PREVIEW/ INTERVIEW: Gabriel Kahane interviewed by Emilia Martensson (Kings Place Weds 16th March)

Gabriel Kahane

American singer-songwriter GABRIEL KAHANE has made his major label debut with The Ambassador (Sony Masterworks). Rolling Stone magazine called it ‘one of the year’s very best albums.’ It has its London launch on Weds 16th at Kings Place as part of Kahane’s first European tour with other concerts including the Paris Philharmonie and the Finnish National Theater in Helsinki. Kahane studied at New England Conservatory, has worked with both Sufjan Stevens and Rufus Wainwright and has been compared to both. 

He was born in a modest bungalow in Venice Beach, California, but spent his childhood in New England, upstate New York, and Northern California.According to the press release :”Bruce Willis’ hair, detective fiction, modernist architecture, and race riots all provide fodder for Kahane’s major label debut, “The Ambassador,” a meditation on the underbelly of Los Angeles seen through the lens of ten street addresses (See Atlas). The album has been produced by Kahane along with Matt Johnson (St. Vincent), Casey Foubert (Sufjan Stevens), and Rob Moose (Bon Iver).”

Emilia Martensson writes: “I was first introduced to Gabriel Kahane by my friend and piano player Barry Green. Together we covered one of Gabriel’s tunes “Where are the arms’, the title track from his last album. I spent a whole summer after that listening to this album and was completely taken by his writing, the arrangements, his beautiful lyrics and stories and his stunning voice.” 

Emilia has interviewed Gabriel Kahane ahead of next week’s Kings Place concert:

Emilia Martensson: Congratulations on your new album! I love it! This album is a tribute to your birth town LA and each track has a street name attached to it. How did this concept come about and what is the main thing you want to say with this album?

Gabriel Kahane : Thank you! My initial impulse to write about LA came from a drive I took in August 2012 at about five in the morning heading to the airport to fly home to New York, where I’ve lived for the last thirteen years. Driving through the blighted neighborhoods of South Central LA (I had taken surface roads rather than the freeway), I was hit with this wave of deep sadness that seemed to emanate from the core of the city. And I suppose that was when I decided I wanted to write a record to explore the origin and nature of that sadness, a sadness that seemed to contradict the dominate way in which LA is perceived, which could perhaps be described most succinctly as “the den of the superficial”. Celebrity and cinema, glitz and glamour, plastic surgery and decadence; these are the traditional tropes we think of when we imagine Los Angeles, but in fact, only around 10 percent of the population of the greater Los Angeles area work in the film industry, and there is an incredible diversity of culture & socioeconomic strata. After that drive, I ended up doing a huge amount of research which led me to dig deeper into LA’s extraordinarily textured identity: its fascinating architectural record, its rich literary tradition, and of course its painful history of racial and cultural conflict. As to what I want to say with this album: if I could tell you in words, I wouldn’t have had to make the record… 😉

EM: What made me curious and excited about your music in the first place was your ways of blurring so many categories in your repertoire to create your own thing completely. Is this something that comes naturally when you compose? What are your influences and what inspires you?

GK: Yes, I don’t think about genre when I’m composing. It’s not like I’m sitting at the piano or at my desk thinking, “well, I’ve got to figure out a way to shoehorn in this folk-y bit and this classical element into the same song”. Instead, I’m always thinking about what the song demands, what the story demands, and then I write in the clearest possible way to serve the story. There are times when music precedes text, and in those instances, there is often a musical problem that I’m trying to solve. For example, in the song “Bradbury (304 Broadway)”, which is essentially a response to the film Blade Runner, I set myself the challenge of a 7:4 cross-rhythm between right & left hands, trying to find a riff that felt rhythmically natural rather than willfully complicated, and settled on something that felt like it captured the emotional terrain of the film… and then it was sort of “fill in the blanks” from there. The way that harmony evolves in my songs is always in response to text. I hope that if I’ve successfully avoided my music being wanky, it’s to do with the fact that anything that’s complex is there in humble service of the song, and not there to its own end… I take a huge amount of inspiration from literature, and specifically from writers who are engaged in hybrid forms that defy classification. I’m thinking specifically of people like Anne Carson, W.G. Sebald, Maggie Nelson. These are all writers whose books are incredibly rich emotionally and intellectually, but can’t be pinned down as being strictly novelistic or essayistic or what have you.

EM: How much do you think labels like ‘jazz’ or ‘pop’ etc is important to you, and to audiences?

GK: These labels are not important to me at all, and I suspect they are not important to audiences either. The moment that you can confidently assign a label to an artwork is the moment when you can be certain that that artwork is not pushing boundaries. If we know what to call it, then it’s probably been done before. But I think the bigger problem is that we get into this mode where categorization replaces assessment of quality. So we say things like, “this song is [category x]” rather than trying to determine whether the song achieves what it’s trying to achieve, namely, telling a good story, giving the listener an authentic emotional experience, exploring new musical terrain, etc.

EM: I love your lyrics and the stories they tell. What’s your approach to writing lyrics and what inspires you?

GK: Thank you! Gosh. I write lyrics in many different ways. Sometimes there’s a single word I’ve discovered, and I write a lyric just to have an excuse to use that word. Other times I begin with prose free-writing, where I’ll write several pages and then kind of coax the material into verse form. Other times, there’s a particular story that I want to tell, but I have to spend quite a bit of time determining what the point-of-view should be. A good example of that would be the title track of The Ambassador. I knew almost from the very beginning of the project that I wanted to do a song about the Ambassador Hotel, but I didn’t know who should be the narrator, I didn’t know when it should be set from a temporal standpoint (1968, 1989, 1921?), and it wasn’t until about a month before we went into the studio that the doorman idea appeared to me, and then suddenly the song came rather quickly. I do a lot of editing. There’s an ineffable play between meaning & the music of the language that governs a lot of what I do. The words have to “sing well” as much as they have to carry the story forward. I’d say on balance, I revise lyrics in songs much more than the music…

LINK: Gabriel Kahane’s Tumblr site

Categories: miscellaneous

1 reply »

  1. Where are the Arms and the Ambassador are incredible works of music. Fantastic that this musician is getting recognition in the UK from the jazz scene.

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