Interviewed By: Stephanie Williams
If it were at all possible to hear a collaboration between Simon and Garfunkel, Louis Armstrong, and Randy Newman-the finished product would most likely be Wendell Kimbrough’s music off of his latest album Things That Can’t Be Taught (released Nov ’11). With a new release set in stone, Kimbrough went into full speed with his music career late last year that included a 20+ city tour that garnered him not only a loyal national fanbase, but also the opportunity to share a stage with the likes of Damien Jurado. With summer now in full-swing, Kimbrough set his sights once again on the DMV, as he does nearly back-to-back performances across the area. While he has seen success as a solo artist, it’s almost hard to believe that he was close to never pursuing music at all.
D.C. Music Download spoke with Kimbrough about the obstacles of getting started as a musician, how a bunch of homeless men became an unlikely inspiration, and how one out-of-tune piano would change his life.
For a (free!) download of Things That Can’t Be Taught, along with more information about Kimbrough, click here.
Catch him perform next on: June 7th @ Black Fox Lounge. Show 7:30p. Also, big show happening at IOTA Club on June 15th with Dean Fields and Andy Zipf. Show starts at 9p.
D.C. Music Download: At what point did you realize that music was not just a hobby for you anymore, but something that you wanted to pursue on a more professional level?
Wendell Kimbrough: I’ve been making music since I was a little kid, and I was writing songs since middle school. But, though I loved it, I did not plan to do music professionally. I told myself I wanted to do something more stable, “serious” and lucrative. But one year out of college, I started to realize music had a pretty big hold on my heart. I spent a year on The Eastern Shore of Maryland doing a graduate fellowship program in theology and philosophy, and during my year there, I attended a small African American Episcopal church in Unionville, MD. The music there was simple-only an out-of-tune piano as accompaniment-but so powerful that I found myself deeply moved from listening and participating each week. It got my heart stirring, and I began to realize I’d rather make music than do anything else.
From that point, it took me a few years to gather the courage to actually record some music, put it out, and start playing shows. I put out a little homemade project, Find Your Way Home, in 2009, and people liked it. So I took a deep breath and decided to plunge in headfirst. I invested the next two years in writing, performing, and producing the new album, Things That Can’t Be Taught.
DMD: When releasing Things That Can’t Be Taught, what message did you want to convey to your fans and listeners with this album?
WK: I don’t have so much a message as a set of convictions that drove the album. When we listen to music (especially the songs we hear over and over), we give that music power to shape us. It teaches us, for good or ill, how to deal with pain, how to celebrate, even what to celebrate. And I think the best music can steer us toward truthful ways to understand our lives. On the flip side, some music can do the opposite-teach us to wallow in self-pity or celebrate at the expense of others or treasure empty things.
So when I began selecting music for this album (out of 20 or more demos), I told myself I wanted all of the songs on the album to be capable of providing a soundtrack to a well-lived life. For example: I wanted songs that challenged me to push through pain and learn from it; and I wanted songs that helped me laugh and celebrate good and beautiful things. My hope was that if the songs could do that for me, they would for others as well.
DMD: With that said, what’s the meaning and inspiration behind the song “Two Ways To Be Worthless”? off Things That Can’t Be Taught.
WK: Ha! This one gets a lot of questions. I spent a year volunteering weekly with some friends at a low-barrier homeless shelter in D.C. It was all sorts of crazy-fun, challenging, humbling, sometimes scary and awful. I learned a lot from the experience, and I won’t go into it all here, but I will say it made me reflect a lot on my own life. I could see in myself some of the destructive tendencies that I saw in many of the homeless men: self-pity, blaming others for my problems. And it got me thinking that a run of bad luck could land me in the same place they were-hiding out in a homeless shelter, failing to take responsibility for myself or anyone else and focusing on how to medicate my pain.
So I wrote a song that was a letter to my friends entitled, “When I Hit Rock Bottom.” The gist of the song was giving my friends permission to confront me in what might strike some as a harsh manner if I should ever end up homeless. But as I was writing the song, I also realized that “hitting rock bottom” was not the only way I could imagine my life going terribly off track. Success, or what looks like success, can sometime be more devastating than failure. In the music industry, many will tell you that the goal is to be worshipped by your fans, have them hanging on your every word like you’re some kind of prophet. And that strikes me as kind of unhealthy. I think it’s why so many successful musicians’ lives are crazy.
It’s not that I expect to be some sort of huge success in music. But in good conscience, I had to balance the song, and it became “Two Ways to Be Worthless.” It’s partly social commentary, but it’s mostly just a request for my friends to give me some “tough love” if/when I need it most.
DMD: What keeps you motivated to do music?
WK: I love making music, and I feel like I have a lot of songs left to write-lots of unexplored areas musically that I really want to dig into. Add to that economic necessity: if at all possible, I ultimately want to support myself (and my family-I got married this year) by doing something I enjoy. So you could say it’s a combination of love for creating and necessity to make a living. That’s what keeps me going.
DMD: Thinking back to when you were first getting started as a musician in D.C., if there was one thing you knew now that you wish you’d knew back then, what would it be?
WK: If I could give advice to myself in 2007 when I first moved to D.C., I would say “Stop being afraid of failure and just start putting out music.” I have perfectionist tendencies, and you can add to that just generally how scary it is to say, “Hello world, these are the songs of my heart. I worked hard on them. What do you think?” It took me two years from the first time I thought, “I should make music,” to when I actually put something out. But I learned more by getting it out, receiving feedback, and going through the process.
In sum, I would say to myself, “You don’t learn until you take risks and fail. And the sooner you start putting yourself out there, the sooner you will start growing as an artist.”
DMD: What musicians or bands do you admire in the D.C. community and why?
WK: I like Jarrett Nicolay’s Mixtape project. I’ve been listening to it a lot lately–it’s solid songwriting and good production. Songwriting is the thing I’m most drawn to in music–good chord progressions and melodies paired with lyrics that have something to say and say it well. I’m also a big fan of Andy Zipf’s music for the same reasons–his last album Jealous Hands is full of great songs with beautiful lyrics, and it’s well produced.
I also love the D.C. jazz scene, although I haven’t been able to go to many shows in the last year. When I was out more, Quincy Philips and the Young Lions were blowing my mind. They’re absolutely incredible, but I don’t think they’re playing together as much now.
DMD: Any upcoming shows/gigs/projects that you want your fans to know about?
WK: I’ve got 3 D.C. area shows that are all really exciting for different reasons. June 7 I’m opening for a friend’s CD release at Black Fox Lounge in Dupont. June 15, I’m opening on a fantastic three-band bill at Iota with Dean Fields and Andy Zipf–both stellar musicians with great bands. And July 5th my band and I have a gig at the new Acre 121 in Columbia Heights. This is a great new venue-good for the neighborhood, good for the music scene-and I’m just excited to get to perform there with my band.
In terms of projects, I’ve got several things afloat. Right now I’m working on recording some old hymns, spirituals, and gospel songs with a few friends. That’s a lot of fun. I’m also excited about trying to put together a more formal band (not just support for my solo stuff) with some of the fantastic musicians I’ve gotten to know and play with in D.C. I’d like to do that as well as keep the solo projects coming.