Carrie Elkin

Quick Q and A with Korby Lenker

Korby Lenker is very much a modern-day troubadour.  He’s criss-crossed the country and plays in many far-flung places. His most recent album. Thousand Springs, was recorded in a number of highly atypical locations like amidst the natural beauty of his native Idaho and in his father’s mortuary.  Korby’s performances are always enlightening and entertaining.  His songs are simple yet contain many layers and one discovers more and more musical treasures with every listening.  Highly recommended?  Hell, yes!

To learn more about Korby, check out his website.

Here’s a video for his song “Northern Lights.”

I’m always interested in how people first get interested in the arts.  Do you have a pivotal moment in your childhood where you can recall being called to literature, music, or any other of the arts?

There was never any music in my house growing up. I can’t remember a time that either my mom or dad ever bought a CD or sang along with the radio. Ours was more of a sports family. I found my way to music because my mom and dad tried hard to be good parents, and part of that strategy involved giving their kids music lessons. When I was 8, they arbitrarily assigned my little brother the violin and me the piano. We weren’t really asked if that was something we wanted to do. It was just, “you now have piano lessons every Tuesday after school, and we expect you to practice for 30 minutes a day.” Of course I hated it at first, but as soon as I got the hang of it — how chords and melodies worked together, how music was something you could do yourself — it was a revelation. It was incredible to me that I could play the songs I heard on the radio, or on TV commercials. Scott Joplin’s ragtime style was the first thing that blew me away as a kid. I still love ragtime piano.

I was (and am) a shy person, but very early on I discovered I really enjoyed performing, and from the beginning I was kind of told by the people around me that music was something I was good at. So I just kept at it. It wasn’t something I was determined to do, like a goal I set for myself. It was just something I enjoyed, so I did it.

In 8th grade I started playing guitar with this Mormon kid who was in my same grade, but who was a lot better (and more disciplined) than me. He showed me how to play chords, how barre chords worked. When you are a beginning guitar player and you start being able to fret a barre chord, you feel like you can do anything, play any song, because in a way, you can. Me and my guitar pal started a band in ninth grade called Clockwork Orange. We were pretty serious about it, rehearsed twice a week and played wherever we could, which mostly meant junior high dances at the farm towns scattered across the Magic Valley, and the occasional county fair gig. Humble origins, but I learned a lot about how to be in a band, how to rehearse, how to promote and get paid. All that stuff.

You asked about literature —  I’ve always been a big reader. My mom used to read to me a lot when I was little. One of my earliest childhood memories is being on family vacation, driving across Canada somewhere, and my mom reading aloud to my little brother and me. It was Where the Red Fern Grows, and it got to that part where Old Dan and Little Ann sacrifice themselves in front of the mountain lion for Billy. And we’re all just bawling in the car…books have always set my mind on fire and made me feel a lot of things…plus the impression a book makes tends to last much longer than one in a movie…anyway, I definitely read more than I listen to music. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad, but, well it’s true.

What was life like for you while growing up in Idaho?  As a greater Boston resident most of my life, it’s difficult for me to imagine growing up in what I’d consider an isolated and somewhat alien (but beautiful) state!

Growing up in Idaho was so great. It was simple in a way I of course took for granted, also very beautiful. I realize looking back that I still view the world with a certain kind of naiveté. My parents — my dad in particular — had very high expectations for my little brother and me. I guess it would be called a strict upbringing by today’s standards. We had to chop and stack wood every summer and then bring it up to the house in a sled throughout the winter. Stuff I hated then, because no kid likes chores, but I see now how special it was. There’s such a pleasure in splitting wood with an axe — the sound it makes when the steel hits the round, the heat that comes off a freshly-split log, the smell of the sap, how bright the yellow of the wood. So many beautiful things, ancient stuff you know?

The simplicity of it was limiting too. I mean, it was Mormon country, and rural, so I was off the grid in terms of anything pop culture. Plus my parents weren’t into music beyond what was in the hymnal at church. But when I was about 14 I became friends with this kid Nelson, whose parents were pretty cool, for Twin Falls Idaho. Nelson’s dad had an immense record collection and was always buying music. That’s when I started listening to Neil Young, Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Don Henley, Jackson Browne, you know, the folk rock canon. A few years later I got way into the Cure, like, all the records. In high school it wouldn’t be far off to say we were pretty much a Cure cover band, with a little Nirvana and Nine Inch Nails and maybe some Rolling Stones songs here and there. We used to make these tapes in my buddy’s basement, like, of the whole band recording live. This was before digital recording. We just ran a feed off the mixer into a cassette recorder. For some Idaho high school kids in 1992, the tapes sounded pretty good. But my singing, haha it was sooooo bad! I basically imitated whoever was singing the song we were covering…..Korby sings like Mick Jagger, Korby sings like Trent Reznor, Korby sings like the guy from Echo and the Bunnymen. Just terrible. But, it did provide a pretty great opportunity to try on a bunch of different voices in a relatively judgment-free environment. It wasn’t like there were any other bands in Twin Falls Idaho then.

You make no secret of the fact that your father was a mortician.  Not to be morbid but was death just a normal way of life for you?  It sure must have taken the mystery out of it for you!

Pretty much whatever your parents do when you’re growing up – that’s normal. We didn’t really think anything of playing in caskets as little kids or waiting in the embalming room next to a dead body while my mom and dad discussed what we were going to eat for lunch. I said that my dad wasn’t musical, and that’s true. But he is a really sensitive person, and was when I was growing up, too. He would write these poems – not learned poems necessarily, but from the heart. Like, if a child died, or a baby, it would really affect him, probably cause him to question his faith – and he’d bring home these little poems and my mom would put them in the sock drawer. By the time I graduated there were maybe more poems than socks in there…I definitely got my love of rhyme and meter from my dad.

I remember hearing that you were in a rock band during and after college, I believe.  Did you attempt to make a go of it?  Did you tour at all?

The high school band — well, we always knew that the Mormon guy would go on a mission and then BYU, and that’s pretty much what happened. I was also more into writing my own songs, more like love songs and folk songs and stuff in line with what I do now. When I was 18, I got married and moved out to the Washington State, to a little hippie college town called Bellingham. I took a year off and worked at a camera store at the mall. I built an electric guitar from scratch, went to a bunch of Phish shows, rode my mountain bike everywhere….got divorced a few years later — about halfway through college — which was around when I discovered bluegrass. It was like a lightning bolt moment for me. The whole thing about bluegrass — that it’s simple and song-oriented but technically very difficult — it was just something that appealed to me on a lot of levels. Also bluegrass festivals were a revelation. It was about music, about people playing music together, not about being on stage and having a cool haircut or some bullshit. I’ve never been very good at affecting a persona or cultivating intrigue or something. And bluegrass music was just, can you pick? Can you sing high and lonesome?

I pretty didn’t listen to anything but bluegrass for about 5 years. While I was still in college I started this band called the Barbed Wire Cutters and it just kind of hit. Our first show sold out the club we were playing at, and then about 2 months later the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack dropped, and suddenly everyone wanted to hear bluegrass music. I ended up touring with that band for about 4 years. It was a full-time thing, we made a couple records that weren’t that great but the live show definitely had its moments. I loved those guys and being in that band and when it broke up I promised myself I was never going to be in a band again. Being in a band is like being married to five people. It’s a heartbreak factory.

How did the switch to solo singer-songwriter come about?  Are there advantages to only being responsible for your own career and being able to do what you feel like doing at any given time?

While I was in the Barbed Wire Cutters, I made two solo albums that were more about the songwriting and less about the picking. There was this guy in San Francisco who worked for Disney when it had a record label division — he discovered me on CD Baby. I think he just called me up one day. We started talking and about two months later he ended up flying me down to SF to cut a record. He put a bunch of money into it and we released it in the UK with a press push and stuff and it made something of a splash. Bob Harris spun a song on his program and I ended up touring the UK and playing on all the BBC stations…I mean, the first time you tour overseas, it’s just the best. I was walking around in a daze the whole time.

When I came back from Europe I started producing songs. I made this bluegrass gospel record that I’m still really proud of — called David Goliath’s Old Time Gospel Hour. And then I moved to Seattle and made a rock record called King of Hearts. For whatever reason, King of Hearts kind of counted, locally. The hipster station KEXP was spinning the shit out the single and I got management and suddenly people around the scene cared. I spent about a year opening for everyone from Ray Lamontagne to Nickel Creek to Keith Urban even. I played Sasquatch and Bumbershoot, which are the two big festivals in the Northwest. When it cooled off I was like, I’m moving to Nashville.

Do you feel the muse bugging you at all hours of the day and night?  Are you the kind of writer who has to jump up out of bed to write something down or start a song in case it goes away by morning?

I feel everything bugging me all hours of the day and night. I don’t sleep very well. I also, like a lot of artists, fight a constant nagging sense of failure and insecurity. For weeks at a time, I can kind of accept that and work in spite of the fact that I think everything I do sucks, and then suddenly I’m like, wait you are going out there and EMBARRASSING YOURSELF AGAIN HAVE YOU NO PRIDE?? haha stuff like that. I’m a basically depressed person. That’s not that unusual, I don’t think. Creatively, I like simple writing with moments of cleverness. Not too much cleverness, otherwise you start getting proud of yourself and your writing starts winking at itself. But it has to dance a little. So I’m always jotting down rhymes and little ideas, like, all the time. Singing into the phone, whatever’s around. There’s very little organization to it and sometimes I forget about or lose stuff for years. I tend to be fairly organized in the business side of my life, but the art part has to have a high degree of randomness and chaos for me or else it feels contrived. Art has to reach for the stars, every time. It has to want to be ecstatic. Or else it’s boring. And if there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s a boring song.

Have you felt like your style has changed over the years?

Yes. At the beginning I loved songs but I couldn’t play guitar very well, so I leaned hard on writing and singing. Then I got so I could play guitar ok, so I started incorporating stuff that was fun to play on guitar. Then I fell in love with bluegrass, and only flat picked and practiced with a metronome all the time. Then I thought I should try to play electric guitar, so I kind of went John Mayerish. Then I saw John Mayer play and I was like “hahahahaha you well never play like that guy. He was born to do that, you weren’t.” So I got more into producing. Learning beats and stuff. Then I wrote a book, and I realized that what I’m good at is words and stories and meaning, and that I’m best when I don’t try too hard. Then I spent about 5 years playing about 700 shows solo, and I got so I really really liked playing solo, because I can do all the things I do, and talk to people and be with them, and I’m not hiding behind a band. I try to play the show I would want to see. There is a lot of variation, song to song, in terms of theme, tempo, approach, guitar-style. I also improvise a lot of my stage banter and try hard to stay in the present moment.

That was a long and potentially unhelpful answer. Basically l like really good songs that make me feel something. And less is always more.

You’re very much a DIY kind of guy.  Tell our readers how your latest album Thousand Springs was recorded.

I’ve lived in Nashville for more than 10 years, and have made a couple records the Nashville way — great studio, producer, top shelf musicians — but after my book got published, I realized that what mattered to me more than anything was story and meaning. I wanted this record’s story to be something more than “well I hired this famous producer and these great guys.”  I also just wanted to make a record the way I wanted to make it. In cooperative creative environments (like working with a producer), I tend to defer to the loudest voice in the room, because I like people to get along. In the past I feel like I’ve made some creative compromises I wasn’t, in the long run, happy with, so this time I just wanted to be absolutely responsible for every note, beat and moment.

I did a kickstarter and got a little bit of money, and bought some recording gear and a battery — the kind of battery used in climbing expeditions and stuff. Real heavy duty. Then I drove out to Idaho where I grew up, where music started for me, and recorded the songs in all the beautiful places, places that were important to me as a kid. The Snake River Canyon, Craters of the Moon National Monument, a little cabin north of Sun Valley, my dad’s mortuary…all these special places. It took about two weeks to record the guitar and vocal for each song — then I spent the next six months on the road, playing shows and recording different friends in different places. It was important to me to record people who were personal friends. In the end there were about 30 artists from the folk scene that made up the musician list — Carrie Elkin, Anthony Da Costa, Amy Speace, Critter Eldridge, Zachariah Hickman, tons more. My friends. It was such a joy making the album because it was really done one person at a time. I’d be in Portland, Oregon with Anna Tivel and we’d have coffee and catch up and talk, and oh let’s just try to play a few songs here…it was very meaningful to me.

I should say that two of the songs were not recorded in Idaho — one was “Book Nerd” which I recorded at a bookstore in Nashville called Parnassus Books. And the other was a song I wrote about Chief Sitting Bull called “Last Man Standing.” LMS won the Rocky Mountain Folks Fest song contest in 2016 and I recorded it on the Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota, just a few feet from the Sitting Bull Memorial.

You’ve written a terrific book of short stories called Medium Hero.  Your little snippets of life are poignant and so real.  Have you had any instances where you’ve been able to make an inspiration dovetail into both a song and a story?  Or do your inspirations clearly call for one form over the other?

Honestly I haven’t really tried to do anything like that, yet. Writing a good song or a good story is really difficult. I don’t understand much about what is happening in either process, I just try to follow the thread from inspiration to the 15th edit. Trying to incorporate the two is an interesting idea, but usually once I finish, say, a song about a subject, the last thing I want to do is to try to recast the idea in another medium. More interesting to find a new idea. That may change, who knows? Anything is possible.