Kevin Garrett has emerged in 2015 as one of NYC’s most prominent young songwriters. Unapologetically moody, soulful at heart, incurably ballad-prone, Kevin’s songs have the aura of old time classics, but their production process is as modern as it gets, centered – as often the case these days – around the artists’ home studio. We asked Garrett a few questions about it and the creative process it triggers.
What comes first: music or lyrics?
It’s music first about 80% of the time. Sometimes I’ll have lyric ideas going into it but there’s really only been one song I’ve written where I’ve had the lyrics totally mapped out before ever picking up an instrument, and that song isn’t mine anymore.
What’s been inspiring you lately?
Lately I’ve been inspired by some personal experiences and some self reflection, always trying to figure myself out. I’ve also been listening to a lot of new music and old jazz.
Is inspiration some kind of random blessing, or is it possible to set it in motion?
I like to try and write on different instruments when I get blocked. I admittedly tend to shut down as of late when I hit a wall. But I find that switching up the musical landscape almost always provides some inspiration, whether it be new instruments or different tuning.
Where do you look for lyrical inspiration?
I look at particular moments that have really gotten to me, very personal experiences. That’s my game right now, being as vulnerable as possible. Since I don’t really open up otherwise, my songs are the best way to try and cut me open. So I try to tap into those emotions when writing lyrics.
Is there something you look for when writing lyrics, like, say, catharsis, personal expression, topicality, or positivity?
Recently I’ve been looking at moments of a particular relationship and flipping the perspective or eliminating half of the perspective to focus on my own actions and whatnot. That usually yields some of the ideas you listed when I can get it right.
As of now you are a one man operation, where do you feedback for your music when composing?
…switching up the musical landscape almost always provides some inspiration, whether it be new instruments or different tuning.
I try really hard to trust myself, and then when I finish a demo I live with it for a while before showing anybody. Then I have a very specific group of people with whom I’m okay with truly sharing the tunes.
What is your DAW of choice and why do you prefer it to others?
Does the songwriting start directly on the DAW or do you sketch ideas with a real instrument first?
I’m almost always writing on a guitar or piano before I even open a session. It’s too much of a distraction. I just end up making beats. Write a song first, that’s what will set you apart from everybody else with a laptop.
What are the plug ins and “in the box” tools you abuse of?
Do you like synths? If so, which ones do you use in your recordings?
Goodness I adore synths. In the records that I’ve put out I use a whole bunch of synths. The Moog SubPhatty is all over the place, I use a Roland Juno 106, a couple different prophets from Dave Smith. I love the Optigan.What one piece of hardware/software would you most like to add to your recording setup? If I could own one of those Optigans that would be amazing. Some creation by Austen Hooks. Or really an actual grand piano is probably the dream purchase. Hardware/software though, let’s see. A real plate reverb would be sweet. Software, if I could have all of the UA plugs I don’t already have that would be nice. All of the Strymon pedals. Better kick drum samples. I have a lot of work to do it seems.
RECORDING SET UP AND MIXING
What’s your recording process?
When I’m working for myself I’ve always had the song written fully before taking it to anyone or working on it myself. That way I know I can still actually play them live if I want to on my own. Then I tend to demo by myself and then end up in a studio to properly record what I want. I have a small list of people so far in terms of who has worked with me on whatever I’ve released for myself.
What do you find to be the most challenging aspects of the recording process? On the flipside, what aspects are the most rewarding?
Balancing egos is tricky. Trusting people’s creative decisions is hard and earning their trust is also tough. But when the people you’re in the studio with are all on your same page, things click really well.
Balancing egos is tricky. Trusting people’s creative decisions is hard and earning their trust is also tough. But when the people you’re in the studio with are all on your same page, things click really well. I also like sitting at a piano and just playing in a silent room. That’s very rewarding and cathartic.
Is there a person that’s been important in perfecting your recorded and/or live sound?
The people involved in the EP and Refuse all contributed in their own ways. Ryan Gilligan is someone who I keep coming back to because he just has a fresh set of ears by the time the songs need to be mixed and he always has a knack for finding the right stuff to add or take away. He’s brilliant.
THE LIVE SHOW
It’s often challenging to translate programmed music to a live setting, what’s your approach to it?
I don’t program anything other than some ambient samples on Sean’s drum pad but those are all manually triggered. A lot of the sounds on the EP and Refuse are live drums and live takes, so we just take those instruments we used to record and play them on a stage. I think the most control you can have on a stage is when there is no laptop involved, no tracks, no in ears, just you and your band if you have one playing their instruments and working together. I watched the Grammy’s this year and Alabama Shakes had one of the highlights of the show for me when Brittany was filmed counting her band in. That was amazing.
Do you consider the live show as a faithful translation of your recorded material or simply an opportunity to let your songs free to follow new directions?
The songs definitely don’t sound exactly like the records when I play live, but we tend to keep it pretty close because the gear on stage and in studio is quite similar. I enjoy reharmonizing songs though, sometimes we play some alternative stuff in and out of the songs people know.
What pieces of equipment do you find particularly useful on stage?
The Roland SPD-Sx drum pad is very helpful, it helps fill in some sonic cracks that three dudes can’t always fill. I love the Dave Smith Mopho x4, I have presets dialed in for each song and there’s a lot of expressive freedom in that synth. Moog Sub Phatty is pivotal on stage. Makes everybody shake in the crowd. The Roland Juno 106 also is nice and gives us a lot of the pad sounds that live on the records. And I use a TC Helicon vocal pedal to give me a couple harmonies, but I like it because it’s still honest. You still need to sing in tune.BEYOND MUSICAre there any vintage formats that you’re interested in pursuing for the band, like, say, vinyl or cassette? If so, why?
I want to put music out on vinyl for sure. I still buy records a lot. It’s just a different experience. You’re buying so much more than the music with a vinyl but the music is all it really is right? But you’re getting big artwork and traditional liner notes and something about the vinyl aesthetic gets me. But if Kanye isn’t making CDs anymore then maybe we should all go totally digital.
With bands doing more of everything themselves these days (recording, performing, self-promoting, etc.) and the evermore multimedia nature of the world, how much effort do you put into the visual component of your band: fashion, styling, photography, graphic/web design, etc.?
I have a pretty straightforward look, don’t pay too much attention to it, but I definitely try to keep the vibe at a certain place. That’s just worked on through what I post and how I post it and how I speak on social media. I’m embracing the darker sort of branding and visuals just because I’m being honest with everyone and that’s where I’m at personally and musically.
Any comments about the current state of music and art in NYC?
NYC has always been a hotbed for creativity and good music. I think it’s become harder to weed out what’s good from what’s catchy, but that’s not just NYC that’s everywhere. The thing is everyone can at least try to do it now and we as people like to jump the gun sometimes. So I should say, I think music and art are very much alive and thriving in NYC, but we could be more responsible with our ears and our eyes.