Lone Star State of Mind: Songwriter Robert Ellis stakes out his corner of Texas’ music legacy for The Oklahoman / NewsOK
For his new album “Texas Piano Man,” songwriter Robert Ellis dons a white tuxedo and an uncharacteristically Texas-sized pop swagger.
Ellis, known for his intricate guitar playing and what he accurately described as “not lowest-common-denominator” songwriting, put down the six-string and instead picked up 88 keys for writing and tracking his latest effort. But he didn’t just make a piano record: Robert Ellis transformed into the Texas Piano Man, with yellow lapel rose and pristine white cowboy hat to boot.
Or boots, in this case.
“Texas Piano Man” is a poppy, wry masterpiece channeling Elton John, Harry Nilsson and whoever the first guy is to start playing piano uninvited at a house party. The bluntly funny singles “F***ing Crazy” and “Nobody Smokes Anymore”—”Guess I’ll be the only one who looks good in pictures,” Ellis deadpans — give way to the heartrending “Aren’t We Supposed to Be in Love?” while the album closer is an unsubtle ode to everyone’s favorite Mexican mineral water, “Topo Chico.”
If that all sounds weird, that’s because it is. While such a statement album might have given Ellis pause, the Texas Piano Man dives in tails first, to entertaining effect. He’ll kick off his “Texas Piano Man” tour with a Saturday performance at VZD’s, along with Ian O’Neil of Deer Tick. Black tie optional.
Q: At what point in the songwriting for “Texas Piano Man” did you decide you weren’t going to pick up a guitar?
Ellis: The first song I wrote for the new record was probably “Passive Aggressive.” Right around the time that I started working on the nuts and bolts of figuring that song out, it was like, ‘This needs to be a piano record.’ That song gave me a lot of cues as to the disposition and humor…like the whole record needs to have some levity to it, and it can be a little more fun. If you have a song like that, and then you have nine other really serious ones, it just doesn’t, like, prime you for the punchline.
Q: It’s interesting you’d say that, because I think on your last two records, you just had a couple moments of lightness in the midst of really sad songs.
Ellis: You’re right. It’s the exact inverse of what I’ve normally done, and I think it’s more effective in some ways. It’s a little easier to get somebody to hear something serious when they’re smiling than it is to get them to laugh when they’re sad. That’s a taller order, I think.
Q: When did the character of Texas Piano Man start to take shape?
Ellis: I tend to always like grasp at an overall prompt or a concept because it helps me as a writer organize things in a way that makes sense. Whether that’s something as simple as, “I’m going to write this on piano,” or, “This character has a lot of confidence and is maybe a little sarcastic and has a really good sense of humor.” The Texas Piano Man came pretty early on, definitely well before recording.
Q: What is he allowed to do that Robert Ellis isn’t?
Ellis: It’s more fun. I’ve been thinking of it like a live-action role playing. When I put on the tuxedo and go onstage, and even when I write, I have this sense of like refinement and ease. In my mind, this character is extremely confident and doesn’t need validation to find his power, if that makes sense. He’s really sure of what he’;s doing and feels like if you don’t like this, then you’re wrong. I’ve never really had that feeling. I feel like a lot of what I’ve had to do has been to convince people to listen hard enough to get what I think is good about my music, which is interesting little stories that if you don’t really pay attention, you’d probably miss altogether. They’re not immediate. My previous songwriting is really just not lowest common denominator stuff, and I feel like there’s a lot with this Texas Piano Man thing where it is. Anybody can enjoy this. I also think there’s depth to it, but you might like it for one reason, and if you show it to your mom, she might like it for a totally different reason.
Q: I won’t call what you’ve done before “precious,” maybe heartfelt and sad, but here, even when your protagonist is kind of a s***head, the song is still pretty happy and fun for the people who are listening to it. I’m guessing that’s more like your real personality.
Ellis: Yeah totally. That’s something I’ve always kind of toyed with, these extreme versions of myself in songs, really making the characters kind of foul and worse than I really see myself, which I guess is some sort of form of therapy, creating these characters that kind of underscore parts of my personality that I really don’t like. You feel a safety in doing it to characters that you don’t feel if you’re just writing confessional, diary music.
In my past material, the protagonist in the songs is often struggling with why he does the things he does, why things have ended up the way they did. This character doesn’t have that same apprehension, and maybe I don’t right now either. I’m definitely sort of hitting a stride, where I’m just like, you know what? This is f***ing great. I just had a kid, and he’s awesome. I get to play music for a living. Things are really good. And maybe I get a little carried away and party a little too much and act a little crazy, but I’m just sick of having guilt about all of that stuff. I want to take ownership of all of it.
Q: Between your last solo record and this one, you’ve done two records with other people: “Dear John” with Courtney Hartman and “Western Movies” as Traveller, your band with Cory Chisel and Jonny Fritz. Did those collaborations influence how you made “Texas Piano Man”?
Ellis: The Courtney record was really interesting because we sat down and recorded that in two days’ time. I had never really done a record like that, and listening back to it, I was like, “Man, this is my favorite thing I’ve ever done.” There’s a level of like anxiety that usually you have when you make a record where you want to smooth out all the rough edges and just make sure everything’s perfect, and with that record, we just did it. I love the way it sounds. And at the core of all of those Traveller songs is a really solid, early, one- or two-take band performance where we all just played and improvised. That informed this most recent record. There’s a guitar, piano, bass, and drums on every song, and I would say 95 percent of that was all done live off the floor. We really just made performances kind of be at the heart of this.
Q: Texas country is kind of its own subgenre, and there are radio charts specific to Texas. Texas music in general seems like its own separate animal. What is Texan about the Texas Piano Man, and what do people expect from you, being from there?
Ellis: I think people get a little confused when they think of what it is to be Texan, because it’s a really big place, and it has personalities that are just as big. Maybe Willie Nelson is like pinnacle, sort of cliche Texan, but also Texas country is this thing that can sound like Willie Nelson, or it can sound like Dave Matthews Band. At some point I realized like the only thing that these things have in common is that somebody who is from Texas took ownership of what they were doing and started saying, “I’m from Texas, so this is Texas music.”
Anything that I do is Texas music, because I am from here. I’ve been here my whole life. I used to have some worry about fitting into that mold, and to be quite frank, a lot of those people that you’re talking about, they don’t f***ing give me the time of day. I’m not on the Texas music radio charts. They think of what I do as Americana or something outside. I guess I’m just feeling like it’s time to kick that door down because it’s not fair. They don’t get to claim ownership of the state any more than Kinky Friedman does. Any weirdo who just says, “I’m from Texas,” eventually becomes part of the ethos and part of what it is to be a Texan, and then after the fact, we take it for granted.
It’s like a naturalist’s argument. It kind of bums me out sometimes when people say that something is unnatural. How can anything be unnatural? How can machines be unnatural?
Q: That’s kind of a heavy question.
Ellis: It is, and I guess in my in my humble approximation, anything that anyone does is an extension of existence. In terms of the larger spiritual discussion, how can anything be anything other than natural? How is Home Depot somehow less natural than the rainforest? It’s all an extension of whatever this weird thing we call existence is. So I guess I guess to draw a parallel, I don;t see how if I’m from Texas and I make music, it’s not Texas music, so leave me alone. [laughing]
Legendary crooner Johnny Mathis was born to sing for The Oklahoman / NewsOK
Even via phone from his home in Beverly Hills, the showstopping smile that made crooner Johnny Mathis a heartthrob among heartthrobs early in his career comes through, loud and clear. In his pitch-perfect enunciation, he introduces himself as John, not Johnny — he is 82 now, after all.
On this particular morning, when asked how he’s doing, he responded, without missing a beat: “Oh, I’m old!” followed by a raucous belly laugh.
“I wondered when I was a little kid about when people got old, I wondered what they did, and now I’m finding out,” Mathis said. “Not much. You try to make your day nice and easy, and that’s about it.”
That may be true of most people his age, but here, it’s a stretch. A recent Washington Post article revealed Mathis, a former champion high-jumper, gets up at 5:30 a.m. to work out with a personal trainer whenever he’s at home.
He’s about to embark on a series of tour dates marking his 62nd year in the music business, during which time he’s recorded 79 albums, including last year’s “Johnny Mathis Sings the Great New American Songbook.” It’s a rare feat for an active entertainer’s career to reach its sixth decade, and Mathis has spent most of it on Columbia Records as the label’s most tenured artist. His 1958 record “Johnny’s Greatest Hits” pioneered the greatest hits format. He’s netted five Grammy nominations and three Grammy Hall of Fame inductions.
These are formidable laurels, yet Mathis isn’t resting on them. He is, as he put it, “born to sing,” and the rest? All in a life’s work.
“Great New American Songbook,” helmed by Clive Davis and produced by Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, typifies Mathis’ gentlemanly, even passive, approach to making records, as well as the tremendous trust he puts in his collaborators to guide his choices.
“I grew up having to record songs that were popular of the day. That was a very big part of my life as a young performer,” Mathis said. “People are always playing songs for me. I have no idea what would sell, and people will only buy what they want to hear, so I might as well try to sing that.”
“Songbook” includes tracks made famous by everyone from Whitney Houston and Adele to Pharrell, Bruno Mars and even Keith Urban, all delivered in Mathis’ polite, laser-focused tenor. As far as how to approach performing newer pop songs in his traditional style, Mathis says there isn’t much to it.
“You don’t really have to worry about it, because you open your mouth, you sing the same song the same way somebody else did it, and it just sounds like you. You can’t help it,” Mathis said. “The fun part is when you sing one that has been done well by someone else, and yours comes out good, too.”
He credits Edmonds with keeping him on track in the studio, because, despite that “here goes nothing” approach, even Johnny Mathis has his doubts.
“Whenever I would ask, ‘Really? You want me to sing that?’ he said, ‘Come on, give it a chance.’ I need people around me like that because my head is all over the place as far as music is concerned,” Mathis said. “Recording is, I’m telling you, it’s a puzzle, because you think you’re doing it and it sounds OK, and then six months later, you listen to it and say, ‘Oh, why did I do that way?’ But that’s just de rigueur, I guess, for most people.”
He noted that, because he’s gone from, “I sound like a girl, oh no!” to “That’s my favorite song!” about the same recording over time, he is not dogmatic about turning down suggestions. The record company wants him to sing songs people will know. He want to sing songs he thinks people will like. He calls where they land each time “a happy medium.”
Mathis is both pragmatic and deferential, two traits that speak to his longevity. He knows how to keep a label happy and to cater to longtime fans who, let’s face it, are in the room to hear the hits. And they keep showing up, year after year. As jobs go, this is one of the better ones, and Mathis hasn’t lost sight of that.
“I know that I have to repeat a lot of the songs that have been popular over the years like ‘Chances Are,’ ‘Twelfth of Never,’ ‘Misty’ and things like that, but while they’re not watching, I throw in a lot of stuff that I really love,” Mathis said, laughing.
He credits his first voice teacher with teaching him how to preserve the nuances of his voice, particularly in the higher ranges.
“She insisted that I maintain the soft, high notes, so over the years I’ve had a lot of fun singing songs that were a little bit different, and that keeps my interest level up,” Mathis said. “I get the freedom of performing in so many ways, in so many venues, whatever the songs call for.”
His career has been based solely on his uncanny ability to interpret great songs with incredible technical skill and emotion. He is not the sort of famous many of his contemporaries sought to be, calling the prospect of being the topic of conversation “boring” and likening record promotion to “beating the bushes.” Even more unusually, he is not his own producer, songwriter or accompanist. He makes clear the line between what he does, which is sing, versus everything else.
“When I was young, I’d say, ‘Oh I think I should record this, and I think I can hear the accompaniment,’ and a couple of times, without ruining my career, I’ve done that, and it’s a pitfall,” Mathis said. “I was born to just sing. It’s really not a crime to say that I don’t have a handle on (selling records) … and I’m not a good musician; I’m really a singer who is learning to be a better musician.”
People who’ve heard his albums may have their doubts about this particular point of his modesty. Whether he’s feigning a limited understanding of the ins and outs of musicianship or not, he knows what’s good when he hears it. When asked what record he’d listened to most recently, he named Earl Klugh, calling him “par excellence” and “kind of a jazzer, but he plays so beautifully that most people don’t even know.”
Tasked with making plans for his next album, he recently asked longtime accompanist and collaborator Gil Reigers, as if he weren’t Johnny-freaking-Mathis, “Do you think Earl Klugh would make a record with me?”
Reigers contacted Klugh, and he agreed, to Mathis’ apparent surprise.
“I said, ‘Oh wow!’ And so hopefully, my next recording will include at least a couple of songs with the great guitarist Earl Klugh,” Mathis said.
Until then, he has roughly 20 tour dates across the country, spanning through January 2019, during which Mathis, as always, will be doing what he loves, what he knows best, what he was born to do.
“I’m interested in singing a good song and singing it as best I can.”
The more they changed, the less we felt:
The Smashing Pumpkins satisfy longtime fans during the Shiny and Oh So Bright Tour performance for The Oklahoman / NewsOK
Oklahoma City’s July 14 date for the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Shiny and Oh So Bright Tour” was only the second arena performance on what is slated to be a 40-plus-show run spanning the remainder of the year. It’s something of a reunion, with founding members Billy Corgan, guitarist James Iha and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin performing onstage together for the first time since 2000. (They’re joined by Jeff Schroeder on guitar, Jack Bates on bass and Katie Cole on keys.)
The impact of this reunion, like pretty much every 20-year reunion in 2018, has sort of been ruined by the internet. First, there’s the conspicuous absence of founding bassist D’Arcy Wretzky, who has participated in some fairly volatile online feuding with Corgan since the reunion was announced. Then, there’s the elephant in the room: Pumpkins fans already know what everyone involved has been doing since we all last saw each other, and one of the things Corgan has been doing, at least since 2005, is touring and making records as the Smashing Pumpkins … mostly sans Chamberlin and definitely without Iha and Wretzky.
Corgan is, by reputation at least, a storied control-freak possessed of an interminable ego. Add to that a tendency toward purposely alienating his collaborators and the fans who’ve tried to stay along for the ride in fretful and surprising ways. So the reunion tour did raise concern, as posed by Joe Coscarelli for The New York Times in March: “The question now is whether fans — who have weathered years of diminishing returns from Mr. Corgan’s mercurial antics, broken promises and odd decisions — will allow themselves to trust the band enough to care.”
I went into Saturday’s show jaw clenched, nervous for the thousands of die-hard Pumpkins fans who filled out Chesapeake Arena’s seats on the promise of Corgan and company’s return to their most-admired form: an evening full of material almost exclusively from the band’s first five albums, performed faithfully by (most of) the musicians on said records.
At promptly 8:15 p.m., following a brief and politely received opening set by Canadian rock band Metric, Corgan took the stage and performed “Disarm,” from 1993’s “Siamese Dream,” alone, his reported 6′ 3” form towering in silver boots and a black jacket emblazoned with a zero on the back, a nod to the “Zero” persona he developed starting with the video for 1995’s “Bullet with Butterfly Wings.” Defaced childhood photos of Corgan cycled on-screen behind him, one of the only moments in the show where the video work had any real gravitas. “I used to be a little boy,” Corgan yelped in his trademark nasally tenor, which, at 51 years old, sounds as powerful as ever. “So old in my shoes.”
There was probably not a better way to start the show than with an air of vulnerability, however staged it may have been. Otherwise, Corgan is a rock star through and through, a bizarre and charismatic frontman who strutted and costume-changed his way through 31 songs in a set that lasted just over three hours.
Remember how insane it seemed to put out a two-hour, two-disc alternative rock record in 1995? And how good of an idea we thought “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” was once we’d listened to it? I left the show feeling that same way, that the high points and admiration for the band’s sheer ambition more than made up for any perceivable lows. They continue to gild the lily, in other words, but at their core, they’re exceptional enough to warrant looking past the frills.
Among those high points: early hits like “Today” and “1979,” which brought a wave of well-deserved nostalgia along with hard-hitters like “Zero,” which was preceded by a decidedly creepy video speech from Corgan, during which he pronounced, “Let’s blow on fading embers, to boast about things … forgotten and buried. ‘Tis the end, ‘tis the end, ‘tis the end.” “Mayonaise” [sic] from “Siamese Dream” into “Porcelina of the Vast Oceans” (from “Mellon Collie”) was another strong pairing, both songs kicking off with jangly, quiet guitar work leading into the meaty ‘90s alt-rock the band helped define.
And among the lows: the muddled concept of the video screen content, some of which was beautiful, some of which was generic and some of which was, for some reason, Sugar Ray singer Mark McGrath in a vaudeville costume blathering on so the band could take short breaks.
Also, Corgan’s voice is so recognizable that cover songs just come off kind of weird. Their take on Bowie’s “Space Oddity” came closest to feeling OK in context, but a stunted performance of “Landslide” and a hilariously overwrought “Stairway to Heaven” were only saved by being the bread on a “Tonight, Tonight” sandwich, a song so well-written and well-produced that it sounds timeless and that they performed without fault.
For the first time in a very long time, the Smashing Pumpkins delivered on exactly what their fans wanted and then some, which is a bit of a miracle, even if it was by design.
“We collectively need to rebuild the public trust in our brand,” Corgan said in the aforementioned NYT piece, before going on to admit, “We’re going to say, ‘Look, yes, we’re brats. Yes, we’ve tested your patience. But this is our absolute best effort.’ ”
Maybe, in the life span of an artist’s career, no apologies ever need be made, but for perhaps in the first time in the history of the Smashing Pumpkins, concessions are being made, at least. Corgan, despite all his rage, seems at peace with the legacy he’s masterminded. He spoke very little throughout the show until the end, when he introduced his bandmates, calling out Iha and Chamberlin in particular for spending so much time with “a freak” like himself. He commented on how remarkable it is for a band to have a 30-year history and thanked the crowd for making it possible.
They finished their set with “Muzzle,” during which Corgan sang, particularly meaningfully in light of the captive audience, “My life has been extraordinary,” before returning for an encore led off by “Solara,” a new Rick Rubin-produced single that sounds as at-home during their greatest hits show as it would on any featured album. Maybe, as his visage commanded earlier, “Tis the end,” but maybe that end also is a beginning.
This machine writes poetry for The Oklahoman / NewsOK
“Good people, what are we waiting on?”
The refrain of Woody Guthrie’s folk battle cry, “What Are We Waiting On,” is at the heart of the all-original work written by the Woody Guthrie Poetry Group, or the Woody Poets, now in its 13th year. The group has done readings since 2005 in conjunction with Okemah’s Woody Guthrie Folk Festival, which starts July 11.
Oklahoma poet and editor Dorothy Alexander, a founding member of the Woody Poets and a coordinator and anthology editor for the group, elaborated on how the theme resonates with her.
“When are we going to change things? [Woody was] about change. Let’s move on. Let’s get beyond ourselves, let’s get beyond whatever muck we’re in at this point,” Alexander said. “Sometimes people have to be jogged, and I think art is perhaps as much as anything, maybe as much as politics, spurs people to change. It’s a way of expressing a need for change, and Woody was all about that.”
The WoodyFest poetry readings started when George Wallace, noted poet and former writer-in-residence of the Walt Whitman Birthplace, attended the festival in 2004 at the behest of his friend, songwriter David Amram. Wallace questioned the festival’s lack of a poetry contingent, given Guthrie’s history as a poet. He contacted 1995 Oklahoma Poet Laureate Carol Hamilton, who was then joined by Jim Spurr, Nathan Brown and Alexander as the first group of presenting poets. Wallace also approached the festival committee to secure a spot on the 2005 WoodyFest program for the poets, a feature that’s continued every year since.
Alexander, who grew up in Roger Mills County during the Dust Bowl, is an apt choice to help carry on Guthrie’s poetic legacy. During her childhood in the Dust Bowl years, she and her family attended country dances, social gatherings organized by the community for families with little to no money. Guthrie, who at the time lived in nearby Pampa, Texas, often performed music for these dances. She recalls her mother later hearing Guthrie on the radio in the early 1940s, when Guthrie had moved on to California, and asking her father, “Isn’t Woody Guthrie that boy who used to come and play for the dances?”
While Guthrie’s been in Alexander’s orbit for nearly her entire life, she credits his recent resurgence as an Oklahoma icon to the George Kaiser Family Foundation’s 2011 purchase and eventual relocation of Guthrie’s archives to Tulsa from New York.
“The tremendous price paid for them gives him legitimacy, if that’s the right word,” Alexander said, though she notes his legacy has been celebrated outside of Oklahoma for some time, even inspiring the work of Bob Dylan. “He has been so admired in many places. Oklahoma can be a little slow to recognize their own.”
At home and abroad, admiration for Guthrie’s work has certainly surged in recent years.
“He was the voice of our conscience. He was a socialist, and he always, always allied himself with working class,” Alexander said. “He had his little sticker attached to his guitar that said, ‘This machine kills fascists.’ He’s always been the voice of the working man, the working poor.”
Through his writing, Guthrie still manages to project that voice, and the growing interest in the poetry at WoodyFest is just more and more people chiming in to his chorus.
“Poetry has always been a way of protest and resistance,” Alexander said. “Last year, we had the largest crowds we’ve ever had in all of our readings. I think that’s why we saw so many people from so far away and all through all strata of society submitting poems last year, wanting to have a voice, for someone to hear their voice. That’s what ‘What Are We Waiting On’ means. … Let’s say it now. Let’s say it over and over, say it louder this time, let’s say it stronger, let’s say it better. And that to me is what art is about, not just poetry.”
The Woody Poets have four readings scheduled during WoodyFest, with a full schedule of participating poets and accompanists available at www.woodyfest.com/poetry. The group also publishes anthologies in odd years, available for sale via Village Books Press and at the scheduled readings.
DUST BOWL MIGRANTS
It was hard to go, but harder to stay,
to endure the wind, to wake each morning
in drought, swirling in a pool of poverty
like a June bug in a cup of milk.
The ones who went suffered broken hearts.
I’m coming back someday, they wrote,
but most never did,
the old life too small to fit anymore.
They’re still out there in Bakersfield,
Phoenix, Tempe. They shuffle along the streets
in packs, watch for senior discounts
and cars with Oklahoma license plates.
But, they stay as far away as they can
from the drought-bitten prairie
with its dusty winds of longing.
And cling to a more certain life.
Thing is, they can’t forget.
Gone for decades, they still call
Oklahoma “back home.”
When I go to visit, they talk and talk
about how it was, and ask: Is it still that way?
I always lie and say, Well, it hasn’t changed much.
What I don’t say is, It never was the way
you remember it.
— By Dorothy Alexander, born in 1934, who still remembers the Dust Bowl & The Great Depression
Get the show on: Smash Mouth comes to Oklahoma for free Newcastle performance for The Oklahoman / NewsOK
The years start coming, and they don’t stop coming.
But the airtight cadence and pitch-perfect 1990s-ness of San Jose, California, band Smash Mouth’s 1999 hit “All Star” have placed the act in the sweet spot where musicianship, nostalgia and memes overlap. Almost 20 years after its release, the song is ubiquitous again, and with its resurgence, the band is riding an elusive second wave of mainstream relevance.
Smash Mouth’s founding guitarist and principal songwriter Greg Camp, who penned the band’s biggest hits, including “All Star” and 1997’s “Walkin’ on the Sun,” rejoined the band early this year. He answered some questions for The Oklahoman ahead of the band’s free show at Newcastle Casino.
Q: Smash Mouth came to prominence at the end of a really strong era for alternative genres on pop radio, right at the cusp of pop music coming back into fashion. That first album (1997’s “Fush Yu Mang”) is kind of a punk album outside of the first single, “Walkin’ on the Sun.” And then your second album (1999’s “Astro Lounge”) is much poppier. How do you explain that shift in the sound in such a short period of time? Greg Camp: We set out to be a band that was a little more into all of our influences at that time, which varied from pop and reggae and ska. We got together in 1994, so between ’94 and ’97, the four of us were in a room writing songs and coming up with ideas together. When it came to the second album, most of that record was written on the road, on a tour bus and backstage, and everybody was sort of scattered and off doing their own thing. When we finally got home and it was time to buckle down and do that album, it was mostly myself and the producer Eric Valentine in the studio putting the record together. It was a little more focused on the production and the songwriting, and at that point I had become the key songwriter for the band.
Q: I read that the success of your first hit, “Walkin’ on the Sun,” had something to do with Carson Daly. Can you explain that connection? Camp: Paul De Lisle, the bass player, and I were in a band before Smash Mouth, and I wrote the song “Walkin’ on the Sun” for that band. They passed on it, so it sat in a shoe box on a cassette tape until our drummer pulled it out. We recorded the song, and Carson Daly was working at a little radio station, KOME in San Jose. He started playing the song as his pick of the day, which happened right when people were getting off work, so they were listening to an unsigned band on the radio. Shortly after that, Carson moved to Los Angeles and started working at world-famous KROQ, and he brought that song with him. They put it into rotation on KROQ, and the next week, we had a record deal.
Q: Let’s talk about “All Star.” It was originally kind of an anthem for misfits, but it’s become something so famous that basically everyone in America has a feeling about it one way or the other. Did you know you had something special on your hands when you were writing it? Camp: Nobody would ever have predicted how crazy it would get, especially nearly 20 years later. It’s like it’s gaining momentum in a way. It was the right song, right time, right place. The lyrics and the vibe of the song were on modern rock stations and crossed over to pop in just all kinds of different ways. Anyone could walk away with that song and apply it to their own lives, and I think that’s sort of why it keeps on giving.
Q: Moving forward, what are the band’s plans outside of touring? Camp: We have sort of the beginnings of an album, not sure if it’s going to be a full-length or if we’re going to release two EPs back to back. We’re kind of really loving all of the songs that are coming out of us right now, so we want to make sure they all get an equal opportunity to be heard as opposed to putting out a record where people just like one song.
Q: Who’s in the crowd at a Smash Mouth show in 2018? Camp: When the band first came out, we had a fan base so everywhere we went there were people singing the words to all of our songs. Now people definitely focus more on just the hits, the songs that they know, and the age variance is just incredible. You’ll see little kids who are still watching “Shrek” along with their parents, who watched “Shrek” when it came out. There are all these kids, too, you know, 18, 19, 20 years old. These kids are on social media and YouTube where all you see are memes of Smash Mouth and “All Star.” It’s so wide open. So to answer your question, the crowds vary from kids in strollers to gray-haired people and everything in-between.
Making memories: Canadian rapper Tory Lanez makes his own way for The Oklahoman / NewsOK
Canadian singer and rapper Tory Lanez has big plans. Currently at the beginning of a five-month tour supporting his March release “Memories Don’t Die,” the Grammy-nominated 25-year-old artist has worked with everyone from Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez to Future and 50 Cent and recently released a new single, “Pa Mi,” from a forthcoming Spanish-language album. Lanez talked with The Oklahoman about ambition, hip-hop as a contact sport and what it means to be swavey. He’ll perform at The Jones Assembly Wednesday with Flipp Dinero and Davo.
Q: This is a really long tour. How’s it going so far? Tory Lanez: I’m used to this type of stuff. I’ve done 110 shows in a five-month span. I like being around my fans and giving them something to watch.
Q: Do you think you prefer performing to recording? Lanez: They’re hand-in-hand. I like to record, but I like to see the outcome of what the songs mean to people.
Q: You’ve called your style of music “swavey.” What does that mean? Lanez: Swavey is a genre of music that I named. It means multi-talented in different genres. You can embody any kind of genre of music that you want that isn’t your primary genre and still make it your own sound. That’s what swavey is. There are a lot of artists who are rappers and singers, rockstars and pop stars. There are just so many different crossovers in music, I thought that was a good word for it.
Q: Is there any style of music you haven’t touched yet but know you want to in the future? Lanez: Definitely. There are a lot of kinds of music I want to do, but I don’t want to do it until I’m musically ready. I don’t anything to come off corny, or like I’m forcing it. I want it to come naturally.
Q: How do you think being from Toronto made its mark on you as an artist? Lanez: Toronto is a very multicultural place, and I think that because of that, it’s helped me to always make music that was cultural, music that felt good with multiple different races of people.
Q: I watched an interview where you called hip-hop a “contact sport.” What do you mean by that? Lanez: It’s a competition. It’s a ruthless competition where people will go to the ends of the earth to pull you down to get up. You have to constantly defend your relevancy at all times. It’s not like everyone’s just friendly. For me personally, it’s a contact sport, even if the contact is verbal.
Q: For all that competition, hip-hop is also very collaborative. “Memories Don’t Die” has at least eight other artists on it. Why is bringing those other people in important to you? Lanez: I’ve done so much solo music, I feel like I’ve established that I know how to make good records by myself. Sometimes records will be bigger if other people’s fanbases get to experience the records, as well. At the end of the day, I needed to step out of my shell and start recording with other people, so maybe someone would be like, “Damn, OK, this guy is good. He’s messing with my favorite artist, so it’s OK in my book.” I’m going to be the biggest artist in the world someday, and to do that, I know I have to connect everywhere.
Q: That leads into my next question, actually. You come across very ambitious but also really confident. Where does that confidence come from? Lanez: My dad. My dad always told me that if you have a desire in your heart, it’s real, and you should always go after it. If it’s in your heart, there’s a reason it was put there. I realize that if I put in the work, I can do anything. That’s been a key part of what’s going on in my life.
Q: Let’s say someone likes a couple of your songs, or they’ve heard your records. Why should they come see you perform live? Lanez: I have the best live show. Period. Point blank. No single artist can come onstage, talent-wise, energy-wise, sound-wise. I take a lot of pride in that. I could put my live performance head to head with anybody. I would love to prove myself.
Nashville feel-good rock band Republican Hair keeps it high and tight for The Oklahoman / NewsOK
Luke Dick talks a lot about perspectives, and he’s lived enough lives to have a few. He’s been an adjunct philosophy professor, a forklift driver and a documentary producer: The forthcoming “Red Dog” chronicles his own childhood spent hanging out in a topless bar. Currently, the 39-year-old Oklahoma native fronts the shimmering, punky rock band Republican Hair while making his living penning country hits for artists like Dierks Bentley, Eric Church and Miranda Lambert.
For Dick, the road to the Country Music Awards was paved with Sweet’N Low. He broke into the professional (read: paid) songwriting world by writing a different kind of commercially successful music: music for actual commercials. From there, the leap to Nashville’s Music Row wasn’t as drastic as one might think.
“A lot of people at ad agencies who develop commercials are frustrated English majors, and I get along with frustrated English majors,” Dick said. “They’re artistic in the sense that they have creative aspirations for selling ketchup and Sweet’N Low, and I could indulge that and had fun with it.”
Having a goal for songwriting — not “banishing the muses,” per se, but being able to translate another person’s perspective into song — is something Dick said carried over from his agency work to writing for country artists.
“I’d written so much music for myself and thought I had a vision, but I honestly don’t even know what I was writing about or if it connected with anything,” Dick said. “Strangely, writing about ketchup was connected to the world somehow. When I write with other people, with the artist in the room, they have something that they want to say. To use all of my creative powers to help them be a character or create something, that became a skill, a perspective … one that I started learning musically and sometimes lyrically by selling ketchup.”
That skill has been key to the arc of Dick’s career, of late. Songwriting often has a mysticism projected onto it. People who don’t do it imagine that it’s more translating latent talent and inspiration into notes than it is a craft to be learned, nurtured and challenged. Dick’s songwriting perspective falls somewhere in between, at once supernatural and down-to-earth.
“It’s not like I don’t have some level of romanticism, but that radical perspective on songwriting … it makes me roll my eyes,” Dick said. “I take songs seriously, but ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’ was pretty f—— good, you know. And most songwriters won’t get a ‘Good Golly Miss Molly.’ To imagine that a songwriter has an answer they can unlock if they connect to a muse or conduit seems pretty pretentious to me. Music makes you move, and it’s so magical, and that’s pretty great. Just focus on that versus some wild inspiration you’re privy to.”
Republican Hair focuses on that magic pretty intently. It’s easy to mistake this project as tongue-in-cheek, more so if you talk to Dick and hear the equal mix of deadpan punchlines and belly laughs he gives while discussing it. But if you let yourself listen without trying too hard, the Republican Hair discography possesses a signature brand of magic that doesn’t require too much analysis: It’s candid and absurd and has a refreshing lack of irony. Dick sings as a protagonist who’s, like, really glad you’re here, as long as you’re gonna be cool about it. The band is an exercise in proving that anything can be a song if you let it, and the formula has worked since the beginning.
“I sat down with another guy named Luke, and I could tell by the look on his hands that he couldn’t write country music, so I wasn’t going to force a country song,” Dick said. “I wanted to write a song that had two awesome guitar parts, went by in one and a half or two minutes, and that I was done recording it in six to eight hours. So that’s what I did. The first song that was ever a Republican Hair song before Republican Hair was even a thing is called ‘I Don’t Care,’ and it’s about the end of the world. I finished it and really liked it, and I liked the perspective, and it turns out there was this whole other side of my brain, my creativity, this sort of chaos, rat’s nest that I needed to explore more.”
Other treasures from that rat’s nest include “Whatever Blows Your Hair Back,” from 2016’s debut full-length “High and Tight,” sparked by Dick and his son blowing a leaf blower in their faces. Then there’s “Miss Prince,” from 2017’s “The Prince & the Duke,” a funk-laced, falsetto-filled party track about — what else — missing Prince. It isn’t country in the least, but the song, or the idea of what makes a song, remains the same, at least a little.
“I would say country at its best, or maybe always, strives for some kind of lyrical narrative,” Dick said. “There’s a focus in this intellectual endeavor, songwriting — though I don’t consider Republican Hair an intellectual endeavor — and even at its most flippant, I can’t get away from thematic writing. That’s country.”
What sets these songs apart, then, is the result of slight modifications to Dick’s philosophy.
“I try to make decisions quickly with Republican Hair, and if something is not happening quickly, I’ll abandon it,” Dick said. “It’s all an outward expression. There’s not too much singer-songwriter-y, inside-the-head situation happening. The lyrics have gotten a little more nebulous to where I’m OK with just throwing similar colors from the palette at the wall rather than trying to make the story be so cohesive. You don’t have to understand it but should at least want to enjoy it in some capacity.”
This sentiment is driven home across Republican Hair’s whole aesthetic, from the band’s psychedelic, Technicolor music videos, directed by Nashville artist Casey Pierce, to the live-and-let-live mantra that echoes through so many of the band’s lyrics.
“Oh, don’t wanna hear about your problems,” Dick croaks on the appropriately titled “Don’t Be a Drag.” “Oh, can’t we just have a good time?”
Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield talks moving on, moving forward for The Oklahoman / NewsOK / LOOKatOKC
Nearly regardless of who you ask, Waxahatchee, also known as 29-year-old songwriter Katie Crutchfield, put out one of 2017’s best albums.
Seminal rock critic Rob Sheffield wrote about “Out in the Storm,” which landed at #14 on the year-end best-of list for “Rolling Stone,” calling it a “punk rock answer to Carole King’s ‘Tapestry.’ ”
“That made my day,” Crutchfield said. “I feel pretty fortunate because even when all else is going wrong in my life, usually record critics will like my records for the most part. I do feel very blessed in that. It’s not super frequent that it’s a horrible review, at least — knock on wood — not yet.”
It’s this silver lining outlook that makes “Out in the Storm” unusual for, as Crutchfield calls it, “a breakup record.” What sets it apart is its laser focus on honest reflection, two-party blame and moving forward. There’s no painful wallowing (see: Ryan Adams’ “Heartbreaker”) or that other, less tactful trope of breakup songs, revenge (see: Beyonce’s “Lemonade” or any other woman taking a “Louisville slugger to both headlights”). Instead, Crutchfield’s songs focus on the other side of what Sheffield called “gnarly emotional wreckage.”
“I wanted it to be hopeful. It’s about heartbreak, and it’s about picking yourself back up,” Crutchfield said. “It’s not really about longing or missing the relationship. It’s kind of about the frustration, the relief, but also having a lot of anger to get out. I want people to, as they take the record off the turntable, to be like, OK, now I can move on.”
In other words, it’s just over a half-hour of the feeling you get for the first time after the hard part of a breakup, the first morning where you wake up and realize you’ll be fine. And when you take the record off the turntable and feel a little better, Crutchfield does, too.
“Long before I ever made money writing songs, the big reason that I did it was to process emotions,” Crutchfield said. “I’ve always used it as this tool to kind of get my feelings out; it’s always been cathartic. This record is a big example of me needing a vehicle to get through this hard thing.”
Songs already in hand, Crutchfield called on her longtime live band (twin sister, Allison Crutchfield, drummer Ashley Arnwine and bassist Katherine Simonetti), percussionist Joey Doubek and old friend and indie rock go-to guitarist Katie Harkin, known for her work with Sleater-Kinney and Flock of Dimes in addition to her own projects.
“Typically, I’m sort of like a sheepdog, herding everybody into the direction I want, but with this one, I worked with my live band and Katie Harkin and wanted to lean on their personal styles of playing,” Crutchfield said. “Me and the rhythm section of my band have been playing together for a long time, and we’ve turned a lot of old songs into a new thing and have a specific energy I wanted to capture.”
Producer John Agnello (Dinosaur Jr., Kurt Vile) also lent his expertise, and, all hands on deck, “Out in the Storm” ended up becoming the record Crutchfield secretly wanted to make in the first place.
“I self-consciously went in thinking I wanted to make a rock record, and then when we were in the studio, I thought, ‘Oh, ha, this is definitely a rock record,’ ” Crutchfield said.
It is a rock record, coming out of the gate with punchy stunner “Never Been Wrong,” on which Crutchfield sings, as a sometimes-antagonist, “I love being right / especially with you,” or the bass-heavy “8 Ball.” There are also extreme pop leanings, as on “Sparks Fly,” an expansive, effects-laden anthem, or the satisfyingly snarky “Brass Beam.”
“I think some of the most groundbreaking music being made right now is definitely pop music,” Crutchfield said, noting that two of her favorite albums of 2017 were Lorde’s “Melodrama” and SZA’s “Ctrl.”
“It’s something I study and am constantly inspired by. I think back about me and my sister, in our early teenage musical renaissance, we’d listen to the Velvet Underground but also radio pop, usually unabashedly. That music is important; it defined our generation.”
Allison Crutchfield, a solo artist as well as sometimes Waxahatchee band member, is also a primary source of inspiration for Katie, who notes her sister’s influence doesn’t always reveal itself in obvious ways.
“She’s been such a big part of my musical journey from Day One that everything I do feels like it’s a little bit her, and vice versa,” Crutchfield said. “I’m not sure that I could pinpoint, like, Allison always does this in her songwriting, and that’s where I get that from, but if she hears a song I wrote and says, ‘This is really good, Katie,’ that’s all I need to put it out into the world. That’s the big strength of our relationship; we make things for ourselves and for each other, and if that feels good and feels right, then we feel like we can share it.”
Calling her back
“Out in the Storm” has Crutchfield sharing a turning point, a substantial lyrical pivot for a songwriter formerly known for intense vulnerability, now giving way to a self-actualization, of sorts. This may explain why, after years of bouncing around the East Coast, Crutchfield recently moved back to her home state of Alabama.
“A lot of the early Waxahatchee songs, the setting is Alabama; it feels Southern. I think I was resistant to that being the narrative because I had really abruptly left and was excited to be in New York or be in Philadelphia and be away from the South,” Crutchfield said. “But as the years have passed, it’s been calling me back. I’m starting to write another record, and I have a lot of ideas, and it’s kind of hard to describe, but I feel like my early voice felt like it needed to be there. It’s a wavelength, and I need to go get back on it.”
The Crutchfield returning to Alabama after a few short years seems vastly different from the one who left, firmly in control of her own narrative now, regardless of geography. Her run of shows through the South, in fact, including Feb. 21’s Tower Theatre performance, are solo performances after a year of performing with her band. “I’ll go back south, I’ll leave it all behind / See myself clearly for the first time,” she sings on “Sparks Fly.”
And, perhaps in a pre-emptive response to fans or record reviewers trying to keep up from city to city, sound to sound: “I know you don’t recognize me,” she sings, breathlessly, “but I’m a live wire, finally.”
While writing his new album, JD McPherson didn’t wear his heart on his sleeve, he said, but he “exposed maybe one or two chambers.”
A lifelong Oklahoman who relocated with his family to Nashville last year, McPherson recorded the deeply personal Undivided Heart & Soul with his band at the historic RCA Studio B, recording home of Chet Atkins and Elvis Presley and a major player in the creation of the Nashville sound. Permission to do so was an unexpected, saved-by-the-bell twist of fate that capped a series of creative frustrations and false starts. The album is full of lyrical tension and release, experimental work with equipment steeped in history, and, in terms of McPherson’s career, unprecedented levels of collaboration in production and songwriting.
McPherson and band (guitarist Doug Corcoran, keyboard player Ray Jacildo, drummer Jason Smay, and bassist Jimmy Sutton) will play Cain’s Ballroom Saturday, Dec. 16, at the tail end of two months of intense touring in support of the album, which was released in October.
Becky Carman: You’re calling this a “truly romantic garage rock record.” What does that mean?
JD McPherson: I was a little more transparent with thoughts and experiences. I love it when music is sort of jagged and maybe even a little abrasive, but it’s coming from sort of a tender place, and I kept thinking about music like that when I was writing. It was almost like I had this fear of the music being an unexpected twist for fans of our band, and somehow I was already in the muck and decided to let more personal things out. I guess it’s probably the most vulnerable I’ve allowed myself to be yet. When you think about garage rock or any kind of loud fuzzy stuff, it doesn’t usually conjure images of vulnerability. I kind of wanted it to be a little of both.
Carman: The record seems to be doing really well critically. At what point in your process are you most at peace with the finished product?
McPherson: I am happy with it, but I’m still a bit haunted by some of the inner-band politics that happened during the making. The band was having a really hard time when we were making that record, and it was probably because of the nervous breakdown vibe I was putting out. I felt like I was dragging a refrigerator across a parking lot. There were some tough decisions that had to be made, and we’re still feeling that on the road. Looking back, it was a fond experience, but the other side of that is you’re still trying to play these shows with the band, and you put them through a lot. We’re gonna be okay, though.
Carman: You had a plan to record in a different studio. What happened?
McPherson: I’ll play both sides here. It was very detrimental to morale and to the budget, but the producer pulled the plug after the first day. Nobody’s making Van Halen bucks anymore, so record budgets are pretty small, and when the session gets canceled and nothing comes of it … that was a huge loss, and it just made everybody feel bad. Everybody was like, wow, one day, and we can’t cut it?
On that producer’s side, the songs really weren’t ready, and the band wasn’t, as far as morale goes, in shape. I guess it wasn’t moving fast enough for the producer, so he pulled the plug. I’m actually quite happy with the way it ended up, even though for a while it felt like we were just the scum of the earth. It took a little bit of nursing our wounds, but being invited to RCA Studio B was the best thing that could have happened. For history nerds like us, you couldn’t have picked a better spot.
Carman: What are a couple of specific things on the record that only happened because of RCA Studio B?
McPherson: Anytime you hear a vibraphone. We put a vibraphone track on pretty much every song. The bell sound on “Lucky Penny”—that’s vibraphone. The marimba on “Style (Is a Losing Game).” The Floyd Cramer piano was the reason Ray and I started writing together. That piano was a really magic piano. Two things about it: The studio staff has to clean out the piano, because people will come on the studio tour and dump a relative’s ashes into it. The other thing: One day we pulled the music stand out to write a chord chart, and the light hit a certain way, and there were decades of ballpoint pen remnants of people writing out charts. Indentations from the golden days.
Carman: There are many influences people have picked up on on this record. As somebody who hoards musical knowledge and really loves those subtleties, has anyone drawn any parallels or noticed something that surprised you?
McPherson: The one word that 80 percent of people use—incorrectly—is “rockabilly.” I’m not purposely excluding rockabilly as an influence; it’s definitely a thing in my mind, and we’ve never done that thing. But as long as people are talking about the album, I’m grateful. In Birmingham, Alabama, this guy came up to me and said, “You guys really remind me of my favorite band, Sonic Youth.” I couldn’t figure it out but also was really pleased.
Carman: You did several co-writes for this album. Do you have a dream co-writing partner?
McPherson: Yes, and what’s really, truly sad about it is that I already had a crack at it and failed miserably. I was Nick Lowe’s first co-write. Nick Lowe visited Nashville, and his manager called me and said Nick was flirting with writing with other people and “We’d really like you to be the first guy.” So I’m in Nick’s hotel room, and he’s lying on his bed in his socks with a guitar, and the news is on, and I didn’t really have any ideas. If you told me there was gonna be a co-write with Nick Lowe, I would have taken a year to prepare for it. I played him some songs I was working on, and he played songs he was working on, and, you know, what do you say? Like, oh yeah, there’s another brilliant example of perfect songcraft. I was punching myself in the forehead on the elevator. I don’t think there’s anybody better or cooler than Nick. Maybe one day I’ll get another shot.
Carman: How do you feel about Cain’s Ballroom? For somebody with your appreciation for the history of music, it seems like it might mean a little bit more to you than it does to others.
McPherson: The first shows I ever went to were at Cain’s. At that time, there were pews. It sounds really, really hokey, but in the back of my brain, there was some sort of church-like image I summoned up whenever I thought about going to Cain’s. It became my favorite place to be, to play. I think it’s pretty much everybody’s favorite place to play. To me, the music firmament of the United States is an example of what can be right and what can be good, and Cain’s is my favorite example of that. I think about that every time I’m there.
Comedian Jen Kirkman brings her personal-meets-political comedy to the women of Oklahoma City for The Oklahoman / NewsOK
Jen Kirkman is a “feelings comedian.”
The New York Times best-selling author, television writer and stand-up performer’s signature comedy style highlights the absurdity of her personal experiences, from street harassment and solo travel to menstruation and marriage. Kirkman, who calls herself a “flaming liberal feminist,” also has found comedic respite in modern American politics, including election night sadness and the so-called Bernie Bros.
A sample joke from her Netflix special, release in January and titled “Just Keep Livin’?” illustrates the personal-meets-political bent she’s perfected in her two-decade career: “I don’t have time to be afraid of ISIS. I’m just busy being afraid of plain old men.”
To that end, Kirkman is performing a comedy show for a female-only audience (trans-inclusive) in Oklahoma City, to benefit Planned Parenthood’s Central Oklahoma City Clinic. In Kirkman’s words about the show, “87% of women have reported being sexually harassed … in real life and online. I want to provide a safe space for women to laugh loudly, speak freely and feel safe — and a space where I can see what it’s like after 20 years to perform to a roomful of people that have similar experiences just being on planet Earth in our bodies.”
I spoke with Kirkman at length about the show, her material, social media and the wisdom of Matthew McConaughey.
Q: How did the idea to do a show benefiting Planned Parenthood’s Central Oklahoma City Clinic come about?
Jen Kirkman: Obviously in areas like San Francisco and New York, I think there’s better access to programs like Planned Parenthood and probably people doing things for them all the time, so I wanted to find somewhere it seemed like they needed the support.
Q: This is the only all-female audience show you’ve done. Where’d that idea come from?
Kirkman: I was inspired by the “Wonder Woman” screenings and things like that, but now I sort of feel like an old lady who’s 10 steps behind as we keep growing and changing. People have been emailing me saying they’re not binary, or they’re agender, so can they come? What do I mean by women-only and trans-inclusive? What about all the other things? I’m a white, straight woman; I have privilege and blind spots. We’re all learning so fast.
My whole point was trying to find somewhere people who have been harassed because of their gender, whether they express that subtly or overtly, can come and laugh without worrying. Not every man coming would be shouting us down or trying to hurt us, but when I taped my Netflix special last year, the women were laughing, and the men were quiet. I’ve had trouble at my shows with boys who think they know better, who think they’re feminists. I wanted to see what it felt like for everybody if they weren’t there for one night. It might be more than a show. I hope people will speak, and I’ll bring the mic around, and people can tell their #MeToo kind of stories. Honestly, a show where men come and watch that might be really informative, but that’ll be next.
Q: Americans look to their comedians as an extension of their identity politics. How do you broach that expectation?
Kirkman: Honestly, I don’t feel any expectation. It’s an interesting question, and you’re right; I can look at it as a big picture thing and see that society has an expectation. Or look at Jimmy Fallon, who doesn’t do politics, and I’m like, “Dude, why not capitalize on this time to be cool and do the right thing, or even just take an opportunity to talk about what’s on everyone’s mind?” Some people still want entertainment without politics.
I’m always preparing for my next album or special, so my material has to not be stuck in a certain period of time. In my Netflix special, I talk about street harassment and how we’re not supposed to talk about our periods. … I’ve always been sort of the personal-as-political female comedian. I talk about the generation gap, and how sad I was on election night, and I do a really silly bit about watching a Hallmark movie instead of the election results. It’s politics, but it’s really not hard-hitting. I’m a feelings comedian. I don’t want to talk about anger, but the sadness underneath it. It always comes back to me.
Q: How has being an American been different in all of your travel pre- and postelection?
Kirkman: I think people root for us because they know we’re not all terrible. In Canada, I got some booing and some guys coming up to me after shows because they love Bernie Sanders so much they didn’t want me to tell my experience. I have jokes about how his supporters harassed me and told me they were feminists; I have one about a guy who chased me into a parking garage to tell me he’s a feminist, and when I pointed out that what he was doing scares women, he said it shouldn’t because he’s one of the good ones. I was talking about aggressive male feminism that doesn’t listen to women and ironically got booed during it onstage.
Q: From a public personality’s standpoint, and someone who, when you started your career, it didn’t exist: Is social media good or bad?
Kirkman: For as much hell as social media can feel like, it’s really helpful. Is it bad to hear everyone say horrible things to me? Yes. I keep my filters on, though, and try to use it very strategically. I use it as a promotional tool, but I’m very careful now; I don’t go looking for trouble.
Also with the stuff we were talking about earlier, I get to eavesdrop and learn from people who are different than me all day long. I don’t talk to 10 people of color a day and 10 trans people or 10 gay guys, but I can on Twitter, so I can learn. Just like anything now, it’s a terrible environment for women: Whenever a new world emerges, we’re as scared as we are in a parking garage or whatever. I don’t enjoy the things everyone hates about it, but I find more positive than negative. Overall it’s evil, and also my experiences with it, at the end of the day, are mostly positive.
Q: You have a tattoo that says “JKL,” which is a reference to Matthew McConaughey’s slogan, “Just Keep Livin’.” Is that well-known? Do people know what you’re talking about?
Kirkman: No … (laughing) I think if it were more mainstream or my initials weren’t JK I probably wouldn’t have done it. It came from the writers’ room on “Chelsea Lately,” where anytime he came up, I would rush to his defense, like, “Guys, he seems really nice.” He started saying it after his dad died, and he has foundation for kids or whatever. It turned into a joke where whenever I would have a touch of good luck, like catching a flight someone else missed, my friends would say, “Oh, that’s JK livin’.” I never thought of myself as someone who had good luck, so it was sort of this moment in my life where I realized I don’t have to be who I always thought I was; I don’t have to be this sort of negative person. It’s really dumb, but it’s symbolic to me of how at any point you can change your perception of yourself. Now I think of myself as someone who’s really lucky. It means a lot to me on a weird level, and it’s technically a funny story.