It is a testament to Kevn Kinney's stature among songwriters that other artists like Matt Nathanson and David Bazan tweeted their enthusiasm when I announced that Kinney would be featured here. Kinney has fronted Drivin' N Cryin' for close to 30 years now, and I've been a fan for most of those years. Kinney is a native of Milwaukee but the band started in Atlanta, so naturally they've been pegged as a Southern rock band, whatever THAT designation is. I prefer to see them as a rock band, plain and simple, with early staples like "Fly Me Courageous," "Honeysuckle Blue," and "Can't Promise You the World." The band is still active in both recording and touring, releasing one LP and four EPs since 2009.
But Kinney has also released several solo albums that showcase his more acoustic side, from 1990's MacDougal Blues to 2012's A Good Country Mile. As you'll read, he often writes immediately upon waking in the morning because he gets a lot of song ideas while he dreams. But he's also attuned to his environment, looking for characters to include in a song "like the nurse who gets on the train exhausted" after a long day at work. Kinney wants to know what got her there. And that's your song.
It's always fun to listen to songwriters who've been around a while talk about how their process has changed. Kinney's certainly has, thanks to technology: like many songwriters, he sings melodies into the voice memo feature on his phone. But back in the day, when that melody popped into his head while on tour, he'd call his home phone and sing the melody into the answering machine. So when he got home, he had a bunch of messages from...Kevn Kinney!
The year 2013 saw the release of the documentary Scarred but Smarter (life n times of drivin n cryin). It's a look at the band's history, through its highs and lows. You'll see some famous names talking about the band's influence and greatness. If you want to see that greatness, watch the video at the end of this interview: a full set from 1988 at the Cotton Club in Atlanta.
Do you have any other creative outlets besides songwriting?
Not really. What I love about songwriting is that you can write an entire story, complete with characters, in three to five minutes. You can have a wide range of emotions, from salvation to desperation. That’s what I loved about the Ramones. They were one of my early influences. They could write love songs that were also punk rock songs. They weren’t always angry.
When you sit down to write, what’s the first step?
Probably 70% of it is just waking up in the morning and being glad I'm awake. The songs just come out. I take a lot from my dreams. The best songs I write are those when I just wake up and it’s already in my head. Other times I’ll sing in the car, or on the road, or while I'm walking. In the old days in the 80s when I had a song idea I'd call my answering machine and sing into it. But now I just use my phone.
Really? That’s great.
Otherwise I'd forget the melody. But now with my phone I go through my voice memos and see what sounds good. And the memo pad feature on my phone is full of random lines. I'm working on one called “Panhandler Blues.” There one line that says, “I have Kmart pants and Walmart Shoes/ I can't afford a haircut so I do that too.”
For the last Drivin’ n Cryin’ record, we were making an album every four months. For that, I took a lot of song titles—just titles—that I wanted to be songs, and pasted those titles on my wall. I had a list of 24 songs that weren’t written. Songs like “Hot Wheels” and “The Little Record Store Around the Corner.” As I came up with melodies, I'd match them to the song titles.
So you mix and match melodies and lyrics?
All the time. There is no one process for me. I don't consider myself to be a natural songwriter. I tell my friends if they want to write, they have to call me and tell me to come over right now. They can't say to me, “Hey do you want to write next week?” I have too many things on my mind. I might not be in the mood next week.
Isolating myself to write songs is something that I also cannot do. I couldn't imagine going into the woods to write in a cabin. Now if you asked me to go write in a hotel room in, say, Mexico City, that’s another story.
It’s the isolation that bothers you? You need stimulation?
Yes. I need stimulation. I need random circumstances. Unless I happen to run into a talking bear, the woods don't do it for me. I’m not a great example of a songwriter because I don't construct songs. I don't use a lot of chords or bridges. I'm just selfish. I'm probably the most selfish songwriter I know.
What do you mean by that?
I really only write about me. I only hear my voice when I write a song. I guess what I mean is that not only do I write about myself, but I also write for myself and to myself. It’s like I'm singing to myself. When I ride on an airplane, I might listen to 30 Drivin’ n’ Cryin’ songs. I wrote those for me, to entertain myself. So why wouldn't I want to listen to them?
The songs I wrote when I first moved down to the south—songs like “Scarred But Smarter,” “You Mean Everything,” “Stand Up and Fight For It”—are all songs I can sing to myself every night. They’re like self-help songs. I can sing “Scarred But Smarter” every night because it’s my song, a song to me. It’s an inspiring song for me to listen to.
Back to the idea of waking up with a song idea. These songs come from dreams?
Dreams are in some ways spiritual, but a lot of it is your subconscious trying to reorganize all the thoughts you've had. If you had a dream about an elephant doing your taxes, there’s probably some meaning there. When these ideas come, I have to go to the computer right away to type it, because I've learned that if I don't finish it right away, it’s gone. And that’s a horrible feeling.
Is there an ideal emotion where you get your best songs done?
I have to be in a pretty good mood. I don't write well angry. My songs have to have a resolution. This means that I also write a lot of silly songs. For example, I wrote a song called “I Go to Work and I Eat Baloney.” It’s 26 seconds long. I don’t know that I’ll ever sing that onstage. Laughs.
So if you’re going to write about sadness, it’s probably not a good idea to be in that emotional state.
I have written in a sad state, but then I don't want to play those songs. I can write when I'm sad, but it mostly ends up being about how to climb out of it.
What about writing about a place? Do you need to be in that place to write about it?
It’s easier for me to write about Milwaukee when I'm not in Milwaukee. The edges are a little more round and I can romanticize about it. I can't do that when I'm there. But I do get a lot of ideas and write lyrics about what I see. I might write about a nurse I saw get on the subway exhausted. She might become a character in a song.
Do you take breaks from writing?
Yes. There are times when I won’t allow myself to write for, say, eight months. I don't want to write. All I want to do is fill my head. I always want writing to be fun, and when I get periods where I'm writing all the time, it loses its fun. And that’s when I stop.
Is that tough? Does it take willpower to not write?
No, because it means that I can do the things that I don't do when I write, like see bands. And it’s also my time when I fill my head with ideas to write about. I call myself a farmer, not a shopper. I plant seeds in my head and wait for the ideas to maybe come up.
How has your writing process changed over the years?
Once I turned 50, I learned to write about what’s already in my brain. When I was younger, I drew a lot of inspiration from writers like the Beat poets. External inspiration like that. But it’s different now. It’s about what’s inside of me.
I learned to let a lot of things go. It became all about forgiveness and not holding grudges against everyone in my life, from family to friends to management. That makes songwriting easier because it becomes a lot more honest.
I hear young songwriters singing about places like the crossroads on the other side of town, even though they grew up in suburban Long Island nowhere near a country crossroads. And I tell them that, you know what, I’d like to hear about the upbringing you had, in that suburban house with shag carpet. You don't have to pretend you're from the backwoods.
How do you write your lyrics: pen and paper or computer?
I write a lot of lyrics on pen and paper. Writing on a keyboard seems so much more official. I seem to try a lot harder to avoid mistakes, but when I use a pen I write everything down. It's a mess.
Do you do a lot of revising?
I like to move entire verses around. The intro to a song, for example, might be better as the last verse. Some of my songs have the choruses at the end. I have one called “Sometimes I Wish I Didn’t Care.” There are four or five verses, and each verse tells a story about a character. I don't want to sing “sometimes I wish I didn't care” at the end of each verse, so I sing all the verses and leave the chorus at the end. I don't want to ruin it for you while you're listening. I don't want to you to know what I'm thinking about the characters until the end of the song. And with every song, the first line is the most important. I work really hard on my first lines.