Ben Kyle is a singer and songwriter who has just released his debut self-titled album after being a part of the band Romantica and releasing an album of duets with Carrie Rodguiez (We Still Love Our Country). Ben Kyke’s album was a surprise when I first heard it and became a firm favourite and one of the albums of the year. So Lonesome Highway to the opportunity to ask Ben about his background and his musical influences.
Ben, you left Ireland when you were 13. What memories do you have of living here before that?
Oh many, many very good memories indeed. I recollect a very rich boyhood; mostly memories of family and friends, schools and sports. I was the third of seven children. My father was a medical doctor turned ecumenical pastor, a sort of physician turned spiritualist. You could say he went from being concerned with healing bodies to healing hearts.
My mother played field hockey for Ireland. I like to say she was an international sports star turned head coach of 7 children. We were a Protestant family with a Catholic fertility ethos! We grew up in a type of community life, frequently engaged with not just our own friends but our parent’s friends, stopping in for tea, coming over for dinner, or often living with us.
It was a fairly routine life, with summer holidays on the same beach each year... I had four brothers with which to hone my football skills and 2 sisters with whom to enact faux weddings and living room concerts.
Did you inherit any musical impulses or roots from your Irish heritage?
I imagine I did although growing up, as many do nowadays, with an eclectic soundtrack, it's difficult to discern what really came from where. But there IS something of the land, the air, the ethos of the place you are from, that remains with you in your soul and comes out through your music. We did learn traditional songs in school and those melodies still resonate with me. GK Chesterton once wrote of the Irish "All their wars are merry and all their songs are sad". If there's a sweet mellowness or a melancholy longing in my music I think it may come from here. I think of the Irish poetic heritage too; Synge, Swift, Wilde, Yeats and Joyce among many, and their great concern with words. A reverence for words has followed me too.
What are your earliest memories of music and your initial influences, and when did you start to play?
My grandmother was a pianist, organist and choir director. My father was a songwriter himself and wrote a lot of music for the church. We used to have family 'praise times' where we'd all sing together and play our own instruments. I shared a room with my older brother and on Saturdays he would always be tuned in to the "Top 40 Countdown" on the radio. They would be giving away albums to the first 5 callers and he would just sit there with the phone on re-dial! That's how we built our first record collection! I remember some of the spoils- Paul Simon, Lionel Richie, The Boss. As I look back, I realize there were a lot of classic songwriters in rotation; Dylan, Van Morrison, Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel among them too. We had an old Dylan songbook lying around, so when I picked up the guitar, those were the first songs I learned to play. But in our house it was as natural to make up your own songs as it was to play somebody else's, so I began a sort of rudimentary writing right away. My uncle had a moderately successful duo group in the 70's called "Stewart and Kyle," so I joined ranks with my boyhood chum Ricky Higginson and formed "Higg and Kyle" - it didn't have quite the same ring - and we began gathering material for our first album by photocopying pages from the biblical book of 'Revelation' that seemed to provide colorful enough imagery to set some tunes to. The album was shelved by "Higg and Kyle Records" for obvious reasons, but the ambition was clearly there, and it would only be a matter of time before that aspiring songwriter matured and refined some of his own 'revelations'.
Some early years were spent learning and imitating songs that I enjoyed listening to, with less compulsion to write. But after my family's emigration to America at the tender age of 13, I was ripe and ready to coalesce and express some of the things I was feeling and observing about my 'new world' in the song form. These early musings came out in a sort of Dylan inspired, but adolescently awkward and youthfully self-righteous toned, socio-political commentary. Thankfully any demonstration recordings have been long-lost or burned and these early sketches survive only in the forgivingly nostalgic memories of a few teenage campfire companions!
Was Romantica your first band?
Yes. I continued to write and play through my teens. I tried to give up music while enrolled in Art School so I could give myself fully to the studies, but I was never able to really let go. I even showed up at a painting critique once with a song instead of a painting. (Thankfully, I'd a gracious professor.) But after I finished the degree, I knew the next thing was to follow the music. So that's when I began Romantica.
There's a clip of you playing I Don't Want To Go Out Tonight with Romantica. Were some of the songs written over a period of time that feature on your solo album?
Yes they were. I had been playing a few of the songs with Romantica, but they just seemed to fit the feel and context of this album.
The mini-album you recorded with Carrie Rodriguez quite obviously suggests that you have a love for traditional country. How deep was that?
I discovered traditional country through Gram Parsons. There's a purity and straightforwardness about it that I love, but there's also a charm and an easy self-consciousness about it, like "I take myself really seriously" but at the same time "I don't take myself too seriously." As a band it was our favorite touring soundtrack. Many a highway mile was passed to the sound of Hank, Lefty, Marty, Buck, Merle, Porter, Dolly, Townes, George, Cash and co.
How did you decide what songs to record given you had a limited amount of studio time?
We each threw some ideas out and landed on the ones that we both agreed on, and felt we could give our own 'thing' to.
Do you intend to record together, in that way, in the future?
It was a brilliant experience with Carrie and the band and I love recording that way... locked up, with the limit of a couple of days. There's no plan at the moment, but if the stars align, I'd do it again, for sure.
Is your solo album a side-step or do you intend to continue as a solo artist?
It wasn't a side step, so much as a next step and I'm seldom aware of what's two steps ahead! I imagine there'll be more Ben Kyle releases, but there could quite possibly be more Romantica releases too.
Some of the songs suggest a weariness with traveling and need to be closer to your family. Is that an option for a working musician?
It's a great question. It's definitely a tension. I think it's all about finding the right balance. And also about defining what you do and hope to do. If you hope to be a sensation, then you probably ought to assume the kind of rigorous touring schedule that the industry demands. If you hope, as I do, to be open to a sort of spiritual navigation system, have a grounded family life, make beautiful albums and sustain a living by periodically traveling to perform and share that music in a meaningful live experience... then yes, you can be a working musician and remain close to your family!
You use the pedal steel as an integral part of the sound on the new album. In one case you have four separate steel players. What attracts you to an instrument that was so integral to country music at one time?
I love the sound of the steel guitar. The way it bends and moves so fluidly from note to note, chord to chord. The way it swells in and gently departs. It's very analogous to a feeling. To me, it sounds like spirit in its very timbre and tone. Especially when played with less 'twang' and more 'vibe'. It carries longing. In a sense, the steel guitar is to American country music, what the low whistle or the uilleann pipes are to Irish music. It's not a wonder Daniel Lanois calls it his 'church in a suitcase'.
This album is self-released. Is that the best path for you?
It's good for this moment. I wanted to understand the benefits and drawbacks. It allows me the autonomy to follow the sort of path I outlined before. But it also gives me an appreciation for the role and function of a good label.
What is the best way to get to know Ben Kyle?
By reading this interview! The new album is very personal, so that's a good way too.
What is music to you?
Music is about feeling. It's all about feeling. Getting a feeling, expressing a feeling. Expressing how we feel in this world in a medium that can be felt by everybody.
Do you have any plans to return to Ireland?
I love Ireland. I don't imagine finding myself living there again, although I wouldn't resist her if she called - and gave me a good reason. But I hope to return often to visit and to play.