In March 2012, I had the pleasure of interviewing, via e-mail, the Washington, D.C.-area singer-songwriter Wendell Kimbrough for WORLD magazine: http://www.worldmag.com/articles/19375. The occasion was the release of his excellent second album, Things That Can't Be Taught. Alas, he had a lot more to say than I could include in the article. I told him that I thought his comments deserved to be available on the 'net and asked his permission to publish them here. He acquiesced. Hence the following barely edited transcript of my questions and his replies....
When were you born? I.e., how old are you?
I was born in 1983 in Ozark, AL. My family moved to Mt. Olive, Mississippi when I was six, so I consider that "where I grew up," but we lived in southern Alabama when I was born. I'm twenty-eight years old. Birthday in August.
Your PR info mentions that as a toddler you were once “performed” “Jesus Loves Me” by humming it before the entire congregation of the Presbyterian Church of Clio, Alabama. What other musical precociousness did you demonstrate?
My first grade classroom at Mt. Olive Attendance Center (strange name for a school) was located across the breezeway from the marching-band practice room. We could hear the drums all day, and I (along with several classmates) took to drumming along on our desks. I loved it! And it became an obsession for me, where I would beat on things and hear beats in my head all the time. I don't know how my mom put up with me, because I would literally walk through the house keeping a beat on the hallway walls and doors as I passed through. Strangely, I still hear beats in my head as an adult. I even have dental-jaw problems because since I was a kid, I "grind" my teeth to the rhythms in my head. But the beats-rhythms are so deeply ingrained in my subconscious that stopping is not really an option because I don't even realize I'm doing it. So if I get TMJ [Temporomandibular joint disorder], so be it.
Around fourth grade, we got our first PC, and my dad purchased a program called "The Miracle" that taught piano lessons with a midi keyboard. I took to it really quickly, and my parents realized they needed to find me a real "live" piano teacher. I was lucky to get a great teacher, Mrs. Rosemary Mooney, who realized I had a good ear (I could pick up songs without the sheet music) and helped me develop it more fully. She let me play a song I composed at one of my first recitals as well as a song from a movie that I had learned by ear.
I taught myself guitar when I was thirteen and started a Christian acoustic rock band a couple of years later.
By the way, where along the Protestant conservative-liberal continuum did (does?) the Presbyterian Church of Clio, Alabama, fall?
It's a PCA [Presbyterian Church in America] church, so pretty conservative. I grew up in PCA churches with my dad as the pastor.
To what extent did growing up under that church’s influence leave its mark on you?
It was pretty central in my childhood and is still a huge part of who I am on many levels. I'll give two examples. One: Hymns, specifically the Trinity Hymnal, is probably the single biggest influence on my sensibilities about music. I now lead music at an Anglican church here in DC, and my entire philosophy and practice of leading congregational music is shaped by the wisdom of Protestant hymnody. I blog about church music over at http://churchmusicblog.wordpress.com and do occasional instructional videos on how to adapt traditional "piano" hymns to the guitar. Two: I'm still pretty reformed, and I love the church. I moved to DC to do the music for an Anglican church plant.
So, obviously, you’re still a believer.
Yes, I'm a believer. I'm not in the PCA anymore, but I'm part of an Anglican church that is under Rwanda. And as I mentioned, I lead the music at the church. It's called Church of the Advent. And Christianity is still central to my life. I wouldn't be working in music professionally if I had not come to believe that God cares about goodness, truth, and beauty.
Is your music-leading gig your main source of income?
Last year I made about half of my income from working at the church. The other half came from my singer/songwriter music "business"-- playing shows/gigs and selling CDs. This year, I'm forgoing CD income because I'm giving away for free my new album. I'm doing that in the hopes that it allows me to greatly expand my fan-base. So I'm a full-time musician, working half-time at church and half-time self-employed. Tax time is so much fun.
What made you move from the PCA to the Rwandan brand of Anglicanism?
I wasn't specifically drawn to Anglicanism, but I do love it now. I just happened into it in God's providence. After college, I spent a year at the Trinity Forum Academy--which is another, big part of my story, but I won't go into it here. After my year at the TFA, I began searching for an urban church where I could participate in music leadership. I thought I would end up in the PCA, but a friend put me in touch with an Anglican church plant in DC, and they offered me a job.
So I never had a "breaking" with the PCA. I'm really grateful for that tradition. I just found another gospel-centered church in another tradition that was a good, healthy place for me to be, to serve, and to use and develop my gifts.
Of course, now, after being here for almost five years, I definitely consider myself Anglican and love the church calendar, the Book of Common Prayer, and many of the traditions of Anglicanism.
Did your parents ever restrict your access to music or films in any significant way? Or did they, recognizing your natural gifts, allow you to explore the highways and byways of your interests as long as you were home by dinner?
My parents limited the amount of television we could watch as young kids, for which I'm deeply grateful. They also shielded us from things that were inappropriate for kids. At the same time, my parents modeled "loving the good" by keeping high-quality music (both Christian and non-Christian), film, and television as part of our life. As a result, my tastes were shaped by the tastes of my parents. By the time I was a teenager, they let me make my own decisions about what music, film, and TV to take in, and I had a pretty good idea by that time of what was worthwhile and what wasn't. But they largely let me make my own decisions, with some trial and error.
Talk about your approach to songwriting.
I spend a lot of time on songwriting, but it comes in seasons. I'm set up at home in such a way that I can capture an idea when it first comes to me (record a quick demo and jot down lyrics), but then I have to make time to return to the idea and mold it into a full song. For example, right now, I haven't dedicated time to songwriting in almost a year. So I have this huge backlog of ideas--short mp3 recordings, lyrics scribbled--filling up a notebook and on my computer. Some of them I think are really exciting, but it remans for me to sit down and give them enough shape to be presentable songs. I hope to do some of that this spring before touring again. Of the things I do as an independent musician, songwriting is my favorite. So I wish I could do more of it and less marketing-booking-promoting. But I'm figuring it out as I go.
In terms of process, some people always start with music or always start with lyrics. I can go either way, but music usually comes first. I have more musical ideas than lyrical ideas, and the lyrics take a lot more work to get right. I'm a perfectionist with lyrics: I don't want to ever stand up in public and have to sing a line that I know was just a "throw-away" or space filler. So I work hard to make each line hold its own.
A couple of examples. One: The song "Home" from my last album began as an instrumental piano piece that I wrote sometime around high school graduation. I loved it and played it whenever I had access to a piano, but it didn't get lyrics and thus "meaning" until I was twenty-seven, almost ten years later when I began dating my now wife. Then it became a kind of anthem to the people who have loved and cared for me as I've wandered around with a head full of "knowledge" but not able to figure my own life out. Two: "The Death of Death" began as a piano jam with a friend playing a hip-hop beat pad. A few weeks later I had a disturbing experience with some of the homeless guys I knew through volunteering at church, and I found myself playing the piano piece as a sort of "soundtrack" to my emotional world at the time. Lyrics soon followed.
How can you tell that a song is "done"?
I know a song is done when I feel overwhelmingly excited about it. Or at least, that's when it's time to put it out in public. Sometimes I'll revise a bit after performing it a few times, but typically I don't put it out in public until I'm pretty confident that it's mostly done.
Your PR also says that “[a]long the way, [you] absorbed the sounds that make Things That Can't Be Taught come alive—from early twentieth century jazz, channeled through greats like Louis Armstrong and contemporary composer Randy Newman, to folk heroes of the 1970s, James Taylor and John Prine. T-Bone Burnett once wrote that “[w]e are all branches on a tree.” What do you think you add to the musical tradition mentioned above?
This is a tough question. Certainly one worth asking, but a tough one for me to answer. I think that's because I haven't analyzed my own music very much, at least not on a meta level. I guess I tend to think "with my head down," focusing on what I'm doing right now or what comes next. Said differently, I'm pressing on as diligently as I can, trying to improve my craft, write the best songs I can, and get my music out there, hoping that if I work hard enough at it, one day I'll be considered a noteworthy leaf or branch on the same tree as the guys I love. And then hopefully other people can tell me what I've added or contributed.
For what it's worth, though, I asked my wife, and she agrees with your suggestion. She says she sees me as having "a very inclusive art" that "looks outward" while I "mine (my) own heart for stories." And again, having not thought much about it myself, I can say that I push away from the side of the singer-songwriter tradition that strikes me as self-referential to the point of being self-indulgent. When I hear carelessly or intentionally esoteric lyrics from other artists, they piss me off. I heard a Christian philosopher/thinker (I believe it was Greg Wolfe) say once something to the effect that the "particular" and the "universal" are two sides of the same coin. If the "particular" voice is telling the truth, then others will see themselves in it. Since then, in my songs, I try to tell the truth about my own life in such a way that something universally true about the human experience emerges.
I don't know if that makes me unique or if it means I'm adding anything to the tradition. But that's at least what I see myself doing. Hopefully, someday someone will think I've contributed something good to the tradition.
More from your PR: “From the first chords of “When I Work Alone”—like the gentle swell of an orchestra tuning up—to the choir shouting “hallelujah!” and shaking the walls of some great cathedral in “The Death of Death,” you can tell that Kimbrough is doing what he loves.” What might you be doing if you weren’t doing what you love?
Mold remediation? Ha! I had a nasty experience with mold in the basement of a house I rented, and the presence of so many scoundrels and manipulators in the mold remediation industry made me angry. It took months, and I was sick, depressed, and at the end of my rope when I finally met someone who was honest and trustworthy. I realized that God builds his Kingdom through the goodness and truth telling of hard working people. I asked the guy if I could work for him part time if I couldn't make enough money in the music. I kind of hope that I won't have to do that. But I grew up in a blue-collar town, and I have such respect for hard-working people (and some experience with it), enough to know that I could do it and live a good life. Heck, I might be a better musician, too.
Being a pastor has always been on my radar, too. And I still might end up in seminary when I'm thirty-six and begin pastoring in my forties. But I wanted to pursue music first, because it was where I felt God's pleasure the most. (Chariots of Fire was a big influence on me in general, my dad's favorite movie).
You’ve said that “Things That Canʼt Be Taught leads the listener through a soundscape reminiscent of an early Tom Waits record, rooted in the pre-rock-era jazz, folk, and soul music of the American South.” Why do you think that the “music of the American South” is important? What do we risk losing by neglecting the “pre-rock era”?
Well, let me say a few obvious things first. The South is where all the good American music came from. That's a bit of an exaggeration, but only a bit of one. Blues, jazz, Gospel, and rock--basically all of the important musical forms in American culture--have their roots in the South or Southern musicians. The rest of the world, from the Beatles on, have just been trying to sound like poor folks from Mississippi.
I think this is because beauty in music and art almost always come as the fruit of suffering. It's a flower growing out of a grave or honey from a lion's rotting carcass. It's damned frustrating, and I wish it wasn't this way so I could live an easy life. But the best of beauty only comes when we suffer. (There's a parallel between the aesthetic and ethical world here, too: the kindest, wisest, most glorious humans I've known were people who suffered a lot).
The South has suffered, particularly the African American community, brought over as slaves, still racked by generationally entrenched poverty. (I've often thought there was a kindred spirit between Mississippi and Russia--both places of immense suffering, and both producing some of the best writers and musicians the world has known.) And out of that hot, humid, awful, ugly place where human sin has done so much damage, some of the best music in the world has emerged. It's like God's gift to the suffering--beautiful, powerful music.
I think the danger in neglecting the pre-rock era, (or maybe it'd be better to call it the "pre-mass-media" era) is forgetting that there's no end-around suffering that produces the same kind of heart-wrenching, gut-grabbing beautiful music. I mean, listen to top-forty radio today: It's riddled with the anthems of people who don't know what suffering is; made by kids who were raised in privilege and the worst thing that ever happened to them was a girl dumped them. It rings empty. It's not even fair to malign their music, because they're doing the best they can. And to some degree, I'd put myself in that camp, as well. My whole generation spends way too much energy avoiding pain. Our privilege is the greatest enemy of our music.
I could go on this topic for a long time. But I might already be sounding a little crazy. To try to wrap it all up in a summary statement, maybe I'd say: The best music comes through suffering; the South has suffered. We need its songs to help us learn how to do something beautiful with our pain.
Why did it take you two years to follow your debut, Find Your Way Home, with Things That Canʼt Be Taught?
Well, speaking of suffering; it's funny how all this connects. I wouldn't say I've lived a very difficult life, but I did encounter some hardships along the road to making this album. The reason it took two years was that I had to raise the money, spend it down, get lost and discouraged, and then get back up and try again. I almost gave up on the album half-way through because I was low on money and working alone too much, beginning to hate my music.
The short version of the story goes like this: I hired a close friend to be my producer, but mid-way into the project, his life fell apart, and he walked away. So I lost money, lost a friend-ally, and a producer. This left me working alone for long hours, losing perspective, and nearing the point where giving up was appealing. This coincided with me getting sick, losing my voice, and realizing that I had lost my voice a lot in the last year and had actually been sick for most of the year. I thought, "How foolish of me to think I could have a career in music when I can't even keep my voice healthy."
About that time, I discovered the aforementioned mold in my basement (which made me more sick), and I had to move out and live in a friend's basement.
About that time, I discovered the aforementioned mold in my basement (which made me more sick), and I had to move out and live in a friend's basement.
I remember sending out a distress e-mail to some friends, speaking out for the first time about how discouraged I was. That e-mail was kind of a turning point--I asked for prayers. People started praying, and not long after, a friend suggested I cut gluten from my diet. I did and started improving quickly. Some other friends reminded me about Kickstarter and encouraged me to do a campaign. I did, asking for five thousand dollars, and my friends and fans fully funded me in forty-eight hours. (You can view the campaign here: http://tinyurl.com/3l9xlvp).
That was a dramatic turnaround. The love and enthusiasm I received from people supporting my project put new wind in my sails. With the new funding, I was able to go work in a studio nearby with a local engineer. That got me out of my house, out of my own head, and in about three months the project was complete. It felt like I'd been clawing my way out of a grave and finally broke through to daylight.
As well, and my voice got healthy again. I was able to go on tour in the fall of 2011 and play twenty-four shows; didn't lose my voice the whole time!
How did you decide to title your latest album Things That Can’t Be Taught? Do you harbor any opinions about teaching, leaning, or education?
I've always been someone who did really well in the classroom. I loved college, liked to learn and know things and give good, nuanced answers to questions. But in my first few years of adulthood, I realized that I didn't have as many answers as I thought I did. I found myself relearning, through experience and often through mistakes, many things that I thought I already knew. It's been a humbling few years. So the album title reflects that: lots of lessons learned the hard way, things that I could not learn in a book or from someone else's experience; I had to learn them myself. Getting truth into the heart is harder than getting it into the head.
In “Two Ways to Be Worthless,” you sing, “Tell me I’m an asshole....” Some of your more conservative fans might object. Any advice to help them over the hump?
I think most listeners who understand the song will understand the strong language, so let me just give an explanation of the song.
"Two Ways to Be Worthless" is essentially a letter (or epistle) to my friends, exhorting them to meet me with "tough love" in the event that I should need it. Although the song is humorous and light-hearted in feel, the content is actually among the most serious of any of my songs. It imagines a scenario in which I have ignored my marital vows and abandoned my wife and family. (I don't have kids yet, but the song assumes that is a possible future.) In other words, the song presents a sort of worst-case-scenario for my life.
If that scenario were to come true and I was in a self-destructive downward spiral, doing great harm to the people around me, I would not want my friends to come to me and say gently, "Hey Wendell, we think you might want to reconsider a few things." I would want them to get in my face and get my attention. If ever there is a time to use strong language, that would be the time--for the sake of snapping me out of my self-pity, waking me to the damage I am doing, and calling me to repentance. Vulgar language is rarely appropriate. But when someone is in egregious sin, I think strong language is justified.
It's a little bit like Jesus calling the Pharisees "you brood of vipers!" when they claimed he was from the devil in Matthew 12. Strong language was merited because the offense was great. So while it may seem out of place to have strong language in a bouncy folk/jazz song, I just ask listeners to consider the story the song is telling. In the scenario the song describes, I believe the language to be appropriate.