Kenny Roby has been a fixture in the Americana music scene since the early ‘90s when his band 6 String Drag helped define the nascent roots-based genre for the pre-internet listening audience. Recently, by phone, we spoke about his moving and wonderful new album The Reservoir, the songwriting process, and the artist’s place in society. The resultant conversation, edited for clarity and length is below.
Americana Highways: Given your historically wide listening habits, who would you consider to be some of your biggest musical influences right now?
Kenny Roby: Right now and during the recording of the record, I would have to say, Bobby Charles. He was the songwriter who originally wrote the song “See Ya Later, Alligator” and he made a self-titled record that was produced by Rick Danko of The Band here in Bearsville, New York outside of Woodstock at Bearsville studios in 1972 that I really love a lot. I love the sound of the record because it’s kind of swampy, kind of funky, kind of country, and kind of pop. I love his voice and I feel like he was just an amazing songwriter. Segueing into that, I have also always been a huge Doug Sahm fan also. Doug Sahm actually covered Bobby Charles’ version of “Tennessee Blues” and they both had a kind of eclectic sound that you really couldn’t put your finger on. Listening to both of them, it’s like all kinds of roots music rolled into one, but it’s also great songs, great singing performances, and great instrumentation. They both were known for doing simple, but homogeneous versions of American roots music from the early days in the ‘60s and ‘70s without being too rigid in the traditions.. They both believed in just being themselves. Sort of the way The Band was because they always had that eclectic mix of things going on in their music too. You were never really able to pin them down to one genre either and I really love the originality that comes from doing that musically. I also like jazz and crooner vocalists and have been listening to a lot of Chet Baker lately. I also really love Ron Sexsmith and think he is one of the best singer-songwriters of the last 25 years or so. In the last year, I have also listened to a lot of Rusty Kershaw. Rusty kind of had that same thing that Doug Sahm and Bobby Charles had – he was totally original, totally authentic and like them, based a lot of his stuff off of roots music.
AH: Can you point to a specific moment when you knew you wanted to be a songwriter?
KR: I believe I was around 4 when I wrote my first song, a song called “Country Bear.” We were traveling across the country as a family, my mom and dad, and my brothers and sisters and we were somewhere out west like Montana when I wrote it. My dad loved Roger Miller and we lived in Florida and we went to Disneyland a lot and I always loved the Country Bear Jamboree and the Tanya Tucker song “Delta Dawn” was a big hit all over on the radio back then too. So I totally ripped off Roger Miller doing the Country Bear Jamboree and combined it with the melody of “Delta Dawn.” I also remember a time when I was about seven and I was at a campground in my tent and somebody outside the tent had a transistor radio and the song “She Believes In Me” by Kenny Rogers was playing on the radio. I remember having this feeling of wanting to feel those things he was feeling in that song and wanting to write songs like that in which I talked about those feelings. It was like hearing the Kiss song “Beth” and the words “Beth, I hear you calling.” It’s funny like I couldn’t figure out if I wanted to be in a band or if I just wanted to be in a band so I could sing that song to someone. I guess I always put myself in the singer’s position and I think it’s something we all do. We all love sappy music, pulling on the heartstrings kind of stuff, and I have always loved ballads. Even when I was into punk rock I still loved those kinds of songs. I am a little old for it, so I don’t really know a lot about it, but I really understand why a lot of kids love emocore. I think the punk band 7 Seconds was one of the forerunners of that movement with all of their love, trust, and relationship songs in a punk rock setting. I always loved 7 Seconds because they always did songs like that. When I was sixteen and in my first band we actually opened up for 7 Seconds and that was kind of cool.
AH: How would you best describe your songwriting process?
KR: It’s funny sometimes the ideas come from other songs that I don’t even realize. Like I hear something and it’s almost like it plants a seed or it will remind me of something. Sometimes it’s just like people’s faces, voices, or personalities and the identification that comes from that. I think we all need something to hold onto that we can identify within our art. It’s like you take the traditional kind of things and spread your wings artistically and creatively from there. Some people don’t like it, but I like the whole influence thing because we are all influenced by someone as an artist. Sometimes a line or a melody may come to me out of nowhere. I just don’t think there is any one way that it happens. It’s not like it’s two people writing a song. Sometimes I feel like I have an interior Brill Building in my head. It’s like the voices bounce off each other and then the guitar part and then the melody or the change. Sometimes they come out. When I am in a songwriting groove, when I am writing a lot, sometimes it all comes out in a day. The writing of songs becomes easier for me when I am spending a lot of time doing it. The muse doesn’t just drop in on me, it tends to appear when I am casting my net a lot. And then there’s the whole artist thing. I think to be a successful artist you have to be in the world and talk about all of the things that we go through in the world and that should come out in your art. This whole notion that the artist has to be separate from society is just a romantic notion not based in reality. To be able to relate to people with your art, which for me is my songwriting and music, you have to be in the world and life has to come through your art. So my songwriting always reflects that as well.
AH: On your Instagram, you have a post that is an image of words written on a legal pad that says“Begin the day with gratitude” and at the bottom of the page says “End the day with gratitude.” How important do you think having gratitude in your daily life is?
KR: I think it’s hugely important. I think of the times in my life when I really didn’t appreciate things or took them for granted and I realize those were times when I wasn’t really happy or times when I wasn’t really living in a lot of ways. I was living in the past or engulfed in a fear of the past and a fear of the future. I think gratitude keeps me in the moment and it makes me take a pause. And it also makes me take the action of gratitude, to express it. It’s a practice, and it’s a daily reminder to breathe, to pay attention to the good things you have. They have done a number of scientific studies that people are generally happier when they are grateful. The difference between looking at the things that you do have versus the things you don’t have is the foundation for me to feel any kind of contentment. It’s still a lesson that I have to constantly learn and remind myself of and I think in some ways this record reflects that. To share a little bit of what I was going through and trying to be honest about it. This is one of the most personal records that I have ever done. I’ve touched upon that on other records, but on this one there aren’t a lot of characters in the songs, it’s mostly about me. I think the longer that you go in life as a songwriter and as an artist, you start to learn to be more honest and cover-up stuff less and hopefully in a way that is not cliched.
AH: How would you best describe the power of music when it comes to being able to help us transcend our circumstances?
KR: I think it’s a paradox to try to escape ourselves and to get more inside ourselves at the same time. I think music can allow us an escape but sometimes it allows us that escape through going deeper inside. I also think identification in music and art is huge. I don’t know the magical part of music as far as how to wield that. I think it is to express genuine honest emotion and that people tend to identify with that as much as they can. And I think the transcendence might be the meeting of those two worlds between the art and the beholder. I think it needs both of those things- it needs the experience that happens between the artist and the person beholding the art. I think that’s the transcendence. I think that’s the magic. It’s the thing that happens at shows- when they are good. There’s an exchange there of energy or ideas and that’s where something is created and that’s stronger than the art on its own.
AH: How did you arrive at the title The Reservoir for your latest album in that there isn’t a song on the album with that title?
KR: You know I almost called it “History Lesson” after one of the songs on the album and I was thinking about it early on when we were making it and some of the visual images that come along with it. And by the way, the song “History Lesson” is a homage to D.Boon of The Minutemen, another 80s hardcore punk scene band that I loved. It’s a nod to their song “History Lesson, Part Two”. Everybody I know associated with punk rock back then loved that song and identified with it. But anyway, I was leaning that way but something just didn’t feel right about that title, I think it just felt too heavy. I don’t know what it was, maybe I felt like it was a little too pretentious. So, anyway, there was a reservoir that I lived near at the time that I used to love to take walks to and I started liking the whole notion of seeing something man-made out of nature which is what the reservoir was. I guess I liked this whole notion of water falling from the sky, being filtered by running down from the mountains and ending as a reservoir and I kind of looked at my songs on the album that way, like here are some of the songs that I have created out of my life experiences after I filtered them through my processes. The title The Reservoir just seemed to fit when I started thinking about the album like that.The songs that me and my producer Dave Schools (who coincidentally is also a big Minutemen fan) ended up using for the record tell a story without being a concept record and seemed to fit into that whole idea of The Reservoir.
AH: After listening to the songs on the album, what do you hope the listener walks away with?
KR: Hopefully, they are just going to be able to identify with some of them. I guess the loftiest answer, the most idealistic answer would be to say that it helps them and that it makes their lives better even for just a few minutes or that it makes them look inside themselves for a minute and know that because they heard someone sharing something deeply personal that’s its OK for them to share things too. I would hope that my songs would just help people feel that it’s OK, to be honest with themselves and with other people. I am always trying to share a human experience with my songs and hopefully, another human being will hear that and get something out of it. And maybe it will make them feel better or inspire them to look at themselves or other people and know that it’s going to be OK.
The Reservoir by Kenny Roby is now available on his website .