All photos by Ryan Bartelmay

Broken Hearts and Auto Parts
By Ryan Bartelmay

Kevn Kinney is bringing it all back home. On his fourth solo album, Broken Hearts and Auto Parts, released this March, he puts down the acoustic guitar (for the most part), and plugs back in or should I say brings it back to rock and roll. The singer/songwriter for the southern-roots band Drivn’ N’ Cryin’ has spent the better part of the last decade living in a split-level house in Athens, Georgia plucking out folk songs. He moved there from Atlanta after Drivn’ N’ Cryin’s ’91 release, and radio darling, Fly Me Courageous. "I more or less retreated into seclusion," he said. Seclusion has proved beneficial. While living in Athens, Kinney has managed to pen four solo albums, all with varying degrees of folkiness. His first, 1990’s MacDougal Blues, was a collaboration with longtime friend, Peter Buck.

Before Kinney’s gig at the Mercury Lounge in New York City’s East Village this past January, he and I sat down and talked over a couple of beers.

Gadfly: Would you consider yourself a southern rocker?

Kinney: Probably the best known southern rock band is REM. They’ve probably sold more records than any other southern rock band. I don’t know if they’d outsold "Free Bird" yet. (laughs) When most people think of southern rock they think of 1972-1977, you know, Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers, Molly Hatchet. When people ask me about southern rock I always go into this definition thing to break it down because America likes to reduce everything to a simplified version of what southern rock is.

Your folk stuff has it roots in the South.

All my major influences are from the South, except for Dylan who is huge to me. Dylan spent a lot of time in the South. I think we kind of claimed him. He makes more records in New Orleans and such, than he does in New York.

The new record plays like a retrospective of the type of music you write. There are the southern rock songs, the folk songs…

I don’t disagree with you at all. It’s a good description—it’s a bit of everything. I wanted it to have a little bit of a sense of humor. I wanted it to be a little bit uplifting. The song "Broken Hearts and Auto Parts" was a hard song to write. I did a couple versions where it was a little bit slower, and you’d be surprised if you’d bring down the tempo—it sounds like I’m a story book singer, and I didn’t want that to come across at all. [He demonstrates singing the line, "Broken hearts and auto parts and everything between," with both a slow and fast tempo.] It’s a totally different feel.

It expresses the irony of the song.

Yeah, it’s an ironic song…which, I mean, everything that happens after eighteen is ironic.

Are the songs you write where you’re at in life?

All the songs I write are basically the same songs. All about love and figuring out who you are and why you are. How to get through it. How you deal with it. How you spin it to make it seem acceptable to you. It really just depends on what type of music I’m listening to. Whether or not I feel like being a rocker or not.

Do you listen to rock songs, then write rock songs?

I don’t say [to myself that] I want to write rock songs and then listen to a lot of rock songs. I feel myself slipping into listening to rock, and I just write rock songs.

I’m interested in what you said about writing the same song over and over.

I’m still trying to write the perfect song.

Is there such a thing?

If I wrote it I wouldn’t realize I wrote until after I’m dead, probably. I might have already written it, I don’t know.

Is a perfect song in the expression? Or are you talking a perfect folk song, rock song, pop song—the genre?

It all comes together and makes sense, like "Feel Like Making Love" by Bad Company, that’s a beautiful, perfect song. "Revolution" by the Beatles, that’s a perfect song. You don’t have to think about it. You can listen to it hundreds of times and not even know the words. They’re just flying by you. You’re into the vibe of the song.

Would you consider yourself a songwriter or a musician?

I’m an entertainer. I write songs and I record them and sell them. I have to be a songwriter and musician to accomplish all that. But I’m not going to fool myself and think that I’m Chaucer or anything. After looking at the remnants of what’s left behind after it’s over, maybe then I’ll say I’m a writer or musician, but at this point I do it to entertain myself, and entertain others, and to pay my rent.

That sounds like a road-weary response. Was there a time when you crossed that bridge and decided that’s what you are?

There was a bridge… six years ago.

You want to talk about it?

I guess I got it when I was doing folk shows in the south—it’s not like folk shows here [in New York] where everyone is quiet. That makes you feel important, like, "oh I’m a songwriter"—everyone’s paying attention. To get their attention [in the South] you have to be an entertaining presence.

Was there a point when you were trying to do something else and you realized that you were an entertainer?

I mean I don’t want to put too much pressure on myself. I don’t feel important. I don’t feel like I’m exposing anything important. I’m just entertaining. I’d love to get up there and fuckin’ piss people off with an electric guitar and make no notes at all and just go rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr and make some cool art, but I don’t know how many times I could do that. So I’m a sellout. I don’t mind trying to make people like me. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.

Could you have done what you are doing now if you would have stayed in Milwaukee?

I decided a long time ago me and Milwaukee didn’t get along. When I came down south, I felt like that was my home. I still play Milwaukee but I play for like ten people. I don’t feel like they get me.

Do you think it has something to do with the disposition of the Midwest opposed to the South? Or is it one of those hometown things you needed to breakout of?

I don’t know. I don’t know the people in Milwaukee that well to know what they want. It’s very middle Germany, very industrial music. I’m sure there’s a niche there for me if I could find it, but I don’t know where it is, and I’m not really interested in finding it. I don’t need to go home. I don’t need to be the prodigal son.

I read somewhere this album [Broken Hearts and Auto Parts] is your Bringing It All Back Home. Do you care to comment on that?

I hate to compare myself to a Dylan record. When he wrote that record and he was listening to it before it came out, I’m guessing—without any evidence—that he might have felt how I feel right now. He totally went electric a little bit on it and it was a fun record for him to make with his friends because he’d been touring by himself for so long. I’ve done the rock thing and I’ve done the folk thing, and now I’m doing a little bit more of the electric thing.

For you is it about getting a couple buddies together, drinking a couple beers and playing some songs?

Yeah, and hopefully make people think, and feel good. I want people to think about the world but it’s not my job to preach to them. It’s more important for you to come and see me and my life. This is who I am, and this is what I do. I don’t think I’m like anybody else. You either love me or hate me or you don’t get it or you’ll get it or you don’t want to get it.

Just as long as they pay attention?

I’m there to entertain myself, and if I know what you want, to entertain you as well. I play these very basic chords, but there’re huge complexities underneath it all. I could go on for hours about my agenda, but for me it starts with something as simple as getting people’s attention and entertaining them.