Songs With Scenes and Themes: An Interview with Kelly Kintner

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!

Right When It’s Right: An Interview with Brian Lambert

I’m not sure how long I had been following singer-songwriter Brian Lambert on Twitter when I really started to take notice of him and his work, but over the past week or so, something about his posts really started catching my eye. Maybe it was a reference to Brian Eno’s oblique strategies. Or his recent cover of Wham’s “Last Christmas.” Or the fact that he once played the part of Buddy Holly onstage. Or his yearlong quest to write and record a song a week for a full year. Then again, maybe it was just the overall theme of kindness and generosity that pervades his tweets that made me want to learn more about him. Whatever the case, I’m glad I did, because his big-hearted indie rock reflects an impeccably crafted blend of eclectic interests. 

What inspired you to embark on your fifty-two week song challenge, and how is it going?  

Thank you for the opportunity to discuss the challenge and things music and social media.  The fifty-two week Song Challenge was born out of a desire to showcase what is hard to show – talent, specifically the ability to write a lot of songs.   I write anywhere from thirty to fifty songs a year, but that was a hard thing to demonstrate.   The idea of showcasing that process one week at a time and taking people along for the ride seemed the way to do it.  Also I had never felt like I had really ever made a great recording.  Pre-pandemic I was performing three to five times a week and heard “you’re much better live than in your recordings” so much that I wanted to finally get the magic down on tape, so to speak.  Throw in the obsession for mixing and mastering that came as a result of lockdown and a Fifty-Two Week Song Challenge is born.

Has anything about writing and recording a song a week surprised you? Have you learned anything interesting about yourself – or about songwriting – from the experience?  

I think I was surprised by how much I still have to learn and will probably never stop learning.  Probably the biggest songwriting and performance lesson has been about the connection between melody and really hitting the right notes, both from a pitch sense but more about how certain melodic experiences create an impact for the listener.  One of the questions I find myself asking now that I didn’t before, but is the foundation for all I do now, is what do I want the song to do?  What I mean is, how do I want it to make people feel?  Lyrics have always been my focus, but people don’t pay attention, myself included, until the music makes them feel something.  Once you have someone’s attention, they can really hear what you’re trying to say.  

You definitely got my attention! Early in the challenge, you mentioned that your sense of patience was evolving as the challenge progressed. Can you say more about that? Why is patience so important for songwriters and creative people in general? 

Music is right when it’s right.  You don’t have to think about why your favorite songs are your favorite songs.  When it comes out of the speakers, it hits you.  I think as a songwriter you hear a song in your head but getting it to come to life requires sitting with something and listening until it tells you it’s ready.  Getting that right alchemy of beat, rhythm and melody can take time and so can capturing a performance that conveys the meaning you want.  Guitar parts matter, vocal parts matter, and you can’t edit them into existence.   Early on it would sometimes take three hours to really nail the feel and that can be frustrating.  Being patient with the song and taking an attitude that you’re exploring until you find what you’re looking for was a challenge.  Now I’m much more intentional about really asking the question “What am I going for?” before I start. Listening to takes and asking what is missing or what needs to be left out has drastically reduced that time because you can definitely suck the life out of song by overdoing it.

I’ve been guilty of that myself sometimes! One thing that strikes me about your songs, though, is that you’re not only releasing a lot of music, but you’re releasing a lot of good music. These aren’t just toss-offs for the sake of meeting a quota, and you’re clearly thinking about producing a final product as opposed to a demo. What is your process like? What guides your approach to music production?

I’m definitely trying to improve every piece of work that I put out there.  The goal of this is to make a living off my recorded work going forward, so it all has to be good.  All killer, no filler.

My desire is to make music as good as the best music being made and the music being made today is exceptional.

The process really has evolved over the course of the project.  Recently I’ve been doing single mic acoustic recordings, which involves doing takes until I have the feel I want.  For my other work I usually start with some rough guitar and vocal to find a beat, then come back to create a bass line you start with the foundation of the song.  Then it’s a matter of putting down guitar until it’s the right feel, then vocals and solos.  I’ll ask myself, does it need synths and depending on where I am with things add those.  Then mix and master.  It’s not that exciting but when you’re producing a song a week where you’re performing the parts, you really just have to get down to it.

And come up with an attractive way of packaging it! I love the line drawings you use as cover art. Are those your drawings? 

Actually they are my fourteen-year-old daughter.  She really has a talent.  It’s ironic, I’m not particularly good at drawing but my dad is an amazing artist and was the head of an art department at a small college in south Texas.  My wife and both my children are really talented when it comes to the visual arts.

“Shade of Blue” cover art

Your song “Small Mercies” is extremely powerful, and the chorus, “Sometimes small mercies will make all things right,” reflects the sense I get from many of your Twitter posts that the world can use a little more kindness and generosity, especially when it comes to social media. Why do you think it’s so important to share that message right now? 

Once feelings start to get hurt like they have been over the last few years, you notice that the small courtesies or giving the people the benefit of the doubt start to erode.  When that happens meaningful communication can’t happen.  I think there was a missed opportunity with social media to practice kind communication.  Part of that was not connecting that there was a real person typing the words.  We thought words don’t matter but as we have seen though they do and can cause real damage.  The real opportunity that exists with social media is the opportunity to be thoughtful.  There is an opportunity to read a comment and question your own opinions/thoughts/motivations/feelings before sharing them out into the world and that opportunity is still here.   Social media has shown us there is pain in the world that needs healing but it won’t be healed in one big action.  It will heal with small consistent acts of kindness.

A lot of your earlier music has a bit of a country lilt, but your recent work has taken on more of an indie rock feel. What’s behind this shift? 

Honestly, the shift is back to what I was doing before I made “Country Music Jesus.”  Being from Texas I just have that accent and that’s how I sing.  My favorite band is Spoon, and indie rock is the music I love. That being said, I listen broadly to  music. I love Latin American pop and rock from the ‘00s, experimental artists like Brian Eno and Can, as well classic country and what is being called Americana these days. The move to country music was a career move. I live in Texas, so that’s what shows are available to play and get paid for. I have the right voice and can write classic country and story songs so it seemed like a good fit.  It was not. Country Music is a club and I wasn’t ever going to be a member, mostly because my heart wasn’t in it. The music I am making now is the most honest and true to my own musical tastes.

Speaking of “Country Music Jesus,” you sing in that song that you “ain’t got nothing against beers or trucks or America or being with your baby on a Friday night,” but you worry that contemporary country music tends to reduce its fans to stereotypes. I’m guessing this isn’t just true of country music but of all genres. It’s easier to sell music—or any commodity—to a narrowly defined market than to an audience with diverse and complex interests. Is there a way out of this trap, for lack of a better word? 

I believe this is a result of an algorithm driven world.  If things don’t fit neatly into a box then the algorithm doesn’t know what to do with it.  I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve submitted for playlists and gotten the feedback, “Great song, love the feel, it’s really good but doesn’t fit in with the other music on the playlist.” Well that’s because I’m trying to make something that you haven’t heard yet. If you want to listen to music that’s already been made, it’s already there. I don’t copy it. To overcome this trend, artists must continue to be brave and make different music. For the listener, I’m not sure how you build an awareness that they need to hear a diversity of music. I believe it’s the same as for any process, a diversity of backgrounds, viewpoints, and stories creates better outcomes. Music is the same.

Your most recent release is a cover of Wham’s “Last Christmas.” What attracted you to that particular holiday song?

That’s easy. It’s my wife’s all time favorite Christmas song.  Of course I don’t not have the gorgeous voice of George Michael, but it’s a well written song that lends itself to a different interpretation. Guys who like crunchy guitars get their heart broken too.

And just because I love Buddy Holly, when did you play the role of Buddy, and what was that like?

That was a lot of fun and a lot of work.  They basically came to me and said we need a tall skinny awkward guy from Texas who can sing and play guitar.  Can you do that?  It was funny afterward because people would compliment on the work it took to get Buddy Holly’s awkward dance moves down and I just said thank you, knowing that I was just doing me.  Musically it was an awesome experience because I had to learn 20 Buddy Holly songs and was able to do a deep study into what made his work tick.  It really improved my own songwriting and approach to doing music.

Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions, Brian! I really appreciate it!

It’s been my pleasure! I’m looking forward to chatting again soon!

“Black Boots”

As you may have noticed, I’ve been releasing a decent amount of music lately. In part, this is because I’ve been collaborating with other musicians like Timothy Simmons, The La-La-Lettes, and my cousin Vince as part of The Ministry of Plausible Rumours. Meanwhile, I’ve also been recording a few songs on my own, and the latest is a somewhat long song with a country & western lilt called “Black Boots.”

The earliest version of this song came to me many years ago with the phrase “I’m wearing my suit to the steakhouse tonight.” One of the couplets went something like, “I’m tired and lonely and looking to fight. I’m wearing my suit to the steakhouse tonight.” But sometime in 2020, I started playing with the idea from a different angle and it became “Are you promising to hold your tongue but looking for a fight? Are you wearing your black boots tonight?”

And as far as that “different angle” goes, instead of imagining a guy with anger management issues, I started thinking about a pair of sisters who don’t get along but who still love each other. This idea stemmed from a picture that my friend Jen Mitlas shared on social media of herself and her sister eating ice cream when they were children; the caption said something like, “See? Sometimes we do get along!”

Hence the first verse of the song: “Unfocused picture: You and your sister/Ice cream on Saturday night./Moment of detente,/You both get what you want/Before diving back to the fight.”

Of course, the song is a work of fiction, and I imagined that the two sisters were of different political philosophies–that one was a cop or in the military (“a warrior by trade”) and that one was ostensibly of a kinder and gentler bent but was, nevertheless, always the first to attack (or, in the song, “pull the blade” on) the on the other.

I also imagined that the sisters were twins, but I think that notion came about when I realized I could rhyme “Fighting each other” with “Inside your mother.” I just thought the idea of two children punching and kicking each other even before they were born was funny.

On the topic of rhymes, I felt like I was cheating a little when I rhymed “ice cream” with “ice cream” in the final verse, but I liked the idea that, as adults, the two sisters still set aside their differences to enjoy ice cream when they get together.

Musically, the song owes a massive debt to “Mississippi” by the Cactus Blossoms, which I first heard in an episode of Twin Peaks: The Return. I really liked the drum beat on that song, so when I bought a drum kit back in the Spring of this year (itself a weird story), one of the first patterns I tried to learn was the rhythm from that song. Once I had it down, I recorded it and built the rest of “Black Boots” around it.

Fun fact: The sewer pipe for my house runs through the room where I record drums. You can hear water running through it at about 3:28 on the song. Someone must have been taking a shower at the time. Either that, or they flushed the toilet. In either case, I actually thought the sound of running water was pretty cool, so I kept it in. Also, I didn’t feel like recording the track again.

My initial plan was to save the song for later — maybe to include it in an EP or an album, but then I saw a review of “Mine Forever” by Lord Huron on Jeff Archuleta’s (quite excellent) Eclectic Music Lover blog. Since the instrumentation on that song — especially the twangy guitars — was similar to the instrumentation of “Black Boots,” I figured Jeff might enjoy my song, so I sent him a rough mix and told him I didn’t really plan to do anything with it. But Jeff said he liked it, and since I’ve been a big fan of his music reviews for quite some time, I figured I had no choice but to release it… So here we are!