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Q&A: MAURA KENNEDY

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Even though she had been posting the occasional solo song on her Web site, Maura Kennedy says she never really had plans to make a proper solo album.

After all, as one half of the folk-rock duo The Kennedys with her husband, Pete Kennedy, her recording and touring schedule was already pretty full.

Some unexpected time off the road, though, gave Maura Kennedy the opportunity to write and record a batch of new songs. After hearing from some fans who preferred to have a tangible product instead of music downloads, Kennedy went ahead and put together a 13-song solo CD, Parade of Echoes (Planned Effervescence Recordings), due Jan. 19.

Kennedy recently discussed how the album came together, her husband’s role in the project and the different locations she used to record the songs on Echoes.

Medleyville.us: At what point did you realize you wanted to make a solo album, and what was Pete’s initial reaction?
Maura Kennedy: “I had been writing the occasional solo song and demoing them, and posting them to my Web site, because I distinctly did not want to make a solo album. I thought I would eschew the old paradigm of recording 12 songs and releasing it on CD because I’d never been a solo act before, and didn’t really have any desire to do that. I figured this way I could just write and record without any kind of deadline, and with no ultimate goal in mind … just keep up a stream of new songs.

“Then we were on tour in the South when I got a phone call that my sister was very sick and needed an emergency procedure. Pete told me he’d do the tour as a soloist so I could be free to go home and help my sister and her family. I ended up living with them for three-to-four months, helping out with domestic stuff, while Pete stayed on the road and while my sister was getting treatment. … I’d never really done that sort of thing before.

“After a couple of months of writing, recording and posting songs online — I’d post them as soon as I had recorded them on some portable gear — I recognized that a pattern was emerging. I was basically finishing a song a month [and] I decided that I should keep up with this pattern and finish a song and post it by the first of each month. I still had no desire to make a CD, but I started getting complaints from many of my fans who don’t like to download music, and still only get their music on CD. Eventually, I acquiesced and put it all together as a finished CD.

“Pete has been nothing but completely supportive of this whole thing. He’s always encouraged me to be as free as I want to be with music or anything else. For example, I recently got into doing some film and TV work around New York City. Again, he’s extremely encouraging.”

Pete plays a lot of the instruments on Parade of Echoes. How was his participation on your solo debut different from that of a Kennedys album? Did he serve more as a sideman, or was he contributing ideas along the way?
Kennedy: “While Pete guests on a few songs, I really play most of the instruments. I almost didn’t have him on the CD at all because I thought: What would make a solo album different from a Kennedys album if Pete were on it? So I play most of the instruments, but still, I had to take advantage, here and there, of being married to such a great musician. So he plays a little piano and drums on a couple songs, and a guitar part here and there.

“I’m really proud of my arrangements, though, and I produced and engineered the whole thing — a task that Pete usually handles. And I played almost all of the bass, drums, percussion and guitars and handled all the vocals. Plus, I wrote everything myself except for one verse of one song, which is different from a Kennedys album in which all songs are co-writes between the two of us. And because I did most of it myself, it took me twice as long as if Pete had been producing it, but I was not in a hurry, as I didn’t initially have an ultimate goal of making a CD.

“As far as the process is concerned, I would write and record the basic version of these songs and then where I thought Pete could add to it, I would ask him to contribute specific parts, at times even singing the solo that I wanted him to play, as was the case in ‘Sun Burns Gold.’ I recorded myself singing that solo — a passage I had dreamed — and then Pete copied it on guitar, and when I mixed it, I kept a little of my vocal ‘guitar solo’ in the mix, so you can hear it if you listen for it. But again, for the most part, when I would record, Pete was literally on the road. When he was home, he’d leave the apartment while I was recording so I could do everything myself and then just ask him to contribute specific stuff. So the process was extremely different from a Kennedys album.”

Were any of the songs written for a possible Kennedys album, or was everything that’s on Parade of Echoes composed from a solo-artist perspective?
Kennedy: “No, all these songs were written for me. Pete and I always co-write Kennedys songs, so because I wrote all these songs myself, with the exception of ‘Shadows With the Lonely,’ in which Pete contributed a verse, they are a little more poppy than a lot of Kennedys songs. When we write together, I bring in the poppy side, while Pete contributes a rootsy, bluesy side, and so our sound in the duo is more of a pop/roots mix.

“As I was writing solo songs, they just sounded a bit more purely pop than The Kennedys, with a couple of rock songs, too – ‘Chains,’ ‘Just the Rain’ — and that’s another reason why I wanted to keep this music separate as a solo album.”

Talk about the four main studios – The Saint Mark and Betty’s Place in New York City; Chez Allman in Rye, N.Y.; and The Schoolhouse in Northampton, Mass. – that you used to record the album. What did each one offer in terms of acoustics, equipment and atmosphere?
Kennedy: “Hah! All of these ‘studios’ are apartments where we were living, or, in the case of Chez Allman, my sister’s house. The first two songs I wrote, ‘Sun Burns Gold’ and ‘Make It Last,’ were written and recorded while we still lived in Northampton, Mass. — that’s The Schoolhouse. We had a studio in that apartment. Then my sister got sick, and I recorded the next three or four songs at her place.

“After that, we moved back to New York City and sublet a place from our friend Betty while we waited to get into our permanent place — those are Betty’s Place and The Saint Mark, respectively. I didn’t have much room at Betty’s Place — it was a small apartment with all our stuff and all her stuff crammed in there. I would just set my recording gear up on her bed every day record all day and tear it down at night.

“I finished up the recording at our own apartment where we are now in the East Village. As far as acoustics go, and this might throw a few studio engineers into a panic, but I don’t worry about it too much. I mean, we used to record in these completely soundproof vaults, and experience tells me that you just don’t need to do that. The last four Kennedys records were recorded in our studio apartments around the East Village, too, and no one’s ever complained about the sound.

“I think the real trick is to get a good signal from your instrument, if you’re singing, have a good mike and be really warmed up and relaxed. If a fire truck goes by, you just wait it out. And then work on the mixes until you’re completely satisfied. If you’ve mixed and you feel that something’s still missing, you add to it.

“On the first song on the CD, ‘The Thing With Feathers,’ I did all the percussion on that. I put a board under my feet and did this little dance with my feet combined with slapping my thighs, and I just placed the mike just below my knees. When it was done, I felt it needed something more — maybe a shaker. I didn’t like the sound of the egg shaker that I had, so I went downstairs to St. Mark’s Market and bought a jar of those multicolored sprinkles that came in a plastic clown bottle … it’s the best shaker sound I’ve ever gotten. So you just play until it sounds right. It doesn’t really matter how expensive the gear is or how much soundproof foam is nailed to the walls — you just trust your ears, and you’ll know when it’s right.”

How extensively will you tour behind Parade of Echoes, and will Pete be involved in any way?
Kennedy: “If people want to hear me play solo, I’m there! The thought of holding the stage by myself has always frightened me. I never wanted to play solo. But once I started doing solo gigs, and it wasn’t that long ago, I really got into it.

“I always liked the rapport that a band has onstage, and the fact that if something goes wrong — i.e., I forget a lyric or break a string — there’s always someone else onstage to cover for me. But in the many years I’ve been performing, I find that I’m really comfortable onstage and don’t necessarily need the support of bandmates as much as I once did.

“In other words, I think I have much more confidence. Once I figured that out, it’s become really exciting to me, and now I can’t get enough of it!”

— Introduction and interview by Chris M. Junior

Maura Kennedy on tour (schedule subject to change):

* Jan. 16: Notes from Home Concert Series – Montclair, N.J.
* Jan. 19: The Living Room – New York
* Jan. 22: The Birchmere – Alexandria, Va.
* Jan. 29: Jammin’ Java – Vienna, Va.
* Jan. 30: Toast – Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y.
* Feb. 13: Steeple Coffeehouse – Southborough, Mass.
* Feb. 25: Baldwin’s Station – Sykesville, Md.
* Feb. 26: The Tin Angel — Philadelphia