Catching Up At SXSW With Our Favorite Soulful Songwriter, Kevin Garrett
Originally published on Slant.
The last time I spoke with Kevin Garrett, it was after catching him play Webster Hall Studio during a run of CMJ shows in New York City. I wasn't that familiar with his music or his sound, but was fascinated by his set and wanted to learn more. In our first conversation, we talked about his excellent EP Mellow Drama, which won him new fans and critical acclaim, and about whether or it's more difficult writing happy songs or sad songs.
Much has changed since we last talked. The Roc Nation artist has been a supporting act on two massive tours for X Ambassadors and Alessia Cara, respectively, giving him time to hone his craft and bring his music to more and more people.
We chatted outside the Austin Convention Center about his run of shows at SXSW, how he's finding time to balance writing and the rigors of being a touring musician, and what's coming next for Kevin Garrett fans.
SD: You went on tour with X Ambassadors and with Alessia Cara. What was that like?
KG: Right now, I’m on my own tour now on either side of SXSW. But X Ambassadors was great. A different crowd for me. Kind of alternative rock/pop thing. They are great people and they had #1 song on the alternative charts, so it was a really buzzy tour. It was just nice to support them.
I’ve been really lucky with touring. When we last talked, I was just getting off the James Vincent McMorrow run and after SXSW, performed at some festivals last year. Everybody who has asked me to open for them has really asked me. It hasn’t been by way of anything. So that’s really cool to have that direct connection with artists.
The X tour was great. And Alessia was unreal. She’s become a really good friend of mine. It was an honor to open for her. She’s got a lot of really cool things popping off this year for her.
SD: Have you been writing at all while you’ve been on tour?
KG: It’s hard to write on the road because it’s just me and my two bandmates. There’s no tour manager, there’s no crew. We’re just doing everything. So a lot of people’s jobs are under our belt. But when there’s some down time, like over the holidays between the two tours, I did a lot of new writing.
We’re off the road at the end of this month and I’m going to take some time to try and actually get into a studio environment where I can properly get some stuff done. I’ve definitely been writing a lot. I’ve been writing for the past year and a half. So the stuff that’s out is hopefully just the very beginning.
SD: How’s being on tour so much affected your psyche or your mood?
KG: I don’t know that I’ve changed personally. I know that I’m tired a lot more. I was already pretty chill so it might have made me more chill. If anything, when I’m off the road, I get distracted or caught up in stuff, especially if I can’t write or I hit a block. So it’s nice to have that constant job looming over you when you’re touring. We’re driving everywhere, I’m selling the merch, I’m setting up and tearing down. It’s an all-inclusive gig.
I don’t know that I’ve changed. I think I’ve just gotten used to it. And I’m getting used to it still. There’s a lot I have left to learn. But the shows are the reason I’m doing it, that’s the most fulfilling part.
SD: You’re an artist who has benefitted from Spotify. But I’ve talked to a lot of artists at SXSW who are conflicted about it. How do you feel about Spotify or streaming services in general?
KG: I think we’ve had a hard time embracing the paradigm shift. Streaming happened and people were like, “What is this? How are we going to make money?” And people are still like that obviously. But if it works the way that the company means for it to work, then it could be very beneficial. I have lucked out, I’ve had a lot of support from some of the streaming companies, particularly Spotify.
But it ultimately comes down to people listening. And that’s where I’m the luckiest, that people keep listening and spreading the word. I’m excited to see where everything that streaming companies have done for me and other artists continues to adapt. Because right now it’s all one big compromise.
SD: What are you listening to right now?
KG: I like Zhu. I really like Vince Staples and Miguel. The “Waves” remix bundle was cool. I stick by the classics like Emily King, Nick Hakim.
There’s this new band, and they’re not really new but they have a new name and they’re on Saddle Creek. They’re called Big Thief. They’re crazy. It started out as this singer-songwriter, Adrianne Lenker, with Buck Meek, and they’re just two of the best writers I’ve ever listened to. They have a few more shows at SXSW, and I saw them last night.
I like this dude Azekel, he’s really good. I also listen to Alessia a lot. And James McMorrow has some new stuff ready to go that I’ve been lucky to hear a little taste of. And it’s sick.
SD: What are some of your favorite parts about SXSW and what are some parts you could do without?
KG: Favorite parts are the shows. The showcases that I played last year and this year, it’s still about the music. People are coming for the music. I’m also here for the swag. Whatever people want to give me is cool. If somebody’s walking down the street with a free T-shirt, please and thank you.
Stuff I don’t like: security guards on a power trip. That’s a vibe. I get it. There’s big lines and a capacity at every venue and you have to maintain the piece, but there are a lot of guards in the few days I’ve been here who are just messing with people and being rude. What are you doing? You have a blue shirt on that says “Staff.” Just chill.
The best security we’ve dealt with all week has been at Spotify House, not to bring Spotify back up. They were cool. A lot of them actually listened to the set. The next day when I came back they were like, “Hey, you were really good.”
SD: Is there any new stuff fans can be expecting from Kevin Garrett any time soon?
KG: I’m working with this new band called Kingdm. They have one song out called “Can’t Get Over You” and I’m singing on their next one. It’s a different vibe for me so I’m going to show some people an alternative side to where my voice can go. I’m finishing up this tour in March and then I’m going to get some new stuff out sooner than later.
Cover photo: Spencer Dukoff