Last week the students in my Writing Close to the Earth online class read George Orwell's classic essay, "Politics and the English Language." In it ... Read More
I’m more than a little excited today. I’ve wanted you to meet Brandon Kinder for a few years now. Brandon calls Austin, Texas, home but grew up in the gritty and grindy city of Memphis, a city we both love. He was raised at the church my family is now a part of in East Memphis and graduated from Harding Academy, the school at which both my wife and I now teach.
I remember the first time I heard Brandon’s music. It was at a little pub in here in town almost 10 years ago. When I first heard his primary band, The Rocketboys, play I realized I had found a sound I’d been looking for. His vocals, and later his lyrics, struck a chord with me.
I caught up with Brandon for dinner at his parents’ house right after a show his solo project, The Wealthy West.
Rusty: Thanks for spending some time with me so The Rabbit Room can get to know you. I want to start with an observation and question. You must be a tremendously busy guy! You’re the lead singer of The Rocketboys, have your solo project The Wealthy West, help with worship ministry at the church you go to in Austin, have a wife, and spend most days being generally awesome. How hard is it to manage it all?
Brandon: You find a way to do the things you love doing. At this point in my career I’m fortunate enough to do music as my sole vocation. Ten years ago I was working at a coffee shop five days a week and finding any hole I could in my schedule for performing or creating music.
As far as balancing The Rocketboys and The Wealthy West, Rocketboys is definitely my main focus and I squeeze in Wealthy West when I get opportunities. My wife and I are currently going on a road trip and so I’ve scheduled some solo shows around where I’ll be on the trip.
The Wealthy West came about because I would write songs that didn’t fit The Rocketboys. Our managers in L.A. encouraged me to do something with the songs, but I resisted for a while. I always wanted to do something with them, but I was scared to add another thing. In 2011 a couple of the songs I sent our managers got picked up by some television shows and then Paste Magazine wanted me to be part of SXSW. Then I was like, “Okay, I guess I’m doing this.” [Laughs]
At that point I didn’t have a name. I didn’t want to go by Brandon Kinder and I didn’t really have any good ideas. So I called up one of my friends from a band I was in while growing up in Memphis and said, “Hey, you had a really cool name for a band back in high school. Umm, can I have it?”
So that’s how that started. I did an EP in 2011 and then got busy until this year and decided this time I wanted to do a full-length record more professionally and with more pride. It’s been fun, and it’s different than playing with five guys. And this time I’m driving around with my wife, which is an added bonus.
Rusty: That’s a great way to pay for vacation as you go.
Brandon: Yes, for sure! I am really just playing small living room shows. No one really knows who The Wealthy West is, so it’s great to get a small group of people who do know you and care and have that intimate moment.
Rusty: The first song on the new album is called “I’ve Gotta Go.” In it, you identify that voice that says “we won’t matter when we leave this world.” In the chorus, you respond “I’ve gotta try. I’ve gotta build something. I’ve gotta try. I’ve gotta make something good with my life, and I will not stop until I run out of time.” As someone in his late 30s, that is something with which I identify. I was wondering where that song came from.
Brandon: You know, its always interesting to consider your legacy. I’ve always felt like I wanted to do something important with my life. I’ve always hoped I could. I wrote the song when The Rocketboys had half the band members quit and we were uncertain what was happening next. I began asking a lot of questions like “What is the point of music and writing songs when there are homeless people? Why invest in the arts? Is this career worth it?”
Luckily, I’m not good at anything else, [laughs] so it kept me going. I wrote the song as a positive reminder because I do think the arts are important and music does something good in the world.
Rusty: Yeah, tonight my wife and I were sitting at your show and that value was apparent. My wife lost her mom a few weeks ago. You sung a song where you reference someone you strongly desire to see and beautifully sing “I’ll meet you on that silver line.” I think my wife needed that line tonight. It did something.
Brandon: Wow, thanks. That means a lot. That’s been a big thing with me in songwriting. I’ve always wanted songs I write to mean something. There is a lot of fluff out there. I want to write things that connect on a deeper level. I don’t want that to be arrogant or cocky. I can and have written goofy songs as well.
Rusty: One of the things I’ve noticed about your lyrics is that you tend to write about weightier things connected to family and friendships. You write about faith and love — not just superficial romance, but more the nuances of love. I don’t know if that goes against the grain of the rock genre, but it does give it some added depth, which makes me think about your song “Stormy Weather.” That song is about your family. I don’t get to interview people very often, in fact you’re the first, in which I know the artist’s parents and am friends with them. Since you reference them in your songs, can you tell me a bit about how you think they’ve influenced you musically and as a person?
Brandon: Well if you look around the room we’re sitting in [the room is the front room of Brandon’s parent’s house in Memphis] you see all these instruments my parents play [piano, guitar, dulcimer, some other stringed instrument I don’t event know the name of]. I just found out my granddad sang in a quartet on the West Coast. My mom played the guitar while I was in the womb. I don’t remember it happening, but I’m guessing it made an impact.
Rusty: I wanted to ask about your song “I’ll Get By” because its incredibly catchy and it begs for background information. Were you writing that song when you were struggling to make ends meet or facing some kind of intense challenge?
Brandon: That song actually came from a writers group I’m a part of in Austin. Whoever is facilitating at the time will usually send out a line, phrase, or word from which we find inspiration to write. This one week in particular, we read an essay from the singer who led the band The Verve Pipe [Brian Vander Ark], which was commercially successful in the ‘90s. In recent years he has had to find other ways to keep his music career afloat. He will do house shows and that sort of thing which is very different than the big shows. I remember him saying that when you love what you do you find a way to “get by.” That phrase stuck with me because it’s true for me. I don’t know what it’s like to “make it” in the music business but I do know what it’s like to work hard to “make it by” because I love doing what I get to do.
Rusty: Can you tell us about some musical influences?
Brandon: I grew up listening to a lot of the vocal group Acapella. Still there is something so awesome to me about that group and that kind of music. I’ve also always liked this sort of epic music by some bands like Radiohead, Sigur Ros, Arcade Fire. That sort of thing.
It’s weird. I haven’t always been into the folky, singer-songwriter stuff I do now. But I have always loved songs that mean something and make you feel something, and I think the genre I’ve landed in is a good space in which to do that. David Ramirez is also a good friend of mine in Austin and is also doing some good music.
Rusty: I’ve never heard anyone who said they like both Acapella and Radiohead in the same sentence. [Laughs] But I’m coming from where you’re coming from so I get it! [Side Note: both Brandon and I grew in an a cappella Christian tradition. Both his parents help lead our singing time. His mom has an incredible tenor voice I’ve loved for years.]
Brandon: Yeah, what’s actually really funny and cool is growing up in a cappella churches you’re kind of a black sheep if you can’t carry a tune in a bucket. That’s actually been really helpful for me in my career. Also I come from a family that is always singing and I was in choir in high school.
Rusty: You have one or two songs you’d like to tell us about?
Brandon: Yeah! The song “We Painted Pictures” [from The Wealthy West self-titled EP] is one I proposed to my wife with. I tried to incorporate some things from our first few dates into the song and into my proposal. On our first date we just rode a bus around Austin and got to know each other. On another date I brought this book over and when I met up with her I said we can’t talk on this date, we can only write to each other in this book. So we went to Benihana’s for dinner which was odd because you’re sitting at this table with a bunch of other people while you aren’t talking. Just writing. Then we went ice skating.
So when I proposed we took a bus ride and I brought some headphone splitters and when the lyric “Will you be my wife?” played I awkwardly got into proposal posture on a crowded bus and I wrote “Will you marry me?” in our little book, and the rest is history. That’s a song I didn’t rerecord because I want people to hear what she heard.
Another song is “That Silver Line” [on most recent EP Long Play] which we mentioned earlier. It is about having that person we can go to who can be that silver line and show us that silver line we all need. At the time I was feeling sort of lost. It’s easy to get down on yourself and wonder if music is what you want to do and if it is sustainable. It’s a song that is important to me because it reminds me I haven’t fallen down so far that I can’t get back enough.