Kevin Garrett is an authentic young/old soul, incredibly talented, and a little bit of a dork. His music (just two EPs so far) is a modern iteration of Sam Cooke, Robert Johnson-era soul beats and vocal dexterity you feel more than listen to. As would be the case for any 25 year old artist breaking into the realms of pop soul/R&B, he finds himself compared to better known names in the industry such as James Blake, Sam Smith, James Vincent McMorrow. These are hardly hyperbolic comparisons – in addition to a publishing deal with Roc Nation, Garrett earned his first Grammy nomination this year for writing and producing ‘Pray You Catch Me’ on Beyoncé’s Lemonade (2016).
Pittsburgh-born and Brooklyn-based, Garrett is sort of mumble-mouthed in person. His speaking voice is nasally, with a slight Midwestern accent that gives no indication of its eyebrow-raising range and capability. Personable and vaguely charming during our green room interview (he offered me a “Hamm’s” beer; I declined), he discussed the vulnerability of his lyrics, his writing process, and a couple non sequiturs of my choosing.
Vulnerability is a sought-after quality in artists these days, and specifically with indie artists. It’s scary in any context, but is it easier to be vulnerable a crowd of people who don’t really know you?
Kevin: I think because I was writing the songs before I was performing them, I wasn’t thinking about it that much. By the time I started playing them the moments were kind of past me. I’ll still tap into the vulnerable side when I’m performing, but it’s a different kind of emotion. It’s difficult to be honest in general, but when you’re performing your mind is doing enough to keep you preoccupied. When I open up on stage it’s more reflective than just upfront emotion.
Do you worry about the audience interpreting your life based on your (vulnerable, honest) lyrics?
Kevin: Some people ask what the songs are about, but I think what I’ve noticed that’s been pretty cool is that people just automatically relate the songs to their own lives. So it’s less about whatever’s going on with me and more about what they’re figuring out for themselves.
Was it weird to have people who are referenced in the songs listen to them as they were being released?
Kevin: [laughs] Nobody talks to me. To be honest, I haven’t really written about too many people. I kind of look at the experiences that happen to me with 360˚ perspective and so a lot of the time it seems to be me just singing to myself. You can listen to a song and be like “oh this is about a girl or someone” but honestly when I’m writing it’s more about me looking at myself in the mirror and asking how did we get here, and then spinning that so there’s a directive (someone I’m singing to).
Where was the switch from making music as a hobby to doing it professionally?
Kevin: The switch came when I was in New York for school and I got paid for my first show – there was a tip jar, so I wasn’t even really getting paid.
Did you get tips?
Kevin: Yeah, the bartender tipped me. I was 17, I think. Some off-duty cops gave me like 5 bucks. Playing that venue during that fall in college let me know that I could hang. I had another band throughout school and that last year when I left school. Once I started doing my own thing and put Coloring out, that was when I was like “yeah okay, this is my job”.
Is there a mood that you write best in?
Kevin: I guess my sense of humor is kind of dry and distant, and you have to kind of peer through a telescope to get the joke sometimes. When I’m writing it’s… it’s not apathetic, but the emotion is past and it’s something I can look back at objectively.
So you don’t write as it’s happening to you.
Kevin: It’s rare, because my mind is so tuned into that moment; I’m very possessed by it. The recovery process is when I start to analyze it. I guess the short answer is that I write when I’m at the bottom, back on my way up.
If I’m writing about the beginning of the end, which is like what ‘Coloring’ is about, it’s kind of predicting ahead of time. Otherwise it’s after it’s already happened.
How old were you when you wrote your first song?
Kevin: I was 11.
Do you still play it?
Kevin: (laughs) No. It doesn’t even exist anymore. It was called ‘Fly Away’, and it was about leaving a situation by means of flight. Very straightforward. And bad. It was horrendously bad. Something that I’m not proud of.
What instruments did you use?
Kevin: It was guitar, it was the first chord I ever learned on guitar, the G7 of all chords. I think I only got proud of what I was writing in high school. That’s when I started actually remembering what I was saying.
What’s the earliest song that you still play now?
Kevin: There are a couple songs that I’ve been holding out for the album that I wrote when I was 15. But right now the oldest song that we play is ‘Control’. I wrote that when I was 16.
Do you prefer paper or a laptop when you write?
Kevin: Paper. It’s more like whatever I can find. I used to have a legal pad but it took up to much space in my backpack, strangely enough.
Collection of napkins or something?
Kevin: Yeah sometimes napkins. Usually it’s the pad in a hotel, the cool ones these days say stuff like “write your thoughts!” on top. Either that or receipts, I don’t know. Although I lose receipts all the time. Sometimes if it’s something I’m really excited about I’ll throw into my phone afterwards, or I’ll audio note it.
Do lyrics come first or music?
Kevin: More often that not it’s music. But I like when lyrics come first. Then it’s kind of like a puzzle. You’re not writing for any sort of rhythm or cadence, you’re just writing and it’s more honest. But then you can cut it up and give it a pattern afterward.
Do you think about your audience when you write?
Kevin: That’s a good question… Maybe after the first EP, with any new stuff I was kind of thinking about it. Not what they might expect, but what might make sense transitionally. Like any artist, I’m constantly trying to refine and perfect… I don’t think about it too much, I guess, but maybe there’s a little bit in there like I gotta make sure everyone’s happy.
Is that something you take into account? People liking your music?
Kevin: The primary thing is if I’m proud of it, then nothing else really matters – I’m going to sing it all the time, I’m the one who’s doing it. But at the same time, I know what I’m capable of doing in terms of getting weird and I also know just, what I want to do. More often than not it kind of lines up with what I think people want. So hopefully that stays like that…
Were your parents very musically inclined?
Kevin: They both played instruments but actually went into more scientific positions. It’s kind of funny, they’re both in those fields and me and my two sisters are all kind of artsy. Strange how that worked out.
Did they influence your music tastes growing up?
Kevin: When I was four I started playing violin because they wanted me to take lessons. My grandmother played violin in the symphony for a second, so there was a little bit of a track record there. I don’t know what it was about the violin… maybe it just made me look the weirdest when I was playing it, so that’s why I wanted to do it? It got me into college though. I didn’t burn out on it, I just started focusing on different instruments.
Did they introduce you to specific artists?
Kevin: My dad! If it wasn’t classical music when I was practicing, he got me hot on classic rock – his favorite bands like Led Zeppelin and Queen and Chuck Berry. Once I was old enough to buy my own CDs I got really into soul music, and like old country music. My first CD was a Ray Charles ‘best of’ with like five albums.
Can you explain the line in ‘Refuse’, “People try to change me since my youth”?
Kevin: That song has a couple different meanings. I wrote it before my first EP came out, and I was working with people who thought they knew me better than I knew myself. I didn’t really have enough time with my songs to really gauge what I wanted to do, stylistically and production-wise. I was getting input from all these different angles – it gets kind of overwhelming when everyone has a different opinion on your message. That line is about staying true to yourself and being honest, I guess. Not letting outside voices influence you too much. It’s good to have influences, obviously, but when it comes to being creative, if you listen to too many people you end up making someone else’s thing.
Do you think you’re an introvert or an extrovert?
Kevin: [mumbling noises]
Or an ambivert?
Kevin: What’s that?
Somewhere in between on the spectrum.
Kevin: Oh yeah, I think that would be me. It’s like a switch, depending on the situation. I like to be an introvert more. Not like I can choose when I’m being one or the other, but I find myself more comfortable being an introvert, if that makes sense.
Does performing come naturally to your extroverted side?
Kevin: My personality is sort of like a sad stand-up routine when I’m not singing. When I’m performing it’s like I’m not really… there. Not like I’m blacking out, but I’m playing these songs and every once in awhile I’ll come up for air – that’s when I’m like, saying a bad joke or something, seeing if everyone’s still alive, or if not, crying.
Do you have a lot of people crying at shows?
Kevin: I don’t know, during the show, but afterwards when I’m meeting people… this tour, especially, I’ve noticed that there are some people that get really invested in the songs and, you know, that’s the reason you do it.
But otherwise you’re not really paying attention to the audience?
Kevin: Well no, I mean I’m there to perform, right? It’s the type of thing I think they can respect, being so in to what I’m doing, when I’m playing and singing… it’s like as soon as I’m done with the song I kind of snap back to reality, and ask, “how was that?”. That’s kind of how it’s always been. I have friends who I admire and respect who give everything to the crowd and there’s a lot of participation and stuff. I’m working on that, I think that makes you a better performer. But I still think there’s a line between being a good performer and being an entertainer.
What’s your relationship to Roc Nation right now? Kevin: I don’t have a label, I’m still unsigned. I signed a publishing deal with them and that’s kind of been my connection within the industry for getting into sessions and stuff. The touring end has been very grassroots/independent and that’s something I’m very proud of. They [Roc Nation] also currently manage me too.
Yeah, but no label. To be frank, I’ve certainly spoken to labels over the past couple years and some of them think I’m signed just because of the way press rolls out. But yeah, no label.
Were you starstruck to meet Beyoncé?
Kevin: First time I met her was at a Roc Nation holiday party and I had just found out that I might be working with her [on Lemonade]. When I got introduced to her she already knew who I was, and I freaked out. Someone was like “this is the kid who wrote that song you’re gonna cut” and she goes “Oh, Kevin!”. And I died.
She must be used to that.
Kevin: I’m sure. I’m sure she’s had every type of conversation at this point. But she said some really nice things, she said “It’s nice to meet you, you’re super talented” and I didn’t know how to react or respond. I was just thinking to myself “What has the woman who’s heard everything not heard yet?”, and I just said “You as well”. To Beyoncé. I think she had to think about it for a second, but she laughed. We all kind of had a weird circle dance moment at the party and then they [Beyoncé and Jay-Z] left.
Do you have a style icon?
Kevin: I mean… no. I kind of wear whatever I can find, and it gets pretty repetitive. Or I wear my own merch. But I like design, especially on the merch end. I work closely with the same person in Pittsburgh, and we’ve been making stuff for years now. I guess there are some artists I really look up to. Everybody can kind of look at Kanye West and say “well, you’re doing something”. A lot of the stuff he’s done, especially with shoes has been really cool.
Do you thrift shop?
Kevin: Yeah I like going to thrift shops. There are a few that we’ve been to over and over again on tour. I like graphic sweatshirts.
In interviews you’ve mentioned that you like talk radio. What specifically?
Kevin: I’m a sports fan, so I like sports talk. But less radio now, more podcasts. I like Radio Lab and This American Life and Season 1 of Serial.[digression about how Season 1 of Serial is far superior to Season 2]
What are you reading right now?
Kevin: Magazines. Reviews about the Grammys. My attention span is short, so I’ve always been attracted to Sedaris-style short stories and memoirs and stuff. I like talk show hosts who write books – Craig Ferguson had a really cool memoir called American On Purpose. I kind of feel like I lost my childhood because I was never really into Harry Potter, and I’ve heard they’re amazing books. I’ve seen a couple of the movies… I think I’ve seen one movie.
What’s the last song you listened to that wasn’t yours?
Kevin: Today? It was an Anderson Paak song with Kaytranada called Glowed Up. And then Same Drugs, by Chance the Rapper.
Two truths and a lie?
Kevin: Okay I’m not gonna say any until I have all three [some deliberating noises, one shout of “goodness gracious!”].
3. My celebrity crush for the longest time was Shia LaBeouf, but not in a weird way… There was just something about Even Stevens that was like so cool to me, he was like, you know, Shia. And now he’s like, nuts, but still a genius. I think he just got arrested again?
Want to guess the lie?