I met Sean Kiely a little over three years ago. A friend had worked on Kiely’s debut record, Arch Envy, back when Kiely was performing under the moniker Sean0Sean. Listening for the first time, Arch Envy immediately caught my attention with its infectious pop hooks. Kiely’s songs reminded me of fuzzed out early Elvis Costello. They were energized pop songs that didn’t attempt to do too much but remained wholly fulfilling.
Less than a year following the release of Arch Envy, Kiely shed the Sean0Sean moniker and began playing a more stripped down set alongside bassist Bobby McCullough. Kiely and McCullough played together regularly, setting the foundation for Kiely’s new album, Your Logo, My Logo. Released on July 24th, Your Logo, My Logo consciously unplugs and allows Kiely’s compositions to breathe. While the songs are very clearly still the product of Kiely, the mood has changed significantly. Gone is the often jittery, nervous energy of Arch Envy, replaced by a more calming self-reflection. It’s a transition that suits Kiely very well.
I recently had a chance to speak with Kiely about his new record and upcoming tour.
ML: Your new album Your Logo, My Logo is a more acoustic and minimal record than your debut Arch Envy. How would you say the sonic changes have effected your approach to songwriting?
SK: After Arch Envy, I had no idea how to proceed. I knew I was unhappy with something about my playing & writing, but I didn’t know how to get at it. So I started taking lessons again for the first time since I was a kid, with Michael Daves, an inspiring bluegrass singer & guitarist from Brooklyn (Georgia originally). It wound up being profoundly meaningful, personally & musically, but the process was painful. It made me look in the mirror at all my musical habits & shortcomings…daily. It made me stare straight at all the ways I had been trying to cover over instead of uncover: in my writing, guitar playing, and in the production and mixing of the recordings.
The songwriting for this album came out of that experience – I was learning bluegrass, and old-time & folk music, and those songs are so direct and communicative emotionally – they’re written for people to sing with, and to, each other, in person. Those songs continue to exist by people singing them in a community setting, in living rooms, backyards, & bars. I haven’t gotten there as a writer, nor do I have any business believing I’ll ever do so, but it’s something to aspire to. I write pop music, not folk songs exactly, but I’m looking for human connection in all these songs.
To answer your question more directly, the songwriting came first, and then the arrangements with Bobby McCullough. The major components of the recording are Bobby playing a physically huge wooden bass, and me playing a loud acoustic guitar & singing, in a room. Each decision we made with (Producer) Rich DeCicco, (Engineer) Jon Graber, & (Mix Engineer) John Agnello was based on preserving that sense of place and of communion, and on trying to bring whoever is listening to the record into that room with us.
ML: Are there any particular artists that you came across in your lessons that left a particularly profound impact on your own music?
SK: I want to be careful not to talk out of turn here. If you’re asking specifically about the lessons, Michael taught me deep stuff from Bill Monroe, Doc Watson, The Stanley Brothers, Clarence White, Kenny Baker, and many, many more. I feel like I’m still only at the start though, I’m quite new to it all.
ML: You have a tendency to represent people with names of places rather than using actual names, such as Detroit and Paterson on “My Logo.” How did this develop? And are the cities directly representative of the people or used more metaphorically?
SK: I don’t know when this device of representing people with names of places crept into my writing, but I’m sure a lot of writers have done it elsewhere. It seems natural to me that one should be able to sing directly to a place, as if it’s a person, or as a representation of the people who may live there.
If you’re looking at the news and watching, in real time, as a capitalist event (the 2007 financial crisis) unequivocally leaves a city, a region behind… The reality of that event, at ground level, is that millions of individual people are left to fend for themselves in a destroyed local economy, with failed schools and institutions, while politicians are arguing with straight faces about cutting off unemployment benefits and health care.
So, to whom do you address the song? The kids? The workers? It’s too much. It totally short-circuits your head. Because it’s so broad, it’s easy to lose connection with the empathetic nerve for the individual humans out there, who are very much not making it here in America. Calling directly to the place by name is maybe a way to make the big thing a little bit smaller, and the small thing a little bit bigger. I should be clear that this was not an overly deliberate decision at the moment of writing the song; I remember it feeling natural at the time. This is all me trying to decipher it after the fact.
ML: In the information age, everyone seems to act like an expert no matter how little knowledge they have on a subject. “How You Lie” takes some digs at this mentality. How do you personally deal with a self-proclaimed expert when they attempt to lecture you?
SK: Sometimes the act of writing can be an attempt to exorcise something you see in yourself. If there are any digs in the song, I’m definitely in the target list. Don’t we all do this, to varying degrees? It’s all a front anyway, the idea that you can control even a particle of the universe. That’s the big lie.
I’m interested in systems – we all exist within many of them – family, culture, economy, etc. Just about my least favorite fallacy in politics is when someone with privilege, whether it’s the privilege of her or his race, gender, class, or financial means, doesn’t acknowledge that their success in the world did not occur in a vacuum. You see it on TV, you hear it in person, and it’s very difficult to interact with, because the terms of the debate are not fixed. The baseline for an honest reckoning of where we’re falling short in society cannot be someone else’s romanticized view of her or his personal struggle in the world. But those voices are always the loudest ones in the room!
ML: Are there any songs on the record that you feel specifically take on a new life when performed live?
SK: “Me & My Bros” has a lot of space in it, a lot of room for us to be dynamic. “Your Logo, My Logo” is the same sort of thing, whether it’s as a duo or as a band. There’s not a ton of melodic improvising built into these arrangements, although there is some. Also, we’ve played this music in a bunch of different instrumental configurations live, so the tunes can take on a new life just by having a synth, or a fiddler, or horns.
Will Oldham is one of my favorite writers and performers. I love how he approaches each performance as its own house with its own architecture. Sometimes it’s a little ranch, sometimes it’s a big house, sometimes it’s a shack, or the back of a taxicab. He’ll use old and new songs, and put them in the current house, and that’s what you’ll encounter in that moment in time of that performance. Back in April, I got to see him play the same two songs with Matt Sweeney & Watter in five different non-venue locations around New York. It was a real singular thing, to see the same “performance” over and over. When the two songs & four musicians stay constant, you notice how much of a collaborator the space of the performance is, the time of day, the audience, the neighborhood. Seeing those shows made me want to be more mindful when I play live.
ML: You’re touring at the end of August. Is this the first time you’ve hit the road as a performer?
SK: I’ve never been out on the road before, but both of the musicians I’m going out with, Bobby McCullough & Jason Bemis Lawrence, have toured a lot. Since I started playing in bands, it was always something I thought I’d do down the line, but the time never really comes unless you start pressing for it. My friend Ryan Anselmi does all the booking for his band The Gold Magnolias, and at a certain point he kind of sat me down, told me it was time to get out there, and he helped me get some dates on the calendar. Maybe it takes a friend to shake you by the shoulders and get you out of your comfort zone.
ML: Are there any sites you look forward to seeing along the way?
SK: I’ve been to DC and Athens before, but the rest of the stops are first time visits. I’m looking forward to driving through the Appalachian mountains. We also have a recording date in Nashville in the middle, and we’re playing live on WDVX’s Blue Plate Special in Knoxville right after that. Those two days should be pretty special. I don’t go in too much for nostalgia, but the history of a huge stream of the early American recording industry happened there. It feels good to be doing the things down there that the musicians you admire did.
ML: As the New York music scene continues to change and Brooklyn seems to be losing many of its smaller venues, have you seen changes in Jersey City?
SK: Playing shows in Jersey City has always been tricky. I’ve been here 8 years, and venues have opened and closed, sometimes the same one has done both in the same month. Apparently the city has some bizarre permit & license systems that are pretty opaque, so maybe owners have been reluctant to invest in a room, sound system, bookers, etc. Things feel like they may be changing, WFMU opened Monty Hall just a little over a year ago, and after starting with only a show per month in the beginning, they have a lot of shows lined up for the fall. I think “Todd-O-Phonic” Todd (formerly of Maxwell’s) is booking them.
Aug 27 • Vinyl Lounge, Gypsy Sally’s • Washington, DC
Aug 28 • The Kraken • Chapel Hill, NC
Aug 29 • French Broad Brewing Co. • Asheville, NC
Sep 01 • WDVX Blue Plate Special • Knoxville, TN
Sep 01 • Granfalloon • Chattanooga, TN
Sep 02 • Hendershot’s • Athens, GA
Sep 25 • Rockwood Music Hall Stage 1 • New York, NY