(article originally published in Star News, additional Q&A follows below)
By Brian Tucker
“If I don’t have a great voice, how can I get people to listen to me? One way is to write a song to draw them in,” folk singer-songwriter Kyle Lindley said while discussing new album In Search of Aging Grace.
“The one thing I’m confident about is writing. This album, to me, shows what I’m capable of. I’ve always wanted to be a good songwriter. It’s what got me into music. I don’t really write that much about myself. When I hear songs like that to me they’re less interesting. When I read, I prefer nonfiction, more poetry than stories.”
The latter part of that explanation explains a lot. Lindley’s song lyrics are colorful pairings of observation and poetry – tales about mysterious friends, relationships, nightlife, vagabonds, and scars. A Wilmington native, Lindley studied computer engineering in Charlotte, N.C., graduating with a degree he never used (“It wasn’t what I wanted to do but thought it was”). Still, he left with a great song about the Queen City called “King Me.”
“I was in a lecture, trying to write songs instead of paying attention. I love Charlotte, but didn’t at first, it grew on me. That’s what the song is about, how there’s a comfort living in a city.”
From its haunted REM-meets-The Felice Brothers feel to Lindley’s stream-of-consciousness storytelling, “King Me” paints quite a noir-ish scene of denizens living in the hours of day most people are less likely to frequent. On it Lindley laments, “This city has a magic that even makes the down and out feel alright.” Against punching drums, pedal steel, and carnival-tinged harmonica “King Me” illustrates Lindley’s writing prowess.
C’mon, tell me lies, give me that night that makes me high
I’ll play along, and greet the night, just my woman and I
We’ll take off our work clothes, and try kick our blues
Take a knife to this city turn the bottle back and cut it loose
“I know the people you’re talking about. I love the different crevices of life,” Lindley said about the song. “Getting off work, blowing money you made from the week. I picture someone in a bar, last call, closing time. That’s my city song.”
The album’s cover recreates a Kodachrome film slide Lindley found while sorting through a box of family photos. His grandfather, who died when Lindley’s father was five years old, also studied engineering (with articles published in Popular Mechanics). But his grandfather grew up poor and one day while working on a farm along with his brother decided to leave, citing there had to be something better. The next time anyone saw him it was flying a plane over the fields where they worked. His grandfather dropped a note to his brother.
“He was somebody, whatever he wanted to do, he could do it. He had boxes of photos and I found this photo (of his grandmother). For some reason she’s not looking towards the camera, she’s looking ahead. She always had a little sadness in her eyes, a fountain-of-sorrow look on her face. I thought it was interesting. I don’t know what’s going on there, but to me, it captured what the album is about.”
Lindley pointed out that the old photos were essentially left behind, waiting for someone to find, and enjoy, much later. Those moments in time, his grandfather’s artwork, eventually found their way forward. One image became an album cover. The contrast is noteworthy, that Lindley’s work will one day land in someone’s hands, family, or a stranger who maybe picks a copy up at a thrift store.
“That was my goal, to leave something when I’m gone, something…I think it would be cool if this ended up in a thrift store one day, somebody found it and listened to it, and this might be after I’m dead and gone. That’s what excites me about music.”
Additional Q and A with Kyle Lindley
You’re a shape-shifter on the album.
Lindley: I always try to test my skills. The last thing I want is to be that guy whose songs all sound the same. I’ll take a stab and write in a country style, or folk, or I might try to do something like Leonard Cohen or Tom Waits. For “King Me” I envisioned it as Tom Waits’ “Searching for the Heart of Saturday Night” and I wrote about Charlotte, wrote that while sitting in class, during one of my lectures in computer engineering.
I was going to school there at the time. It wasn’t what I wanted to do but I thought it was. I’m confident in music but I’m not confident in that scenario, just the competition, I’m not one to try and get a job in that field. I realized half way through my four year term. I didn’t want to quit but should have and gone into something different. I just didn’t know what I was supposed to do. I love skateboarding, I work in skateboarding, about eight years now.
The cover is interesting, a Kodachrome image.
Lindley: I started going through all of them, my idea I could use a photo my grandfather took, because I never met him. We’ve been to visit back in S.C. and they told us about each photo. He grew up dirt poor, sounded like a really interesting guy. You could tell he was into technology but he must have bought a camera and took a ton of photos.
He was always dressed real nice, wore a pencil thin mustache. The story is, and this is from talking to relatives, he was working on a farm with his brother. He just said I’m leaving and tied up the mule and said there’s got to be something better. Next time they saw him he was a pilot and had done all this other stuff, he was somebody whatever he wanted to do he could do it. That takes some guts.
He had boxes of these photos and when I had this idea to use one for the cover I started looking for ones that were interesting. The ones where people are smiling, he didn’t take a lot of those, but when I see those they don’t strike me as interesting. I found this one (the cover) this is my grandmother who I knew for a long time, she lived to be around 90. I found this photo and she’s probably annoyed, because he took a lot of photos of her all the time. For some reason she’s not looking towards the camera, looking ahead, she always had a little bit of sadness in her eyes. I thought it was interesting.
You mentioned that the image reflected the album. On the title track you sing, “This world ain’t worth the bus fare.”
Lindley: (The boy in the photo) I thought that was my dad but we came to find out from family that it wasn’t, it was a friend of his. For some reason there’s a family friend’s son sitting in the car in the photo. (Inside the album) there’s a photo of my grandmother coming out, turning the corner, and she always had a fountain of sorrow look on her face. I don’t know what’s going on there but to me it captured what the album is about. The first song I wrote was about a woman.
I had a friend who played music, she lives in Montana now, she was living hand to mouth and ended up in Wilmington, traveling and playing music. She went by the name Ocean. She was kind of mysterious, and I still talk to her, but the first song is about her. One day she told me something interesting, she said women age like bananas. I built this in my head, that women have a tough time aging gracefully versus men. This world regards things in a certain light and women don’t have the luxury of getting old and not being pretty. I thought about that and it became the song “In Search of Aging Grace.”
The cover’s photograph, even if you’re not a writer you think, what’s going on here.
Lindley: I like the stuff that makes me think, and that’s how I write my songs. People might say I don’t know what it’s about, but its gives you this feeling or makes you think. That’s the other cool thing about writing you don’t have to spell everything out. The best songs are where people listen to them and have different viewpoints on them.
This project was something I wanted to get off my chest, I wanted to do something official, but this just an opening of the door. These are songs from different years but the newest one is the title track. I went through a book of songs I’ve written and thought this one will work for this project and this one will work. I do sit on songs. I wanted to give these a fair shake, production-wise, I felt like once they’re recorded on an album then I could let them go in a sense and go on to write new material. A lot of these are older.
I do a lot of writing, come back to it and sometimes sing it differently, revisit songs. They evolve over the years. These songs have changed a lot. To me, they’re not done until they’re recorded. They’re all still a work in progress. Some are stream of consciousness. When I write this stuff it comes naturally and I’ll let it simmer, look at it, and sometimes a song writes itself.
How did Sean Thomas Gerard get involved in recording it?
Lindley: Sean and his wife having their child was how we made a deadline. It was done maybe a week or two before. He asked, is there anything else you need? I met Sean years ago at The Soapbox where he was doing sound for an open mic night. I’ve always known him, kept seeing him around. Then he did Chris Frisina’s album. We’re good friends. I like what Sean did with his album.
I got to know him really well and we would track at his house or at Bourgie Nights. I wanted it to have looseness, a raw feel. I wanted it to be natural, as if some listened to me intimately, as if I was playing in somebody’s living room. I wanted it to be simple and organic, just me.
“Devil’s Spade” was done live. We couldn’t get it right, the way I wanted it. We wiped it all out and said let me play it. So I did the guitar and vocals. Then they added to it. “Wouldn’t That Be Something” was unique because we played it live. We were having a hard time getting the meter right because that song crescendos, so the guy on drums, we played it live with him. The drums set the mark and the tempo and we worked against him. For him to play drums we had to play with him. He only recorded the drums and later we recorded all the parts back onto it. You wouldn’t know it to listen to it but that one took a lot of work.
It has the warmth of analog.
Lindley: Sean really had my best interests in my mind, he knows what kinds of music I like. When we did this I said, I want to keep this simple, I don’t want to overdo it. Bob Russell added a lot of good stuff without being overpowered. Sean filled in a lot of stuff with keys and piano, and organ. Sean recorded a lot of the keys at the place that used to be Costello’s and they have a piano in there and recorded a lot the piano stuff.
That song with that long guitar outro (“Wouldn’t That Be Something”). I can’t imagine it without that.
Lindley: That’s what makes it. Actually I wrote that song. Are you familiar with that Annex songwriter thing at BAC? Rich Leader, he really loves music. I was there one night and all these bands were playing. I was really inspired by their plying, baring their soul up there in a total listening room. I went home that night and wrote this song as a long metaphor for a guitar. “Listen close to these four walls, Lend your ears against my saddle, Wipe the strings that hang heavy from my head”
Brandon, we did this live a lot, and when we went to record I said you need to do this ending and let the guitar take flight at the end. Get loose, tight, loose, tight, when we recorded, he did it perfect, bend that string at the beginning and give it some tension and unleash, and that’s what he can do. Because there’s a train metaphor going on it works, kind of the perfect bookend to the album itself.
After all these years, do you still get nervous performing?
Lindley: I have awkward stage precedence but it works for me. I figure if you’re writing a good just a turn of phrase can attract a listener. If someone notices me it’s because of something I said, not the way I said it. When I’m up on stage I feel confident that this is what I’m supposed to be doing. When I’m up there I’m in control. I don’t do much talking, I just jump right into a song. Eric Miller (L Shape Lot) is good at it, interacting with people, that’s a social confidence I don’t have. I’m just confident playing my music. I always felt like an old soul.
When people get older, they feel like they’re in a crisis, like they’re losing their youth. I actually enjoy it, I feel like that now I’m in my 30s and later my 40s I’m going to be happy because I feel like its where I’ve always wanted to be.
For a Soups to Nuts performance (on WHQR) I invited Bob Russell to accompany me and play guitar. I’ve always been jealous of Travis Shallow having Bob Russell in his band. Bob, since I can remember, I heard that name being the best in town. He used to give lessons at Gillam’s Guitar Works. My father took lessons from Bob. He said, Bob is like a hired gun, been to Nashville, he’s played with all these bands. He taught at UNCW for twenty years. Talk about someone who knows more theory, he can play John Coltrane on guitar. He plays pedal steel on this album.
Have you written recently?
Lindley: I wrote a song about a guy who used to hold signs up at Barclay Hills and Market Street, his name is Jason. I wrote a song about him. He never asked for money, held a sign up. I looked at him like a street preacher. He told me he got in trouble for panhandling a lot. He seemed really intelligent to me. It was like he knew his purpose.
So I wrote this song about him. “Jason, what is your prayer at Market and Barclay you share?” The chorus is, “Jason don’t you know there’s a world of us, And people like you we can’t seem to trust, No suit or no tie, No day or no night, It may not be right, But its true.” Something like that. It’s you can’t trust us and we can’t trust you, because of the way you are and the way we are.
I was raised, church going, most part. They got me into good music, I learned a lot from music – Dylan, Guthrie, that all man is equal. I see someone that’s homeless, I think, you got dealt a bad hand, it could be me, could be anybody. I have respect for that person.
If someone has the will to live and survive that’s powerful. No matter what the situation is. That’s somebody out there trying to survive. That’s how important life is, people that value it, will doing anything to survive where other people complain about something small.
“King Me” is an incredible song.
Lindley: I was in college and I went to an open mic night to play it. The guy that hosted it, he would work in the neighborhood theater in Charlotte and I told him I wrote a song about Charlotte. The next time I played it at open mic he said, that’s the best song I’ve heard about Charlotte and I’ve heard a lot of them. I don’t know, I was in a lecture, never paid much attention, trying to write songs instead of paying attention to class. It came natural I guess.
I love Charlotte but I didn’t at first, but it grew on me. That song is more poetic than anything.I wrote that one a while back but had to get it on the album to go with the flow of emotions on the album – desperation, flows into comfort, its one big train ride.
You mentioned you have more songs.
Lindley: I do a lot of writing, come back to it and sometimes sing it differently, revisit songs. They evolve over the years. These songs have changed a lot. To me, they’re not done until they’re recorded. They’re all still a work in progress. Some are stream of consciousness. When I write this stuff it comes naturally and I’ll let it simmer, look at it, and sometimes a song writes itself.
The one thing that I’m confident is the writing of lyrics. I’ve always wanted to be a good songwriter, it’s what got me into music anyway. I like songwriting because it’s pretty much no boundaries, no right or wrong. I listen to stuff like Dylan’s Basement Tapes, and he’s got some crazy songs on there, really random, like “Mighty Quinn the Eskimo.” I think some of these are my own voice and a few, I tried to channel, like “Whiskey and Tears” (inspired by Gram Parsons). I wanted to write a country song not like today’s country, something vintage style, like you might hear out of Texas.
When I first started playing music I wanted to try and write songs. I never had the patience to lock myself in a room and study guitar. I think I’m a proficient guitar player but I’ll never be like a Bob Russell. I knew I wouldn’t be the best singer, although it took me a while, but I found my voice.