Wine? Blood? Bordeaux blend? Chris Kirby (middle) and the Marquee (L-R: Craig Follett, Mark Marshall) photo by Steve Keats.
Rhythm and blues artist Chris Kirby is headed home with his new album produced by legendary Canadian musician Gordie Johnson and recorded in Texas at Willie Nelson’s famous Pedernales Studio.
David Keating speaks with the self-proclaimed “pasty white kid from the woods” about Vampire Hotel.
Chris Kirby is in Sydney, Cape Breton with boxes of his newest release Vampire Hotel stored safely in the back seat of his van.
The mainland part of his CD release tour done, he’s en route back to St. John’s for a two-night stand at the Fat Cat in front of a friendly and familiar crowd.
“Unfortunately Ontario got the record before home got the record,” he says over the phone. Planning the tour schedule while dealing with last-minute changes on the album made a CD launch in Toronto a necessity.
“People like to pretend to be upset and give me flack for that,” jokes Kirby.
More than two years in the works, Vampire Hotel is Kirby’s follow-up to his 2006 ECMA-nominated album Rum and Religion. And while Kirby is still drawing on the traditions of blues, soul and rhythm and blues, the sound of the new album—under the production mentorship of Big Sugar’s Gordie Johnson—has him behind a keyboard rather than a guitar.
“He didn’t take the guitar from me completely,” laughs Chris. “I think maybe seven or eight songs on the album I play guitar on, and he plays guitar on a few as well. But, yeah, the piano—he really heard something there.”
“I sent him five or six demos in the beginning and about half of them were guitar and half of them were piano,” he says. “He really bit into the piano stuff more than anything else.”
The shift to the piano hasn’t meant a complete overhaul of his playing style or sound, but Kirby, a classically-trained pianist, had to re-engage with the instrument in a new way.
“I play the piano like a guitar player, so I have my own kind of style and it’s not nearly a desired approach to playing piano—my teachers would probably rap me on the knuckles with a ruler if they saw what I was doing—and I guess that kind of translates sonically as my sound. So it’s identifiable, it’s unique.”
Trying new things and moving Kirby out of his comfort zone also involved producer Johnson taking him to Texas to record part of the album at Willie Nelson’s Pedernales Studio. The surroundings and piano-driven sound may have been a departure for Kirby, but the atmosphere in the studio made him feel comfortable.
“Austin is the epitome of Southern hospitality,” he says. “It doesn’t take long to feel at home, and that kind of spilled over into my studio experience. You know, for the first five minutes I was completely dumbfounded and had to pick my jaw up off the floor after everything I saw on the walls, you know, the gold records hanging on the walls, pictures of Willie with this person and that person. It was pretty mind blowing.”
“But, at the same time, I got comfortable really quickly.”
For 26-year-old Kirby the experience he had working with his guitar hero Gordie Johnson and recording in Nelson’s studio was a dream come true.
“I actually played one of Willie’s guitars too, come to think of it. His back-up guitar was there and we didn’t actually use it, but we wanted an acoustic guitar and we tried it out. It didn’t pan out for us, but I can still say I played Willie Nelson’s guitar.”
As a Newfoundlander travelling around Canada and destinations in the States, Kirby finds himself an unlikely ambassador for blues and soul music. But the fit for him comes in linking into the deeper traditions of Southern American music, and bringing it full circle.
“The music we’re doing kind of originates on the East Coast anyway, because New Orleans music was influenced by the Cajun people. They were the exiled Acadians… You hear it in Dr. John, the Neville Brothers… anything that sounds like it has voodoo sprinkled over, with mock French and that kind of stuff. You can draw the line right up to Miracmichi.”
Kirby already has his accommodations book for next February’s ECMAs—at “The Kirby Hotel”—his grandmother’s place. Building on the professional and industry connections he’s been making over the journey of making Vampire Hotel, he’s hoping for a wider-reaching audience at home and away for the new recording and, fingers crossed, another award nomination.
Chris Kirby plays the Fat Cat on August 14th and 15th with special guests. Visit www.chriskirbyonline.com for song samples and more details.