As I stood watching a pair of totem-wielding, bro tank-clad twenty somethings take bumps of coke off of their hands during Billy Joel’s headlining act at Bonnaroo last weekend, I struggled to understand what more than fifty thousand dusty, sunburned millennials were doing listening to an old guy from New York who hadn’t released a studio album in 22 years and whose most iconic song is about singing in a Los Angeles piano bar in 1972. The Cocaine Bros. seemed to be having a good time, but the rest of my demographic group — even the ones who knew all of the words to “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and “She’s Always a Woman” — seemed bored, as though being there were part of a to-do list assigned to them by their parents’ record collections.
Indeed, at a festival where the lineup of youth-catered mega-acts consisted of Kendrick Lamar, Childish Gambino, Mumford & Sons and Florence & The Machine, it was hard not to walk away feeling that the archetypical pop singer/songwriter — an ostentatiously campy figure largely modeled off of Billy Joel’s goateed face — is a dying breed.
But for one bright moment at the festival’s smallest stage, Kevin Garrett, a young multi-instrumentalist and singer working out of Brooklyn, showed that there is undoubtedly still room for an updated version of the songwriting our parents fell in love with in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Blending subdued synth-pop keyboards with the most powerful and controlled falsetto at Bonnaroo, Garrett and his band drew a crowd much larger than their small stage warranted and kept them there with his hilariously demure stage persona.
Punctuating his intensely emotional songs with a slew of endearingly self-effacing jokes, Garrett’s practiced unconfidence belies a consummate performer who has spent nearly a decade cutting his teeth in New York clubs and, since last fall, as an opening act for some of the best songwriters of the last fifteen years, including Norah Jones and James Vincent McMorrow. After landing a management contract with Jay Z’s Roc Nation, his most recent release — April’s Mellow Drama EP — included “Coloring,” which premiered on Pigeons and Planes and attracted attention from VH1, Billboard and Spotify. He maintains a busy touring schedule, including stops at Mac’s Bar in Lansing on Thursday and at Electric Forest this weekend, and continues to hone his songwriting abilities as he works on his next EP.
In a June 20 phone interview with the Michigan Daily, Garrett discussed his performance at Bonnaroo, his background as a musician, developing his stage persona and his experience building a career as a live-focused singer-songwriter in the age of Soundcloud and internet rap.
Just doing a Google search on you, I see that there really isn’t that much information out there about your background and where you came from, so could you tell me about where you got started, how you got interested in music and singing and how you decided that pursuing music as a career was something that you wanted to do?
I started music when I was really young — I started on the violin when I was four or five. I sort of played that all the way up to high school, and then it got me into college. Along the way I picked up anything else that made noise, you know. Guitar came kind of naturally and that was what I started writing on in my freshman year of high school.
And you’re from Pittsburgh originally, right?
Yeah this was all in Pittsburgh. Once I got to school in New York — I went to NYU — I started sitting down at the keyboard again just because I had to, for the classes I had to take and stuff.
You were at NYU for music school?
Yeah, I went there for music technology, so a lot of knob turning. But yeah, the music core also. The keyboard, though, that was probably my favorite part. I still play the violin, but after playing it for that long and going into college, I was kind of burnt out on it and keys were something that I never really had time to sit down and figure out because I never had a piano, and you can’t really get that much work done at high school or at a friend’s place. So it was cool that that was sort of forced upon me in college, and led to me figuring out on my own.
But writing, that’s all very natural. When I got to New York I was going there for music school, but once I started doing shows and saw that I could hang that’s when I sort of told myself that I might as well give this a shot.
You mentioned when we were speaking at Bonnaroo that your band got started very recently …
Yeah, our first show was in September and then we didn’t have a very busy schedule, it was just New York and Pittsburgh, essentially. When I started touring in November that was all solo.
And the band you’re working with right now, is that a fixed group or do you have a rotating lineup?
The two guys I’m working with right now (drummer Sean Mullins and bass/synth player Jeremy McDonald), they’re the guys that are on the record. I’ve known them for a long time, I’m very comfortable playing with them and going along with that I’m very comfortable … actually I’m never comfortable confronting people but I’m more comfortable with them just because I know them so well. When we have to navigate through issues and stuff in rehearsal, up on stage and everything, it’s just a nice vibe with those guys. I think stylistically it was a no-brainer, because the stuff they played on the EP we also play for shows. That kind of stems back to the whole do-it-yourself mentality, it’s every part of making the record, playing shows, recording, the production and stuff, it’s all one and the same in some aspects. Those guys have been a part of this project since starting out.
Speaking of Bonnaroo, could you tell me a bit about what that experience was like?
That was my first time at Bonnaroo, and I’ve never really been to a festival like that before. It was a really eye-opening experience — we stayed for some of the main stage acts like Childish Gambino and Mumford & Sons and we caught a little bit of D’Angelo, even though he went until like 3:00 a.m. But yeah, it was good, the number of people who came together to just chill was really cool. My only gripe about it was it was just so hot, kind of dangerously so. But it was a good experience.
You did a set at the new music tent, and I wanted to know how you thought that performance went.
Yeah, like I said it was our first time down there. I wasn’t really expecting anything, we were at the new music tent. I knew that we had some friends down there who were going to come to see the show, but we ended up with a much larger crowd than I was anticipating. The whole time we were there that stage seemed like a passing moment more than a destination, but I think we made it into more of a destination during that set, which was really cool. It was fun, and I’m hoping we’ll be able to come back next year and play on a bigger stage.
You definitely seemed to get a great response from the crowd and I saw that they were lined up to talk to you after the set, what kind of things were they saying?
Every new show that I play with a crowd like that, especially, it’s usually because I’m opening for somebody, and every time I open I try and steal that person’s fans because that’s really the reason I’m playing, that’s the reason I want to be there. With this one, though, it was different because on the Bonnaroo website you can check in on the lineup and schedule who you want to see, essentially, and there were a handful of people who came up afterwards and said they had checked us out on the website and just had really nice things to say. We were taking pictures and stuff, it was a pretty chill post-show hang off to the side there. But yeah, a lot of people were making comparisons, telling me what acts I reminded them of — I also have an EP out, they were telling me what their favorite songs were. It was really cool because I saw a lot of people out there singing along. So equal parts organic and people who already knew about me, it was a good mix.
Since we’re talking about live shows, I wanted to hear your thoughts about being a touring musician nowadays, especially when so many people get their start on the internet with recorded material and live performances are sort of a secondary thing. It seems to me that you’re really getting started the old fashioned way, doing tours and going out and meeting people at your performances.
Yeah, that’s a cool question. When I first got to New York for school and started playing out, I was very much brought up in this sort of DIY culture that I surrounded myself with in college, we were all trying to do the same thing. So playing shows was step one before getting blog love or anything like that — you had to impress your friends first, and everyone else hopefully follows, you know, word of mouth, that type of thing. When I started really touring with my solo project, that just happened. I don’t know if there was a plan to focus on that first — I think I would have loved any attention coming from any direction. With James Vincent McMorrow, he sort of hit me up and offered me some dates last November, and that carried on into February. Similar to everything so far, it’s been really organic. I don’t think there was every a sit-down moment where we said “We’re going to do it this way.” But touring is definitely, I think, more so than the internet, the most personal way to attract a fanbase. That’s why I like sticking around after each show to meet as many people as I can — a lot of people come to live music events and shows and relish in the chance to talk to the people that play. I’m obviously much more accessible than the headliners, so I can give them my attention for a few minutes and that makes a huge difference. But yeah, I don’t know, I think touring is just the most direct way to reach out to people.
Speaking of the writing process, you say that it comes very naturally, but I was reading an article on Pigeons and Planes about your song “Coloring,” and you mentioned how that song was about being afraid of getting too real with people, being afraid of letting your guard down. So I wanted to ask you how that sort of dynamic works out, especially when you’re doing music that is so pop-based, when that kind of music is about wearing your heart on your sleeve, how do you balance that stylistic necessity with an aversion to opening up about your feelings?
Yeah, on the EP and on this album I’m working on … I guess it all starts in the writing, and the part of the writing that is the lyrics. I’m a big fan of subtlety — I think that writing songs, talking about “Coloring,” I usually write completely by myself and it’s the type of thing where I don’t have to worry about talking to anyone about anything, so getting vulnerable and getting real is much easier to do when you’re in your room, right. But I’m still very cognizant of the fact that people are going to be listening to this, so I’m working on actually opening up. I think the most personal song on the EP is this song called “Never Knock,” and the whole EP with the exception of that “Coloring” song is very self-reflective, even though it seems kind of geared toward a relationship or an aspect of a relationship. With the album and the EP, what I have been working on with the writing is to sort of be staring at myself in a mirror and kind of saying “What’s going on?” is what I’m trying to capture and trying to describe in some of these songs.
Thinking about writing music in such a personal way, how does it feel to take that and go out on tour with it and put it out in front of all of these people who are, in a way, watching you tear yourself apart?
I’m aware that I’m doing it, and that’s all I can really say about it. When I get to the point of performing the songs, it’s the type of thing where it’s like this is not for me anymore. That’s evinced by the fact that I play shows and there are people singing along, that definitely changes the mood for me. But at the end of the day it’s still music — I’m playing stuff that invariably involves my feelings in playing it, but it’s still music and if people are vibing along to it that kind of alters the mood for me a little bit. It helps, I think.
During your performance, it seemed to me that you have a very particular stage presence, a kind of personality you exude, and I wanted to know about developing that — if it’s something that came naturally or if it’s something that you had to work on and perfect.
I remember when I first started playing you could kind of see it, and I had another band all through college where you could kind of see it, it was just different because it was a bigger band and I had another guy on the mic and we were just kind of bantering and stuff. But with this project, it’s like myself but just kind of having to perform, so there’s this sort of anxious energy that you get when you’re in front of hundreds of people or thousands of people. So when people started commenting on the sort of personality or image that I was presenting — and this started when I was in college with this other band — I kind of noticed, picked up on some things that I did repetitively, show to show. It was sort of becoming, not a bit, but definitely some kind of persona, I guess. I think it stems from … I’m not good at it, but I have a lot of respect for comedians and the standup mentality that you have to take on. Comedy and music are very parallel to each other in many ways, you’re basically creating something that didn’t exist before and commenting on whatever aspect of life. I’m always working on it, that sort of dry, awkward dude that I’m channeling, but it has been working so far. Looking ahead, there are probably some changes to be made. I used to talk a lot more in between sets or in between songs and even have some specific jokes that I would say at every single show — there was a point where people who had seen me before would request a specific joke that I did at every show. That was really cool, even more than people singing the lyrics to the songs, it’s like “Wow, you were really paying attention.” But yeah, I think it’s just the type of … it’s largely me being myself, but definitely my attempt at just sort of, you know, this dry, sad kid.
You’re getting an increasing amount of traction, being featured on blogs, getting all of these opening spots for big acts … what is that experience like, going from this band just starting out in September to performing at Bonnaroo?
I think anybody that has a taste of … I don’t know if you would call it success, but just buzz — a lot of the time, and this goes back to the DIY thing, hustling. I’ve been hustling for a while, five or six years in New York, just doing it. It was a really slow burn for a while, just playing for the same thirty people in clubs until our last show in New York, there was a line around the block, which was unbelievable to me. I think the things that have happened so far have been crazy, the people on Twitter and Instagram, the articles I have seen. The craziest part has probably been that this process is so organic — I don’t have a proper publicist and I’m not signed to a label, there’s not loads of money going into getting these press outlets. So it’s just really cool that people have been responding to the music.
I don’t really notice my star rising, so to speak — people have told me that that’s the phrase — it’s just cool to see people coming to the shows, paying attention and that stuff. It’s very rewarding after all the time that you put in. So I’m excited to see what happens with all of this, I’m knocking on wood on my side of the line over here. I’m hoping I can take it a bit further. But yeah, having people’s attention is weird. I’m at the point right now where I’m just so grateful, focusing on just getting to the shows on time and playing the right notes, waiting to see what else comes out of it.
But you’re not just a live act — your recorded material is a big part of the process as well.
Yeah, I came out with an EP in April that was called Mellow Drama. It was a long time coming, getting that music out, not having a label or anything.
Speaking of not having a label, do you do your own recording and mastering and all of that?
It’s actually not that dissimilar from actually having a label, in that I’m paying people to come in and mix and master all the material, but it’s definitely more out of pocket, finding out what favors I can get or what friends that I know that work in certain studios. It’s a different vibe, but it’s good and bad — you’re your own boss and working on your own schedule, you don’t have to worry about what song is the best for radio. The bad part is that it costs money, so you really have to put your head down and just bulldoze through everything.
Though you do have a connection with Roc Nation — how did that happen, and what is that like?
It’s a cool story — I was living in New York and this guy who works there, he sort of heard the music in the office one day, somebody was playing a demo, and then he gave me a call, I was actually at home in Pittsburgh, and he’s like “Yo, you have to come to the office right now,” and I’m like “I can’t right now, I’m at lunch with a friend getting sushi,” and he was like “Alright, tomorrow then.” And that was the end of the call, I was just like “Cool.” So I drove to New York the next morning, very early, and I just kind of sat down and my actual publisher from L.A., she was there, it was a really cool meeting. The sort of vibe I got from Roc Nation was very good to me. It just had this whole family kind of vibe, and everybody really seemed to be in my corner. It was just kind of flukey, how it all started, and then it jumped to management and it’s been good so far.
And what do you have in the works going forward?
Yeah, we did the EP in December, recorded it, over January and February it got mixed, we put a single out, and we dropped it in April — I say “we” because it’s like me and the voice in my head, I’m always like “we did this, we did that,” whatever. We’ve got a few more tour dates this summer, first in Toronto, then out to Lansing and Electric Forest in Michigan, then a couple more after that. I think there’s maybe some more music in the pipeline that’s coming out soon, it’s a matter of working through some strategy around things. I’m just recording the album, it’s almost done — for a while I’ve been saying that it’s written, but I finally had some time in Pittsburgh to myself, and started writing some new songs that I’m really excited about. I know the first eight songs that are gonna be on the album, and the bottom four or five are in a kind of revolving door right now. We’re exploring some different opportunities, and I have been really lucky to be able to go back and forth with Roc Nation and my other manager and the members of the band, everybody’s excited.