Local Singer-songwriter Brent Kirby Embraces 'Artistic Freedom'

Concert Preview


A Wisconsin native, local singer-songwriter Brent Kirby moved around the Midwest before landing in Cleveland 14 years ago and putting out his local debut, The Mean Days, in 2005. Kirby took five long years to follow that album up with Last Song on the Soundtrack. At the time, he ran a guitar repair business out of the basement of his Willowick home, but he has since abandoned that business (“I just don’t have the time for it,” he says) and now lives in a much smaller place in Cleveland Heights. Because he says he was busy with other projects (there were three plus years since he had done his last record, Coming Back To Life, and during that time, he was preoccupied with a Jack Fords record, two Hey Mavis records and one solo record that he shelved), he hasn't issued a new album in a few years. He identifies his priorities these days as his daughter, his girlfriend and his musical career. “Those are the three things I focus on,” he says one afternoon over beers at Merwin’s Wharf.

But Kirby’s career takes up a big chunk of time. He’s one of the busiest local musicians in town. In addition to playing with a number of local ensembles, he also nurtures a solo career and has just regrouped with a new backing band (dubbed the Luck) for his forthcoming album Patience Worth, an eclectic collection of roots rock songs that suggests he’s been unfairly pigeon-holed as an Americana or alt-country artist.

The album’s title comes from the name of a spirit of a person who lived in the 1640s in England. The spirit dictated prose that became best selling novels at the time.

“It’s just a crazy story — I heard about it on TV or something,” Kirby says when asked about the album title. “I have a song on the album called ‘Some of the Things I’ve Learned.’ The lyrics go “Who’s your patience worth/next to where you stand?’ It means who do you spend your time with and also who’s your spirit guide? Who’s your muse? The idea of this spirit dictating these things is interesting. There have even been books written on it.”

A drummer by trade, Kirby initially became inspired to write songs after hearing Uncle Tupelo's 1990 seminal alt-country classic No Depression. Then, someone gave him a Gram Parsons album, and he never gave it back. “Gram Parsons hit me at the time when I was ready to hear that,” he says. “I was just swept away.” For the past few years, Kirby has played Parsons' music with New Soft Shoe, a tribute act that held down a residency at the Happy Dog before this year when it started taking the show to other venues in town. The group still plays at the Happy Dog, but it’s also branched out to other Northeastern Ohio venues. Kirby also fronts the rowdy rock act the Jack Fords and finds seasonal work with the Ohio City Singers, an ensemble that performs original Christmas music during the holidays.

But his new album is now the focus of his attention. And it should be. It’s a terrific collection of tunes that sound like they were written by a veteran songwriter. The disc commences with “Our Town,” a tribute to Cleveland that comes off as if it’s a rejoinder to Michael Stanley’s “My Town.”

“I didn’t even know about the Michael Stanley song,” says Kirby. “It’s not an answer. It is a song about Cleveland. It just came out. It starts out in Tower City and then goes to the Stone Church and past the Free Stamp and to the Rock Hall. It then goes to the river and the Market and into the Cuyahoga Valley where the forests are. The last verse is about his place that my daughter has near the Harp where the bridge goes over to the lake. It peaks and you can see Lakewood. That’s her place. The sun sets over there. The last verse is about her. It’s a Cleveland song. I’m not from here, but I’m Cleveland proud. The song came really out quickly. I didn’t have to think about it or edit it too much.”

“Say That You Want Me To” sounds like latter day Dylan. “Keep It Safe” features some moody guitar work reminiscent of the restrained playing of Mark Knopfler, and “Some of the Things” sounds like classic rock track from the ‘70s. “Is the Truth” is a beautiful lullaby that features piano and strings (Kirby’s father wrote the string and horn parts on the album). “Tell Me Something” and “Girl I Love” are both gritty rockers that have elements of early Tom Petty.

“Some people heard the new songs at a listening party,” Kirby explains. “We listened to the record four or five times. There were things I didn’t even think about. There was no thought about what I wanted it to sound like. In the past, there has been some of that, even with the Jack Fords and other solo albums. There is still a unifying element to it. It’s there.”

He recorded the album at a house in Willoughby Hills that overlooks the Chagrin River. Local producer Jim Stewart brought his “rig,” and the guys sequestered themselves in the place for four long days, playing until 2 in the morning.

“We recorded most of it live,” says Kirby. “I rented snare drums and guitar amps and we would detune the drums and pick out what pedals and amps we wanted. We would form the songs from the ground up. I don’t remember thinking that this is how I want the songs to sound.”

The band just had one rehearsal before the recording session. Kirby says that was intentional. “I trust the guys,” he says. “I just wanted them to bring what they do and then refine it from a production standpoint.”

He and Stewart purposely left the “ebb and flow” of the tunes alone so they would feel “real and live.” “We just didn’t want to fuck with it,” Kirby says of the approach, calling it a “stream of consciousness” album.

Because of the way they reference self-realization and “being on the positive side of things,” the songs are more personal than anything in Kirby’s catalog.

“I’ve finally found who I wanna be and what I wanna do,” he says, adding that he was a bit of a “control freak” on his previous albums. “I feel artistically free and I can go in any direction. This new band has a jazz element and an R&B and a soul element and a Latin element. The guys are such accomplished musicians that they can do anything. We’ve also gone back and reinvented the new songs so in addition to the new stuff, we have the old stuff which sounds new again and it feels new. I can’t wait for people to hear these songs this way. That’s what this record and this band has done. It’s given me this freedom.”

Brent Kirby and His Luck CD Release Concert, Kiss Me Deadly, 9:30 p.m. Saturday, May 16, Music Box Supper Club, 1148 Main Ave., 216-242-1250. Tickets: $10 ADV, $12 DOS, musicboxcle.com.

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