John Carroll Kirby Breathes Determination Into Creation

The keyboardist and composer talks about his brand new album, ‘My Garden,’ and his work with, among others, DJ Khalil, Solange, and Kali Uchis.
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Pianos sing. Los Angeles’ John Carroll Kirby, keyboardist and composer who has worked with Frank Ocean (“DHL”), Solange (When I Get Home) and Kali Uchis (“Dead To Me”), among many other heavy-hitting acts, understands this well. His notes fly off the stand, keys lift off the keyboard, and his sonic settings come to life from our ears to our eyes. On his latest album, My Garden—released April 17, 2020—Kirby, 37, adopts light and warm tones to build a soothing and playful musical world. There’s a natural spirituality to each track. The winding “Lay You Down” feels like a sacred moment, while “Arroyo Seco” plays as more of a coming into consciousness of a brand new day. Each motif and movement on My Garden sounds like personal scripture and mantra transformed into gorgeous arrangements.

“That’s great; I’m glad you are feeling that,” Kirby says of my observation of My Garden as a located work. “That was my intention with the record. It’ll come from a certain headspace if I’m feeling joyous or feeling relaxed. Feeling contemplative. Feeling lonely. From that, I might imagine associating that with a physical space.”

My Garden feels deeply spiritual at times. The closer, “Wind,” plays as especially delicate and cleansing. The keys dance and sway, and a great sense of peace is summoned by the album’s final moments. My Garden progresses like a breathing exercise: inhale, hold, count to 20, and exhale. Within these breaths is a wonderful soul and airy spirit, most evident on opener “Blueberry Beads,” of which Kirby said: “I’m trying to find the depth in being playful.”

“You can’t hit people over the head with depth,” Kirby explains. “You can try, but [it’s] best if people arrive at that depth under their own initiative. What I was getting at with that statement was, ‘I just wanna let things be light and playful, and that might open up the listener to arrive at something—or not!’ It’s good to not have the strongest intention and just let people come to their own conclusions.”

Though I’ve come away from My Garden with a measured take, during our talk, Kirby reveals to me he isn’t worried about the exact impression his music leaves on people. “If someone thinks it’s nice music, I’m totally happy with that,” he concludes. It’s a moment of letting go from an artist who breathes calmness and, of course, determination.

Our conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.

DJBooth: What initially drew you to the piano and production?

John Carroll Kirby: My [piano] teacher was a neurotic, funny, tripped out, stoner-y guy. [He] got me into music and the piano. A lot of times in the lesson, we’d just be hanging out, theorizing things, talking about music, but a lot of other stuff. In a lot of ways, it was atypical to what people go through with lessons, with teachers slapping their wrists and stuff. It was loose. From that, I got into jazz intensively, studied that with a lot of devotion. From there, I got into touring and playing in other people’s bands. Then I got into recording and more production.

That’s why I loved violin, because of my teacher.

Isn’t that funny? So many teachers just scare their students off. It’s a shame, though, because a lot of teachers are great musicians themselves.

What did your work with Kali Uchis, Solange, etc. teach you about your own playing?

It’s always great to work with other artists. One of my first gigs in music was working with DJ Khalil, who produced for Dr. Dre, Eminem, Talib Kweli. When I would work with him, he would have stacks and stacks of records. A session [with] him would be: he would put on these old prog records, funk records—he loved prog. We would just vibe to the music, and he’d be like, “Why don’t we try something like that?” That gave me an insight [into my own music]. Those would be things I would incorporate into my own process. Sampling was his instrument, and it’s cool to learn from people in that way and adopt some of their thought processes.

The new album, My Garden, is warm and textural. You bring to life so many sonic settings. How do you go about choosing what scene to animate with the piano?

That’s great; I’m glad you are feeling that. That was my intention with the record. It’ll come from a certain headspace if I’m feeling joyous or feeling relaxed. Feeling contemplative. Feeling lonely. From that, I might imagine associating that with a physical space. “What can I draw inspiration from?” Sometimes, the meaning of the tune will come after the tune is finished. You might be listening back to it like, “What is this about?” It’s not like music with lyrics, where the lyrics inform what the song is about. With instrumental music, it could work kind of backward.

That reminds me of “Blueberry Beads,” of which you said: “I’m trying to find the depth in being playful, the humanity in technology.” Can you expound upon that for me?

That song is dedicated and inspired by my yoga guru. When he’s his most deep in his teachings is when he’s being most light. You can’t hit people over the head with depth. You can try, but [it’s] best if people arrive at that depth under their own initiative. What I was getting at with that statement was, “I just wanna let things be light and playful, and that might open up the listener to arrive at something—or not!” It’s good to not have the strongest intention and just let people come to their own conclusions. And for the second part… I was trying to make the connection that you can elicit emotions from somewhat artificial things.

I’m glad you mentioned your guru because, during a 2017 interview, you said: “My guru Sri Dharma Mittra likes to say: ‘Without determination, there is no progress!’ Simple but true as hell.” How did that mantra influence My Garden?

Oh, that’s a cool question! If you’re stuck in a difficult pose and you wanna come out of it, [my teacher] will say, “Without determination, there is no progress.” Really simple fact. It could even be annoying, because you’re like, “Yeah, man, I know that, but I’m suffering.” Determination has to be a big part of it for any musician because you’re overcoming a lot of odds and dealing with an uncertain workplace. Determination ties into My Garden the way it ties into my whole life and mindset as a musician. Which is to wake up and do it every day, and be writing every day. If you write music every day, you can’t have writer’s block. Even if you write 10 bad songs and throw them in the trash, you might have one [good song], and that ain’t bad. My Garden was born out of a process of writing music every day and picking the ones that resonated.

Which song on My Garden felt most difficult to complete or felt most like a puzzle?

There’s a song called “Night Croc” that felt like a puzzle because I played it on the piano, and there’s a left-hand bass part that became a marimba sounding part. There’s a deceivingly complex melody. I was trying to compose them both at the same time.

This is your first release on the legendary Stones Throw. What does that mean to you?

That’s amazing. I grew up in LA, so I knew about Stones Throw for as long as they’ve been around. Peanut Butter Wolf. I came up in LA, hanging out with guys like Z-Trip and Cut Chemist, I would see him around. It bears a lot of weight, and I’m honored to be a part of that. What’s rad about Stones Throw is they’re not just content to be a hip-hop label, so I’m excited about what I can contribute.

I’m most drawn to the arrangement on “San Nicolas Island.” Can you talk me through the making of that one?

The inspiration comes from a story of a woman named Juana Maria, who was a tribesperson living on San Nicolas Island. Missionaries from the Santa Barbara Mission came and captured her whole tribe when she was young, but for whatever reason, left her there alone on the island. For about 20 years, she was stranded on this island and fended for herself and lived on her own—until she was eventually taken to Santa Barbara by the missionaries, where she soon died. So, the song was a testament to someone’s determination and also thinking about solitude and survival. Those are some of the themes that went into it. I wrote that one at the piano completely, added a sample of a hand drum, and then played the melody on Minimoog, if I’m not mistaken.

This album feels spiritual and meditative to me, so how important is spirituality to you and your music?

The last thing I would wanna do is come across as acting like a holy person or something like that. I reference my teacher, but I’m not his top student. I would hate to be heavy-handed with anything. These stories are stories that are important to me, and kind of intimate. I wouldn’t necessarily be inclined [in] stuff like this in conversation, but music, being an intimate expression, I feel it was okay to reference them. I’m so happy you took away a spiritual element from the record. But at the same time, if someone thinks it’s nice music, I’m totally happy with that.

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