity to reflect on decisions made or to be made.
I strive for simplicity but my default writing mode tends to be a little complex. My band consists of terrific jazz players who were looking for a rock project so that tells me I'm still relying on way too many chords, extensions, and key changes. If you listen to a song like "A Love Sublime," it just sounds like zany fun but it goes through three key changes, several shifts in feel, and a couple of chords I've never used before. Someday I hope to master 3-chord rock, which is by no means a pejorative term to my mind.
The business of music is a brutal place. Changes in technology have made it easier than ever for bands to get their music out, but harder than ever to make a living. What are your plans to move the band forward? How do you stay motivated in this brutal business?
Woody Allen was famously quoted as saying that 90% of success is showing up and I find that's absolutely true. You never know when or where you're going to make a fan or get a break. I entered a couple of rough mixes in two big songwriting competitions last year and ended up coming in second place in the rock category with each song. I get invited to play on a local NPR radio program and the next thing I know, Ripple Music is asking if I'd like to release a CD with them. I don't have a great overarching plan to conquer the world but I'm trying to write the perfect song and willing to share it with anyone who'll listen, and I'm finding there's an audience for my music. Any time I'm playing music, I'm doing something I love. To me, that's success on my own terms and I don't worry about the rest.
Come on, share with us a couple of your great, Spinal Tap, rock and roll moments?
In the late 80's/early 90's, I was singer-frontman for a band called mr. id. We got booked to play a Harvest Festival or something of the ilk that was broadcast on cable access TV in Antioch, CA. The stage was the flatbed trailer of a semi truck, for unfathomable reasons, I'm wearing bicycle shorts, and in the middle of our set, some guy pulls up in a little service vehicle and starts loading bales of hay on to the stage as we're playing. That was a painful video to watch.
Later, that same band got asked to open for Chris Isaak and we had to pass on the gig because our lead guitarist wasn't willing to cancel the fishing trip he had planned. That's when you know your band has just about reached its full potential.
What makes a great song?
COURAGE--no wait... that's what makes the muskrat guard his musk. A great song is one you can listen to a hundred times and still want to hear again. It's got to be unique (otherwise why listen to that particular song) but can't be gimmicky (even clever BS gets tiresome after a while). More importantly, it has to tap into an emotion you want to experience over and over. It speaks and you involuntarily answer "YES!"
Tell us about the first song you ever wrote?
Way too embarrassing...suffice to say, I was about eight years old, the title was "I'm a Fighter Pilot" and the melody bore a suspicious resemblance to "Jeremiah was a Bullfrog..."
What piece of your music are particularly proud of?
I entered five songs from the new CD in international songwriting competitions this past year and four of them won prizes. So, naturally, it's the one I like best that came up short. "You Can't Argue with Water" absolutely nails something I've wanted to express for a long time... the ephemeral nature of love. And I think that message is what makes the song problematic for some people. They want to hear that love is eternal and undeniable, which it certainly can be. But all too often, love is something beyond our control, it comes and goes, and no amount of whining will change that fact. Plus the song has one of my favorite lyric couplets, "She blew in out of nowhere and left without a trace/How could a summer thunderstorm leave lipstick on my face?"
Who today, writes great songs? Why?
Ryan Adams, Lucinda Williams, Lynn Smith, Steve Seskin, Bonnie Hayes and a thousand others. They each have a unique style and ability to get to the heart of an emotion. There are so many talented songwriters and most of them never get widely heard.
Vinyl, CD, or digital? What's your format of choice?
Ever since I bought an iPhone, I've been surprised how digital has taken over my listening. It's always with me... at the gym, on a bike, odd moments in the day. And it's great to have my entire catalog of unfinished musical bits and riffs on hand anytime I get inspired to work on something.
We, at the Ripple Effect, are constantly looking for new music. When we come to your town, what's the best record store to lose ourselves in?
I live in a college town (Berkeley) so there are a ton of used record stores nearby. Just walk a few blocks on Telegraph Ave and you're bound to find one you like.
Any final comments or thoughts you'd like to share with our readers, the waveriders?
I used to think that being in Liverpool put the Beatles at a major disadvantage compared to bands in London. Then I read how Liverpool was the major shipping port for the entire U.K. which meant that every kid in town, including the Beatles, knew someone who worked on a freighter and had cheap access to the latest records coming out of the U.S. At a time when rock music was only played a few hours a week on the BBC, this was quite an advantage.
I think it's great that music is so readily available today. In fact, it's so readily available that fantastic music can easily be overlooked or forgotten--that's why I love the concept behind Ripple and the waveriders. So thanks for sharing part of your Sunday with me, I hope you check out my music as well, and please feel free to contact me if anything moves you.