The Kev is a sewer-mouthed bawdy-balladeer who has moments of illuminating optimism. This mixture of bottomless cynicism and life-affirming silliness has proved a massive hit with audiences, especially in Manchester, England.
He spent most of his early adult life in China and built up some notoriety for writing and recording songs in Mandarin.
Interview by Tim Brown
When and why did you start playing? I started when I was 13, in the summer of 1997. The following year was the worst of my academic career. It was also then that I read ‘The Lord of the Rings books. I play because I have often felt that books, writing, and music are all I have, as in the lyrics of ‘I Am a Rock’ by Simon and Garfunkel.
Were you influenced by old records & tapes? Which ones? Very much so. Every school holiday involved long car journeys. My first encounter with musical comedy was with Val Doonican. When it comes to records and tapes, I was still buying physical music long after it was fashionable. During my first year in China, when my job involved working with 6-13 year-olds and I was expected to be chirpy all the time, my favorite CD was of the works of Claude Debussy, and when sitting alone in my classroom planning lessons or studying Mandarin, immersing myself in such haunting masterpieces as the Sonata in G Minor, or the Trois Chansons de Charles D’Orléans helped offset being in a job that was driving me nuts.
Have you been in competitions? Fleadh’s? Any prizes? No. I wouldn’t enter a competition if I didn’t feel I had a realistic chance of winning, and my stuff is so hard to categorize, that it is presumably a non-starter.
Do you perform in public? Describe those occasions? Concerts, radio, TV. Performing is something I find highly stressful but thoroughly rewarding when it goes well. To win over a crowd, one must be solicitous, but assertive. Since performing is such a high-stakes situation, I only do it in moderation, but I would love to start acquiring bigger audiences.
What makes this kind of music “good” to you? In a 1926 study of historical geniuses, American psychologist Catharine Cox Miles concluded that Mozart must have had an IQ of 150, and Beethoven had one of 135, good enough to qualify for Mensa. Music may require intelligence, but the true measure of success is evoking emotion. When I was going through the grades, they taught us that the four main emotions that music was meant to bring out were “cry”, “die”, “fight”, or “dance”. To that I am trying to add a fifth – laugh your butt off.
Why did you choose to play this kind of music? It chose me, by process of elimination.
How do you feel about the internet in the music business? I think it is great for up-and-comers because until around the turn of the millennium, people had to spend a fortune to make a demo tape and send them to unnamed A & R representatives at record companies. Now anyone can make music and put it out there for a fraction of the cost. Over the past two decades, the internet has come of age, and (for want of a better word) gentrified. The golden age of when a musician could go from a nobody to somebody online was the 00s. I don’t think the success of musical comedians like Jon Lajoie or Bo Burnham could be replicated now without a polished and expensive marketing campaign.
How has your music evolved since you first began playing music? Being an artist is a bit like being a teenager. You have to try on other people’s personalities for size, eg you might go through one phase of being a goth, and another of being a hippy until you finally sink into your own skin and become the individual that you are going to be. That is an observation that literary critic Al Alvarez made. My journey has involved trying on many different hats, from starting out as a lead guitarist/principal songwriter in a band to a solo classical guitarist, to a socially conscious troubadour, and finally a musical satirist.
Could you briefly describe the music-making process? Making songs is my favorite activity, but I will struggle if I ever get a lucrative record deal and can pursue it as a full-time career. That is because creativity is the thing that happens in the moments between being productive. I jot down the seeds of ideas that come from daily life and reading, and slowly they come together into finished products. But it is impossible to rush or even anticipate the process. I usually start with a tune, then go into my jotter to find something that might be a good fit, and eventually, with persistence and polish, a new song or skit emerges. Having a boss and having to meet deadlines could very well kill the enjoyment.