A longtime champion of guitar-driven rock & roll, Kurt Deemer responds to the modern moment with World Upside Down. Recorded during the Covid-19 era, it’s an album about resolve, resilience, and relationships, laced with power-pop hooks and the anthemic songwriting of a frontman who’s been sharpening his craft for more than two decades.
“Just keep looking up,” he sings during the album’s opening line, introducing a sense of battle-tested optimism that weaves throughout World Upside Down‘s eight tracks. Apart from a cover of Lloyd Cole and the Commotions’ “From the Hip,” he wrote the songs alone, taking inspiration from the seismic changes that have shaken American society since Donald Trump’s inauguration.
“When I wrote the title track, I was thinking about the moment I sat in front of the TV, watching Trump being announced as the winner of the 2016 election,” he remembers. “I thought about the school shooting at Stoneman Douglas, and the way those students got out into the street to protest. Given everything that’s been happening lately — the political environment, the pandemic — I knew the album needed to be called World Upside Down.”
Rather than write exclusively about the forces that drive us apart, Deemer also wrote about the experiences that bind us together, turning tracks like “Real Deal” and the heartland rock anthem “Rain” into amplified love songs. Inspired by his own ongoing recovery from addiction, he turned “From the Hip” into a rallying cry for those fighting their own daily battles. The result is an album that nods to those who came before him — including fellow melody-driven rockers like Tom Petty, Neil Young, and the Replacements — while exploring new territory, turning Deemer’s classic influences into something singular.
Hi Kurt, welcome to VENTS! How have you been?
Strangely, I’ve actually been doing great these past few months. It takes more than a global pandemic to get me down these days and I’m feeling positive that things are on the rebound. I guess ask me again after the cicadas come out.
Can you tell us more about your latest single “Kalamazoo”…
Kalamazoo is one that came relatively quickly as far as writing it. I had a clear concept of the arrangement but the guys in the band got where I was going and it came together. I also had my friend, Andrew Grimm of June Star, add some slide guitar on it and he added a real nice vibe to the tune.
Did any event in particular inspire you to write this song?
I was thinking about my kids and the challenges you face as a parent, as well as the joy. And I was reflecting on my parents’ lives and how you gain a new respect for them as you experience some of what they did. I wanted to express how someone may have little to show for themselves materially or tangibly and yet have immeasurable wealth from giving and not expecting in return. I’m not entirely there yet myself, but I often think of my mom when I sing the song. I guess you could say I kind of wrote it for her.
The single comes off your new album World Upside Down – what’s the story behind the title?
The title track was inspired by the kids from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and the conviction and bravery they showed in standing up for themselves and their beliefs. I thought back to that moment and the moment Trump won in 2016 and the political turmoil of the past few years and all the strife and discord and I wanted to convey a sense of hope for the upcoming generation, in spite of all that they face.
How was the recording and writing process?
A fair amount of this was put together just before the pandemic and then everything just shut down and the project was put completely on hold. Then, as things relaxed a bit, I was able to do some sessions with distancing to finish tracking and mixing and I was able to get it finished, but there was a fair amount of time lost where I just had to wait and take things slow so everyone was comfortable and safe. Some portions were done remotely, but most had some degree of in-person interaction. That was important for me. I wanted the record to have some good live-in-person feeling. That required some togetherness.
How has the current pandemic situation influenced the writing on this album?
The current album I’m working on now was all written during the pandemic. Much of this album was written prior to and recorded during.
What role does Baltimore play in your music?
Baltimore is my home town and so it’s part of my DNA. It’s a hard town for lots of things including music. But it’s a place that fosters grit. I think Baltimore has charm and lots of good qualities once you get past some of the quirks and rough edges. I’d like to think that our music is a bit like that too
How have Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen influenced your writing?
These two are ones that I didn’t realize just how much they influenced me until people kept citing them when discussing my songs. I do remember a long time ago thinking about the way I wrote in brief, concise verses and it occurred to me that as much as I would like to write at length and fill the page with flowing verse, that words just don’t come to me that way; they come to me in quick, short, rhythmic bursts. I remember thinking at the time that Tom Petty is able to convey a great deal of story and imagery in a pretty abbreviated way and that maybe I was similar in that way and should just go with it and let it be what it was. So I didn’t consciously try to write like him as much as I remember thinking to just relax and let the songs come out the way they want and let them be short and immediate if that’s how they come: That it’s a rock n’ roll way to think about it and that Tom Petty may well approve of that.
Springsteen is such a major icon just like Petty, that it’s hard to imagine not being influenced by him too. I had a song many years ago that I wrote and when I listened back to the recording many years later I was like, “Damn I straight up ripped off ‘Tunnel of Love’ and didn’t even know it.” His lyrics are much more long-winded than mine but I think musically there are a lot of things that he does where I can see that I’ve made similar choices. A friend once pointed out to me that my music has ‘a certain earnestness akin to Springsteen.’ It’s not something that I thought about until he pointed that out. I’m not sure where that comes from or how it got there but I think people hear that and they think… Springsteen. I’m okay with that.
Where did you find the inspiration for the songs and lyrics?
I just write what comes up. But a lot of what was on my mind when I wrote some of the tunes on this record was the divisions people have been feeling. What I wanted to do was dig down and find the reality beyond these warring postures. I wanted to speak from a place where we are all the same.
What else is happening next in Kurt Deemer’s world?
I’m currently working on the next record. There will be some different voices and lots of acoustic guitar. I’m having a good time making it and hope to wrap it up in short order.