Kenny Roby was plugging away in an insurance office and going to night school when he wrote "Colorado," the eight-minute, hit-man-for-hire character study that radiates menace from the center of his first record in seven years, Memories & Birds.
When he was finished with the song, Roby, who celebrates his new album at Snug Harbor on April 5, had a strange epiphany for a musician who'd been writing and singing enduring songs for years. But if Roby's twangy rock had previously earned comparisons to Steve Earle and Elvis Costello, the carefully crafted gothic folk and country noir of Memories & Birds resonates beyond that realm and toward the rarefied air of songwriting masters like Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen and Randy Newman.
"I was like, 'fucking holy shit,' I'm a songwriter!'" Roby says, an exultant smile creasing his expressive features before a February gig in Asheville. "I played it acoustic in front of like 50 people who would not shut the fuck up, and it was crickets — you could hear cars going by the place. And it was like, 'Where the fuck did that come from?'"
The answer runs counter to what you might expect. The 41-year-old Roby didn't explore his inner demons by getting hammered for his art (he'd been through that phase), and probably wasn't moonlighting as a contract killer. Even before 2006's The Mercy Filter, Roby had cleaned up his act. But after that record, he realized he'd misplaced the fire he'd relied on to front punk act The Lubricators in the early '90s; tally one of alt-country's more memorable discs — 1997's classic High Hat — with 6 String Drag; and produce three fine solo records.
"It just got to the point where I couldn't afford it — mentally — anymore," Roby says, also citing his family commitments. "I just got away from that side of things — nightclubs, hanging out and staying up, that part of the music scene. And when I did, I realized I just didn't enjoy being around it that much anymore."
So, instead of promoting and touring behind The Mercy Filter, Roby stepped away from the whole record-release rigmarole and let the LP live or die on its own. He got a real-world job, starting at the bottom in an insurance company mailroom. "It's the sober version of Bukowski," Roby says with a wry chuckle. "'Twisted aging man goes to join the freaky people in the mail room.'"
He moved up to a tech job after that, and began night school to get his massage therapy license, which has paid the bills since 2011. Roby speculates that all that work got his songwriting juices percolating again, only this time in a new and more visceral way. With "Colorado" spurring the change, Roby rooted around in the damaged psyches of fictional characters who eventually tied Memories & Birds together.
"Because I'm more disciplined, I don't have to be a wreck — they can be wrecks, and I can write about the wrecks," he says, his relief practically palpable. "It's laid out conceptually, or like a song-cycle, but it wasn't like, 'oh, now I have to write one of these songs.' It was a little bit after the fact. But the characters have a current, just like in a book. Though I've never written a novel or short stories, I imagine the characters often walk into the story — and I think that's what they did here."
"Colorado" reads like a twisted short story Denis Johnson might've penned for Jesus' Son, though Roby says he found inspiration in Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy. But he cautions that his hit man isn't Anton Chigurh, the heartless psychopath Javier Bardem portrayed in the Coen Brothers' No Country for Old Men. "Every devil ain't born full-grown/and we ain't met all of 'em yet," Roby warns over a crawling tempo accented with Native American flute, unsettling clarinet blurts and strings that resemble Randy Newman more than Nashville countrypolitan.
"It needed to be cinematic, it needed to paint a picture, and it needed to have the right tension at the right times," Roby says of the song's haunting arrangements.
And so rather than a limited, 'born evil' character arc, Memories & Birds instead winds up loosely chronicling the devolution of someone like the "Colorado" killer through various eras. That trajectory plays out through the young boy growing up in a mountain town populated with outcasts — a "fucked-up Our Town," Roby calls it — in the delicate guitar patterns and strings of "The Craziest Kid Around."
Roby expands that idea through the Leonard Cohen-worthy orchestrated title track, where an adolescent boy has his romanticism extinguished, and also in the ironic Sound of Young America-pop of "Tired of Being in Love," where a shell-shocked Korean War vet's psychological absence tears apart his family.
"The '50s thing in Korea — you didn't talk about it," Roby says. "He'd just be a shell. And the woman would be at the counter, listening to pop music, holding the baby, making dinner and wondering, 'Why am I falling apart? Where's mommy's little helper?' It wasn't spoken about — this woman is a wreck, but the irony is the gloss of the bubble gum."
Roby closes the LP with a pair of sparse numbers that confirm his songwriting growth. In "Me & the Monkey," which is sonically unlike anything else in Roby's catalog, the narrator gives voice to the shit-flinging simian-Id many of us do regular battle with. The monkey finds traction in boredom, depicted in the song by the tick-tock metronome-beat, plucked bass notes, prepared piano and judiciously placed guitar fuzz and feedback whorls. In closer "Our Fading Fighter," resignation about our temporal lot and memory's fade-to-black infuses a piano, guitar and strings ballad that reads like a secular evensong.
Roby credits the musicians — among them locals Shawn Lynch (bass), David Kim (drums) and brothers Matt and Justin Faircloth (guitar and keys, respectively) — and especially the record's co-producer, Jason Merritt, for being open to the studio experimentation which led to his new, more mature sound. That was made easier because Merritt didn't even know Roby when the two began working together after Scott McCall (Two Dollar Pistols, Tift Merritt), Roby's first co-conspirator, pulled out when his wife had twins.
"The fact that I only knew Kenny from his music, from the outside, that gave us a real chance to not have any previous built-in relationship or any preconceptions about anything," Merritt says.
For Roby, Memories & Birds was, in the end, all about putting aside the rock world's bullshit distractions to concentrate on craft and say something new but familiar.
"I tried to make a classic record without being retro," he says. "That's the vibe I wanted."