Deja Vu All Over Again: Songwriter Chris Kennedy
By Terri Ann Palumbo - 12/21/2001 - 05:35 PM EST
As the songwriter, lead singer and creator of the successful alternative band RuthRuth, Chris Kennedy cracked the code of the "other" market years ago. Still in his early thirties, he's reinvented himself more times than most songwriters twice his age -- and he's not finished yet.
He wrote his first song at the age of 13. "Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys made me do it", he says. "I was sitting in my bedroom with my guitar and wrote this creepy ballad called 'The Haunted Surfer', about a surfer who drowned and tempted his girlfriend into following him one night -- not exactly 'Surfer Girl', but Wilson was definitely a huge influence on me."
Why Brian Wilson? "He had great hair, wrote great pop songs and did a beautiful job producing the Beach Boys' records. He was just about the first rock performer to both write and produce his own records. He had creative control -- The Beatles had George Martin, The Beach Boys had Brian."
While he may have focused largely on the alternative market in the past (which is not to imply that he's finished with it), he still harkens back to the music he listened to while growing up in a northern New Jersey suburb. "My family listened to all kinds of music -- Johnny Cash, Frank Sinatra, John Denver, Tony Bennett, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. They had such great production, great songwriting. Those pop music songs have integrity that will last forever."
An avid nostalgia buff, his inspirations come from listening to new music recommended by friends, old music he collects (his studio is lined with shelf after shelf of 45s, LPs and CDs of genres ranging from World War II era songs to forgotten lounge-lizard opuses to hot-off-the-press undiscovered artists). His somewhat anachronistic interests include old movies, military memorabilia and classic comics. However, this is not just some trend-following guy in search of a hit; well-educated and omnivorously well-read, Chris is intensely thoughtful. A conversation with Kennedy is peppered with provocative concepts that are often unique, often surprising but never completely off the wall. This is a songwriter who clearly feels deeply and possesses seemingly limitless energy for exploration and experimentation.
He speaks in calm and mellow tones, while delivering answers with the whiplash-inducing wit and ride-the-edge thought processes that are both characteristic of his songs.
Kennedy's lyrics are often complex inter-weavings of visual imagery, socio-political commentary and raw sexuality. Sometimes in-your-face, sometimes subtle, the songs have often struck serious chords in listeners. "In 1996, a young woman came up to me in Rochester, New York, and told me that my music prevented her from committing suicide. That's beautiful and frightening at the same time."
When describing his songwriting/performing/recording history to date, he can't help but give the facts surrounded by self-reviews. His first endeavor was a group called Janata, which he put together in 1990 and stayed with through 1994 (Polygram). "I was too young then, too hot-headed. My debut CD was a product of my love of pop music. Not bad for a teenager, but nowhere good enough."
Next was RuthRuth, the band for which he is best known (American/Columbia/Epitaph/RCA). RuthRuth existed from 1995 through 2000. "Emerging from the wreckage of Janata, RuthRuth was born. Our first CD was a product of endless New York City gigs and, again, our love of pop music. I wasn't as young, but I was still hot-headed. We enjoyed minor business success, but very inspiring emotional success. Unfortunately, our record company was run by The Devil, so we were bound for Hell. Great songs -- bad luck."
Ultra-V (RCA) followed RuthRuth in 2000. "I wasn't so hot-headed by then. We had some fun songs, we got a good, sexy bass player named Maggie Kim, and it was a good time. I think we had a very good CD." One of the cuts, 'Playboy Mansion', got good reviews and some airplay but, as Chris points out again, "we had more bad luck".
Bad luck? Maybe. Is he no longer hot-headed? Remains to be seen. More likely, Chris just didn't stop second-guessing himself until recently. Two months ago, he re-formed RuthRuth - news that will delight its legions of still-faithful fans, many of whom have created sites dedicated to the band. Nine RuthRuth sites can be found at http://directory.google.com/Top/Arts/Music/Bands_and_Artists/R/Ruth_Ruth/. "Now, I'm finally doing what I've wanted to do all along, which is to make music my way and enjoy it". One gets the sense that he's crossed into a new phase - one that's all about self-assurance and true freedom of expression.
He's splitting his efforts between the rejuvenation of RuthRuth and a solo performing act. "RuthRuth will be recording an independent CD sometime in early 2002. We'll be performing live as well -- we play The Continental in Manhattan on January 17th, 2002 at 10.00 pm."
Perhaps the project that speaks most strongly to his heart, though, is the solo "Kennedy" act, which is a far cry from RuthRuth in nearly every way. "It's a one-man show. I perform using a vintage microphone, a laptop and a television. The music and video are on the laptop, and the video feeds out to the TV. I perform the lead vocals live. I've cut visual art and clips to the music, and I perform duets with Sinatra, Marlene Dietrich, Billie Holiday -- it's different and I've been getting great feedback in New York City with this act."
One thing that's evident when listening to, or watching Kennedy perform is that he's incredibly versatile. This is a voice that can sing nearly any style, and sing it well. As a guitarist? Great. Producer? Brilliant. But it's still the songwriting that supplies his greatest challenge and satisfaction. "I think the goal of every songwriter, whether they'd admit it or not, would be to make a living making music. Right now I'm writing RuthRuth pop music that's high-energy/great driving music, and I'm doing what I call Kennedy Pop-Noir music - originals, the duets with Dietrich and others. I like everything about the work - the production, arrangement, engineering and, of course, the writing."
Next up on the Kennedy hit list is a re-working of a RuthRuth song he wrote in 1988. "It's called 'New York City' and it's eerily relevant today. I'm recording this with the hope of getting it covered by another artist. I feel that emotionally and lyrically it's the perfect song for a New York City that's re-emerging stronger than ever."
Ask Chris Kennedy some stock questions and the answers arrive in free-associative style:
Who would he love to have cover one of his songs?
"Tony Bennett, Johnny Cash, Bette Midler, Jack Klugman."
What's the most difficult lesson he's learned as a songwriter?
"Broken hearts are a dime a dozen."
Where and how does he write?
"With a handheld recorder in the car or the shower. Later I figure it out on guitar or piano."
What's his perfect fantasy setting for writing?
"A champagne-filled hot tub at the Playboy Mansion in 1960, with Sammy Davis, Jr. tickling my feet."
Lost in the past? Not a chance. He is most definitely "in the moment" when it comes to the often harsh realities of life as a songwriter. "The business of songwriting is joy, breakdowns, therapy, heartache, medication, booze, money, no money, luck, no luck, blizzards in Vancouver, heat waves in Shreveport, sheer adrenaline, love, utter despair, dreams come true, suicides of friends, barbeque, hatred, breathing and truck-stop showers."
Chris Kennedy has been down a road or two, and now he's paving his own route, more than one incarnation at a time. Keep an eye out for him, and expect the unexpected -- the smart money says he'll deliver.
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