I’m going to guess that it was Chris Triggs of the La La Lettes who turned me on to the Kintners, a rootsy, Texas-based songwriting duo consisting of husband and wife Kelly and Keri Kintner. After all, a quote from Chris appears prominently on their web page: “Keri’s voice is like the angels.” Add to that heartfelt lyrics and honest, homespun musicianship—not to mention Kelly’s always-insightful Twitter feed—and it’s easy to see why so many other singer-songwriters (Brian Lambert among them) admire the Kintners. Curious as ever about the ins and outs of making music in the midst of a constantly-changing cultural and technological landscape, I was very pleased when Kelly agreed to the following interview.
I’d describe your sound as “rootsy” and reminiscent of the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? What draws you to this style of music, and how might the style complement your approach to songwriting?
We generally write songs with scenes and themes. We were feeling “O Brother” that day, I guess. If you’re referring to “Smoke and Mud.” Some days we feel James Bond, or Southern Gothic, or Hudson River. But that’s a huge compliment to be connected with that film as the music Director is T-bone Burnett, one of my heroes.
You recently taught someone to use GarageBand, and they consequently announced that they were going to become a singer-songwriter. Of course, anyone who’s ever tried to write a song knows that it’s more than a matter of having the right software. What is songwriting for you? What are the challenges, and why do you find it rewarding?
That’s a loaded question. Songwriting for me is basically me keeping out of trouble. Some people have video games, some people get lost in their work, if we didn’t have these things then we might turn towards self-destruction or something. I feel like songwriting is something productive I can do with my time. Improvement and achievement are the rewards. Just like in video games when the numbers go up, when I hear old recordings compared to new ones, I feel like I “leveled up,” ha ha.
Definitely! I’m also thinking about being an independent singer-songwriter as opposed, I guess, to an artist on a major label. Why do independent artists—and, of course, their art—matter?
Have you ever watched any of the race cars with all the stickers of companies they represent? Hey, being independent might not enable you to race on the big track, however, you don’t have to race at all if you just like cruising. You generally start out on the small races anyway.
Your song “Smoke and Mud” will become available on all streaming services on December 30. I know you’ve described yourself in the past as “not spiritual,” yet the song employs quite a bit of Biblical imagery. I’m curious as to how those two influences came together in that song, and also how you might see them at work in the world at large, particularly as they relate to the larger themes of that song—namely getting past temporary, albeit substantial, obstructions in order to gain a clearer perspective on life?
I was trying to evoke mood and atmosphere with those lyrics. My wife was helping me with her biblical knowledge. I just can’t think about old South without thinking about the Bible. I just had to incorporate the darker imagery from the Bible in the song when it started heading toward the swamp. Each verse, thanks to my wife, is a character. The first verse we have the main narrator, then the second verse we have Paul who was blinded as Saul, then David, then Jesus in the garden. Just because I don’t feel the Bible most days, doesn’t mean it’s not all around me.
“Smoke and Mud” also represents a team effort. The notes on your Bandcamp page describe the track as a “Collaboration on Twitter featuring a cast of all stars including Brady Jo, OrangeG, Kev Sharp, Jeff Harrington and crew.” Can you say more about that collaboration—how it worked, challenges it may have posed, how you overcame them? Or, more positively, why you enjoyed it?
Nearly everything we do is a collaboration on some level. We are currently working on an album where there are probably 20 or 30 people, I haven’t counted lately. I like writing the songs and performing acoustic and vocals if need be, but that’s about it. I would rather have professionals in other areas do the other stuff. I just think it makes the song sound better. Brady and I have been working a whole year on the album coming out at the end of January. Hopefully. We’ve broken a few computers on it. Sure it’s challenging with all the personalities and timetables. But you can plan for that. It’s all about trying to make your songs presentable to non-musicians. In our case we find it takes a lot of work and a team effort.
Who are some other artists you’ve enjoyed working with? What do you gain from such collaborations?
This is my favorite question. Bkbirge is amazeballs, as is Kev Sharp. Mixedbyadam has incredible ears and skill. Ben Shaw and Roger Brainard are frequently on my call list. Some of the best work I’ve ever done has been with Nathan Peter Illes. I’m going to build more about the people I work with on the website when the album comes.
I often get the sense from your Twitter feed that you’re looking for a sense of community among songwriter and musicians – and, more broadly, among music lovers. How well is Twitter meeting that need? What can it be doing better, or what might a better platform for genuine dialog about songwriting look like?
I’ve been on Twitter in the mornings for years and I have a sense of community there. But unless I try to keep it going it fades out like a match in the rain. This morning in fact I just started a private songwriters club on Facebook. And we have a website. I don’t feel like it’s Twitter‘s responsibility to make musicians better at hooking up. Twitter is fine. But it’s more like hanging out backstage with musicians than it is on stage in front of an audience. There’s a lot to be gained from it, it just may not be what you’re looking for.
I know that you work in a music store. Do you find a sense of community there?
I find local music scenes cutthroat and generally unnecessary for writing good songs. Maybe it’s just Texas. I’ve never had much luck with local music. As far as trying to develop community.
I’m also wondering if people still know what to do when they enter a physical store. Back when I worked in a music store—just as the internet was taking off—I liked meeting all the people who would come and go. It wasn’t just a place for business transactions. It was a place to meet fellow musicians and just chat about music. What’s it like in today’s world?
Most people who come into the store just come to hang out. That’s wonderful and we like it. We will even make them a cup of coffee.
You’ve written some music for film. What do you do to protect your work? Why is that so important
Movies won’t look at you if they feel like they’re going to get sued. So they’ve established protocols for songs before they even look at them. Register with BMI or ASCAP is the first thing. One or two googles and some good luck and you’ll be on your way.
In terms of “the industry,” such as it is, how do you navigate the streaming world? It’s clearly designed to financially benefit platforms like Spotify as opposed to the artists who make the music, but if we want to be heard, we have to play by their rules. How do you decide what to share with streaming platforms and when to share it, as opposed to making it exclusively available on sites like Bandcamp?
It’s simply not anyone’s responsibility, in my opinion, to blast my music to the world. I don’t know where this notion comes from. I am not entitled to an audience. But maybe if I keep working at making songs people want to hear, they’ll tell their friends about me. Then they’ll come see me play. I love Bandcamp because it feels like another circle of friends who support each other and listen to each other’s music, and I love those circles.
What do you have on the horizon? Any big projects?
We have an album coming, every song is a collab. Brady Jo is doing the production and BK Birge is doing the mastering.
Thanks for taking the time to talk to me, Kelly! I really appreciate it!
Thanks so much for having me!