Kevin Kinsella was a founding member of John Brown’s Body and the enigmatic roots-reggae powerhouse 10 Foot Ganja Plant. Although these two groups provided my introduction to Kevin, it turns out he’s achieved success as a solo artist, releasing three solo albums, the latest of which, Great Design, comes out today (June 28th, 2011). Powered by a love for life, music, and happiness, Great Design is a shining homage to roots reggae, folk, and pop traditions, steeped in standard reggae philosophy regarding frugality and universality.
Kevin Kinsella: What’s the good word? How’s things in Cali going?
The Pier: I’m not based in Cali actually. I live right outside Manhattan. You’re up at Ithaca, no?
Kevin Kinsella: Yea, not too far from you, I guess.
The Pier: I like Ithaca a lot. My cousins went to Cornell University so I used to visit them up there.
Kinsella: Yeah, it’s beautiful up here. It’s like a jungle in the summer time, you know? The gorges and the waterfalls…it’s kind of like a little Jamaica in the summer time. If you came up in the winter you wouldn’t believe it.
The Pier: I refuse to go up there in the winter.
Kinsella: [laughs] So I’m psyched to be doing this interview with you.
The Pier: Me too! I’m a big fan of John Brown’s Body and 10 Foot Ganja Plant, but this is the first time I’m hearing any of your solo work, so I’m really happy to be able to discuss it with you.
Kinsella: Did you have a chance to listen to the record?
The Pier: Of course. I got a copy in the mail last week, so I’ve gotten pretty familiar with it.
Kinsella: How’d it hit you?
The Pier: I was very pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t really pure reggae. There was a lot of folk, a lot of rock, a lot of soul, and a lot of really interesting instrumentation.
Kinsella: Yeah I think this record is a good overview of what I do. If you’d never heard John Brown’s Body or 10 Foot Ganja Plant and just got introduced to Kevin Kinsella this would be a good summary of my songbook and life. Reggae, soul, spirituals. I think it’s a good introduction.
The Pier: What kind of artists outside of reggae have really shaped you as a musician?
Kinsella: I like all kinds of music and so many different artists that it’s hard to pick out that one specific person. As a kid I was really into doo-wop music. Growing up and going to church, and then finding reggae through Bob Marley, for me, that was a meeting of those two influences: doo-wop/soul and biblical lyrics. That got me started on my journey in music. I always had a great appreciation for all kinds of music. Doo-wop, soul, country, pop music, whatever’s on the radio throughout the day
The Pier: Speaking of country music, what encouraged you to include a cover of “Ring of Fire”?
Kinsella: I was always a huge Johnny Cash fan. I had done another song of his, “Peace in the Valley” on the John Brown’s Body record “Spirits All Around Us.” Its kind of this little experiment I’ll do where I take a Johnny Cash song and reharmonize it and give it a new spin. That came to me and people liked it, so I thought I should definitely move forward with it and include it on the record.
The Pier: That song is interesting to me because it creates a juxtaposition between the other spirituals on the album such as “Light of Love” and “Faith.” Those are very upbeat, inspiritational spirituals whereas “Ring of Fire” has much more of a Dante-ish vibe.
Kinsella: Yeah it’s like “I’ve been through the fire and got toasted.” It’s a little darker, It brings a whole new meaning to it, too. I think that’s why people enjoy it since it’s so much different from the original.
There’s a lot of spirituals on the record, because my music is ‘thanks and praise music.’ Giving praises and gratitude are very important for a happy, healthy life, you know what I mean?
The Pier: Is that something you’ve always had or did that come from your love of Bob Marley and reggae music?
Kinsella: Thankfully, I was born with that kind of disposition. I’m just inspired and called to sing praises. There’s a new song everyday to be sung and passed along
The Pier: That alludes to another theme I felt running through the album. On the first track, “All That I Have” you introduce this theme of simplicity and being thankful for what you have.
Kinsella: That’s to me the theme of the record, not even lyrically, but also in the production as well. I was trying to pursue a sparsity – a lean, mean, zen machine. The next song “No Battlefield” has the lyric “I’m doing more with less/I let go and I let God bless.” That idea of saying more, doing more, being more, instead of having to take more or consume more, that’s very important to me.
The Pier: That’s very interesting since it’s so contrary to what we typically associate with the moern American lifestyle of heavy consumption and heavy waste.
Kinsella: I think I’m coming to a realization that the way we’re doing it can’t work. We can’t sustain. We need to keep chanting the mantra of “less.” Less waste. Less consumption. Less consumerism. It’s all about filling that void in the spiritual sense. It can’t be filled with riches or possessions.
The Pier: That’s also significant on a musical level, this minimalist theme. In terms of reggae, a lot of the great, legendary reggae music developed from very sparse elements.
Kinsella: II think what people like about reggae is the space. Let’s just study the guitar: cha-cha cha-cha cha-cha. It’s the space in between that hypnotizes, that keeps the rhythm. In early reggae it was the space in the music that gave it this mystical quality. This infectiousness. I’d like a return to that.
Sometimes modern music can be barrage of sound. That can be cool, too. There’s a time for everything. I’m not saying it hsould be one way or the other with anything, but in my head, I was just seeking more of the silence.
The Pier: Why is this album called “Great Design”?
Kinsella: That’s a song I wrote for my son. He is seven now. I wrote that maybe a year or two ago. Children are just perfect. The kingdom of God, they’re seeing it.
On a bigger scale, we are all a thread in this quilt that makes up life. Every organism, every being, every living thing has it’s own place in this great design. You hear people say, “everything is for a reason.” It is true. Man makes plans, God gives me answers is one of my favorite proverbs.
The Pier: So can we talk a bit about your label I-Town Records? It’s dedicated to releasing music from Ithaca right?
Kinsella: Yeah that’s the premise of the label. We started the label in 1996 and now we’re up to like 66 releases. The label is supposed to represent the artists here in Ithaca. My original goal was to get all the heavy-hitters on this one label, which did occur eventually, but first, all the youth, all the young bands at the time wanted to get in on it, so it became a youth movement.
I love history and my desire really was not to make money on it, but rather to document this slice of this small, American city. What’s the music coming out of here? What is it saying? What’s it all about? Hopefully in 100 years people will be digging up the I-Town compilations and getting a good cross-section of what was going on.
The Pier: I think Music is a great, but often under-utilized method of examining history.
Kinsella: It’s a message. It’s a recorded message for future generations. With most of those guys like Yabby You, Burning Spear, Joseph Hill, they were recording messages, prophetic messages, and sending it out ot the four corners of the Earth. It’s pretty powerful. Look at what that seed brought! Look at the fruit! Reggae is kind of like the common language of the world, musically speaking. Wherever you go, one thing you can probably count is reggae!
There’s a phenomenon about it. I think it’s godly. It’s God’s power if you ask me, but it’s undeniable that reggae’s made a huge historical impact musically, socially, politically. You can’t really say that about all music. Music is great, but, reggae, that’s the king’s music.