[Interview] Hidden In Plain Sight: (Re)Introducing Kenna
It wasn't until I was preparing for my interview with Kenna that I finally sat down and did the math: I have been a fan of his music for over a decade now. This summer it will be 11 years since the day I first encountered "Freetime", from his 2003 debut, New Sacred Cow. I remember the day well. I was sitting in my parents house watching MTV2 with a notepad on the coffee table. This was my ritual when my friends were out of suggestions for new bands to listen to. Every few months, I would sit for about an hour and take note of any bands that were worth possibly buying CDs for and then go out and buy them, but only after quizzing myself a few days later when I would look back at the notepad and try to remember anything about the artist. "Freetime" easily passed my silly test. Soon after picking up New Sacred Cow, I set myself on a course that, unbeknownst to me at the time, would lead me to writing the words you are reading today. After moving to NYC in 2006, I would spend random lonely Friday evenings on my laptop, checking up on any bands in my 3rd gen iPod that hadn't released new albums in awhile. This is how I ended up on the Kenna message boards, which is where I met Rocko shortly thereafter, and around 3 years later, SKOA was born.
As a fan, it has been borderline infuriating to see such a talented individual as Kenna not get the recognition he deserves. Also during my MTV2 years there was another song that I remember taking note of, "When I Get You Alone" by the artist eventually to be known as Robin Thicke. Back then, he had long straggly hair and went only by his last name, but he's been at this game just as long as Kenna, if not longer. Although Kenna has gained a lot of recognition in many musical circles, even receiving a Grammy nomination in 2009, it's hard to not go bonkers that both haven't seen the same level of mainstream success to date. Granted, I thank the universe daily that there is nothing comparable to the notorious twerking incident at last years VMAs synonymous to Kenna's reputation. Even still, I don't know how much longer I can handle introducing people to someone who has simply been hidden in plain sight for a decade now. Take for example that video for "Freetime" that I saw long ago. Typically, debut albums mean a lot of exposure for the artist, their faces are supposed to be plastered everywhere humanly possible. In the case of Kenna, the first and only time you see his face in this video is practically at the end of the song.
Fast forward to mid-November 2013, a month before my interview with Kenna, when I see this familiar-looking face while I'm waiting for the L-train.
Imagine my surprise that the man who can't seem to effectively get in front of a large audience to save his life is suddenly staring back at me like this. A month later, I anxiously got on the phone seeking answers. I had to know, how could someone who seemingly didn't want anyone to know who he was all of a sudden have such a dramatic change of heart? Why had he been hiding all of this time? After a nice chuckle at my reference to waiting for the subway with him that day, the artist I thought I had all figured out very calmly explained, "I wasn't hiding as much as I was mitigating. I wasn't keeping myself from everyone as much as I was waiting to be introduced." He noted that I didn't quite understand what he meant at first, but he went on to explain, "If everyone had song that represented them, mine would be 'Where The Streets Have No Name' [by U2], because it has an incredibly long intro. I'm just getting to the first verse of my life." He added, "As many things as I've done in my life, I've been present, I've been aware, I've been available, but I've also been selective. I think it gives me an opportunity when a lot of my peers have really run their course, reached their pinnacles, and have done really well. They now are left really trying to, like, reinvent constantly. I'm able to come with a fresh perspective, make something that I believe is important, and actually present it because of all the music and artists that have come since that have started to, "pave the highway," if you will, for what I'm going to create next."
"If everyone had song that represented them, mine would be 'Where The Streets Have No Name' [by U2], because it has an incredibly long intro. I'm just getting to the first verse of my life."
That's the thing about Kenna that people take for granted. He'd rather patiently wait for people to come around to the music he's been creating for nearly two decades now before he'd consider compromising what he stands for. Even after losing literally every idea or completed song including his Land 2 Air Chronicles EP series slated for release throughout 2012 to a hard drive crash, he took it in stride.
According to Kenna, “The fact that I was willing to make a shift and be open to the message that the universe was clearly sending my way” actually led me to make better music in the long run”. He added,
"I also felt like it was also a signal to me that I needed to work harder, that the universe or god wasn't going to let me put out something that wasn't to par and that maybe at that point that I had resigned a little bit. Even as the [releasing the L2AC series based on Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay, "Self- Reliance"] idea was the reason why I was making this EP series, to bring this dream into a reality, I think I resigned to a little bit to the fact that there might be a chance that I wouldn't reach my destination. When that happened I just kind of decided, 'Even I won't have control over this destiny, there's something greater that me happening here, and there's something more important than me in this process. It's all the things I've been doing, whether it be philanthropic, clean water, technology, and music. All the areas that I work in, they all are comprised of so many individuals and so many powerful beings that allow me to be great at what I do. I think in that moment I had to realize that I can't do this alone, that I can't climb this mountain by myself again, and that I have to really pull together my allies. That's when, 'Nothing Is Greater Or Less Than Us,' really started to take hold in my world. I just kind of wanted to reiterate that in my actual life as an example."
I had assumed that he re-recorded the songs that he already had planned to release, but in addition to the previously mentioned hard drive crash, he writes his music asymmetrically. As he put it,
"Sometimes I'll be writing a song purely from a melody standpoint and not have any instrumentation and I'll have to build around it. Where I'm not as familiar with is how the organization of how the music was to that melody and then I have to re-devise it because it's not actually complete, like programmed in any way. That's what makes my music so special. It really is one of a kind and it's not something that you can really replicate without having the actual files and so that was the most difficult [about the hard drive crashing]…Those [old/unfinished] songs were great but I had to put away some of those ideas because I didn't remember them, you know?"
Since Kenna was presented with a clean slate for the EP series, he took the opportunity to amplify some of the components of his music. One of the key elements that he decided he wanted to change was his voice. "My voice coach became a critical and pivotal person in my life because I decided then to work really heavily on my voice and build my voice and make it so it was a lot stronger than it was on the first two records." He admitted to having a "weak" voice. "When I say weak, I don't mean that I can't sing," he said, "I'm just not like Jennifer Hudson, you know what I mean? I don't have a natural voice that just comes to you." He recounted how in his youth that he was practically tone deaf. "I had to work to have a [good singing] voice…" he explained, "I almost couldn't hear things. I just forced it. I just taught myself how to hear keys and notes and I spent a lot of time training my voice." The incident with the hard drives shifted a lot of the way he approached things. "I thought, 'There's no reason why I can't have an epic voice," he said, "there's no reason why I can't have an epic album. There's no reason why I can't have an epic moment. There's no reason why I can't do it for something greater than myself."
This mindset would converge into what we now know as the first two volumes of the Land 2 Air Chronicle series. In their pre-hard drive failure inception, the series was broken into 3 “Volumes”/EPs based on Ralph Waldo Emerson's, "Self-Reliance" essay. Now in their new form, he’s taking advantage of the clean slate in order to more effectively introduce himself to newcomers as he preps for what is sure to be a big year for Kenna.
His latest in the L2AC series, Volume 2: Imitation is Suicide spans 3 Chapters in the form of EPS, which showcase his refined voice and his longstanding ability to write songs about, as he put it,
“us…. journeys, the human condition, love, confusion, the search for self, [and] social conditions. I write songs about ‘us’ and how we are in all of those situations and how we perceive ourselves, how we perceive others, how perceive family, and whether or not it really is the journey vs. the destination. Sometimes for me it’s the destination and I forget the journey. Sometimes it’s all the journey and I could care less where I’m going. I write songs hoping that it represents, and this sounds really grandiose, the totality of mankind because I’m everybody and everybody’s me...at least I hope.”
To get better acquainted to Kenna, you can befriend him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Feel free to have a listen to Land 2 Air Chronicles Vol. 2: Imitation Is Suicide (Chapters 1-3) below. If you enjoy it, consider picking them up on iTunes.