A Genuine Vulnerability Distinguishes Singer-Songwriter Kurt Vile's Latest Album

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click to enlarge A Genuine Vulnerability Distinguishes Singer-Songwriter Kurt Vile's Latest Album
Marina Chavez
On his sixth album, last year’s b’lieve i’m goin down…, indie rock singer-songwriter Kurt Vile pushes the boundaries of his music with a range of instrumentation. The album includes piano, banjo and lap steel as Vile dabbles in folk, rock and country. The vulnerable nature of the tunes holds the songs together, making the album a cohesive work and Vile’s most assured recording to date. The rather astute folks at Pitchfork, NPR, Rolling Stone, Vogue, American Songwriter, Paste, Spin and many other publications rightly proclaimed it to be one of the best records of the year.

Not bad for a guy who worked as a forklift driver when he started to pursue his musical dreams. Initially, his working class background informed his music. Now, he says that’s not really the case.

“It’s been so long since I worked a blue collar job,” he says via phone from a tour stop in the UK. “I guess it’s not that long, but I remember I got fired in 2009. The joke was on him because I got a record deal that same year, and I was in every paper in Philadelphia. You couldn’t escape me. I guess I’m not blue collar anymore.”

Vile has said he wanted the songs on b’lieve i’m goin down… to sound “unguarded and vulnerable.”

“I think I do that all the time, but it was always working to get that way,” he explains. “A perfect example that’s so easy to go to is the Neil Young album On the Beach. I’m specifically thinking of ‘Ambulance Blues.’ It’s about capturing something that was in the room – the raw emotion—without too much of a technical process to take away from that. Just do what you can to fake yourself out and make yourself feel comfortable and go over the song when you just wrote it on your couch and you’re really feeling it. You can do that in a hi-fi studio too but with my headspace now [that’s hard] if you’re trying to do it with all these assistants in a massive studio with a big setup.”

He recorded and mixed the album in a number of locations, including Los Angeles and Joshua Tree.

“It was awesome,” he says when asked about the recording experience. “So many different people helped out so much. Early on, we kept it insular with my drummer Kyle Spence, recording at his home studio. My other bandmate, Rob Laakso, recorded with me in California and New York. We had the Violators involved. Eventually, we worked with Rob Schnapf and he recorded ‘Pretty Pimpin’’ and ‘Wild Imagination.’ We thought he was going to mix it but we ran out of time and Peter Katis came in at the end. He’s in Connecticut and had worked with the National and others but nobody like me. He came into the picture in an emergency situation. He saved the record. Everybody played a part. That’s the beauty of jumping around and not knowing exactly what’s going to happen. You make these connections that you wouldn’t otherwise make. It’s an honest moment captured. I’ve always been a last-minute guy.”

There’s banjo on “I’m an Outlaw” and piano and lap steel on “Life Like This.” There’s also farfisa, resonator, horns and synthesizers sprinkled throughout the album. Vile says he’s always been interested in “multi-instrumental types of things.”

“Everyone in the band has to be able to play multiple instruments,” he says. “Not like in a session-y way, per se. They have to be able to pick up something they don’t know that well. You can make music with a couple of notes. It’s just an extension of that, I guess. I was thinking more about piano. I’ve used plenty of pianos and synthesizers in my recordings, but they were mostly accompaniment. They were never quite driving the songs. The banjo I grew up playing, so I just picked that back up. I was thinking about banjo and acoustic guitar and electric guitar. I thought it would make it not sound too same-y.”

The album veers all over the place the twangy “Pretty Pimpin’” evokes Dylan with its clever wordplay, and “I'm an Outlaw” has an old time country feel to it. And yet the album still sounds cohesive.

“Stylistically and lyrically, [the songs are] all from the last couple of years of my life and they represent whatever was going through my head at the time,” says Vile. “It would be different if we worked on it for five years or something. Who knows how cohesive that would be? Probably not very.”

Vile says he’s started to give the next record some thought too and doesn’t think it will be a huge departure from b’lieve i’m goin down….

“It’s all generally the same,” he says, “but I'm sure my recent obsessions will trickle into there."

Kurt Vile & the Violators, Purling Hiss, 9 p.m. Friday, April 1, Grog Shop, 2785 Euclid Heights Blvd., Cleveland Heights, 216-321-5588. Tickets: $22-$25, grogshop.gs.

About The Author

Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected]
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