Sunday, April 3, 2011

Songwriters: Billy Kernkamp

How do you stand on the technical approach vs. playing-by-ear approach in your songwriting?

First and foremost, as far as songwriting is concerned, I just think of it like telling a story. I’m storyteller, that’s what I do. So as I approach things, I feel that it has all been done before. It really has, every style, everything that you wanna say, it’s all been done. But with that being said, I think what you have to do as a writer, musician, artist, or performer is to realize that it’s the vessel: it’s you. It’s you as the individual. That is what you’re getting out in these little pieces of art that you do. It’s like informing your instincts or emotions, and what you take in --what you read, movie, life. Also how you train your eye to see things. So I think that’s where it starts with song writing, and any art. Training your eye, finding the echo, and finding yourself.

It definitely is a process.

Yeah it is. And technically, I’m a knucklehead. I don’t know a whole lot about much, but I know how to string some chords together and what key I need to play in. What I try to be conscious of, as far as when I’m approaching a song, is the style of the song. I don’t want to do any re-treading. I don’t want to repeat myself.

You don’t want to have the same ten songs in a row, because the audience will ultimately be bored and not get the message, right?

When I’m writing, I don’t really think about my audience. Since I’m a storyteller, I can talk and bullshit for hours and hours. What I love about writing songs is, that when I get into that zone, I can kind of relax and focus on one thing and get this nice little crystallized idea, and if I can get that across, awesome. Once it’s out of my mind and off of my chest, then it belongs to the audience. Then I feel it doesn’t belong to me anymore. So that’s what I love about the songwriting part, cause that’s where I think it is intimate.

Are you writing everyday usually?

I’m always thinking about lyrics, ideas, chord changes, melodies. I feel that inspiration is always there, and it’s a constant filtering through emotions, but it’s the ones that stick. Cause sometimes you’re writing, and even at this time, as long as I’ve been doing it, I still think my good ones are like high school poetry I’m embarrassed about. You’re always taking in life and filling the vessel, having conversations, and you’re always in tune with that. I don’t think that artists feel more than other people. That’s bullshit.

So people that aren’t musicians get their incite from how artists view the world? Even if people can’t play, they can still appreciate music, right?

That goes with what I believe. A lot of artists I respect, they really put themselves on a different level, and that’s bullshit. I think once you do that, that creates this elitist idea, and that separates you from this consciousness and collectiveness that we’re all a part of. And I think you’re missing the point if you’re on stage and you’re singing down to the audience. You want to be able to connect with people. I don’t think that, as an artist I feel more or hurt more. But I do feel that we deal in emotions and we are more aware of how we are feeling, and where we are mentally. To say that people don’t feel as much, then we wouldn’t be selling music and art. Emotions are innate, and we all deal with the same basic fundamental things in life--we were born, we die. We fall in love, we lose love. Religion, and everything in life. We all feel those things. As an artist, it’s your job to filter out and find those moments in your life, and hopefully you learn something about yourself. And in your writing, hopefully your listener can connect and find some sort of relationship with that song.

So everything has already been said in song, but the beauty of it is that we’re in a different time. There are a lot of elements that have been around forever, but then it’s also clashing with this new day and age. So how do you keep things new as an artist?

I think that’s the challenge, but everything comes from the vessel. Everything that you put out, comes from you. So you are this big processor, and you’re taking in all this stuff, and that’s what makes everything distinct and different; it’s you and what you bring to it. Time, sure, I think there’s a lot to be said about that. They always say, is it the time or the musician that makes him great? I think about that a lot. As an artist, what has always been relevant has been being in tune to society, fads, technology, and all that stuff, and then speaking against that. You have to be on the contrary to whatever that mainstay is. So if people are sensitive to that, and then comes the technology and corporate boom, suddenly people naturally head towards the folk vibe. I think as an artist, when you are dead, that’s when someone can define you. I think if somebody can put their finger on you and you’ve become this mold and this one-dimensional thing, then you’ve lost. I don’t want to be defined. I don’t mind if someone wants to put me in a genre, but as far as myself, I don’t want to. Once you’re there, you’re not going to get out of that. Keep yourself sensitive to what’s going on around and don’t buy the hype. Just always be in tune to yourself and know the direction that you’re trying to take your craft, and hopefully something special will come from it. I’m partial to Roots music. I love the prosaic nature of Blues and Folk music, and the idea of finding the beauty in this mundane life we all share. That’s where I come from when I’m writing.

So what are you working on currently? Do you want to break it down a little bit?

When I build a song, it’s usually an idea that I start with. I’ll hear someone say something interesting and pick up on it. For a new song, “Cryin’ to be Spent,” I was recently at Target and a five dollar bill flew out of my wallet, and the cashier was like, “That five bucks is crying to be spent!” And I thought that was such a cool phrase. Before that, I had already had an idea, because I like to juxtapose two ideas against each other and I love to use dichotomy. So I started with a preacher and a gambler--simple archetypes that are always against each other. Then I started to think, how do I bring this all together? So I’ve got, “cryin’ to be spent,” and I like the idea of this preacher and the gambler, and I feel like I am a little of both. And then I just began to write. These two ideas came together and it worked. When you do get that spark, ‘cause you are always taking in things, then you attack with urgency. That’s how I feel. Just let it happen, and then you write and write until it’s out and it’s right, and then let it go. You get these moments where you know there’s a story to be told here, and then you attack. I always know what I want to do with a verse, and I’m always thinking lyrically, and hope that the melody comes. But I don’t want to give anything away with the first verse. I know what it means to me, but I don’t want to spill my whole wad, ‘cause it’s more about setting the tone and feel of where the song is going, and I keep it a little bit more ambiguous. Second verse is for informing, and then the chorus galvanizes the messages of the verses. It’s like any foreshadowing, just adding those layers to show where it’s going. I don’t want to be too straight forward, because it’s about creating the right kind of imagery and setting the right kind of tone. I’m informing my listener of what’s going on, but you want to allow them to gain their own perspective. I think that’s what brings a listener back to a piece. Leaving the holes in the seams-- that’s where the listener finds himself.

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