Bright Lights, Big Cello

Michelle Kinney followed the musical avant-garde to New York--and back again.

In 1989, equipped with little more than a change of underwear, a rucksack full of Fruit Rollups, and her custom-made cello, Michelle Kinney got on a Greyhound bus bound for New York City. Okay, it wasn't quite like that, but stick with us, because this is a classic Midwesterner-makes-good-in-the-big-city story, even though it's also a screw-the-big-city-let's-go-back-to-Minneapolis story.

Granted, Kinney's success has been a quiet one, but it's hard to imagine success for an avant-jazz instrumentalist and session jobber being anything but quiet. Unless you're a local music fan with a long memory or you pay close attention to liner notes, you probably haven't heard of Kinney. Yet there's a decent chance that you've heard her play whether you knew it or not.

In 1989, Kinney lugged her instrument to Gotham to attend a graduate program at New York University, but that was something of a hedge. In Minneapolis during the '80s, she had played with rock groups such as Summer of Love and with the free-jazz big band Imp Ork, which introduced her to some leading New York players. "I wanted an excuse to go to New York," says the cellist-composer-singer in her current home in Golden Valley, "and I knew I couldn't just show up there--I'd be eaten alive."

Kith and Kinney: Composer and instrumentalist Michelle Kinney on her family-friendly acre in Golden Valley
Jana Freiband
Kith and Kinney: Composer and instrumentalist Michelle Kinney on her family-friendly acre in Golden Valley

In fact, Kinney survived her New York days undigested. Within a few years, she was ensconced in the city's prog jazz and new music scenes. She wound up gigging, recording, and touring with downtown heavyweights such as Henry Threadgill, John Zorn, and Lawrence "Butch" Morris. When time permitted, she'd play her own jazz-classical-rock-worldbeat hybrid, or collaborate with her husband Chris Cunningham, a multi-instrumentalist whose sideman credits include work with Marianne Faithfull, the Lounge Lizards, and Boukman Eksperyans. Kinney herself landed some choice gigs as a support player. You may have heard her on a Sheryl Crow or Natalie Merchant record, or perhaps you didn't notice her backing up Merchant on The Tonight Show and MTV Unplugged.

The grad school part of Kinney's New York migration wasn't as fruitful, though she did manage to get her master's in performance studies, a program devoted mainly to theory, criticism, and history. "It was very political--gender issues, very intellectual, faddish sort of stuff," says Kinney. "I didn't think it was going to be so academic. I thought it would offer more performance situations.

It took me five years to actually write my thesis 'cause I ended up doing so much music."

After years of working day jobs to pay the rent, the mild-mannered cellist was finally getting by strictly as an artist, and doing so by playing music she actually enjoyed. "All the people that I'd wanted to work with before I went to New York, I ended up working with or at least getting to know. They were my friends--Henry Threadgill, Butch Morris, Brandon Ross, Tom Cora, Leroy Jenkins, Julius Hemphill. People who I'd admired for years, I actually was commingling with and going to the same parties with and sometimes playing gigs together. And sometimes going on tour! Which was amazing, you know, it's like...dream come true."

Undoubtedly at this point, half the local population of cello-toting, session-playing, experimental composer-improvisers has already packed their bags for New York, since clearly dreams do come true. Maybe we should back up, or move forward. Kinney, as noted above, is now living in Golden Valley, so clearly something about life in the center of the action wasn't all that dreamy. Much like moving away 14 years ago, coming back home was a scary proposition and a partial abandonment of connections lots of players would kill or at least seriously injure for.

So far, the risky move has again paid off. Earlier this year, Kinney got a generous grant from the Bush Foundation. This weekend she'll play a high-profile gig at the Walker Art Center, co-headlining with fellow New York transplant, saxophonist and composer George Cartwright. And finally, after more than a decade of aborted recording projects, she says she's ready to release an album.

 

The ranch house where Kinney, Cunningham, and their two children live has an acre of backyard, one of many dramatic changes that came with the move from Brooklyn to Golden Valley. Another is that Kinney's husband has a day job, teaching at Music Tech, so the grind of constantly hustling for freelance work has been eased somewhat. When I arrive at the house on a Tuesday afternoon a few weeks ago, Kinney's seven-year-old daughter, who's being minded by her grandmother, is trying out the angel costume she'll wear on Halloween. For her part, Kinney wears cargo pants with zippers and camouflage accents, a touch of flash that's a bit unexpected from the low-key 44-year-old. Kinney has a wide range as a vocalist, but when speaking, she maintains a compressed, easy tone, and rarely gestures for emphasis. Her sense of humor is so dry as to almost seem unintentional. When I ask if she played music professionally during college, she answers, "No, I was in a rock band...we weren't very professional."

Kinney and Cunningham decided to leave New York for a couple of reasons. For one, the gigs and session work had gotten thin after 9/11. Supporting a four-person family on the earnings of two freelance musicians was becoming a struggle. It was even more stressful trying to find a decent school for the kids to attend. The public school in the couple's Brooklyn neighborhood was lousy. They jumped through a million hurdles to transfer their daughter to a public school in another district, only to find her stuck in another outer circle of hell.

"There's all this wonderful energy in New York," says Kinney. "The musicians and people who go through New York and live there are among the most brilliant and creative and energetic and happy and fulfilled. It's a fantastic way to learn. But then you reach a point in your life, especially if you have children, where you have to start thinking beyond the thrill of the moment--or the agony of the moment--and try to get some view into the future. I would have slugged it out in New York for sure, but you just have to change your perspective when you're a parent."

While Kinney was lugging her cello all over town as a hired gun, she was also writing her own stuff, at least in the rare moments that she had the time and energy. Her music is a cerebral mix of disparate styles. At times it bears the influence of her former bandleader Henry Threadgill, but then it will start to sound like Tom Waits, and next like refracted Bach.

"I used to think that it was too many weird things happening at once," says Kinney, "but the older I get the more I enjoy that." The music is lovely in spots, noisy in others, sometimes heavily improvised, sometimes tightly composed. Besides being a first-rate player, Kinney is a very good singer, as demonstrated by her elegantly harmonized if somewhat pretentious piece "Phoebe," which she plans to perform at the Walker with a band of local and New York compatriots: guitarist Brandon Ross (Cassandra Wilson, Threadgill), singer Timothy Hill, pianist Myra Melford, bassist Anthony Cox, and drummer Kevin Washington.

Much of the Walker show will be devoted to Kinney's recent adaptations of poetry into what she reluctantly characterizes as art songs. She'll perform two musical settings of W.S. Merwin poems, which some raw recordings suggest might be Kinney's strangest and prettiest stuff to date. She'll also debut a composition built around local poet Wang Ping's "Tsunami Chant," an unsparing indictment of U.S. foreign policy, and present a take on Edna St. Vincent Millay's "The Bean-Stalk," with music inspired by Nick Cave.

For now, the only way to hear these tunes is at shows such as the Walker date. "I've recorded tons of records but I haven't actually put anything out," says Kinney. "By the time I get it recorded, I'm on to something else. I'm going to try to change that, I'm going to try to go back and put out at least one record of good stuff that never got released."

Indeed, no more dillydallying. Sure, early forecasts suggest that 2004 will be the Year of the Hooky Dance Number about Male-Female Interaction, but one never knows. Perhaps the time for the cello-driven W.S. Merwin-inspired art song is about to arrive.

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