INTERVIEW: KIMBERLY HAWKEY/MORRIS & RIVERS

Multi-genre vocalist, instrumentalist and bandleader, Kimberly Hawkey, has released the highly anticipated full-length album, “We the Nighthawks.” The 13-track album pulls from art, song, jazz, musical theatre and American songbook to invite listeners on a sonic journey that captures human stories of life, love and loss. The first single, a beautifully crafted tune, “Slow Cool Water,” is making headway. The project was conceived and driven creatively by songwriters Lecco Morris and Justin K. Rivers and was recorded over several days at Dreamland Studios in upstate New York, featuring performances by a full orchestra of 20 musicians. 

KIMBERLY HAWKEY:

What inspired you to collaborate with Morris & Rivers on “We the Nighthawks”?

KH: Lecco Morris reached out to me early 2020. We knew each other as children and kept in touch over the years. As an artist, I’ve been a time traveler for a long time, singing traditional jazz and covers, and exploring songs of the past and immersing myself in their collective weight. So when he contacted me, I was intrigued. The songs had a sense of that journey in them, yet they were also new, and I connected with the idea of working on new music. I was also in the space to focus on that kind of project and dedicate my energy to developing those songs. The storytelling of the lyrics drew me in, and the way Lecco’s melodies effortlessly wove the lyrics together led me farther into their spaces. The first few songs he sent me were vocally challenging. I enjoy giving myself time and space to explore challenging material as a way to grow my skills, so that appealed to me as well.

What is your background musically, when did you start studying voice?

KH: I have been singing since I was a child. I began piano lessons at age 4 and always found my way to the stage – whether putting on backyard shows or performing in high school productions. I felt most at home in the theatre, although I never felt like a “theatre kid”. I was a bit shy and took performing very seriously without making it a social event. During my senior year of high school, I began to study voice.  My teacher was Carol Randles from Schenectady. She helped me prepare for the role of Maria in West Side Story, and also gave me recommendations for conservatory. I started a bit late to do well in the conservatory auditions, and chose to attend Fordham at Lincoln Center, where I pursued Psychology and General Music. My true vocal training began after college and after I had established myself as a non-profit arts employee. That’s when I connected with jazz musicians and began performing on the side. I started taking lessons again and rediscovered my love for performing. After I won the Johnny Mercer Award at the American Traditions Competition, I found myself as a bandleader and a touring performer. The journey continues.

Are you playing a specific character on these songs, or does that vary from track to track?

KH: I would say it varies from track to track. Imagine a prism with multiple facets – the light reflects differently on each track. It’s one voice, but each song is a new angle and a new way to refract the light.  On some tracks, I imagine that they are the same character but at different times in her life. We draw on archetypes – the “wild woman” that comes through as a young voice on One of These Days, evolves into the mature persona of I’ve Always Been Sincere.

In the end, I feel like myself in each song. But I allow myself to imagine other perspectives and embody other experiences. I’m more at home in channeling others’ emotions than in expressing my own, as compared to most singer-songwriters.

What is next for you and “We the Nighthawks”?

KH: I am excited to get a production up on its feet and in front of a live audience. We performed a socially distanced showcase in September 2020 for about 15 people, but all of our audience interaction has been virtual since then. As the arts reawaken from their slumber, we’ve started to book live performances for August 2021 and beyond.  The next task is to bring a theatrical component into a concert setting – perhaps through lighting design and staging. A little bit of theatre magic will heighten the level of storytelling and invite the audience to enter the songs even further. I look forward to seeing you all in person!

MORRIS & RIVERS

How did your writing duo come together?  What prompted you to join forces?

M&R: We’ve known each other for a long time.  Lecco worked as a professional musician and traveled Europe while he put his life as a composer on the backburner.  Justin settled into a theatre admin gig, writing albums of material but resigned to being an outsider artist because his lyrics didn’t have the melodies to contain them.  Lecco was making a living on the streets of New Orleans as a busking poet when Justin sent him a set of lyrics for a song, one he’d started twenty years earlier but could never get the tune right. When Lecco sat down at the piano, something clicked and the track Bill Evans was immediately born. We’ve been writing songs together ever since.

What is the inspiration for this album?

M&R: We the Nighthawks draws on many things from our experiences: living in big cities and small towns, working in movies, busking on the streets, watching film noir and silent movies, listening to old records. But underneath it all was the notion that a songwriting duo like us could do something new instead of being an anachronism. Usually, a recording artist writes their own songs and sings from their own perspective. Or a pop artist might select a song written by a committee of very talented people, designed for maximum airplay. When we started writing together, we decided we wanted to work with an artist who could collaborate with us to demonstrate a third path – one in which the songwriters and the performers worked together to amplify each other’s creative voices. In other words, we were inspired to take some of the songs we had written and share them with the only person we knew who could bring them to life in that way – Kimberly Hawkey. Once we understood that she could be any character, take us to any place, then we asked ourselves “where do we want to go next?” The answer to that question is the world of Nighthawks.

COVID seems to be a factor for this project, both in writing and in recording.  How did you manage that?

M&R: The pain and the loss that we experienced from the pandemic was a deep current. We first had to literally deal with what was going on – Lecco drove a marathon sprint back to New York to quarantine because he had an early case. We didn’t even know what was happening at that point. After the shape of lockdown revealed itself, and the devastation on our own jobs and lives and loved ones became clear, we used technology to connect to each other, writing regularly over the phone. But we had no idea how to actually record the material with Kimberly and all the musicians we wanted. And then our producer Joel Moss (who is so modest someone had to tell us he had seven Grammys because he won’t talk about them himself) very modestly suggested Dreamland Studios. And behold – a studio in Woodstock with enough space for social distancing and quarantined lodging. We developed our own stringent safety protocols and insisted on testing, masks and proper precautions and made it work. Our musicians were available because there were no other gigs. And the passion we put into the recording was the passion we felt about keeping our dreams alive amidst the sorrow, and sending out a message of hope, healing, love and compassion.

What is next for you and “We the Nighthawks”?

M&R: We’ve written more than 60 songs in just the past 12 months, so we are hoping to stay busy writing even more. Right now though, we are focused on getting the album in front of as many ears as possible, and giving as many live humans as possible the chance to see Kimberly in person. She’s an astonishing performer and we are excited to see the places (and the countries!) she is going to visit to bring these stories to life. And, yes, we are working on the next albums, too. The holiday one is ready to record but shhh that’s supposed to be a secret.

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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