I had the pleasure of interviewing Ken Stringfellow who an accomplished solo artist and a member of the Posies
Background can be found here:
Kendrickmusicfreak: When and why did you start playing?
Ken Stringfellow: My interest in records was very early. I’ve talked about this a lot in interviews, but my general conclusion is that as a very young child, I was very perceptive and sensitive, and was very alone in this, definitely did not relate to the other kids my age etc. Music, the great composers at first, and then, popular music, spoke to me. I can remember being very small, 4, 5, and listening to classical music and realizing I understood exactly what the composer was trying to paint, emotionally. I just got it, intuitively. Hanging with kids at school, I was clueless. But music I got. My parents saw how into their records I was and bought a piano and encouraged lessons, when I was 9 or 10. I was a hopeless piano student but it got the ball rolling.
Kendrickmusicfreak: Which instruments do you play?
Ken Stringfellow: Any keyboard instrument, I even played accordion with REM sometimes. I play guitar, bass. All manner of percussion. The guitaret, an obscure (and beautiful) instrument from the 60s. I sing, program electronic instruments, and so on.
Kendrickmusicfreak: What was the first tune(s) you learned?
Ken Stringfellow: Yellow Submarine. I was at a dinner party, with my parents, just some adults talking around the table, and me, the only kid. I was really bored. I discovered in the TV room there was a guitar and Beatles song book. I realized the little grid above the piano staff must be a diagram for guitar chords. So I worked out the song that night. And thus, I learned to play guitar.
Kendrickmusicfreak: Which famous musicians do you admire? Why?
Ken Stringfellow: None. But I do know some pretty wonderful people.
Kendrickmusicfreak: What genre of music do you consider your work to be? Who are your major influences?
Ken Stringfellow: I don’t respect genre, really. I’ve worked with musicians all over the globe, in different styles, different languages. Of course…it’s all music. We were able understand each other when we were playing. My major influences are my friends. My colleagues, many of whom are great players, producers, writers. I have a great network of musicians to draw inspiration and answers from. We play each other our latest work, and get feedback and bravos.
Kendrickmusicfreak: Where have you performed? What are your favourite and least favourite venues? Best and worse experiences?
Ken Stringfellow: Oh my goodness. I’ve performed…who knows…5-, 10-thousand shows? In 73 countries and counting (adding San Marino this coming week). I’ve headlined Glastonbury (twice), Rock in Rio, Byron Bay. I’ve played Budokan, Red Rocks, Madison Square Garden…a lot of things! A favorite venue. Well, I love the Hasenschaukel, a tiny little bar in Hamburg. It’s wonderfully decorated, and the music comes first there. The vibe is so good. Least favorite…hmmm. Well, sorry to say but Gabe’s Oasis, in Iowa City, at least when we played it a decade ago, was disgusting. The bathroom looks like an abandoned autopsy room from some tropical country you definitely don’t want to die in. The load in/out is up a fire escape, two stories. Totally dangerous. I mean, maybe it’s not even the worst but it was pretty unpleasant. As for the best experiences…I can’t begin to count. Jamming with Neil Young at the Bridge School show is up there. Singing with Ringo Starr, jamming with John Paul Jones. Neat, right? But sometimes, my humble little solo shows to 100 people can be just…awesome. And I think I do my best and most meaningful work there. I’ve had some great shows at the King’s Arms, once opening for Tim Finn, really special. I will say when I played in Bhutan, the first American to do so, I played in the only rock venue in the country, which had just opened. They had cover bands, usually but I played my stuff, it was great to connect to an audience with such a narrow mutual context…it was an epic evening. From my solo performance of two hours, to jamming with the cover band on Neil Young tunes for two hours…and then playing ANOTHER bunch of solo songs, until the police came at 3am and shut us down. I loved it.
Kendrickmusicfreak: Do you find it easy to write lyrics and do you have a process or does it happen naturally?
Ken Stringfellow: Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Just pray for rain and keep at it. That’s all one can do. Sometimes I’m out walking and the song starts to write itself right there in my head, it’s like I’m not even doing it, just witnessing something happening beyond my control; sometimes I slog away at a piece of music for months and the words just refuse to assemble themselves. It works out, eventually. Just have to be patient.
Kendrickmusicfreak: A lot of artists don’t like to look back at what they have done and preferring to move forward. How do you view your body of work? And what if any is your favourite alum and why?
Ken Stringfellow: I’m quite ok with my past work, without making a big deal of it. I’ve got a lot of albums in the works at the moment, all of which I’m into and deeply committed to, so the future is really more compelling. I don’t look backwards to other music much, either. I’m fond of a lot of things, but my listening time is precious and limited (I’m always working) so I should be hearing new sounds.
Kendrickmusicfreak: What does an average day/week look like for you?
Ken Stringfellow: Basically, I’m in my studio, which takes up two rooms in our house in France. Either mixing, or perhaps there’s someone who’s come to work with me, to have me produce their work. I get up, get my daughter to school, sort thru the morning mails, and try and be mixing by ten. If the weather’s nice, we have lunch & dinner in the garden. Sometimes I cook, sometimes my wife Dominique. I try and wrap in the studio by ten pm, and hang out a bit with the family before we all go to bed. But, for countless hours, I am deep in the music. Our life here is simple, we live in a small city, and not in the center. We have a market twice a week near us, we buy most of our produce there. We enjoy time together. We went to a wine fair the other day in Vouvray, which is near us. Of course, I go on tour, or go to produce records in other places, and then these little routines are put aside. This year, with no major releases yet, there’s not been much touring, but the end of the year should get busy.
Kendrickmusicfreak: How has being on a major label to being an independent artist work for you. What are the main differences? And how has self funding worked for you?
Ken Stringfellow: I was an independent artist first, of course; the Posies first album (Failure, 1988) was a self-released cassette at first. I’m pretty good at navigating ways to make a living, and I’m frugal. The major label promotion for the Posies albums was invaluable. I wish we could have sold more records for Geffen, we really did try. At the same time, we were pretty uncompromising about our music but still, we toured hard and did all the promo asked. We didn’t sell millions, but we sold …who knows, half a million, all told? The main difference is the insertion in to mainstream radio and media that really only the majors have access to. It’s pretty handy. But there’s still a life without it.
I just did a crowdfunding campaign for an album, it went well. My solo albums, I just paid for ’em, I just saved up my pennies and that was that. Whatever needs to be done, right? Just see what opportunities come up in the moment.
Kendrickmusicfreak: What is coming up for you next (albums, tours etc)
Ken Stringfellow: I just completed the mixing for a country western concept album, based on my solo song “Doesn’t It Remind You of Something”, which is a duet about two hapless…lower echelon drug dealers, I guess? Anyway, over the course of 14 songs, written and performed mostly with my friend Holly, we tell the tale of the couple, from their more innocent beginnings thru to their tragic end. We borrowed the format of Willie Nelson’s “Red Headed Stranger” album, the same number of songs, instrumentals, etc.
We have guest appearances from a number of great musicians, from the US, Australia…Matthew Caws from Nada Surf is the Narrator; Vicki Peterson from the Bangles sings a tune; French singer Keren Ann joins us for a song. It’s called The Record and you can preorder it on LP, CD or download here: http://www.pledgemusic.com/projects/kenandholly/
In the meantime, The Posies are working on a new album for fall release. We had a rough week as our drummer of the last 15 years, one of our closest friends, died suddenly and unexpectedly, cause as yet unknown. Still, we plan to continue, finish the record. It took on an entirely new meaning, certainly.
Kendrickmusicfreak: What are your Essential 5 albums that you own.
Ken Stringfellow: I don’t know if anyone ‘owns’ an album anymore. In light of that, I will list some things that I’ve heard or worked on lately that I really enjoy
1) France can be kind of musically backwards, but one artist here is doing it right — Melody’s Echo Chamber. There’s vintage sheen to what she does, very organic, very spacious. She might be really famous internationally now, I wouldn’t know, but she’s not that well known here, so worth mentioning.
2) Andy Shauf — The Bearer of Bad News. This is one of those bedroom masterpieces. Andy is from Saskatchewan, and made this gorgeous record in the basement of his home. Playing everything — drums, horns, strings…it’s pretty formidable. He has a band live, really good.
3) Eva Auad — Rules of Romance This is an album I produced, I’m incredibly proud of it. Eva is a phenomenal singer, and composes wonderfully rich music…I think of the album as Astrud Gilberto meets Prince…and taken way, way out there. It’s a mix of piano and electro beats, but not run of the mill in any way what so ever. Totally original. It’s on iTunes, Spotify, etc. But of course, a CD can be had here: http://www.bastamusicstore.com/products/eva-auad-rules-of-romance-compact-disc
4) Sweet Gum Tree — The Snakes You Charm & The Wolves You Tame another quality French artist. The string arrangements on this album are out of control. Isobel Campbell sings on one of the songs. Very good songs and arrangements.
5) Gretchen’s Wheel — Fragile State http://gretchenswheel.bandcamp.com/releases Another record I produced, I loved how it turned out. Lindsay, the artist behind the name, doesn’t play live, hardly, ever. She lives in a little town in Tennessee. And I thank my lucky stars she was brave enough to make this record, and make it with me. She has a beautiful voice, she has absolutely zero pretension or artifice. She writes what she feels, and delivers it with passion. She’s a big Nada Surf fan and I hooked her up with Ira to have him play drums on the album.