Interview: Kasey Anderson on His Band’s New Album, Prison Reform, and Standing For What’s Right

Interviews

Congratulations were in order when I made the call to Kasey Anderson, since his wedding is in the works, and will have happened six days before the release of his new album From a White Hotel Friday, July 27. He says the wedding planning has been pretty relaxed and everyone has been cool about the whole thing. “All I care about is there’s good music and good food,” he laughs. “People want an excuse to eat good food and have fun. We know a guy in town who has crates and crates of old soul ‘45s, so that’s the music, and the food is from a place in town we both really like.”

Seguing into the album, Anderson is not releasing it solo under his own name; his band name is “Hawks & Doves.” Explaining the origin of the name itself, he says: “The main reason, is the idea of the political divide between those who are more prone to conflict and those who are more prone to peace and diplomacy. And I think this is not either/or, I think this is a good reflection of where everybody is at right now; people are at war with each other, but even more so within themselves. People are trying to figure out how to get from one day to the next without being too pacified, and are trying to find a way to stand up for themselves and what they believe in, and how to do that without being violent about it. Also, I really love that Neil Young album!”

The first song is “Dangerous Ones,” with its line: “you and me baby, we’re the dangerous ones.” Talking about the messages of the lyrics, Anderson said: “This song was one of the last ones on the album, and I wrote it as a way to introduce the characters who were going to appear throughout the record. Some of the characters are autobiographical and some are more narrative driven. But all of the song characters face some sort of danger, whether it is self-inflicted danger or whether it is some sort of systematic danger. Also, I wrote it toward the end of 2017 so we had already seen some of this administration’s policies get rolled out, and had seen some of the protests, and here in Portland we had some of the more violent protests. So the song is about how we hear people talking about how dangerous this administration is, but we should also remember that the citizenry can be equally dangerous to those in power if we are organized and if we are motivated, and if we work within the framework of what’s available to us. And this doesn’t mean violent protest and it doesn’t mean any kind of overthrow, it just means that there’s a way for us to be dangerous if we’re smart about it. It’s meant to be a reminder that if we get involved and stay involved we can be dangerous too. It’s empowering: “let the television burn babe, there’s a riot in the streets.” I tried not to write things that sounded too specific and already dated, but at the same time when you’re making a record, it’s inevitable that you’re documenting the times.“

“Chasing the Sky” is an empowering, more uplifting one with Eric Ambel on guitar. “The way we recorded that one, I wanted the chorus to sound the way it sounds when sun breaks through the clouds: really bright, and buoyant, and to feel like the light at the end of the tunnel. I hope we achieved that.” Listening to that song, I don’t think there’s any doubt about that:

I commented that the album also features darker songs like “Lithium Blues” with its chilling line: “wind sharp as a razor.” Anderson notes, “One thing I tried really hard to do with all the songs on this album, whether they were ‘call to arms’ songs or whether they were stories, or autobiographical, was to stay away from platitudes, or trying to dictate to people. I don’t find telling people what to do or think is very effective either in songwriting or in conversation. The best thing I can do as a writer is to use language that grabs people and invites them in. I think “Lithium Blues” does that in a different way than “Chasing the Sky” does but I wanted the language to be vivid enough in every song so that people could understand the experience without necessarily having experienced it themselves. Indirect communication is better. Direct communication is either preaching to the choir, or you’re going to close the door to someone who doesn’t already agree with you. Either way, it’s not a very effective form of communication.”

I asked him whether, and to what extent, he considers that music can effect social change. He said, “Oh, it absolutely can, in a lot of different ways. Jason Isbell’s “Hope the High Road” is one good example of how a song can do that, it invites people to stay out of the ditch. And then there are folks like Aaron Lee Tasjan who has a new single, “If Not Now, When,” which calls for kindness and understanding.   I think that’s something that should be addressed too. “

“I’d say my record is a little darker and angrier than those, but still manages to deliver its messages without condescending and belittling people. The most effective way for music to be an agent of change is to expose people to viewpoints that they may not have been open to otherwise. I don’t think you do that by telling people they are wrong. I don’t think people are open to that. You also can’t kill yourself looking for good in everyone because some people are just never going to show empathy. You can’t sacrifice your own well-being as you’re trying to reach people. But you can try to move the ones who are reachable.   I wrestle with this, and the record shows this too – the balance between really taking to the streets, vs identifying situations where kindness and diplomacy are more effective.   For each of us it’s becoming more difficult to try to find the balance.”

I asked him to describe a little more about the way the album came about. “Jordan Richter and I co-produced the album; he engineered it.” Anderson said. “I met him when he engineered my record Nowhere Nights in 2012. He was part of the band, and we had been jamming in his studio. So when I had some new songs we started working on it there in the studio when it was available; we’d go a couple evenings in the studio when there were openings, and he is always so generous. A lot of the more atmospheric stuff that happens on the album, like on “Lithium Blues” or the shimmering guitars on “Bulletproof Hearts,” those are all elements that Jordan brought that wouldn’t have been there without him. And those contributions are a lot of what makes the album so interesting sonically, the things that he brought to the table.”

“And then the album evolved — because of the way we worked it took about a year — and during the course of that time everyone brought in ideas about arrangement, so this is why it was released under a band name. It was too collaborative, it would have been disingenuous for me to have put my name on it as if I were the only person responsible for the way the record turned out. We probably did 5 or 6 demos before Jordan offered the studio during off-hours, and the album turned out really differently from those original demos, and the things the band brought in really aided the songs that I had written.”

I wondered where he got the title from: From a White Hotel. He said “About half the record was written while I was in prison. Both prisons I was in were really nondescript white buildings.  But also it’s also as not-so-subtle poke at the fact that we are all sort of captive to this hotel magnet who now lives in a white home.”

Anderson was in prison for more than a year beginning in mid-2014, for those who didn’t know. I asked him to what extent music was a therapeutic option while he was incarcerated. “Oh, it was hugely therapeutic,” he said immediately. “The first prison I was at didn’t have any music available, but in the second prison you could check out guitars and there was a music room and people had bands. And to be able to go into that music room once or twice a week and have like a band practice was such a huge relief. That was a place where, I think for all of us, we could really forget where we were for an hour or two. Whatever you can find to transport yourself from that setting is just really valuable.”

I asked him if he’d like to talk a little more about the prison experience, if it wasn’t too personal. His response was “I don’t think it’s a secret I was in prison, so it’s okay to ask. It’s just really not a place that is geared toward any kind of individualized treatment, and so as somebody who came into the situation with some mental health issues and some addiction issues it’s not a place that’s geared to treat those kinds of things. There’s one set of rules and they just don’t have the resources to treat individuals and it doesn’t seem like that’s an especially high priority, so its sort of left to the inmates to find whatever form of rehabilitation or therapy they can find, themselves.” I added my guess that a high number of inmates need those things. He agreed, saying “It’s probably not a coincidence that a high percentage of people in prison could easily be diagnosed with comorbid disorders. And I think this raises the question as to what people want prisons to be. The stated purpose of prison is that it is rehabilitation, so it’s probably time to take a serious look at the way the prison system is set up, because it is not set up to rehabilitate people.“

“I’m lucky because I was in treatment before I went into prison, and one good thing I’ll say about prison is that they are fairly strict with medication management, because they don’t want to deal with any mental or physical health issues from people. And I had a good support system so I came out and it was not hard for me to get work again, and it was not really hard for me to reintegrate. And as someone who was not a career criminal it was not hard for me to work my way back into civilian life but all those things going for me are really an anomaly.   When I was in prison I worked as a library clerk, and I also taught a creative writing class and the amount of people I came across who were borderline illiterate, or completely illiterate, was astounding.   What are they going to do when they get out? How are these people they going to change their lives on their own from in there without any rehabilitative services. That’s not a realistic expectation.”

Sobering thoughts. Congratulations again to Anderson on his wedding, and a moving album. Find the album on his website, here: http://kaseyandersonmusic.com/

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