Roc Nation's Kevin Garrett Talks Tunes, Tour And Frank Ocean
Originally published on Slant.
Kevin Garrett, a soulful singer-songwriter who makes chilly love songs on his keyboard, is on the verge of a huge year.
His debut EP, Mellow Drama, has received acclaim from critics and fans alike. He recently signed to Roc Nation and is on tour right now with X Ambassadors and Skylar Grey.
We talked after a string of shows Kevin played during this year's CMJ Music Marathon in New York. Kevin was eating a salad and unwinding from the nonstop craziness of the week.
SD: What has CMJ been like for you this week?
KG: I've been in New York since 2009 and this is my first time attending CMJ. I've come out a few times in the past to see some friends play, but this was the first time I was actually a part of it.
I got in town early this week and one word to describe the past few days would be "chaos." A lot of running around, the fastest load-in and load-out I've ever done. But it's been super fun, especially last night at Rockwood Music Hall. It was really nice for everything to culminate at that venue because that was the first place I ever played in the city. Every time that I go back, it's always crazy. So it's been a great week.
SD: You're originally from Pittsburgh. What initially brought you to Brooklyn in 2009?
KG: I came to New York for school at NYU in '09 and I was there until 2013. I moved to Brooklyn my second year of school and was there ever since. At the top of this year, I've been touring a little bit more so I've been away from the city a lot more often. But school initially brought me over here. I started playing a lot as soon as I landed.
SD: What kind of impact has Brooklyn, or New York in general, had on your formation and growth as an artist?
KG: I think there's a few different ways that it's shaped or developed me. There's so many shows, especially in Brooklyn, any given night of the week. You can learn a lot about your performance and how you interact with people just by watching other bands and other artists perform. So that was something I tried to study, and continue to study, when I go to see shows.
And I think the other thing is the diversity of sound that's in this city. It's ridiculous.There's so many different vibes so you can really explore your influences in a place like New York, and especially Brooklyn.
Overall, coming from Pittsburgh, and growing up in a smaller city like that and then moving out in the suburbs, out into the woods with my family, being in New York just makes you hustle a little a bit harder. It definitely helped on several different fronts to just be better.
SD: When did you start making music?
KG: I started really young, at like age 4 on violin. I was raised on classical music, or classic rock music. Whatever my dad was playing in the car on the way to the private lessons.
Then eventually when I was old enough to buy my own CD, a.k.a. I was old enough to mow the law so I could get 10 bucks to go and buy a record, I started looking into a lot of soul music. The first CD I ever bought was a Best of Ray Charles because when you think of that vibe, maybe because of the Jamie Foxx movie, he's like the first one. And then I went with Stevie. And then I found Sam Cooke, who changed my life.
I started writing in high school when I was like 14, and I really took to that soul vibe, and that's just carried through ever since.
SD: You signed a publishing deal with Roc Nation. Listening to your music, you feel the soul and the R&B, but there's so much going on. When causal listeners hear the name "Roc Nation," they think of Jay Z or J. Cole. What has it been like being a part of that?
KG: I really like Roc Nation. I totally agree with you that there's a lot more musical stuff going on in music, which stems from my classical training and going to music school, and having another band before this that was totally different. So my influences are all over the place.
But once I started working with Roc Nation, they kind of put me in a place. Because I've always been an R&B and a hip-hop fan, so to be affiliated with the company, a company that has all my favorite rappers and hip-hop artists, it's a real privilege. Roc Nation is so much more than that. So far, it's been an incredible experience, and they've put me in rooms that I never even thought I would be in. And I'm getting to work with people that, up until that point, they were just people in my iTunes library.
I'm still pretty new to the whole thing, but it's definitely been exciting and I'm looking forward to everything else that's yet to come.
SD: In many of your YouTube videos, you often use looping and play by yourself, but in your live show at Webster Hall studio, you played with a three-piece band. What do you envision as your live show going forward?
KG: I'm going on tour with X Ambassadors, and for that, it's going to be the three-piece band. I did a lot of touring this past year with a couple different people like James Vincent McMorrow, who's one of my best friends, and he's asking me to come out a few times, and that's been great. We did those shows solo.
The looping stuff is actually super deep cuts, so it's cool you found that. Many of those were songs that were actually on my old band's first record. It kind of took on this alt-folk-post kind of vibe on the actual recordings. I still loop occasionally with a little delay pedal, but I did it as a matter of convenience rather than a matter of taste or being "that guy." I just wanted to fill the sound out a little bit.
The whole process of looping live is kind of tedious and painstaking. So it's a lot easier to play with real people.
This tour with X Ambassadors is going to be the band. I like playing with a drummer, especially, because the music depends on that beat. Especially on my EP. In general, they translate pretty well solo, but it's always nice to be able to bob your head. So we're definitely bringing the band out for the tour.
SD: My first impression of your music was someone like James Blake, whose compositions and progressions go in really unexpected directions. But seeing you live, I got more of a old school soul vibe. Who would be a dream artist that you would love to go on tour with or you would complement really well?
KG: Well, first off, thank you for the James Blake comparison. That's high praise. He's a total genius. He'd be amazing to tour with.
When we were in pre-production and going over the whole vibe of the stuff we were tracking at the time, we wanted to find a way to make these really musical decisions as accessible as possible. So, the changes in some of the songs, you might not hear on the radio. But how to make that listenable to people who listen to the radio.
Obviously, James McMorrow, James Blake, and Frank Ocean were some contemporary influences. I'm a big Frank fan. I think James Blake or Frank Ocean would be a dream come true to support. I get a lot of Sam Smith comparisons, too. But I think, more often than not, it's because we're both dudes singing sad songs, but he's amazing, too. And, actually, I've gotten to know him a little bit and he's super nice.
You know what else would be like crazy cool? It would be awesome to open for Childish Gambino because he sings a little bit more now, but I'm such a hip-hop fan. I definitely want to explore that space a little more creatively. So it would be amazing to open for him. He's a legend.
SD: There's a coldness to your sound, in a way that you're chilling love songs or expressing yourself. Is it more difficult to write a happy song than a sad song? Or is it more, "this is my truth and this is how I express myself?"
KG: I think it's definitely more the latter. When I was in my other band, it was much more storytelling, with still parts of me in the songs, but much less about the sad vibes. I think when I started writing the stuff for this record and for everything else that I'm working on, which will come out sooner rather than later, I think is what I'm going through personally. This has easily been the most personal music that I've ever released.
And my prime priority with writing music is to be as honest as I can and also try to connect with as many people as possible. So I don't think it's harder or easier to write happy or sad. But just, in this period of time, this is what I was going through.
SD: What can we expect from you in the next few months or the next year?
KG: We're putting out a new song called "Refuse." It's not exactly an anthem because it's more personal. But it has an "F-the-haters" vibe. And there are a few lines in there that I'm proud of in terms of being able to articulate what I was going through as I was developing my sound more and working on this album.
I guess that would be the next thing. I'll be doing some more touring and there will be more music coming out. I'm super anxious to share some more stuff, but we're focusing on one thing at a time. We'll have a new song, we'll go out on tour, then I'm going to take a nap, and then there's more to come for sure.
Cover photo courtesy of Kevin Garrett