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Interview with Kevin Kern, April 2003
Interview with Kevin Kern, image 1
Kevin Kern and I first met in August 1999 in the course of doing an interview for “Wind and Wire” magazine. We did the interview by phone, and then met for lunch to discuss the possibility of doing a concert for my students. Kevin performed here in November 1999, and then came back for the workshops with Spencer Brewer and David Lanz in 2001, blowing us all away with improvised duets with both artists. Also in 2001, I was asked to proof-read a collection of Kern’s piano solos that were being published in book form in Korea. What sounded like a simple job ended up being a major editing job. Once I took the songs as far as I could, Kevin and I met a couple of times and went through the thirty pieces together, getting twenty-eight of them as close as we could to the recorded sound (we rejected two). That book was published last year and is available from realmusic.com. Yamaha in Japan recently published a second book of piano solos that isn’t yet as easy to find here. Ten of my students are slated to play from those two books for a workshop with Kevin on May 4.

Two of the topics from the original interview are particularly interesting, and I’ll include them here:

KP: You started playing the piano at 18 months of age. How is that possible?

KK: In 1959, my parents moved into their present home. At about the same time, my maternal grandparents dissolved their home in favor of an apartment. They gave my uncle a dining room set and my mother a baby grand piano. The following spring, everyone was sitting in the den watching TV when they heard “Silent Night” coming from the living room, which was bare except for that piano. A quick roll-call discerned that all were present and accounted for except for me, so they went into the living room, which was dark, and saw me standing with my hands over my head, plunking out “Silent Night” on the piano. By the time I was two, I could play some twenty Christmas carols with both hands.

KP: Last year, I told some friends that I hoped to interview you. They said that they had heard you are blind. Is that a true?

KK: My vision is very poor, but I can hit a baseball out of a pitching machine about eight out of twenty times at 45 mph. If you were to watch television with the contrast turned all the way down, or filmed something with gauze over the lens, you would get something as close to a workable description of my visual world as I can provide.

KP: Glasses don’t correct it?

KK: Sure, but on the best day I ever had, I’d never drive a car. When I put glasses on, stuff gets, by my standards, very clear, but... I can read print, but it’s painfully slow, so I avoid it.

KP: This has been with you all your life?

KK: Yes.

Kevin Kern was born in Detroit, Michigan on December 22, 1958. He is the fifth of six children, with three older brothers and two sisters. Kevin’s father is a retired oral surgeon, and his mom is a homemaker. Kevin started picking out songs on the piano at the incredible age of eighteen months, and started piano lessons at four. He received extensive classical training, and studied composition and improvisation at the same time. He played clarinet and bass clarinet in school, and formed a band at eleven. In addition to the wind instruments, Kevin has dabbled with violin, cello, and drums. He started composing at 8 or 9, but his first “keeper” was written in his teens. Kevin started being paid for performing when he was fourteen, and joined the musicians union at 17. There was never any other career goal in mind but being a professional musician, and Kevin has never had any other kind of job. He attended the University of Michigan School of Music and the New England Conservatory of Music, earning his Bachelor of Music Degree and a Master’s Degree in Performance. He played in and around the Boston area for several years, and then moved to San Francisco in 1990. He played in restaurants and hotels around the city, and was discovered by Terence Yallop, the founder of Real Music, on Christmas Day 1993. Yallop invited Kevin to record an album, and the rest, they say, is history. Kevin’s seventh album on Real Music, “The Winding Path,” will be released on June 3. I got a chance to preview it for review, and feel it is Kern’s best album to date. Here is the interview we did in April 2003.

KP: Before this gets official, I have to say that I think “The Winding Path” is by far your best album.

KK: You like it!

KP: I love it!

KK: Oh, rock and roll! That record essentially rose from the ashes to its eventual configuration. It was a real dark midnight, when all of the equipment blew up! Bad me, I had waited until the last minute to transfer all of my sound files of the string parts and stuff from the computer to these tape machines I’ve used for the last three records. I’m tarting to make the transfer, and it’s not happenin’. At this point, I’m thinking, “I’m dead! I’ve rented the piano of my dreams; the other musicians and engineer are on their way; I’ve got Fantasy Studios rented for a week; and I’ve got no album!” My wife, Pam, God bless her heart, never lost faith. She said “You are one really talented guy, and you’ll figure it out.” So a whole bunch of other really talented guys and I figured it out.

KP: What did you end up doing?

KK: Well, first we decided to go from using Tascam DA 88’s to using Pro-Tools, which meant that we exported a whole mess of WAV files from my computer, which is a Windows based system using Cakewalk's SONAR, to CD, and imported them into Fantasy’s Pro-Tools rig. So this whole album was recorded and mixed on computer without any tape. It’s the first full album I’ve done that way. As of now and forevermore, I am a fully digital/computer/DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) person. Tape is a four-letter word that we don’t use.

KP: It must be a lot easier to edit on the computer.

KK: Yes, it’s immeasurably easier to edit because tape is sequential access and hard disk is random access. For example, we had problems when Johnny Marshall did the orchestrations for “Embracing the Wind.” If we wanted to have a ritard or a fermata between one chord and the next chord, the length of that fermata was fixed and had to be agreed upon when Johnny was doing his thing so that it would sound natural. Now you can literally cut and paste anything anywhere, so the length of a pause can be whatever you say it is.

KP: So then the parts that were recorded separately can be altered in order to fit better? Like the flute parts in the new album?

KK: You can, but those flute parts were amazing. Pam Copus was playing to a cheap little MIDI piano track and a click track, and how her performance ends up sounding as expressive as it is, is just one of those minor miracles that accomplished professionals pull off every day! Usually you get that kind of expressive character as a result of responding to stimuli from other musicians, so that’s an event!

KP: Did she play the Native American flutes on “Winding Path,” too?

KK: She played all of the wind instruments.

KP: You recently returned from concerts in Korea and Singapore. You took guitarist Jeff Linsky with you. Did you play with local orchestras while you were there?

KK: We played with a small ensemble in Korea. We had one violinist, one cellist, one clarinetist just for “Return to Love,” a synth player, Jeff, and me. In Singapore, it was just Jeff and me.

KP: Did you use MIDI or just play duets?

KK: We were going to have Jeff play a guitar/synth, and he did play a little bit of it, but it wasn’t going to work out the way we planned, so it ended up being primarily piano and guitar.

KP: The new album sounds very acoustic. Is very much of it synth?

KK: Wherever the guitar appears, it’s real; wherever the flute appears, it’s real; wherever the piano appears, it’s real; and everything else is canned but the violin on the title track.

KP: There wasn’t nearly as much electronic accompaniment this time.

KK: No. That’s because everything blew up!

KP: Well, that was a good thing, then!

KK: It was an extremely good thing! This album ended up being made the way records should be made, which is you go and put in the acoustic stuff first, and then you add in whatever you might need later on.

KP: I don’t miss any of the canned strings whatsoever! I hate them! I was blown away by how good the album is!

KK: Cool!

KP: Who else plays on the album?

KK: Pam and Randy Copus (2002), Terence (Yallop) plays bells on “Softly Falling,” Jeff Linsky on guitar, and Jeremy Cohen on violin. Also, my wife, Pam, makes a cameo appearance on Rainstick during "Through the Veil."

KP: Whose idea was the “guided visualization” that is in the liner notes?

KK: That was developed entirely by Real Music.

KP: Was that planned before you started recording?

KK: I found out about it on Day 2 of the recording session.

KP: So you didn’t do any composing with that in mind.

KK: In this specific instance the guided visualization represents Real Music's response to my music, not the other way around. Most of the titles were a part of that response as well.

KP: The day I visited you at Fantasy Studios, the titles of all of the songs were the keys they were composed in.

KK: Yes, that is correct. The titles are the work of the label. I am not related to any of the titles or the guided visualization.

KP: How much of the album was improvised?

KK: All of the piano solos were created in those one-pass deals.

KP: Several of the tracks are piano solo this time.

KK: There are two absolute piano solos, one piano solo where we integrated Terence’s bell tree, and a piece called “Ancient Guardians” which started out as a piano solo, and Pam and Randy added a really phenomenal alto flute as well as bells and cymbals and stuff.

KP: Overall, this album seems to be your most dynamic to date. What was different about how you approached this one?

KK: My thrust in creating this record was to try to create an album that would be the heart and soul and center of the Kern live show experience. That was my purpose in making this album.

KP: So instead of composing with the idea that the music would be used as background music, this one was composed more to be played live.

KK: That’s correct. It’s a great big soundscape.

KP: You were so excited about the Steinway Hamburg grand piano that you recorded with. What made that piano so special?

KK: (laughs) I call it “God’s own piano.” It’s a massive-looking thing, and a massive-sounding thing, and I’m just delighted that Ron Davis was able to record it so faithfully. Ron did a fabulous job. Ever since my earliest childhood, there has always been an almost anatomical bond between me and the great pianos I’ve known. It’s like an extension of me.

KP: Well, yeah - it does become an extension - of your spiritual and creative being, too. It all works together.

KK: To the bone! I have to say that I’m tremendously excited about seeing the response to this new album.

KP: I hope it will get enough promotion so people will be aware of it.

KK: I think it will. First of all, the fact that 2002 is on it should do a lot for its position in the US market.

KP: Are they the best-selling artists on Real Music?

KK: They are the flagship artists on the label. They’ve been on the Billboard charts for a year and a half. For awhile, something of theirs was on the charts for sixty or seventy weeks. They are the bread and butter artists of the label in the domestic markets, and I can probably be said to occupy that same position in the international market - or at least in the Asian market. So, I imagine that this record will increase my standing in the good old US of A, and expose Pam and Randy to an audience which is certain to appreciate them.

KP: “The Winding Path” will be the “Featured Album” for June on the Solo Piano Publications website, and that’s not because we’re friends, but because I really like the album.

KK: That’s very sweet. I really like this album, too. On “The Winding Path,” I think we all really stepped up to the plate, and every person who participated had the opportunity to present their best work, and they did. I think that kind of quality deserves a shot before the public.

KP: I do, too. You haven’t been as excited about some of the other albums, but I can sure see why you feel really good about this one. Were you given more artistic leverage on this one?

KK: Again, I think a lot of what happened had to do with that fortuitous accident - a total equipment crash.

KP: Isn’t it wonderful how Fate works sometimes?

KK: It’s one of those deals where once we were presented with this unique creative opportunity, then essentially it was handed to me because no one else could fix it, and I said “Well then, let’s go back to making records the old way by getting people to collaborate in the studio in real time.” We would sit and play things like “The Cauldron of Healing” or “Way of the Stream,” and these arrangements literally took shape as the tape was rolling. And that’s sort of the way it should be done. With the piece called “A Million Stars” - we were sitting around at 11:00 one night, and I’m playing this mind-blowingly great piano, and Terence goes, “Play the sky.” I decided to make it a night sky, so I start out with my picture of what a sky totally chock-full of stars would look like. I have seen that a few times in my life on an absolutely clear, absolutely non-light-polluted sky, with more stars than you can possibly count. So we start with that, and expand and develop it, and then there’s a part where the bass of the piano comes out and we’re in an A minor thing, having started in C, and then we zoom in on one constellation. It doesn’t really matter what that constellation is, but it seemed like the logical thing to do at the time. Then I panned back out to the whole sky again and finished the piece.

KP: Do you have more concerts planned?

KK: I’m scheduled to do two concerts in Taiwan in July, and we’re working on something in Hong Kong pending the outcome of the current medical situation.

KP: And Hercules.

KK: And Hercules, certainly. We’re hoping to return to Singapore, and there are all kinds of other things that we hope will work out.

KP: How big are the audiences that you’ve been playing to?

KK: The audiences are around 1700-2000 a night. It’s healthy. The Seoul Art Center looks like Davies Symphony Hall (in San Francisco) with seats going around the back of the stage. The Esplanade Theatres By the Bay (which you can see on the Web by going to esplanade.com) is an extraordinary place. It even has an organ built into the stage. These are major league theaters. When we were in Seoul, Earl Klugh was in our hotel because he was playing in the same venue a couple of days before us. The Irish Chamber Orchestra was in the Seoul Art Center on St. Patrick’s night. These are the halls where bigtime entertainers perform.

KP: The last time we did an interview, you weren’t sure your music could hold an audience in a concert setting. Now that you’ve done some major concerts, how do you feel about that?

KK: Well, I’ve learned a lot. When your records have a position in the market, and people have come to know you, if they come to hear your concert, that’s what they want to hear. When I played “Through the Arbor” in Singapore, we had that opening string note, and the minute the piano began to play, the place literally erupted. Could I imagine that? No. When you go to hear an act that you know, you wait for the songs from the album that you have. As soon as you hear your favorite song, you applaud that song.

KP: That’s kind of what I was trying to tell you four years ago, that if people know your music, it’s definitely not going to put them to sleep. That’s what they’re there to hear.

KK: When that statement was originally articulated, I didn’t have anywhere near the fan base that I have today. And in those days, no one ever imagined that I would have the kind and scale of performance opportunities that I have today. It’s remarkable what’s happened in a few short years.

KP: All for the good, it sounds like!

KK: Yes, ma’am!

KP: Which has been your best-selling album so far?

KK: “Enchanted Garden” left my mark all over the world. In different markets, different products have had different positions. In Korea, “Summer Daydreams” has been a hallmark because two of those pieces had such prominent positions on Korean television in their soap operas. It turned out that “Le Jardin” was part of a coffee commercial. It’s a hoot! It would be like (sings) “I’d like to teach the world to sing” or the Vangelis tune that was used for Gallo wine commercials.

KP: Nobody knew where that song (“Hymne”) came from, but everyone wanted to know what it was. How is the “best of” “More Than Words” album doing?

KK: “Best of” is doing well. In Korea, they did a special package of 5000 units that was sold right before the concert, and if you bought the album, you could get a discount ticket to the concert with a coupon that was in the album along with an autographed picture of me. It was brilliant marketing!

KP: Now that you have the sheet music books available, how are they doing?

KK: I’ve been trying to get information on that, but I get the sense that they’re doing well because lots of people presented them for signature on this past tour. The Korean book came out last summer, and the Yamaha book was released in Japan about six months later. There are links for both books on my website, kevinkern.com.

KP: How did you and Pam meet?

KK: Pam and I met on the internet! We met in a chatroom discussion about baseball. I was living here (in San Francisco) and she was living in Boston. She moved here when her job relocated her here quite by accident. She had her choice of where to live on the west coast, and she decided that Los Angeles was no good, and Seattle was too rainy and cold, so she picked San Francisco. I don’t think she knew I lived in San Francisco at the time. Time passed, and we had this wonderful correspondence going on. We finally decided we would meet, and when we did, the reaction was instant and electric.

KP: Did she know your music initially?

KK: No. (laughing) I eventually explained who I was and what I did for a living, and she chased it all down. We will have been married for two years this June.
To learn more about Kevin and his music, check out his website and also his Artist Page here on MainlyPiano.com.
Kathy Parsons
April 2003