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Not For The Faint Of Heart: Myles Kennedy Takes Us Inside 'Year Of The Tiger'

Friday, 29 June 2018 Written by Simon Ramsay

We’re all probably guilty of taking our favourite songwriters for granted; expecting them to pour their trauma into art we often consume purely for the purpose of entertainment. But do we ever truly consider what they must have been through to produce such deeply personal music? And would we be comfortable releasing the contents of our lives for the whole world to hear and critique?

From his early days with the Mayfield Four through fronting arena rockers Alter Bridge, and his time working with Guns N’ Roses legend Slash, Myles Kennedy has never shied away from tackling his inner demons. Or so we thought.

In 1974, when Kennedy was four, his father died of appendicitis after refusing medical treatment due to his beliefs as a Christian Scientist. The implications of that loss have plagued the frontman for his entire life, yet he only began to directly address them in his work while crafting his long-awaited debut solo album.

Kennedy eschewed his usual hard rock sound in favour of an acoustic-based singer-songwriter approach that traversed folk, blues, country and Americana, naming the collection after the Chinese year in which his father passed away. ‘Year of the Tiger’ is a stunningly honest album that ultimately delivers catharsis, hope and a sense of salvation.

With Kennedy currently in the UK to play a series of dates bookended by a couple of festival appearances, we got the lowdown on how the singer dug deep to create what might be remembered as his masterpiece.

The way you describe the writing process for 'Year of the Tiger', it sounds like you uncorked a bottle and it all came flooding out?

Yeah, that’s a really great analogy. One of the other ways I looked at it was that I put that bottle on a shelf and this was the time when I chose to blow the dust off and uncork it. I was surprised those emotions still had the effect on me they did so many years later. To me it was an interesting discovery of how the human brain works. How, when you go through something at a certain point in your life that was a long time ago, it can still really trip the wire.  

When you were exploring your memories from that time, did anything come up that you’d repressed?

There’s a track called The Great Beyond. I tried to write that from the perspective of watching the night my dad passed away. I have no idea of exactly how that played out. I only have what my mother told me and even she doesn’t know because when she woke up he was gone. He passed away while he was sleeping at the house so there’s a certain aura of mystery there. I tried to paint the picture of what that might have been like in very surreal terms. I guess what I was surprised with, during that writing process, was how much that had an effect on me and how intense those emotions were.

You said it took decades to pluck up the courage and explore this subject. Now you’ve done it, was the process harder or easier than you’d feared?

I think both. It was easier in the sense that there was such a vast amount I could tap into for the record. What was harder was, like we talked about earlier, once I popped the cork. My wife, who’s a mental health therapist, midway through the writing she started to notice the decay in my psyche and asked me ‘Are you sure you know what you’re doing here? You realise this is not for the faint of heart?’ I don’t think I realised what I was in for as a writer, doing an entire record based around this. One song maybe, but an entire album? That was news to me.

Blind Faith and Nothing But A Name find you addressing your father. How did it feel expressing those sentiments?

Very cathartic. After I’d immersed myself in the whole process and got it off my chest, it felt like there was a real thread of honesty. Then I stepped back and thought ‘Woah, have I let too much come out? Is this gonna be uncomfortable to listen to? Is this too direct?’ A lot of time, as songwriters, you try to cloak what you’re saying behind imagery and keep it somewhat ambiguous.

Those two songs, in particular, they’re open letters, so after it was all said and done I had a bit of hesitation about whether that was the right thing to do. But what’s been interesting, now the record’s out, is people are gravitating towards those songs because of how straightforward they are. In the end I’m glad I went ahead and spoke the truth I needed to speak.

Has exploring that truth changed your relationship with your past and your father?

Absolutely, without a doubt. Probably more so than I could have hoped for, and I feel like it would have saved me a tonne in therapy sessions had I done this earlier in my life. It really was the most cathartic thing I could have done.

Although the album is focused on a painful subject it never feels depressing, and ends with three optimistic and hopeful songs. Was it easy to strike that balance?

I’m glad to hear that, because my fear was it would be a total downer. I think that’s why it was important to tell the story and also bring my mother into the fold. Try to outline her strength, and ability to look after my brother and I, and the beauty in the intense love she had for us. I think the way the last song closes the record, One Fine Day, really highlights a certain amount of optimism I like to think she had to be able to continue to press forward. That adds a certain amount of balance to the record.

How did your mother and brother react to the album?

My mom reached out after she heard the record and thanked me for a song called Mother, which is a tribute to her and really touched her heart. But I believe she told my brother that the record is hard to listen to because it brings up a lot of the things she went through back then. I totally understand that. With my brother, he was only one year old when my father passed away but he had an appreciation for the record. I don’t know that it has quite the emotional gravity that it has with my mom and I.

What’s interesting is that, although it was obviously an awful thing to happen to you at such a formative stage, that trauma also put you on the path to being an artist who needed to express himself.

It certainly set the tone for my creative well. If you look at how many songs I’ve written that have revolved around the idea of loss and death, there are a lot. At the end of the day it could be why I’m a songwriter, just needing to reflect and manifest that in some way.

I consider it a blessing that I have the outlet to do it. If I hadn’t discovered songwriting I don’t know how keeping that bottle corked all my life would have benefited me. I think that’s part of the reason, as I get older, I realise how important it is for young people to discover a way to express themselves and have an outlet to do so.

Musically speaking, ‘Year of the Tiger’ is very different to what you’ve done before. Was there any concern about how people may react to it?

I enjoyed having the opportunity to explore the acoustic realm of what I do but I was aware there would be a group of people who’d be asking ‘Where’s the riffs? Where’s the bombastic approach we’re used to hearing?’ One of the words I had to stamp on my forehead was ‘fearless’. Just make sure you ultimately try and tap into something that’s true to what you want to do - need to do - as an artist.

That’s not to take anything away from what I’ve done with Alter Bridge or Slash & the Conspirators, but this was a different entity altogether. In a way I felt like it gave me creative licence to do that. If I’d made a record that sounded just like one of the other two entities it might dilute those, so I’m glad I took a chance.

Why did the sparse, acoustic approach feel like the best way to present this material when some of the angrier, more intense songs could have easily been delivered with your trademark heavier sound?

I guess you take a song like Blind Faith and, although it’s stripped down and played on a resonator, that opening riff has a vibe I feel is musically congruent with what’s going on lyrically. It seemed to make sense to me, and if you take The Great Beyond, which is not angry but there’s a melancholy sadness to it, stripped down it still has a certain intensity.

All you’d have to do is layer some PRS guitars through a Diezel amp and it’s gonna have that hard rock approach people are used to hearing from me. It was a delicate balance, trying to massage the arrangements in a way that was never stepping too far into the hard rock realm, but at the same time not too light. The arrangements and production style needed just enough teeth to suit the songs.

You’ve been touring the album for a while now. What have the shows been like, in terms of playing in a more intimate way?

It was a tonne of fun. On the first set of dates I didn’t want to throw too much at people because I wanted them to have time to live with the record. So it was a bit of a retrospective where there were songs from the Mayfield Four era and Alter Bridge era with a healthy dose of ‘Year of  the Tiger’.

It was great to strip it down and was essentially like I was busking on stage with a guitar, minus the hat for change. It was a nice vibe and I think the fans enjoyed it because, for lack of a better word, it wasn’t too orchestrated. It felt like I was sitting in my living room with 800 people, talking and sharing stories.

You’re appearing at Ramblin’ Man and Steelhouse festivals with acts like Glenn Hughes and other loud rock bands. How are you going to present this type of album in that setting?

What I’m trying to figure out is how much of it will I be ‘plugging’ in for, or the opposite of that. I will have an acoustic element in the set but there’ll definitely be more songs played with a bass player and a drummer. That’s a totally different dynamic, when it’s not your crowd and is more of a festival setting. I’ll do the best I can to balance the whole thing appropriately.

Are there any other styles you’d like to explore solo?

Good question. I’ve been really lucky with ‘Year of the Tiger’, that I did something different and people embraced it and gave it a chance. It felt so good from a musical standpoint that I’d like to do more of that stripped down acoustic sound in the future. Are there other things I’d like to do that I’ve thought about? Sure.

Would I want to make a record of jazz standards and sing those and see what happens? There’s part of me that thinks that would be interesting but, at the same time, that might be stretching too far out there. I want to be careful that I don’t confuse the brand. David Bowie was able to function in so many different genres, but he was a genius. For myself, I have to be very aware of my strengths, play to those and not step into an arena where it’s like you’ve jumped the shark.  

Myles Kennedy Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Mon July 02 2018 - EDINBURGH Liquid Room
Wed July 04 2018 - BELFAST Limelight
Thu July 05 2018 - DUBLIN Academy
Sat July 07 2018 - LIVERPOOL O2 Academy Liverpool
Sun July 08 2018 - LEEDS Stylus
Tue July 10 2018 - NORWICH Nick Rayns LCR UEA
Sun July 29 2018 - LONDON London Palladium

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