Kevin Garrett’s “Finite Pool of Experiences" [Interview]

Updated: Feb 10, 2020

Interview with Kevin Garrett

photos by Shervin Lainez

“If it’s always with us, you’ve got to become its friend.”

Singer-songwriter Kevin Garrett, describing his music as “sad, sadder, and hopefully relatable," is no stranger to the darker side of reality. He brings these truths forward in the rich, reverberating chords of his minimalist tracks, all driven by velvet, reassuring vocals. He’s struck a tactful balance between simplicity and complexity, honing in on emotions not just to depict specific situations, but to shed light on a comprehensive human experience. So when we ask about his focus on the lows as opposed to the highs, he attests that it’s a purposeful dimension of that mission.

“I think that we’re all just inherently sad – that’s our baseline,” he says after a moment’s consideration. “That’s why we’re pursuing happiness.” And for Kevin, pursuing happiness is investigating perspectives, having the freedom to explore sounds at his own pace, and creating resonant material that speaks to many people.

“My goal with my music is to just constantly be refining things while demonstrating restraint,” he explains. “The first song that I put out, ‘Coloring’, turns five years old in a couple of months. It’s very piano driven. I think that song being the first one to put my name out there kind of set me up to be a piano guy. So I think within that realm was an alt-R&B style, and a lot of synths, and some hip hop-influenced production.”

However, growing up he wasn’t strictly a piano guy. “I started playing violin when I was about four, and then it got me into college eventually so I just kept at it, and along the way picked up anything that made noise. I played drums, and guitar, and piano, and everything. When I was 13, I started writing songs on guitar. Then I got to a point where, towards the end of high school, beginning of college, I started having more important things to say, I guess – or more poetic things to say.” This potential was developed further by opportunities to play live at a local club, and then a few years later in 2014 when he was asked to open for James Vincent McMorrow. After that, it was perpetual touring with the likes of X Ambassadors, Alessia Cara, and Mumford and Sons before he took a step back in 2018 to focus on what, for him, has been his most significant body of work to date.

“I’ve always just wanted to put this album out,” Kevin asserts. “The first EP, and the songs after the EP, and the second EP – it was all meant to be ‘Hoax’. Because of touring, and whatever hit of success that I’ve been able to flirt with thus far, it put me in a position where I wanted to put music out, but I wasn’t able to put a larger story arc out in the way I wanted to until now. I’m very methodical in terms of my creative output. I’ve never really been into singles – it’s always been a means to a larger thing.”

“I definitely think I’m an album artist,” he continues. “Even if the concept of the album dies out, I’m probably going to keep making them.” It’s a thought-provoking statement, especially given the controversy that streaming platforms have generated. If there were a kind of album with the capability to last, however, it would be one like ‘Hoax’ – capturing and examining life from different angles.

And very possibly this all-embracing quality stems from the fact that some songs that he had held onto for many years, even half of his life in some cases, made the final cut. Unlike many other artists, he believes wholeheartedly in what he makes, no matter the stretch of time that has passed. “There’s a song on the album called ‘Telescopes’ that I wrote when I was 14, 15,” he relates. “It’s the type of thing where you can run into moments of ideas going sour on you, or the memory fading to the point of not being able to recognize it in the same way. But my goal with writing is to never get so specific that something can’t be timeless. So going back into the studio, the goal with the older songs was to breathe new life into them stylistically, because I think the words are universal enough that you can sing them at any point in your life.”

With phrases like “I could see your heartbeat through your teeth”, his words have a force that’s enough to make your breath catch. Yet, he’s a master of the less is more mentality, incorporating irony in decisions such as calling the sixth song on ‘Hoax’ “Title Track”. “[That song] is the perfect embodiment of the concept story that I was trying to tell for the record,” Kevin expresses. “When you bounce a [demo], the session title is usually what the song is. ‘Title Track’ was on the shortlist of songs, and a friend of mine was like, ‘I think you should just leave [the title as it is].’ Especially since the album was always called ‘Hoax’, it kind of just adds to this sort of enigmatic trick of the whole thing. I think that it’s one of the better songs I’ve written in terms of wordplay and melody.”

When it comes to writing, he tells us that there is a method to the madness. “It’s usually music and melody first,” he says. “But then every once in a while words will start to formulate, and I’ll just build off of whatever initial ideas come to mind. Every song starts with an idea, and with that one I was trying to go for some imagery with being in some dark bar, down on my luck, and really creating this character and narrative of what effectively becomes me singing to myself. That’s what a lot of the music on the album is – me looking in the mirror and saying, ‘how did we get here?’”

The word ‘Hoax’, an acronym for “hell of a heartbreak”, is what Kevin maintains to be the essence of the album. “It’s the type of thing where it’s like, ‘who’s to blame?’ ‘Who hurt who?’ I think ‘Title Track’ speaks to me so much because not all of the elements are [based on an] actual event, but it’s just the environment that the song puts the character in. It’s a good benchmark for the whole album.” The track, a slightly cynical anthem of self-deprecation, pulls the listener into a spiral of rising melodies and plucking guitar.

Another fresh aspect of ‘Hoax’ that Kevin highlights is his use of a more acoustic soundscape to establish a cinematic feel. In particular, the resurrection of a song called “Faith You Might” shaped the sonic presence of the album. “[It was] meant to be on my old band’s second album,” he reveals. “I put the demo into the pool of songs for the album when I was working with Brad Cook, the producer for ‘Hoax’. He played it for his wife, and his wife loved it, and managers loved it, and I was kind of surprised because it was such a different vibe. When that song made the cut, it was the cornerstone of this conscious decision to reintroduce some more singer-songwriter vibes to what I still think is a kind of R&B-leaning, sort of moody album. It definitely brightened it up a little bit.”

“Factor In”, his most recent release and first single post-album, enters with swelling harmonies before snapping into a lulling groove, conveying the struggle of a disruption, maybe even a reversion to a former state of mind. “It’s a song about coming to grips with the fact that somebody or something in your life has such a hold on you, such a grip on your heart or your mind that even in a period of positive recovery, one small step or one hint of that thing can just send you in a tailspin.” Building off of the introspection of ‘Hoax’, there’s something a little more assured, more urgent about the song.

The themes that Kevin has been integrating into the new music aren’t necessarily new at all, but instead are simply evolved forms of his observations. “There’s a finite pool of experiences that I always tap into to get words out as I move through life and go through more experiences,” he says. “From a lyrics perspective, I think I’m getting more and more honest. [And I think honesty is something] every artist should try to convey, because there are so many people that are singing stuff that I would be willing to bet they don’t even know what it’s about, because they don’t write it. At the end of the day, the more authentic you are, the more unique you are. It’s very easy to sound like everybody else, but I think the more compelling thing and the thing that will last longer is something that can speak to people on a much more personal level, and that only happens if you’re being honest with yourself on the creative side.”

Unfortunately, he’s familiar with the flip side of that statement, too. As a songwriter who’s written for artists ranging from Beyoncé to Banks, he’s gotten the opportunity to have firsthand involvement with many different kinds of creative processes. “There have been plenty of sessions where I’m working for somebody else and they aren’t even there, and I don’t like that as much,” he tells us. “It’s nice when you’re working with another artist for their project to be in the same room as them and tap into what they’re thinking so you can kind of get a sense of what they want to say.”

How does he balance other artists’ input with his own? “I think it’s just tempering your personal, emotional output in sessions for other people,” he answers. “There have definitely been times, without naming names, where certain artists just want to like, jack your vibe, and they want to basically steal your words and steal your feelings. And I know that there are plenty of songwriters who are solely songwriters who are totally okay with that, but for me the music that I make is so personal that what I like to do for [other artists’] projects is be more of a proofreader, and get the impulse and the emotion out of them and then shape the song with them.” And it’s this ability to elicit this emotion from both others and himself that sets him apart, crafting music with the authenticity that he believes so strongly in.

Of course, being on the road affects how much time he’s able to devote to writing at all, regardless of the project. When we speak with him, he’s in the midst of opening for Banks on her III tour. “The tour I’m on right now specifically, I’m doing a lot of extra work in addition to just being on stage and everything,” he says. “And so the time in the day is never long enough. “I’ve got a lot of half-finished ideas that are becoming easier to work on remotely. Finding pockets of time here and there to not even just write, but just sort of meditate on them has been really helpful. And then we get in certain cities where I know producers or writers are, and if we have an off day I try to link up with them and work together on something.”

Kevin might be hard at work now, but he has a lot coming soon. “I don’t want to give away too many things, but I have the next couple of records starting to get shortlisted. Concepts are all kind of lining up. Hopefully I’ll get back out on the road after this tour in the new year and play some more stuff for anybody who wants to come. I’m in a really good zone right now with writing and with production, and I feel really good about [what] I’ve been working on for the next few projects. There are some really cool collaborations and some other things that I’m very eager to keep pushing to bring to everybody. But one thing at a time, one day at a time, one show at a time.” Whatever the next installment brings, we know he’ll continue to give us this probing depth like no other.

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