“Everything’s good, no complaints,” Myles Kennedy tells me as we start our fourth interview together since 2011. “Just enjoying the new lifestyle for a guy used to being on the road (laughs). But I’m not complaining.” As with everyone else in the world, Kennedy had to readjust his life due to a worldwide pandemic that consumed most of 2020 and so far some of 2021. For a man who barely took time off between singing with Alter Bridge and Slash’s solo band, the break has enabled him to focus on music uninterrupted by touring obligations. And what do we get from that? A new solo album that pinpricks the idiosyncrasies of life.
The man who calls Washington State his home tapped into such a naked emotional nerve on his 2018 solo album, Year Of The Tiger; almost painfully purging his soul through melodies and vocalizations. Although The Ides Of March may seem like a departure from that upon first listen, Kennedy says that wasn’t necessarily the case. The songwriter in Kennedy doesn’t know how to be casual. He is continually churning the primitive waters of the human life to experience love, hate, happiness, sadness, stress and joy from different viewpoints. It is his jewel and why fans can relate so well to his songs.
“It’s always been from a more emotional context,” Kennedy explained about being a songwriter during our 2016 interview. “I guess that’s what I do. As time has gone on and I’ve tried to evolve as a writer, I’ve had to look outside myself and tell stories. But I still feel what I do best is probably more emotional based and, I don’t want to say it’s as if they’re a journal entry, but certainly things that have happened in my life that I can relate to and convey through the music. So that’s probably where I feel most comfortable.”
The Ides Of March, having officially come out on Friday, May 14th, is yet another chance to enter his musical prism. From the multi-layered title track to the warmly soothing new single, “Love Rain Down,” to the “wake up people!” rocker “Get Along,” it takes the listener on a path only Kennedy can pave. And part of that journey comes via his artistry on the guitar. An explorer of the strings, Kennedy gets immense pleasure in conveying his songs through his own playing. But it all actually started with a trumpet. “I was definitely a band geek. I played trumpet through high school and then I was like the drum major,” he said with a laugh during our 2011 interview. The trumpet, he believes, “helped me out with the transition to the guitar about five years later; made it a lot easier to pick up.”
And Eddie Van Halen was the cause of that. Being completely slammed by “Eruption,” Kennedy “tried that when I was first learning to play guitar,” he said in 2018. “I had only been playing a few months and I was determined to learn that song, which was kind of silly of me really, because that’s a very technically challenging piece of music (laughs). I remember sitting and wasting a whole summer trying to learn that song.”
As Kennedy announces a few summer concert dates to his calendar, his lazy days at home may be coming to an end. And for a songwriter, the road may be his ultimate destination. “I was in a band here in Spokane called Citizen Swing and I don’t even remember the name or which song it was. I just remember that it was a pretty cool feeling because I was really nervous,” Kennedy said in 2016. “We played at this little club called Mother’s Pub here in town and there was maybe, I don’t know, fifty people there and I was scared to death (laughs), cause you’re just laying it out there. It was my first time singing and playing guitar as a songwriter and it ended up being a really great experience and I think that is what kind of fueled the fire from that point forward, was that moment of really getting to unveil who you are creatively to a bunch of strangers. I haven’t looked back since.”
Myles, have you ever had so much rest in your life?
(laughs) That’s a good question because though I’ve been home, I wouldn’t say there has been as much rest. When you’re a songwriter, it’s like being a doctor or a surgeon. You’re kind of always on call waiting for the next idea. So there is always something to do. Fortunately, I’ve been pretty productive over the last year but it is nice being in one place. That is one thing I’ll say is that I do enjoy waking up in my own bed every day.
Your new album doesn’t seem to have been as taxing on your emotions as Year Of The Tiger. Was that intentional?
You know, I remember telling some friends this last summer as I was kind of wrapping up the writing process: though it doesn’t sound like it wasn’t as taxing, it was every bit as taxing in a different way emotionally. And I think some of that is masked by kind of the sonic assault of the record. Some of those emotions aren’t conveyed in the same way because there is more going on from an arrangement standpoint. And there are more major key choruses.
But there were songs where I really kind of went down the rabbit hole and obviously with the state of things, especially as the record was being written in the beginning, there was so much uncertainty and I think this record is a reflection of that. I don’t want to say I allowed myself to tap into those emotions, I just think so many of us were feeling that way. So in that respect, it was taxing. And I’ve heard a few people mention that, that the record doesn’t sound as personal. But though it’s not an autobiographical record in the sense that I’m not telling a story about what happened with my family, I am reflecting what was going on in that, and I keep using that word uncertainty, which as a human is a difficult thing to process.
Would you say that you’re looking more from a world view?
Yeah, absolutely. It’s a prism, as so many creations are. As an artist, you’re reflecting what you’re exposed to and what you’re seeing.
Are any of these songs from that first discarded solo album you had started and then stopped?
As a matter of fact, there is one in particular, and there is also another song that was written during that time period that I didn’t actually record. “Love Rain Down” was recorded initially for the first solo record and it was never released. And then there is a song called “Wanderlust Begins.” Both were written in 2009, but “Love Rain Down,” what we did is we revisited it and it was a last-minute decision. I was in the studio, I’d sent the demos to everyone and we were getting ready to press the red button and start recording. Then we were like, well, let’s just see if there are any other songs that are kind of hanging out in a file. And I brought up “Love Rain Down.” It was always one of my favorites but it just had never seen the light of day and I really liked the demo on that song. There was something real unique about that demo. So we basically took the demo and kind of built around it, kind of like we did with “Love Can Only Heal.” Seems like in my solo realm if the word love is in the title, we’ll go ahead and use the demo and build around it, right (laughs). So that song is an oldie, eleven years old at this point.
Were there any major changes you did to the song?
Not really. I think the only change was instead of my crappy drum programming, Zia [Uddin] was able to put a cool drum part on it. But some of those textures and sounds were from the demo. Elvis [Baskette, producer] just went, “Man, whatever you were doing in your little studio, that works for this kind of ambient vibe that it created.” So yeah, that’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, is when you’re in that initial genesis of a song when you’re creating, and that’s why I try to have a decent sounding studio, because you’ll never know when a part will make it in the final record cause you just can’t mimic what was happening at that moment. It was like the stars aligning. I mean, there have been whole vocal takes that have come from demos. On the Mayfield Four, way back when, there was a song called “Summergirl” which we just used from my little demos that I’d made with the band in my basement, because we weren’t going to be able to match it. So you just never know.
What is something you did NOT want to infiltrate into these songs?
I think politics. That is something I didn’t want to be conveyed. I think we live in such a polarized world and so much of this record was born in the beginning, before things had more of a political angle. Then suddenly, some of the subject matter got a little more complicated and I think that the record was pretty much written but I was like, oh man, I don’t really want to go down that road. I was just looking at this as a reflection; I’m not trying to push some angle here and I’m just trying to be honest with emotions. But that’s something I don’t want to come into the fold for sure.
The title track, “The Ides Of March,” has these wonderful different sections and layers. What section of that song came to you first?
The verse. (singing) “Beyond the blue horizon,” that came in a dream. That was in January when that part happened, last January before Alter Bridge was about to head out on tour, and I woke up, grabbed the guitar and recorded it onto my phone real quick. I thought it was something kind of special and I built from there. It took a good six months to finish that song. That was definitely the hardest track to complete.
“Get Along,” especially in the video, emphasizes your love of nature and the preservation of it. Why do you think it’s so hard for people to realize what we’re doing to the Earth?
That’s a good question. I think it has to do with the prism through which you view the world. What is the information that you’re taking in? I think that can have an incredible effect on how people see things. And once again, and I don’t want to go down the political road, but different sides sometimes have agendas and need to skew things a certain way. But for me, I’m going to lean towards where the majority – granted this is a controversial subject – but the majority of science leans. That’s all I can do as a layman. I didn’t study certain things for many, many years in school like some people, like the experts, let’s put it that way. But also, I think that it just seems, given the way things are going, it’s starting to become more and more obvious. To answer your question, I don’t know. It’s a good question. It was something I was kind of raised with. You know, my step-father was very aware of all this stuff early on so we were always trying to make efforts to conserve certain things and be very cognizant of how we were affecting the environment. So that was just kind of instilled in me at a very early age.
There is a line, “We’re only getting weaker cause we’re too headstrong.” What did it conjure up and mean to you?
You know, that song is interesting to me because though it was inspired initially by the riots in LA in 1992, which I still remember it like it was yesterday, that was the genesis of that narrative, it also has a very broad meaning to me. I feel like it’s something that can translate even now and it’s the idea that so many of us are not willing to compromise and try and understand the other person’s side; everybody just kind of digs in their heels and refuses to try and find some common ground. Overall, that song to me is really not so much compromising as it is just trying to have some tolerance and I think unity. That’s such an important thing and I feel like we’re starting to lose sight of that. Well, not starting to, we’ve been doing that ever since we were humans, but you get where I’m going.
You again play all the guitars. Why is that important for you and not just hand it off to another musician?
I started as a guitar player so for me it’s having the opportunity to express myself. I have a fair amount of friends who grew up with me, who knew me when I was strictly a guitar player, and some of them would get frustrated. One guy said, “You’re just kind of wasting your talent. Just do what you do.” I guess that’s a good point, you know. Because I started as a teacher, a session player, that was what I did so my love and passion for it is still there. I just really enjoy the art of playing guitar and arranging and improvising. It’s a real treat to do that on these solo records.
I know that you are proud of everything on this record but is there a certain solo that you accomplished on this record that made you especially happy?
I’m real happy with both “Ides Of March” solos, the first one and the second one. Those were basically the demo solos that I just improvised and they felt good and then I just had to recreate them on the actual record. I was like, I’m not going to beat that so I’m just going to learn what I did. There is just something about both of those solos that I feel very proud of.
You have told me in the past that Eddie Van Halen had inspired you to play guitar.
Yeah, he was just such a groundbreaking, revolutionary artist and I think any artist would hope to have that as part of their legacy. But I think I’m just, at this point, grateful for getting to play music and be able to do this day in and day out so I’m going to take what I can get (laughs). But yeah, he’s one of those guys like Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page who will be remembered. They were the guys that drew up the blueprint for the rest of us and that’s something that can’t be emphasized enough.
What was the first song you remember hearing where the lyrics really stood out for you?
Oh man, that’s a good question. It’s funny cause as a kid I was always focused on the melody and the guitar riffs so a song where the lyrics stood out, that’s maybe one of the hardest questions (laughs). I’m running through the song rolodex in my brain. You know, I think probably “Eleanor Rigby” by The Beatles. I think that that was something that made a big impression. Or I know, you know what, it would have been “Rocket Man” by Elton John. Those Bernie Taupin lyrics, they really jumped out and painted such a vivid picture, and as a kid your imagination runs wild when you hear something like that, talking about someone going into outer space. So yeah, that was a big one for me as a kid.
When writing a song, how conscious are you of how far you’re going to go, how deep into your emotions?
Well, that is the thing I try to turn off. I try to turn off any sort of limitations. You basically go into it, at least at this point, with the goal of turning off anything conscious and going straight to your subconscious and letting it flow; just tap into something. Even up to a few years ago, the lyric writing process for me was sometimes a little too forced. And what I’m learning as time goes on is just put pen to paper and see what happens; see what phrase jumps out and build from there. Or when I’m coming up with the melody, you kind of take these nonsense phrases and lyrics, and then you make sense of it and you build around that. It’s a really interesting journey every time I pick up a guitar because you just never know what’s going to happen, never know what the universe is going to give you if your antennae is up high enough.
Is there a song in your songwriting catalog for you that has changed the most from what it was originally written about?
Oh boy, you are just coming up with the killer questions today. You’re stumping me (laughs). It’s good though, it’s great. I’ll admit I slept very little last night and I’m kind of in a fog so this is waking me up real good (laughs). But you know, I think, it’s not even a song that has necessarily changed the most for me but just something I was recently discovering and going through. I had to go through the lyrics on this record and kind of analyze some things and rewrite some things down. And I went over “In Stride” again and I realized I’d been talking a lot about “In Stride” being about the idea of keep calm and carry on. But when I looked at it in fresh perspective, it came to me that this song is really speaking to me about turning down the anxiety volume. I think that is such a common thing for me as a writer, and as a human being, just trying to tame that aspect of my personality. Sometimes I’m a little bit, I don’t want to say I’m high strung, but I definitely should always allow myself to pull the reins on the anxiety, cause it’s something that can be really unnecessary. There was a line in the Year Of The Tiger record on “Haunted By Design,” which I actually got from Mark Tremonti’s father. He said this once and it really stuck with me, which is, “Those who worry suffer twice.” And I thought that was such an important thing to remember. It is so true and it doesn’t do you any good.
Do you know where your family roots hail from?
I know that my mother’s family was from Virginia, I believe Fredericksburg. It’s where a lot of her family comes from. And my father came from Indiana. As far as going any deeper than that, I know I have a fair amount of, I think on my mom’s side of the family, if I remember correctly, France is a big part of it. I think given that my last name was originally Bass, I’m going to say England might be another one (laughs).
When are we going to get that new album from you and Slash and the guys?
Hopefully next year. That would be wonderful. We’ve got a batch of tunes and I’m real excited about them and I think the guys are real excited about them. It’s just a matter of getting the world to open up so rock bands can tour. I think the interesting thing about records now is you basically make an album so you can promote a tour. So if there is no tour there’s no sense in releasing a record just yet. But we’ve been going back and forth and I think the writing process started, technically, all that started when we were on tour last time, cause there was so much jamming that would take place during soundchecks and whatnot. But with technology now, you can exchange files and it’s always an ongoing thing that you can revisit every few months. It’s going to be cool though. I’m stoked.
Portrait courtesy of Napalm Records; live photos by Leslie Michele Derrough