INTERVIEW: Nelson Kempf

Hi Nelson, welcome to VENTS! How have you been?

Pretty well, all things considered.  

Can you talk to us more about your latest single “Hourglass”?

Hourglass is a song about trying to understand what it means to be a parent.  As a parent, one’s relationship with the world, with time, with other people, with themselves, it all changes.  On top of that, we are in a moment where our relationship with the world as a species is already changing rapidly, or at least we are starting to acknowledge that it has.  Parents are faced with this predicament of cultivating wonder for an amazing world and then popping that balloon a moment later when we have to tell them that we fucked it all up.  Every second with a child is bitter sweet as they are constantly growing and leaving behind a version of themselves.  Once you have that lens it is hard not to look out at the natural world like it’s your child.  To see extinction, deforestation, ocean acidification as parental failures of a sort.  It’s crushing.

Did any event in particular inspire you to write this song?

Moving back home to Alaska after having been away for a long time.  We had some stressful years, and then for whatever reason we found ourselves with a moment to breath.  In a family homestead by a bluff where the Kenai River opens into the ocean.  A brand new baby.  Beluga whales, seals and eagles all congregating.  It was a very peaceful time.  But then terrible wildfires broke out all summer long, we could barely go outside.     

Any plans to release any sort of video for the single?

Yes, I am working on visuals for this stuff.  I have been filming the whole winter “break up” as we call it up here, a little bit everyday and I think it’s very beautiful compelling.

The single comes off your new album Family Dollar – what’s the story behind the title?

I actually came up with the title many years ago when I was touring through the South for the first time.  It’s like a different country down there.  I was taken with it.  I fell in love.  Anyways, I saw the dollar store, Family Dollar and just thought to myself “that would be a great funk album”.  Years later, I finally moved to the South.  We were living in East Nashville.  There was a Family Dollar that just seemed to be the keystone of the little neighborhood ecosystem.  When I set out to write an album about living in that neighborhood and trying to raise a family under the steady, grind of capitalism the words Family Dollar just fit perfectly.  In fact they were the first thing to happen on this project.  I often write from titles.  

How was the recording and writing process?

Over the course of the years previously mentioned I wasnt able to record music in any productive way, but that didnt stop me from constantly writing.  Most of the lyrics and melodies are written in real time as they happen recorded into an iphone.  Years later when I did have the time to record and work on music.  I started with a marimba player and a harpist.  I gave them prompts and played improv games.  This idea was taken from contemporary dance where this sort of method is used a lot.  From there I began sampling the work using an ASR-10, which is what people like Kanye, Tribe Called Quest, Neptunes, etc all worked on early in their careers.  It’s a magical machine.  Then I laid those iphone vocals over the top and that was the key.  From there everything flowed beautifully. 

Would you call this a departure from your previous musical work?

Yes.  Very much.  But my previous musical work was many years ago so I don’t know how meaningful that is.  

What role does Tennessee play in your music?

Tennessee and the South in general are all important to this record.  It’s just such a unique place.  I miss it a lot.  The hot, humid haze.  The jungle-like flora and fauna.  Fireflies and snakes.  It is enchanting, but also has this disgusting, violent history which is still very much alive in the culture in my opinion.   

How has Sufjan Stevens and Perfume Genius influenced your writing?

They haven’t really to be honest.  I enjoy and admire both of them greatly, but I don’t see them as influential to my work.  Also, this record has been finished for quite some time and I didnt get in to Perfume Genius until after it was complete.  That said, Perfume Genius is absolutely one of my favorite artists working today.

What aspect of poverty did you get to explore on this record?

People who have money, privilege or power naturally see themselves as deserving it, and thus, look down on those who don’t.  There is this mythic version of poverty shown in movies where people just hustle enough and they can get out.  This whole perception is a major problem.  When you are poor and raising children, there are sooo many things that are stressful and require energy and attention, that many people never even have to think about.  It’s an exponential curve where those things just pile up on top of you until it is nearly impossible to move and meanwhile you have people saying things like “those people just need to get a job!” and for them it is really that simple.  But when you explode the process of ‘just getting a job’ it’s like, well first off maybe you don’t have a college degree or maybe you have a criminal record.  That automatically eliminates most jobs.  Then you have to make a resume, which takes time you don’t have, not to mention, what do you put on that resume?  Then you need to print it.  Maybe you don’t have a working car to get to the library.  You take the bus which takes time and a little money.  You make it to the library, but you have some kids book on your account lost from years ago and so you can’t print without paying forty bucks or so, which you do not have.  I’m rambling, but that’s what it can be like.  Simple tasks become very difficult and time consuming.  Time costs money too.  That is what many people do not understand.  That is what I want to communicate.  You can hear “X percent of people live below the poverty line” on the news or whatever, but what does it actually feel like to be those people?         

What made you want to go for a rather dark direction with this record?

I don’t see the record as ‘dark’ per se.  Early on, I decided that sort of categorical thinking was part of the problem I previously described.  An empathy problem that keeps us from seeing each other as human.  If we can contain another’s experience in a simple category we can write them off.  I really wanted to try and get away from my own perceptions and just simply describe experiences as pure information.  That’s also the process of empathy, we have to step back from our own experience so we can see something in a new light.

How did you go on balancing the dark aspect with the much uplifting message?

The world is incredibly complex and beautiful.  If we could get out of our own heads and look with new eyes, we would be constantly overwhelmed.  And we are every now and then.  Those moments of clarity when we stop thinking for a second and everything seems to look different.  That’s what art does for us.  Beckons us to stop normalizing, look at something anew and reinterpret the meaning.              

Where else did you find the inspiration for the songs and lyrics?

A major influence on this project was the poetry of Danez Smith.  Reading ‘Summer, somewhere’ really changed everything for me.

What else is happening next in Nelson Kempf’s world?

Right now I am working on an album about my family history in Alaska. 

STREAM: “Hourglass” –

SoundCloud / Spotify Bandcamp

RJ Frometa
Author: RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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