— Interview by Ryan Stone
You may not have heard of him yet but you probably will soon.
Kevin Garrett, a singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist from Pittsburgh by way of Brooklyn, has had quite an impressive few years, from getting cosigns from Sam Smith & Katy Perry to songwriting and producing for Beyoncé – and all off the strength of one EP and handful of singles.
Just last month (February), Garrett dropped his awaited sophomore project, another EP entitled “False Hope.” To support the album, Garrett embarked on his first headlining tour with openers A R I Z O N A.
Before his sold-out show at World Cafe Live on Friday, March 3rd, I had the opportunity to speak with the budding “odd soul” artist to see how his new music is coming along and much more.
R: First of all, congrats on the tour – the False Hope Tour – and also, the EP [“False Hope”]. How’s the reception been for that so far?
K: The tour has been pretty cool, I think almost all the dates have sold out, which is awesome. And I think at the shows you can kind of tell how many people have listened to the EP or not. It’s been pretty much every night, the songs that have only been out for a month now today (March 3rd), everyone’s been singing along, which is pretty cool. Online [the “False Hope” EP] seems to be received pretty well. I think a lot of people are just kind of excited for me to do anything at all in terms of new music, so while it’s not an album, at least it’s another small body of work that I’m super happy about.
R: Speaking of which, you’ve mentioned it in other interviews over the years and you’ve got the new EP everyone loves, but I wanted to know the status on your full-length LP because I know you’ve been working on it for a few years.
K: Yeah, the full-length album is kind of this elusive, mythical beast. But I’ve definitely been writing it for forever, for 25 years. I’ve had the concept for it for about four or five years now. I guess I’m just kind of continuing to build sort of what I’ve grown organically on the road. I want to make sure the album has enough space to breathe, because there’s so many huge releases and everything that are happening and I just want to be creative about it. Whether I’m independent still or whether I end up partnering with a label, either way I want to make sure the album has the right point of release.
R: So you’ve been working on it all this time, were the songs on the two EPs meant to be the album and they just kind of worked together [on their own] or were they specifically meant for the EPs?
K: No, “Mellow Drama,” it was the first EP and it was supposed to be a longer project. It was originally supposed to be a 10- or 11-song album. I never really had the intention of putting an EP out first, I was always an album person. Then I linked up with some management and was placed on a timer based around tours and stuff and needed to get music out. So I decided to truncate it so I can still tell the story I wanted to tell, but hold some stuff back and keep writing it in the meantime. It’s kind of strange [that] I ended up touring an EP for almost two years and that was great [*knocks on wood*], but I don’t know if I want to do that again for this EP. I think with the album itself, this second EP is a showcase of growth stylistically; showing people where I’m refining myself lyrically [and] production-wise. I guess for the album it’ll be a lot more of the same, still going to be probably sad, but we’ll see what happens.
R: Yeah I was going to ask you about that, you kind of answered another question I had. I’ve seen that you like to do comedy, you’re a fan of comedy, like, you’ll do little jokes in between your songs, but you think you’re going to stick with the more self-reflective style of songwriting in your music?
K: I think that when it comes to making those songs, I’m just trying to be honest about my experiences. I watched some interview the other day with Father John Misty and he was talking about authenticity [for music] is kind of synonymous with the word ‘empathy’ because you’re trying to connect with people and the more people that connect with you, the more authentic you seem in their eyes. It’s like if 10 people come to the show and only four of them relate to your music, then it’s kind of like, well, what are we doing? But if all 10 of them relate, then it’s like ‘aw yeah!’ But at the root of all, I’m trying to make a song or make an album that I can listen to and evaluate my experiences, and you can listen to it and you can connect in some way that makes you think about whatever’s going on with you in your own way. With the comedy aspect of everything, the experiences that I write about already happened, so more often than not, I’m not writing about something…or I’m not performing that song as the experience is happening to me, I should say that. When I’m writing it, maybe I am, but by the time I’m performing it, by the time I put it out, the moment’s already kind of passed on me at that point. So I’m just like, ‘let’s have fun with [it].’ Because if I’m going to sing about some completely sad stuff for an hour and a half, then I might as well try and lighten the mood.
R: When you’re making these songs, you’ve said that you’ve recorded a lot of these in your bedroom to start – or have they been fully done in your bedroom?
K: Well I write everything alone. With, I think, the exception of “Little Bit of You,” everything was created in my bedroom. “Little Bit of You” was done in a session, but then I worked a little production in my room with the other producer, Chris Loco. The three producers that I worked with on the [“False Hope”] EP were all in the UK, so we’re all going off Facetime and stuff, just emailing sessions to each other. Otherwise it was all conceived in my little spot. It’s kind of cool because I didn’t really have a big time on the first EP and I scaled down even more for the second one. It wasn’t by design, it was just the way it happened and being unsigned has an influence on that. It’s just the way it worked, I guess.
R: I don’t know how it was on the “False Hope” EP, but I know on the “Mellow Drama” EP, you worked a lot with Joe LaPorta and Ryan Gilligan. How did you link up with them, was that through Roc Nation or did you have a relationship with them?
K: No, a lot of the people I’ve connected with on that end have been through myself, not through Roc Nation. I was connected to Joe through Ryan, I believe, and then Ryan I knew from Pittsburgh actually because he went to Duquesne [University]. We had some mutual friends, actually someone who worked on the production-end of the first EP knew Ryan [and] we all knew each other from the same New York circles. Ryan Gilligan has this way about mixing where it’s so much more than mixing, like he breathes new life into the project when he puts his ears on it. He’s my first choice for anything that I want to release ever. And Joe, obviously, I keep going back to him because he always knocks it out of the park. It’s like, there’s a couple different ways to master: just make it louder or make it tastefully louder, and Joe can do both, but he does the latter a lot better for people. So I like both of those guys a lot.
R: Yeah, I mean, I was looking at their credits, they got some crazy people up there. Good friends to have!
K: Yeah they have some crazy credits, they work really hard.
R: You went to NYU for Music Technology and you have done some production on your own. Do you intend to do more production or do you think you think you’re going to stick more with songwriting?
K: Well I’m very involved in all my stuff, songs like “Pulling Me Under” and “Stranglehold”… “Stranglehold” went through about five different versions of production style before it got to the one we landed on. I remember making the demo for “Stranglehold,” which is the version that ended up coming out; just over the past two years being in my space, being in my headphones even just programming stuff out, like drum wise or finding sounds on the synths that I’ve gotten over the years, it’s been a learning experience. But school wasn’t where I learned production by any means. It was more of, like, a fundamental engineering class. We took like electronics courses and there was a lot more time learning how to solder things than how to record. But it was good, it definitely eliminated some middle man. In terms of creativity I definitely want to be the recording artist, but I don’t think that necessarily means I have to sacrifice production or anything. I think I can still be involved in that respect. There are a few artists that are doing that, like James Blake and Frank Ocean even who are very selective with who they work with and know what they want their sound to be, like, experimenting and stuff. It just comes down really more to doing rather than definition of your job title.
R: So then when you’re making your music, what is your set up looking like?
K: I use Pro Tools. I trained myself on Pro Tools, but I also really like Logic for MIDI. I don’t use that much MIDI, though, to be honest so I stay in Pro Tools for the most part. It’s just a little easier for me to edit audio in [Pro Tools]. I like a lot of analog gear: Moog, I use a sub-phatty for a lot of bass sounds, and then Dave Smith Sequential Circuits stuff, like the Prophet 6. We also use a Juno 106 a lot. I have a couple other DSIs (Dave Smith Instruments) and then, honestly, if I can’t get to a studio to record real piano, if I doctor it up enough, I like the Korg SV1 that I use on-stage. I’ll just plug it into my audio interface; I use the Apollo Universal Audio stuff for plugins and everything. It’s crazy what technology does these days. In terms of MIDI, there’s only a few things that I really go back to a lot: a lot of Native [Instruments] stuff and some of the Komplete sounds and then Soundtoys, it’s the best.
R: That made me think, I saw [in] an interview you were saying that sometimes you don’t like to start in a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation), because then you end up making beats. I was wondering if you ever dabbled in that because I know you said you’re also a fan of hip-hop, so I was wondering if you’ve ever tried to go [for] a beat style.
K: Yeah, I love hip-hop. “Pulling Me Under” off the “False Hope” EP started as a beat and also “A Heart Like Yours” actually did start as a beat, too, where I just kind of made a loop and then once I liked the loop enough, then I started building it out more. With “A Heart Like Yours,” I wrote the whole song musically before I ever had any lyrics. “Pulling Me Under” has that sort of groove that you can kind of loop any 8- or 16-bar phrase and get the point across, so it was pretty easy to write that one through. When I have more time with my gear, with my computer, I spend more time making “beats,” just creating in Pro Tools. But there’s still something about just being at a piano or being with your guitar and writing something just like that because the possibilities are a lot more endless. I think that’s what I was trying to get at because I have so much respect for producers that can go in and roll out, like, 20 beats in a session and sample things instantaneously. But at the end of the day, you just have a bunch of beats, there’s still no song. So I would rather, more often than not, write a song on guitar that’s like ‘oh, this is a strong song’ and then it can be produced in different ways. There’s pros and cons with both of them, I think, because if you write a good song then it’s like ‘OK, well how are we going to produce it if there’s so many ways to produce it?’ Like “Stranglehold,” it went through five or six different versions. Then when you have beats, now we just need the song and it’s the hardest part.
R: When you write your songs, I know you said that you do music mostly first and then the lyrics. Are you notating these or are you just putting chords together, like how does that song process work?
K: I’m not really transcribing anything. I kind of have a sense because of school and my musical background what I’m playing. If I don’t record it into Pro Tools, like a demo or something, then I’ll just throw the ideas into my phone or if it’s so good that I just know I’m going to remember it, I just will finish it or know that I’ll come back to it in a second and it’ll still be there. Usually – I don’t know what it is, like what in my brain that connects the two, but if I handwrite the lyrics on a legal pad or whatever, that’s when I lock in the music and the lyrics simultaneously on one instrument. I noticed I’ll come across a notepad filled with songs that I’ve written and I’ll look at them and just read the words and start to remember what I was playing, which is kind of promising for the old noggin!
R: Yeah, yeah.
K: I try to a lot more lately to be a little more proactive about remembering or taking into account different ideas because even in the middle of the night if I’m sleeping and something comes to me in my dreams or something, I don’t remember. I’ve probably forgotten so many cool things because I’m too lazy to wake up and sing it before I go back to sleep. That actually happened to me the other day now that I’m thinking about it. It was, like, a melody that I had come up with and I told myself, ‘alright, I’m just going to sing it into my phone’ and I fell asleep. When I woke up, I was like “shit!” I totally forgot.
R: [*Laughs*] Now what about violin? You were pretty much trained on the violin and you played a little bit of violin on the Noble Hunter project. Are you planning on putting violin back into your music at any point?
K: I did, yeah. I played violin when I was four or five. I forget, it was so long ago. Noble Hunter was my old band from college and there was an EP re-release of some of the songs off the album where I worked with some guys in the band to [reharmonize] everything with strings and I played violin on that. It was really fun. I think my music now is a little more geared towards pop/R&B production… I have so many opportunities, like bucket-list moments of being at a piano and just having a cello accompanying me singing something. So [I’m] just kind of waiting for the right moment I guess to bring strings back in.
R: I actually didn’t know that Noble Hunter was a thing until I was digging through [some interviews], but I came across that and saw that you played the violin and listening back to your work I didn’t hear it, so I was curious.
K: Yeah, it was in this project called “Noble Hunter: Reimagined.” It was just five of the songs off the Noble Hunter album – it’s only on Bandcamp, I think – and I remember it was the same year that the album came out, in 2012. I went to the bass player like, ‘I want to do this where we can just put strings on everything, more acoustic, less percussion and stuff.’ Then he’s like ‘cool, let’s do it’ and it sounded great, it sounded really cool. That was around the same time when The Lone Bellow was happening and NPR was having a field day because all the music that was popping was that sort of folk vibe. I think that’s coming back maybe in the next few years, but I don’t know. Right now, at least what I’m proud to create and what I’m really into is more along the lines of electro-soul. But again, like I said, if I’m playing by myself, a cello makes everything better so hopefully we can make that happen.
R: Yeah, I mean Kanye did it so…
K: Yeah right? [*Laughs*]
R: Are you still in touch with the members of Noble Hunter? Do you work with them at all?
K: Yeah, we all kind of went our separate ways once we left school and everybody wanted to do different things. Noble Hunter, it started out as a – it didn’t have a name for the longest time, it was just the Kevin Garrett Band because I had all these songs written and I knew I didn’t want to do it myself so I wanted to give it a name and use [it] like a vessel for my music. By the time that album ran its course playing the same gigs and doing a couple little regional tours, I ended up being the frontman being the sole writer and also being the manager of this band. And you could kind of tell that it was just a lot to account for, so much more than just making music. I think that wasn’t really anything that caused any problems, but I just started writing this new direction with songs like “Coloring” and “Come Up Short” and “Pushing Away.” We had already stopped playing shows, so I was like ‘alright, well I’m going to do this.’ Everybody’s been super supportive. I think we all kind of knew [the break-up] was coming, so it wasn’t any bad break-up or anything it was just like, yeah, college.
R: Between then and the two projects you’ve been working on – you also have a few loosies/singles up on SoundCloud – do you have a whole computer full of old or unreleased Kevin Garrett songs that may or may not see the light of day?
K: Yeah, I remember there was a semester I took of songwriting, “Songwriters Forum” – you can’t teach to anybody, but some people think you can so they make these classes in school and I took one, just to kind of see why everyone else wanted to take it and I learned very quickly why. It’s because I think the majority of students thought you could teach songwriting and they could be better songwriters because of it and that wasn’t the case, it was more of a showcase. And I remember I made a catalogue after that semester because the teacher asked me to make it and I was just racking my brain of all the songs I made and all the different projects I had in my head. I think ahead a lot and I think hard too much to a fault and it was cool to compartmentalize everything that I had in my brain. So I have this banjo project [I was] working on, I have this “Noble Hunter LP 2” project that [I was] working on – there’s still a second Noble Hunter album, it’s still in a folder on my computer, we just didn’t get to it. It’s recorded, it’s mixed. And then my first EP at the time and then “Mellow Drama” the album and everything else and the [full-length] album that, at that point, I’m starting to conceptualize. I don’t even know where that is anymore. I think the better question is ‘where are all the legal pads full of lyrics?’
R: A shoebox full.
K: Yeah, there’s a shoebox under my bed, yeah.
R: That’s classic. I also saw that you were a big fan of Sam Cooke. You also mentioned Shania Twain.
K: Shania Twain, oh my goodness! Don’t even get me started!
R: I was the biggest fan of Shania Twain when I was a kid. I had all the cassettes and I used to blast them.
K: Yeah, man, exactly! You know you’re a fan when you say you have the cassettes, too, because that’s legit. Like there’s some younger people who are like, ‘oh my god, I have all her CDs.’ She wasn’t making CDs when she was hip, those were cassette tapes.
R: Do you like “Come On Over” Shania or more “Up” Shania?
K: Oh, wow. There’s a tweet that I had, I forget, I think it was ‘97/’98 or maybe it was ‘98/’99, but whenever “From This Moment On” came out. Now listen, I have so much respect for Beyoncé, “Love On Top” is a crazy song and it takes key change to a whole next level, but “From This Moment On” had a key change that was unbelievable. It had strings and everything and she’s singing and dressed and doing this thing…that was special. That was like…mm…that song, oh my goodness. She just got recognized at the Billboard, last year, Women in Music Awards. Long time coming, but yeah, she’s great.
R: Yeah I just wanted to throw that out there because I’m a mutual fan. Now in today’s day and age, everybody’s making music on the Internet and that’s how they’re getting there. Do you want to speak to the fact that you’ve been selling out shows – tonight (March 3rd) is even sold out – and, you know, performing? You’ve been doing this for the past, what, two-and-a-half years you’ve been on tour essentially? Can you speak to the success of building your fan base and everything on tour as opposed to the Internet?
K: I think it’s very old-school, right, to hit the road and expect something good to happen? I think I’m super lucky with the support looks that I’ve gotten. Looking back, James Vincent McMorrow has this built-in fan base everywhere he goes, he can sell out any room he wants with no radio play at all. He’s just now getting radio play on certain alternative stations, which is great for him. Then X Ambassadors, I went on their tour just as their one song was going really viral off the car [commercial]. Less than a year after touring with them, they have a song that’s [in] the Hot 100 with “Unsteady.” Then Alessia Cara, same thing, like “Here” was obviously a viral success and was already going on radio when it hit number one on pop radio when we were on tour. But then, right after that tour, she really kicked off and had the craziest year. I think that the looks that I’ve gotten in terms of opening has given me the opportunity – I like to joke about it – to steal everybody’s fans, but James Vincent McMorrow put it really honestly, he’s like ‘if you make good music, then the fans that come to shows, they come to shows because they want to see good music played live, and you can do these same rooms probably on your own after a few more tours.’ It’s kind of proven his point, like I played Lincoln Hall with X Ambassadors and I played Music Hall Williamsburg with X Ambassadors, and it’s the first of three just about a year ago and now I’m coming back and we sold it out. It’s crazy to think about that and, not for nothing, but Ryan Adams is in the basement [of World Cafe Live] tonight…I’m freaking out a little bit.
R: [*Laughs*] I did not know that.
K: Yeah, I got really lucky with the opening looks that I got and then Spotify has been very helpful and other streamers have been very helpful in their support and that’s how we consume music. We don’t buy CDs anymore, we don’t buy records as much. There’s still the novelty experience of getting vinyl and that’s obviously on an uptick, which is really refreshing. Record Store Day is cool and all that, but [*knocks on wood*], fortunately, live music has been something that I’ve been very lucky to benefit from and merch has been something that has been pretty cool, you know, I mean I’m wearing my own damn stuff. I work with the same designer on everything. We try to be really creative with lyrics and what we want to plug and what would be good for someone to just buy in a store anyway. Without really having a label, without having that sort of team to develop that in my career yet and no real marketing plan, it’s been cool to see people just coming for the songs. This isn’t a big production, obviously. It’s not anything with big lights or smoke and mirrors or DJ or whatever. And I’m certainly not crushing it on the charts or anything – maybe one day – but it’s cool to see. I didn’t expect any of the shows to sell out to be honest.
R: Quite a few of them have, right?
K: Yeah, I think almost all of them, like 19 out of 22 or something.
R: Wow that’s crazy, congratulations.
K: Thanks, man.
R: So then the last thing I want to ask then because you kind of touched on it, with CDs and vinyl, things like that, do you think you’re going to save that for the [full-length]? Because you did have CDs of the last EP, but [the “False Hope” EP] you don’t have right now [on CD]. Do you think you’re going to do that with the full-length album or are you sticking with the Chance the Rapper digital-only-type deal?
K: No, I don’t think it was by design, we just didn’t have enough time. The EP dropped on the third [of February] and I was already on tour and I wanted to make CDs, but the cool thing about the way I tour is that this is the first time I’ve brought a front-of-house and also tour manager, Ethan. Up until that point, I was always doing my own stuff. But even with [Ethan], there’s still, like, a million jobs that I’m a part of and just trying to stay healthy and everything and [making CDs] just wasn’t something that made it to the top of the list. I just announced some dates with Mumford & Sons and they were actually coming back to BB&T Pavilion, I think on the 25th of May or something, so we might have CDs by then. My dream goal is if I do a third EP to treat it like The Weeknd’s “Trilogy” thing and just put together as one big vinyl or some project. That’s super, way thinking down the road, it’s just my vision speaking for itself. But I’m happy with the way things have turned out with the tour and the project and the way it was created super on my own is something that I’m proud of, especially [with] the way I feel about everything right now.
R: Yeah, and the songwriting for Beyoncé and cosigns by Katy Perry and Sam Smith, it’s been a huge few years for you.
K: Yeah, Katy Perry I was at SXSW when that happened and her friend, I think, had seen me at South-By that year and I guess sent some music her way and Katy tweeted it out. It’s kind of funny because it was just like a random bike covered in snow on the tweet and then just a link to the song and everyone’s like, ‘who the hell is this?’ And then Sam tweeted about when I was in a parking lot in Des Moines, Iowa throwing a frisbee with my two guys in my band. Because, like I said, up until this tour, any other tour that I’ve been on, it’s just been me and the two other people in my band. I had to take a seat out to fit the drums in the Toyota Highlander – very DIY. Those people playing those songs and giving me that kind of support has been really cool. Those people that high up, knowing that they’re still just honest music fans is refreshing, especially someone like Beyoncé who is in her own league of legends.
You can check out Kevin’s EP “False Hope” below:
*This interview has been modified and edited from its original version for clarity.