** Kenna at House of Blues, (312) 923-2000, Oct. 5
With his debut disc New Sacred Cow (Columbia), Kenna could easily surpass the electroclash crowd and be crowned of the next wave of new wave. From the insistent beat of 'Freetime,' on which he sounds like he's going for a drive in Gary Numan's car, and the near-dub of 'Man Fading,' to the vexing glory of 'Vexed And Glorious' and the unexpectedly gorgeous 'Yeneh Ababa (Rose),' Kenna is his own man, and could potentially inspire imitators. A riveting live performer, Kenna is currently on tour and should be seen live if he is in your neck of the woods.
Gregg Shapiro: When I saw you perform live at Schuba's in Chicago in June (2003), you were like a man possessed, moving in a very uninhibited manner on stage, and your enthusiasm was infectious, judging by the crowd's response. Did you always move that way, or did you start out as one of those performers who stands in front of the microphone with his eyes closed when he sang?
Kenna: That show that I did at Schuba's was the eighth show I've ever done.
GS: That's all?
K: Yes. So, I guess the answer is I've always been that kind of performer (laughs).
GS: Good answer. Who or what is the 'new sacred cow' that you refer to in the title of your album?
K: The 'new sacred cow' is self. So, I guess it's a who and a what (laughs). The album is about the rise of individualism and about control. It's a battle, it's the war for self-control. The idea that within myself I've had so many battles to find peace of mind and find where my powers lie. What are my strengths, weaknesses, insecurities? What are my confidences or certainties. The album has a full view of me, as a human being, but also has a full view of society, as I perceive it. 'Freetime,' for example, is about leaving something you love only to realize that what you had was the best thing. But that coming back to it, you might find it different or not there at all. I had this idea that we are in one of four states of control. We are either in control, out of control, in search of control or being controlled at all times. All of these concepts run as a theme throughout the album. It's a really layered project. It like an onion—it has so many parts to it.
It's something that you can explicate for days. Some things that I didn't even understand about myself I learned now after listening to the album. Hearing myself on stage, I learn things about myself and who I am as a person. I feel like the music is a gift that's been given to me. It's not something that I personally can claim as my own specific triumph.
GS: Thank you for sharing that gift with us.
K: No worries.
GS: The album opener, 'Within Earshot,' raises some interesting questions for a musician to ponder, including 'can anyone hear this cry?' Does it ever feel like you are singing into the void or do you feel like you are being heard?
K: Sometimes I really do feel like I am singing into the void, but I wonder (about) what we perceive as the void. There's so much that we don't understand. I feel like singing into the void is actually where I should be singing, and not necessarily to be understood. I hope that people will stumble upon the words and find the meaning and possibly find themselves in me, but at the end of the day, I'm just trying to find myself.
GS: Speaking of finding yourself, 'Hell Bent' sounds like the kind of song that was written from personal experience.
GS: What was the inspiration for that song?
K: That's an interesting song. I was born in Ethiopia and after six months my parents had to leave me there and go to Cambridge. There was an overthrow of the government. My grandfather was a Korean War veteran and my parents left me with him. I was the first-born male grandchild of a 20-person family. I was a very important child (for my family). Living in Ethiopia for my first couple of years, without my parents, I had horses and nannies. I had a kingdom. When it was time to go and meet my parents—my dad had gone to Cincinnati to study for his doctorate at the University of Cincinnati, and my mom was working there as well—I came to Cincinnati to a one-bedroom student housing apartment.
GS: Culture shock!
K: My bedroom was the closet. My dad was reading Curious George books to me to force me to learn English. I didn't understand a word that he was saying. It was an unbelievable moment in my life where I can remember, at three years old, when the authority complex, my control issues and my compulsive nature hit. It's that lyric, 'Am I the king,' that starts the song 'Hell Bent' and references, was I the king or did I lose my kingdom of 'friction and heartache/and the pain is of no consequence' because I am 'hell bent.' I began, at that moment, to realize that I would have to fight for whatever it is that I used to have.
GS: In the song 'I'm Gone,' you sing about being 'nervous and wasted thankfully' and your music publishing and production company is called Nervous People. Are you nervous?
K: (Laughs) Yeah. Aren't we all? That's why it's called Nervous People. I'm looking for my tribe (laughs). I think the world is full of nervous people and I am one of them. I'm comfortable knowing that I'm dysfunctional and that I'm a broken human being and there are some pieces I will never be able to put together. This music and my life is a part of that search to be the very best human being I can be. But at the same time impart some kind of understanding to others that it's all right to be nervous and wasted and numb. It's all right to be all those things because it is just how you feel at the moment and I'm sure that the feelings will come that will make sense to you when it's supposed to. It's like putting out this record. It came out when it was supposed to come out. It didn't come out a minute before or a minute after. I'm comfortable knowing that the time that I spent was to teach me patience, not necessarily that the time that I spent was time lost.
GS: Speaking of timing, the new-wave style of 'Freetime' couldn't have come at a better time, considering the new-wave revival in the form of the electroclash scene. Where do you see your place in that musical movement?
K: I don't know. I have to say that that movement is interesting to me. I never did the music to pick up the '80s torch. I wrote the record because of how I was influenced and who I am. I think a lot of bands, right now, are saying 'That's a music that meant something to me then and I'm going to replicate it now.' I didn't do it for that reason. Chad (Hugo) and I wanted to make a record that was timeless and has no boundaries upon what it sounds like. I think that 'I'm Gone' and 'New Sacred Cow' are really strong references to our Beatles influences. There are other songs on the album that reference the late '60s and early '70s. There are melodies that are influenced by everyone from Sam Cooke to Bono. I would be lucky to be able to be perceived as one of those characters, a Bono or a Michael Stipe or a David Byrne. Those are the realms I come from. The Kraftwerks and the Cars of the world. I'm into that music. The Beatles especially. My movement is the movement of an artist that actually has something to say. I'm trying to recruit other ones into my army. To find other artists who will stand for something and won't be afraid or inhibited by their own insecurities and they'll step from behind their microphone and into the world.
GS: The remixes of 'Freetime,' especially the one by Junior Vasquez almost guarantees you exposure to a wider gay, club-going audience. How do you feel about that?
K: I want the music to be heard by everyone. I don't do anything specifically for any sect or group. I don't believe in that. I believe that we are one people. This is one world. I'm happy that Junior was asked to do it for us. The label made that suggestion and I went with it. That Junior was a part of it— it was meant to happen. But I never specifically thought of one group of people more apt to my album because of it. So be it, I'm happy that there is that music and that he remixed it and it's there for the world to hear.