By Rob van Alstyne
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With two separate albums on the way (including a new collaboration with fierce fiddler and songwriter Carrie Rodriguez and the third album from his alt-country band, Romantica) and a recent European tour under his belt, Ben Kyle would appear to be the model of musical success. At 29, the Ireland-born, Minnesota-bred musician has established himself as a prolific songwriter, stirring performer, and scrupulous recording artist; he has built a significant fan base for his band in the Twin Cities; and he has taken his music abroad for a recent tour of England and Holland with Rodriguez and slide guitar player Luke Jacobs.
Yet, like many developing artists, Kyle struggles to balance his quiet nature with the rigorous demands of the rock 'n' roll circus. "It's a curious time in my life," he says in a lunchtime interview in northeast Minneapolis. "Lots of things seem on the upswing, but I'm really still trying to decipher what my path will be. If I'm going to keep at this music thing—I mean, I'll always be a writer, but I might just end up making albums for myself and that I can give to people. [Doing] music as a career, as your profession, is such an interesting animal."
Kyle is currently laboring away in his home studio, mixing the as-yet-untitled third Romantica album. He keeps going back to re-record parts, he says, and is starting to get frustrated at how long it's taken to complete. "I have a horrible disease of perfectionism," he says. "It's not horrible, because it makes you really want to do something right, but it also makes it hard to let go of things until they are right.
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"These songs were really responses to life as it happened on the road, and they organically developed as the band played them, right away," he explains. "For better or for worse, it's a really good document of what the live band has been for the last couple years. It's a nice picture in time, and it's turning out quite different from America. I've battled with it over and over again. We finished it, and I've listened, and it's just—I'm just not proud of this yet. And so it hasn't been done yet. It's not going to come out until it's done."
For now, Kyle's bandmates are content to revel in their older material as they put the finishing touches on their next project. Their show at the Cedar this weekend will celebrate the vinyl release of their lauded 2008 sophomore album, America, through new local imprint Flydog Music, a project spearheaded by local music lover Dan Carlsen.
While Kyle doesn't consider himself an audiophile, he says he likes the significance of pressing his music into such a time-tested format. "If that's the last record that I ever make—which it isn't—but even if it was, I would love to be able to sit in my armchair when I'm 60 years old and look at this record that I made once. There's just something really permanent about having a record, more so than a digital copy. It's like you left a legacy. I like that."
The Cedar show will also be the first full-band performance by Romantica in a few months. The band will play dates in Madison and Chicago to warm up for the show, and Kyle says he's doing his part to get into the performing mindset as well.
"It's like living in another world when you're performing," he reflects. "I don't know if that's true for everyone. I think for some people their life is a performance. But for me it's definitely a place I have to get into. I don't think I'm a natural performer."
Anyone who has seen Romantica live might beg to differ. The band offer an intimate show experience, with Kyle reaching out to his audience in an unassuming way. But it's an aspect of musicianship he didn't consider when he first started making music. "It's very interesting to me that it's part and parcel of a musical life. I signed up for writing beautiful songs and singing them, but I didn't sign up for telling jokes and making people smile," he says, laughing. "You know, people who write novels, every once in a while they might be asked to interview on the radio or something, but they're not asked to perform. That's very curious."
I add that I wonder if novels would turn out differently if their authors knew they needed to read their chapters aloud each night in front of an audience.
"Yeah, we should make them do that!" Kyle agrees with a mischievous smile. "We should. 'Why don't you go on tour for a month, read your novel to Dutch people?'"
ROMANTICA play a vinyl-release show with KaiserCartel on SUNDAY, DECEMBER 12, at the CEDAR CULTURAL CENTER; 612.338.2674