The label he founded, Kill Rock Stars, has worked with ground-breaking artists such as The Decemberists, Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, Unwound, and the late Elliot Smith.
Kenny Greenberg is one of the most heard, yet possibly unrecognized guitarists working today, unless you’ve seen him play, in which case you’ll never forget him. As one of the top session guitarists in Nashville, Kenny has appeared on hundreds of recording by musicians of all genres, including artists such as Taylor Swift, Indigo Girls, Willie Nelson, Etta James and scores more. He can also be seen on the road on rare occasions playing with global stars like Kenny Chesney and Faith Hill.
If you’re in Nashville you’re more than likely to see Kenny flex his muscles in clubs playing with his Grammy-winning wife, Ashley Cleveland, or his band The Fortunate Sons, featuring a collection of some of Nashville’s other top session and touring musicians.
He is also a Grammy-winning and Oscar-nominated record producer and award-winning songwriter. On top of all of that, Kenny is a kind and generous human, seemingly always at the ready with some sort of encouragement and words of goodwill. I’ve been amazed and inspired by his humility, as it seems that every time I speak with him he talks about something new that he’s learned, either as a musician or in life. As someone at the top of his profession, I always have something to learn from talking with Kenny. Here are a few questions that came to mind for me to ask him.
Q: I don’t know that a lot of people have a sense of what playing studio sessions is like – can you walk me though a day doing sessions?
A: Session day. First of all, the producer or the producer’s assistant books you. They may say, “in two weeks, we need you for a 10 and 2” (session blocks are 3 hours, with a one hour break to eat, or haul ass to your next session). Then you call cartage and tell them what gear you need for the session. A lot of the time, the bigger the session, the less notice you have for a session, not sure why that is. Like, I can get a call from Dann Huff’s assistant on a Tuesday, saying they need me on Friday. If it’s a major label or a big artist, you have to rearrange your schedule to be there. Also worth mentioning, in this changing climate, budgets are small, so there might not be money for cartage. In that case, I throw my pedal board, amp, and a couple guitars in the car and I’m ready to go.
So, if I’m the leader, they send me the work tapes to chart. I can chart 4-10s songs in an hour; I might do that the night before. Then I have an idea what the songs are like, and I can think a little bit about what I want to play. But a lot of the time, I show up, have my gear turned on and tuned up, ready to play, then we all go in the control room and listen to the work tape or demo. We usually listen once, maybe twice. Then we talk about direction, style, who’s gonna play what, and the whole time, each musician in the room is thinking about what part he’s gonna play.
So, you have 5 or 10 minutes to come up with a part, a signature lick, or sound. Then if it’s a demo, we’ll be getting 4 to 6 songs in three hours, so you’re prepared to get your part right the first time through. Maybe replay or fix right after we get the track. If it’s a record date, it’s anywhere from 1 to 3 songs per session, then we get to spend more time carving out a part, experimenting, etc.
I use the analogy that we’re like writers for a TV show. You come in to work everyday, and you have to invent music to fit the artist’s song. You get used to using that part of your brain. So it’s like writing a script for a show. You get used to having a limitless supply of ideas to dress up a song. It’s actually exciting and fun.
So, as a guitar player, when the track is done, you will probably add a second part, a solo, some ear candy, etc. If it’s a demo, and you’re doing 6 songs in three hours, that means you have 30 minutes for the band to get the track, and the guitar players just about never get out of their seat, because they spend the remainder of the 30 minutes playing a solo, 2nd part, etc.
Also good to know, very few guys do three sessions a day, 5 or 6 days a week. You burn out if you do that. Occasionally I’ll have weeks where that just happens, and it’s all important record dates I want to be a part of. But most of the time, I do one or two sessions a day, sometimes three. And I try to do that just 4 days a week, because I also write and produce.
I function best when I mix it up between playing writing and producing. It seems to help my creativity, and I get juice from each job that fuels the other jobs.
But there is absolutely an addiction to recording music in a room with great musicians that is very addictive and stimulating. There’s a huge rush to getting a great track done, and I always say the first time I hear the playback, I always think that song will never again sound that good:) It’s like you just participated in giving birth to a living entity.
I also do a lot of overdubs for people at my studio. The send me files, I load them into my computer, and I sit down there by myself and record my guitars, send the files back. I LOVE doing that. I find I can be very creative with no distractions. That can also be considered a typical session day..
Q: What’s it like to come into a session not knowing what you’re going to play that day? How do you prepare for that?
A: It’s exciting going into a session not knowing what you’re going to play. I kind of look forward to that. It’s best when you don’t think about it and just play off the top of your head. That’s when the really good stuff happens…
Q: What’s the best thing about being on the road? The worst?
A: The best thing about being on the road, at least with the gig I’m on, is getting to play for really large crowds. That’s a super big rush. Nothing quite like it. The next best thing is walking around the downtown of whatever city we’re in, checking out the sights and the people. The rest of it is kinda hard, you have to roll with a lot of stuff, work at getting along, etc.
Right now I’m sitting on the bus with the band, huge storm, we’re supposed to play outdoors at a George Jones tribute TV special, but there’s tornadoes and a storm. Yeah, being on the road is great!
Q: How does collaboration with so many different musicians and producers make you better?
A: Collaborating with so many musicians and producers is absolutely one of the best things period. I totally get my juice and creative ideas from the people around me. Here’s what’s really true. I’m not really technically that good as a musician, I just sometimes have good ideas. But I get to work with some of the best musicians and producers, writers, etc in the world. So I get better, because most everybody i work with is better than me!!
Q: Where do you find inspiration to keep you growing as a player, and as a person?
A: I get inspiration from the all the great young musicians I work with. And also occasionally I work with an older musician that still has the spark, and that really inspires me too. As a person, I get inspired by older musicians that aren’t jaded and still have a good attitude. That’s how I want to be…..
Jacob Slichter is a musician, author, and teacher. He was a member of the multi-platinum band Semisonic, whose global hit “Closing Time” can still be heard pretty much everywhere, especially at bars or when a baseball team’s closer comes in to wrap up a game (not nearly enough for this Cubs fan).
I first encountered Jacob’s writing in his fantastic book, So You Wanna Be A Rock & Roll Star: How I Machine-Gunned a Roomful of Record Executives and Other True Tales from a Drummer’s Life. It may be the finest book I’ve read about an artist’s life in the music business, in that it is honest, self-effacing, self-aware, and thoroughly entertaining. I’ve easily purchased at least a dozen copies for others, including friends and family members whose children are pursuing their own rock & roll dreams. Much of the book feels eerily familiar to me, as “Closing Time” was a massive hit almost exactly a year after a band that I worked with, Sixpence None The Richer, had its own worldwide hit with the song “Kiss Me.” The adventures of the band and their struggle to make sense of the massive opportunities and stardom, as well as pressures from a global record label, powerful radio stations, and broadcast groups. Then there was the puzzle of, “how do we follow up?” It’s a realistic look at a career in music that pulls back the curtain from the romantic myths of rock & roll excess and shows a talented, hard-working band trying to navigate a bewildering business. Jacob now teaches non-fiction Creative Writing at Sarah Lawrence, and through a series of Kevin Bacon-esque connections to childhood friends of both my wife and I, I was able to connect with him and ask him a few questions about creativity, teaching, community and pulling back more curtains in life and work. Enjoy!
Q: One thing that comes across in your book is the sense that artists are commoditized by the industry – seen as products and not necessarily people. How did you and your band mates in Semisonic navigate the demands (and fear) placed on you by labels, radio stations, etc.? Looking back – do you see that you could push back more than maybe you did?
A: We made pop music and wanted to be pop stars, so in the largest sense, our ambitions were aligned with those of the record label. Certainly they wanted Semisonic to succeed, but they came to have doubts, and it’s hard to push back against doubt. With a couple of important exceptions they were totally surprised by the success of “Closing Time.” That and “Secret Smile” (a big hit overseas) briefly inspired the label’s confidence in us, but the confidence faded quickly. It wasn’t that they wanted us to do things differently. It was more like they stopped believing.
Q: Much of the book, to me, seems to dispel myths about the business of making music and the experience of being in a band. The lack of glamour, the pressures that have nothing to do with making music taking over the creative process, etc. Do you think that there are other ways in life that we can pull back the curtain and perhaps encounter others in a more realistic way?
A: One of the things I tried to do in the book was to reveal how the structure of the music business imposed all kinds of constraints on the people who worked in it—musicians wanting to be famous, and record company employees trying to keep their jobs. If there’s a villain in the book, it’s the business.
I think it’s important to look at the larger world the same way, to learn to see the limits that various systems impose on us. If we do that, we can get on with the work of replacing those systems with more humane alternatives.
Q: What things help you to be a better teacher? Are those things different when you’re teaching creative writing or drumming?
A: Whether teaching writing or drumming, I try to remember what my favorite teachers did for me. They were good listeners, gave honest encouragement, recognized their students’ desire to learn and improve, believed in their students’ intuitions, and left open the possibility that the students might have had insights that had not yet occurred to their teachers.
Q: You’re involved in a group called Music That Makes Community that brings people together to sing (without paper). What does that act of a group gathering to sing do for a person?
A: Singing with others is empowering, especially for people who feel embarrassed about their singing voice. Anyone who has sung along at a rock concert or a protest or a wedding knows this. Singing with others allows you to become part of something larger than yourself.
Q: So often we read, hear or see stories of the lone genius, without realizing that perhaps community has affected that person. What role do you see community playing in the creative process?
A: I totally believe that creativity is much more collaborative than we know. Most performers will tell you that live performance is a something like a dance with the audience. What may be less obvious is the fact that artists hold an imagined audience in their minds as they compose, edit, practice, and otherwise work things out. Creating a work of art invites the creator to imagine what an audience will think, and that audience includes non-artists.
I recently came across a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “One must be an inventor to read well.” I believe that. Among other things, it means that if you’ve been moved by art, you’ve encountered your own creativity, the same creativity that is in the air that all artists breathe. When fans listen to records and start imagining the record they want to hear next, I think those desires make their way into the minds of music makers. I know this sounds mystical, but I actually believe this. The lone genius theory feels deeply wrong to me. We all do this together.
Q: What’s your favorite song to sing a cappella?
A: I am so embarrassed by my singing voice, I never sing on my own. But I enjoy singing with others, especially anything with tasty harmonization, anything from a Palestrina motet to some pop gem.
For more of Jacob’s writing, visit his blog, Portable Philosophy.