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Living Well: the Story of Ryan Kerr
By John Hubner
Fort Wayne Reader
It's a great feeling when you come across an artist that comes from a truly honest place. That place where there's nowhere to hide and conceal the truth of creativity. There's no put-ons or gimmicky song and dance. The art you see is the art you get.
Singer/songwriter Ryan Kerr is one such artist. Living and raising a family in the quaint, college town of North Manchester, Kerr writes songs that tell tales of the everyday guy. The good and bad. The love found and love lost. He'll show up at a cafe, coffeehouse, garage, bar, basement, or a backyard. All he needs to tell his stories are a good pair of walking shoes and his acoustic guitar. Ryan Kerr is what the old timers call "the real deal.Ē
Kerr will soon be releasing his debut LP called Live Well. The title is apropos, as Kerr follows his own advice. He drinks up life like he has an unquenchable thirst. The record highlights his knack for creating little worlds within a two or three minute song, following in the footsteps of guys with names like Cash, Dylan, Springsteen, and Tweedy. Though none of these artists are necessarily maps to Kerr's own sound, he keeps that classic storyteller noir alive and well.
Kerr is currently on the road playing some shows, but he took some time a couple of days prior to leaving to talk with me about his life, his music, and his upcoming new album.
J. Hubner: So let's start at the beginning. Where did you grow up?
Ryan Kerr: I lived in upstate Indiana until I was about to turn twelve, mainly in Warsaw and Silver Lake. Right before my twelfth birthday, my family moved to Munfordville, Kentucky and my dad started working in churches. He eventually started his own and pastored it for a few years before we moved on. After that, we bounced back and forth over the Ohio River between Indiana and Kentucky quite a bit. He was on staff at quite a few churches and doing small home meetings for most of that time.
J. Hubner: When did you first start getting into music?
RK: My mom and dad have both always been really into music. My dad played in cover bands before I came along, and my mom sang in high school and college. After that they were the worship leaders at church. Music was always around, a lot of evangelical Christian stuff, sometimes some old Sun records artists would make it in the mix, Elvis, mostly.
J. Hubner: Who were some of the artists that had a big impact on you when you were young?
RK: When I was really young Contemporary Christian stuff like Audio Adrenaline and DC Talk is what I listened to. I started going to Cornerstone Festival when I was eleven, then it got blown wide open. Five Iron Frenzy and Mxpx were on the steady after that.
J. Hubner: So when did you first start playing guitar? Are you self taught?
RK: I bought my first guitar when I was eight. There were a couple of teachers at school that taught me a few basic open chords. I messed around on that now and then until my folks got me a full sized Lotus dreadnought when I was eleven and I started picking songs up by ear from the radio. So, I guess I am pretty much self-taught.
J. Hubner: When you started writing songs of your own who were some of the artists that inspired you?
RK: At that point I was listening to a lot of Tooth and Nail records bands. I had a couple of buddies who were big into Blink 182 and Green Day that would write lyrics and I would put music to them. We moved around a lot, like I said, so it was hard to find kids to play with. Iíd basically write three chord punk songs on my acoustic guitar and play them in my bedroom. Mxpx, Ghoti Hook, Five Iron Frenzy got me started, then I got an electric guitar and got a little older. Zao and Stretch Arm Strong were huge for me. I could list cool bands from then all day.
J. Hubner: We'll have to dedicate one whole article to cool bands we've loved over the years. Another time, though. Right now, let's talk about your debut album Live Well. It's been a work-in-progress for a few years now. Tell me about how the record came together. It's a great sounding album, by the way.
RK: Thanks! Iím really excited about it. I played a show in Warsaw, probably about five years ago, and a guy named Robert Lugo was running sound. I got to talking with him at the show and he said I should come and record some songs with him. It took a little while, but I eventually got into his home studio and we just kind of dove in with no real vision other than making some songs with me singing over acoustic guitars. We hit it off, became buddies and realized we had a lot of influences in common. At that point it took off and we started drawing from old Sun Records sounds, old r&b, punk bands we love, different kinds of percussion we like other than a kit. It just kind of snowballed into this big thing that neither of us planned for.
J. Hubner: When you play out it's mostly just you and your acoustic guitar, but on Live Well you're getting by with a little help from your friends. Who are those friends?
RK: I wanted the record to feel like a band, not a solo artist, so I asked Robert to play bass and help me with percussion. My friend, Alex Lewis, played all of the electric guitars except for a solo that my other buddy, Grey Gordon did. Austin Parish was hanging out at the studio one night and helped with stomps and claps that we recorded. Zachery Jetter is on the drum kit. Amara Gilraine came in and did vocals on a song for me. Robert and I would write organ and piano parts and then he played them, because Iím terrible at playing piano. I gave them all a lot of freedom to write their own parts, again, so it would feel like a band.
J. Hubner: What's your songwriting process like?
RK: I love story songs. I think the problem with them is that they can be tricky to write. When Johnny Cash says that he killed a man, I believe him; when Hank Snow says the same, I donít. I try really hard to be the believable guy, which means, for me, that I have to delve pretty deep into that character.
J. Hubner: So is it everyday life you look to for inspiration? Or literature? Lyrically you are very much a storyteller. Songs like "I Got A Son", "Ballad of a Lonesome Girl", and "Throwin' Stones" feel like these dusty, Midwestern novellas put to music. I may be overreaching here, but that's what I do.
RK: I pull a lot from books, movies, things that I see, people that I know. Itís probably not very fun to be closely associated with a storyteller, because chances are, you will end up in a story. I take a lot of freedom there, too. Sometimes a whole story can just come from a cool line I hear somebody say. Iíll write it down and ponder it for a while and see if anything shakes out. I donít know if I have a real ďprocessĒ. Sometimes music comes before words, sometimes vice versa. It would be nice to have it all happen at once, but my life doesnít really allow for sitting down and working out an entire song in one sitting. And thank you so much! The ďnovellaĒ thing means a lot. I want to be a good storyteller. Itís fun, and I think itís a real talent. I hope to become a great one, I donít think Iím anywhere close to that yet.
J. Hubner: I know you're a family man, so how does being grounded with a wife and children affect you as an artist? I don't often get to talk with artists that have so much more at stake. Most only have themselves to worry about. Being in a similar situation as you, I know that for me I have more purpose in creating knowing I have a family. Art really takes a backseat in my life nowadays, but when I do have the opportunities to create I feel it's more purposeful. It's a long statement for a relatively simple question, but I'd love to have your perspective as being a responsible husband/dad that happens to make great art.
RK: I agree wholeheartedly. Thereís something about writing something, and then looking at it through a childís eyes. it definitely makes some of the darker subject matter a little tricky, but it doesnít make me shy away. I want my kids to see me create. I want them to see me challenge what I donít agree with. I want them to see me work through the parts of myself that Iím not happy with. Mostly, I want them to see me run hard after something. Our children learn by example. Me being stubborn and playing shows for ten or twenty people a few hundred miles away from home and sleeping on strangers floors is a product of me watching my parents work hard and live with passion. They never quit anything that they believed in, and I donít aim to either. It makes it a lot harder. Itís frustrating sometimes for me when Iím hoping to get an hour uninterrupted to work on a song and the kids want to hang out. But on the flip side, itís frustrating for them that I come home from work, they havenít seen me all day, it seems to them that Iíd rather work on a song than dish out bodyslams and build forts. I think we have all found our pace with it, and theyíre getting old enough now that they are writing lyrics and Iím helping them put music to their own songs. I think itís a really special thing and I wouldnít trade it for the world. Having the most awesome and supportive wife makes things a lot easier. Iíve only got one shot at being a good dad and husband, and Iíve only got one shot at life and playing music and doing other things I love. In the end, I intend to be very tired and satisfied. Memento Mori, or something like that.
J. Hubner: I appreciate your insight. When will Live Well officially be released? Where will it be available to be purchased? How will it be available? Digital? CD? Cassette? Vinyl?
RK: Another ďI donít knowĒ here. The release date hasnít been set. Digital and CD are a big ďYesĒ, everything else is a ďmaybeĒ.
J. Hubner: So what's the plan for the rest of the year? What about 2016?
RK: Play as many shows as I can and work on the next record.
Keep up with everything Ryan Kerr, including shows and the release of his debut album Live Well, at ryankerrmusic.wordpress.com