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Kevin Montgomery - The Triste Interview
|Kevin Montgomery has an impeccable musical pedigree: his father played with Buddy Holly while his mother was a session singer with everyone from Presley to Dylan. Kevin Montgomery's career started in the early 90's with the album "Fear Nothing" which picked up critical praise and a couple of high profile cover songs. After a fallow period in the late 90's, the last few years have seen Montgomery touring Europe heavily and recording with Doug Pettibone as well as the Mavericks' rhythm section. Triste caught up with him in Manchester and in Chester in 2002
Triste: Could we start by talking a little about your musical background? I read somewhere that you described music as the 'background to your life'.
Kevin Montgomery: Well, I think music is the soundtrack to our lives really. It's very important. I guess it was important to me because it was what my Dad did for a living and so when he came home at night he'd play stuff and I'd ask him questions about 'What instrument is that sound'. I can remember being like 4 years old, saying 'What's that sound right there' and he'd say 'Well that's a bass guitar, and that's a guitar, and drums and whatever'. So music is really the soundtrack to our lives. There's a Swedish band called Soundtrack To Our Lives, it's a great band name.
Triste: Your Dad was a partner of Buddy Holly's wasn't he?
Kevin Montgomery: Yeah, they grew up together and they had a duo called Buddy and Bob and then I think what really happened was that Buddy was offered a record deal and Dad wasn't really and Buddy called my Dad and said, you know, 'What should I do? I don't know what to do here' and Dad said 'Go for it, do it' and so they had a parting of ways. You know he did write a lot of the songs like "Heartbeat", "Wishing", "Loves Made A Fool Of You" but then he and Mom moved to Nashville, I think he was 23. They got married, when my Mom was 17, he was 20, they moved to Nashville and he started writing songs, repairing TV's for a few years and writing on the side. He wrote "Misty Blue" during that time, "Back In Baby's Arms", and then he got a job in A & R at United Artists and started producing. He produced Bobby Goldsboro's "Honey". He produced everybody from Bobby Goldsboro to some records of Waylon Jennings and Verne Goslin. So he had a long history as a producer and a publisher in Nashville.
Triste: And your Mum was involved too as a session singer I believe?
Kevin Montgomery: Yes, she sang on "Suspicious Minds" and she sang on Robert Knight's "Everlasting Love".
Triste: So you felt, really that you were always destined to be a musician yourself? Did you ever consider any other jobs?
Kevin Montgomery: Yeah, baseball player! No, it wasn't really forced on me or anything, it just was something I decided I wanted to do. It wasn't inevitable or anything but it was something I decided I wanted to do.
Triste: In your teens, you were busking in New York, on the subway.
Kevin Montgomery: Yeah, when I was 19.
Triste: Did you actually move there to do that?
Kevin Montgomery: No, I was going to school there and I went uptown and bought a guitar for 60 bucks. I came back down on the subway, I was waiting a long time and I opened it up and started playing and people started putting money into it so I decided that might be a good idea.
Triste: Were you doing your own material at that time?
Kevin Montgomery: I was doing, you know, covers - Springsteen, Steve Earle, my stuff. That's when I really kind of delved into Steve Earle and Springsteen and decided that.....I knew I wanted to be a songwriter and singer, but I decided that I wanted to write songs like that, you know, in that vein. I quit college 6 months later 'cos I decided that I'd better go for it. So I went back to Nashville for about a year, then moved to LA, I was 21.
Triste: And that's where you got your deal with A&M Records?
Kevin Montgomery: Yeah, I'd lived there for about a year, did every open mike out there for about a year, then signed almost a year to the day that I'd moved there.
Triste: Did you have a burning inner belief you were going to make it from the start? You were out there for a year, playing open mikes, did you ever doubt you'd get spotted?
Kevin Montgomery: Well, I guess I was really into baseball when I was a kid and the first couple of years I played I wasn't any good and because I didn't have any neighbours in my neighbourhood, you know, kids, I played by myself a lot. I'd throw the ball up against the wall for hours and hours by myself, for 3 or 4 hours and field it and I got, you know, quite good, as a Short Stop, Pitcher and Catcher, First Batter, that kind of stuff, and it was because I totally was obsessive about something. I was obsessive about becoming good in baseball; and so I believe that if you want to do something good in your life you have to focus, you have to really put your all into it and not have anything to fall back on and just go for it, 'balls to the wall' if you will.
Triste: Is there also an element of luck involved as well? There are thousands of people who never make it beyond the local scene, who are probably very talented.
Kevin Montgomery: It's absolutely the truth there's luck involved. The stars have to align if you will. Take the recent Guardian Review we came at a time of the year when not many people are playing and that's probably what got that guy to the show and ultimately I think it's going to be a piece that will be real nice in the future. The stars aligned, but it's a case of 'Well did you create your luck, did it just happen?' The guy could have gotten the flu and not come out, you know. You have to show up to win, that's the whole point.
Triste: The album you made with A&M, Fear Nothing received favourable reviews but was it commercially successful?
Kevin Montgomery: No, I think it fell through the cracks. I think A&M didn't really know what to do with it, you know, it was somewhere between country and rock. I think when I signed with label it was sort of the label to sign with, it was known as the 'Artist's Label', and it sort of changed. Right around that time, Sheryl Crow took off and record labels are like, or they used to be, they're like, once you start feeding that machine, the machine gets hungry, and the machine then wants products they can sell, lots of records very quickly and sometimes I think record companies, they lose sight of what put them there in the first place.
Triste: You toured after that with Sheryl Crow and David Crosby.
Kevin Montgomery: Yes, I toured with Sheryl Crow, David Crosby, Peter Himmelman, The Samples, but it really does seem like another lifetime ago because I went through a period where I just dropped out of the business and was working, waiting tables and delivering papers.
Triste: Were you disillusioned at that time?
Kevin Montgomery: I was fine with that. I was disillusioned but I also found that I was very happy. I had a cool girlfriend, we lived together and I was happy to come home at night, tired as hell and hang out and I was fine with that. I think it was a lesson that was good for me.
Triste: Were you still writing at that time?
Kevin Montgomery: I was still writing songs and I was working on getting another record deal but I sort of, for a time, was out of it, I wasn't in the music business. I was working on record deals and that kind of thing, but not like now.
Triste: How did the album Another Long Story come to be made, was it self-financed?
Kevin Montgomery: Mostly and with Frank Liddell and Dusty Wakeman's help.
Triste: You must have been delighted with the way the album was received in the UK - I believe Bob Harris was partly instrumental in this?
Kevin Montgomery: I sold my truck and started bicycling around Nashville to pay this guy who was supposed to do promotion in the UK for me. He turned out to be a scam artist, so one day out of frustration I sent Bob Harris an email and asked if I could send him my record and he said he'd be delighted. The next week he started playing my record and then a couple of acoustic appearances occurred subsequently. He is great - love him.
Triste: You have toured the UK and Europe a number of times since Another Long Story was released. This must be hard work, but it seems to be paying off, with, for example the showing of the "Lets All Go To California" video on TOTP2, and an excellent live review in The Guardian. Has that been the intention, to gradually build a following from the 'grass roots'?
Kevin Montgomery: It is the only way; I don't have the big hype machine behind me that other artists seem to have. I've had to do it person by person but that is ok, it's more real. I like to think that I have a connection with my fans/friends that will last through the years.
Triste: You also recently toured Australia with Robert Reynolds. How did that go? I believe they're really into Country music Down Under?
Kevin Montgomery: It was great. We had a great time and loved playing for them. In fact, I just returned from a follow-up trip.
Triste: I've seen you with full band line ups-with the Maverick boys, Pat Buchanan, Jeff Finlin et al, and it really comes over that you enjoy yourselves on stage. I also saw you last year with just Al Perkins and this year with Joe Pisapia, and you seemed equally at home. Do you have a preference for the full band or the more acoustic shows?
Kevin Montgomery: I enjoy both; I love when the band is firing on all cylinders as well as the more subtle moments of the acoustic shows.
Triste: Apart from the Paint EP, you released a live EP last year. I understand you're writing for a new album at the moment. Are there any recording/release dates for this as yet?
Kevin Montgomery: Yes, after the tour in January we will start recording.
Triste: Can I ask you a little now about your songwriting? Your songs are obviously very personal, even confessional. Is it sometimes painful to write songs like that or does it act as a catharsis?
Kevin Montgomery: Both, I just try to make each song a prayer or conversation. I find that the writers that really get to me....like Jackson Browne, Jimmy Webb, or Aimee Mann..are the ones that will really open up and say things that are real and that maybe a little uncomfortable. I try to do that.
Triste: Following on from that, does it irritate you when people ask you to explain the stories behind the songs or name the people involved, even when a particular song may be totally fictional?
Kevin Montgomery: Yes, actually it does a little bit....maybe it feels like an intrusion of sorts. I like for people to decide for themselves what a song is about or points to. For instance, there is a certain Counting Crows song that I have adopted for my own that, in my mind, relates to an ex who still lives in LA. It's called, "A Long December" and I'm sure Adam Duritz was not thinking about her when he wrote it! But now it's mine. I hope the same happens with my songs.
Triste: What is the most common source of inspiration for writing a new song? Is it a fragment of conversation? A story you've heard? A guitar lick or chord pattern? A tune you can't stop humming in your head? Or none of these?
Kevin Montgomery: Usually a feeling that I have in my gut for a while and then I find the music to fit it. Could be any of those things really. Usually prolonged, extreme emotional pain helps. (laughs)
Triste: The song 'Visions of White' has a moment where the musical accompaniment drops away to reveal a rough drum machine track. Was this song based around a certain beat you found?
Kevin Montgomery: No I really wrote it on the road at sound checks around the US when I was out with Peter Himmelman. I had just finished a relationship and was on a 70 city tour and felt pretty helpless to do anything about business I considered unfinished. Once you are on the road it is a little like being on a ship out to sea.
Triste: Somewhere, you said that "Broken" was your favourite song. Can you try and explain what makes a good song stand out?
Kevin Montgomery: I felt that in the second verse I had verbalised exactly how I was feeling at that moment in my life. What makes a song stand out? I don't know.....you know it when you hear it.
Triste: On your two main studio albums the songs you recorded go back over several years. I assume you're not a prolific songwriter (more a David Crosby, Jackson Browne or Paul Simon than an Elvis Costello or a Bob Dylan). Is it a case of abandoning many of the songs you've written in a half-completed state or do you impose the quality control when you've finished them?
Kevin Montgomery: I do have bits of songs that are incomplete - the second verse is always the hardest. Sometimes songs sit around for years waiting on a bridge, then I live the bridge and go back and complete the song.
Triste: So do you know when you've got a 'keeper'?
Kevin Montgomery: I would hope so. (laughs)
Triste: You have co-written with many different people-Larry Gottlieb, Jeff Finlin, Pettibone, Rodney Crowell. How does that work? Is there a set pattern as regards melody/lyrics? Do you sit around in the same room trading ideas like early Lennon-McCartney?
Kevin Montgomery: Usually it's two guys that sit around in a room and you don't speak to much...just play and let stream of consciousness lyrics come out...you both know when you are onto something. I write both lyrics and melody.
Triste: Talking of Lennon-McCartney, can I ask you about performing at Paul McCartney's Buddy Holly concert in 2000? How did that come about?
Kevin Montgomery: Tony Bramwell, a close associate of The Beatles, sent my record to McCartney, and he invited me to come play the Buddy Holly Party. So we did, after cancelling a gig of course!
Triste: Have the Beatles been an influence at all, bearing in mind they'd split by the time you were born?
Kevin Montgomery: I guess in a round about way; I love their music, but in a general sense. I guess they were just before my time. There was a period when I went back and studied their records but mostly I have just enjoyed them with masses. On a personal level, I thought McCartney was all class and he was very kind to us all.
Triste: You must have been thrilled that Martina McBride and Juice Newton tapped Fear Nothing for "I Won't Close My Eyes" and "Red Blooded American Boy". Were you happy with the versions they did? Do you feel proprietorial over the cover versions of your songs?
Kevin Montgomery: I was a little intimidated when I heard Martina McBride's version of "I Won't Close My Eyes"!! She is so damned good and I was annoyed that I hadn't gotten the backing vocals as good as her version! Juice's came out of nowhere and so I was very happy to hear her version. Also, she took a totally different approach, so that was cool to hear.
Triste: In turn, when you're covering over artists' songs do you feel the need to personalise the song - to add your own stamp of individuality to the song, rather than produce a faithful copy?
Kevin Montgomery: Yes, I like to change them as much as I can to make them my own. You can't out-Springsteen Springsteen.
Triste: Do you think you've got better as a songwriter over the last 10 years?
Kevin Montgomery: I would hope so....I've lived more and if you are a sympathetic person than hopefully you become better at songwriting. Some people do the opposite though, or go through stages. For instance, take Jackson Browne's Late for the Sky as opposed to Lawyers in Love.... but then he came back with I'm Alive God bless him!
Triste: Finally, judging by the people you've worked with, the musicians we've mentioned and producers like Dusty Wakeman and Frank Liddell, you obviously command a lot of professional respect, so, in the words of "Another Long Story" - 'How come the bigwigs don't push you better?' Is there a short answer?
Kevin Montgomery: Yes. Don't care about the bigwigs anymore!
(Thanks to Bill Beaver for help with the interview)