by Ben Shine
Kenny Childers is a musician's musician. In a band, he's your glue-guy, a player that can contribute on any level, but not always looking to be at the front of the stage. Over the last couple of decades, he's had a hand in some of Indiana's best acts as a songwriter, band member, session player and arranger. He's fronted bands including Gentleman Caller and The Prom, but he's also had major roles in The Mysteries of Life, Stranded at the Drive-In, Velo Deluxe and Brando.
Because Kenny's so beloved in the Indiana music community, for his 40th birthday more than two dozen local music luminaries sang his songs for a tribute album, Nine Kinds of Gone. More than just a celebration of his accomplishments, the album reveals the depth of his talent. Much like Bob Dylan, who sometimes shines more brightly when others sing his songs, Kenny's tremendous skills, range and musicality are highlighted in these covers. He plays his songs straight; sometimes, another vocalist's drama can pull out a feeling, chord progression or lyric that one might otherwise miss.
Here's a sample of his work:
Even if you haven't heard of any of his bands, if you've listened to local teen folk-pop phenoms Lily and Madeleine, you've heard his work. He collaborated with the duo on songwriting and arranging on their eponymous debut album, in addition to playing with them live and in the studio. I'm in my third decade knowing Kenny (gosh we're getting old), and he's a fantastic and very generous guy. So I imagine he's a bit of a mentor for these young women as they navigate their path to success and the artistic process. He also has one of my favorite traits in an accomplished artist -- he's serious about his work, but he's not serious about himself, which is a great thing to model to young talent.
You can catch Kenny sitting in with Lily and Madeleine at the Do317 Lounge on Friday, Jan. 31st. He'll also be opening the show with Gentleman Caller.
While hunkering down during the Great Polar Vortex of 2014, I had a chance to digitally shoot the breeze with Kenny (via Facebook Messenger) about what he's doing these days and his thoughts on what's yet to come.
Did you grow up in Indiana?
Kenny: I was born at the Bloomington Hospital on Second Street. I've never lived more than 15 miles from there. I've traveled a lot playing music, but I always come back here.
You've been in a ton of Indiana bands. What are some that you're most proud of and why?
Kenny: All of them have taught me something important. When I was a teenager, Tangleweed introduced me to great music like The Velvet Underground, The Stooges and The Modern Lovers. Velo Deluxe taught me not to take drugs and drink every single day on tour (but that lesson was learned the hard way). Stranded at the Drive-In taught me how to embrace chaos in a live show. The Mysteries of Life taught me how to make records -- how to leave space in songs, how to pay attention to every detail, like what the bass drum pattern is and how it relates to a guitar. Gentleman Caller taught me how important chemistry and just enjoying yourself is in a band. Brando taught me how to disregard everything I've learned in favor of adventure.
Who are some Indiana-connected artists you think deserve more attention or people need to hear?
Kenny: I think Brando, Marmoset, Sardina, Uvula (and everything Chris Kupersmith has been part of), Winechuggers and even Margot & The Nuclear So & So's really deserve more attention for their continuing progress than they have received.
Do you make a living with music?
Kenny: I make some of my living from playing music, but I also have a full-time job. The money I do make from music mostly comes from songwriting. I've been very fortunate to have the opportunity to write with other musicians and singers who have more national attention than I do.
What's been your role with Lily and Madeleine, and where do you see things going?
Kenny: I write and arrange the songs with Lily and Madeleine and also play on the records, whatever is needed. Paul Mahern [producer on "Lily & Madeleine"] is a longtime friend, and we've collaborated on projects for two decades. I feel like my role is to make sure the songs are good and to be an idea man in the studio with arrangements. As far as where things go, I'm not sure. They've definitely gotten more national attention more quickly than anything I've ever been involved with, but I don't spend a lot of time wondering where it will go. It's already gotten to the point where I always hope things will go: where you get to write and record a record in a studio with a budget. It's the creation part that's always mattered to me. Anything else is just gravy.
What are your top 3 all-time most-influential albums?
1.) Big Star - Sister Lovers,
2.) Velvet Underground - VU
3.) Sardina - Presents
And then throw in about 6 Kinks and 6 Rolling Stones albums. Those would have to be my top 3 all-time most-influential (15) albums.