Romantica's Ben Kyle: The extended interview


I recently had the opportunity to sit down with busy Romantica frontman Ben Kyle, who is preparing to release his band's second album, America, on vinyl this weekend, for an interview for this week's print edition of City Pages. Ben and I ended up covering a lot of ground during our chat, musing on everything from his recent European tour with Carrie Rodriguez and forthcoming duets album to his thoughts on vinyl, songwriting, and more.

Below, find the full transcript from my interview with Ben Kyle, along with a few music videos and the details on his vinyl release show this Sunday at the Cedar.

[jump] You recently wrapped up a European tour with Carrie Rodriguez. What was that like?

It was really fun, the first time I've played music over there. We didn't make it to Belfast [Kyle's birthplace], unfortunately--another time. Even though England, it's not my home so much, Northern Ireland is part of Britain and a lot of the cultural elements are similar, so it felt like playing music in [my] homeland. The people in England really seemed to get it, in a way that maybe even people here don't get-- like how "The National Side" talks about David Beckham and Gary Lineker--the sort of things that you don't have to get to get the music, but it's kind of fun when people do, they appreciate it all the more.

Then a lot of the dates were in Holland, and it was sort of the opposite. They were a lot stiffer. The venues were very nice theaters, civic theaters, the sort of thing where people dressed up to go out for the evening, and it all felt very proper. It was just a really different feel from what we're used to in the states, and even from how England was. But kind of a nice challenge, too. How do you deal with that as a performer who's sort of wanting to feed a bit on the audience and their energy, but realizing sometimes you just have to perform without that? You need to still figure out how to make it meaningful and make it good.

You've been collaborating with Carrie Rodriguez for a while now, leading up to this new duets album. How did you first meet?

Our manager is very good friends with her manager, so through that she got to hear our music, and then invited us to tour with her on a Southeast tour a couple years back, to go as support. The second night we were on tour she asked if I would want to sing something with her, and I asked her what she was thinking, and she was wanting to do the Merle Haggard tune "Today I Started Loving You Again." We have a similar taste for classic country. From that very first tour we would do a couple songs together at the end of the night; we did that each time we would tour and eventually someone came up with the idea that we should do an album.

Did you write new songs for that album?

We wrote a couple for it, and then the rest are all covers. I think the initial idea was, because we enjoyed singing together, we just wanted to do some of the songs we'd done together and make a document of it.

You're getting ready to release America on vinyl through brand new local company Flydog Music. How did you hook up with label founder Dan Carlsen?

He's from Minneapolis, but the first time I met him, person to person, was in Austin, at South By. He just mentioned how much he liked that album, and Tony [Zaccardi, Romantica's bassist] was telling him, yeah, we're thinking about putting it out on vinyl. And I think just from that conversation he was really interested in helping us with it right away. Which is nice, because it's so hard, as an independent band, to fund things like that yourself without some outside help.

Do you have an affinity for vinyl records?

The appeal to me was just, 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 cassette. I think it's the permanence of it; it's like you left a legacy. I like that.

You've been busy in the studio. What's the status of the next album?

I'm mixing the new Romantica album. Although as I mix it, I'm already starting to re-do some vocals. I just have a horrible disease of perfectionism. It's not horrible, because it makes you really want to do something right, but it really also makes it hard to let go of things until they are right.

What was the songwriting process like for the new album?

I feel like we spent a lot of time touring after America came out, just because that was the thing that you were supposed to do or had to do to get the word out and get your music out. And so kind of by default, it meant that there was a lot less intentional writing time. These songs were really responses to life as it happened on the road, and they sort of organically developed as the band played them, right away. 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 been - I'm just not proud of this yet. And so it just hasn't been done yet. It's not going to come out until it's done.

There's some things I love about this method, this way of creating together, in a more organic and sort of the alchemy of it, but there's something I really love about the way America was created in just a much more contemplative, private state, of really being able to reflect and write very intentionally. So we'll see. The Control Alt-Country Delete EP we did, what I love about that is those limits just cut me off, I couldn't work on that for a year, because it was just there, we did what we did, and it's done. And I think you can do that when you're going to say, this is a document of a time and place and a moment. But when you're trying to create something really tried and true and that will remain, it's hard for me to let go.

Do you think you'll ever have that experience again of being able to block off songwriting time?

I don't know if I will. I think, really, it comes down to, as an artist, do you have any patrons that are going to put bread on your table while you make your work? That's the struggle, the age-old struggle. Before America was made, I essentially had a patron in that my father-in-law agreed to cover my expenses for a short period of time while I just allowed myself to create. Which is really impressive - I mean, most father-in-laws would have an entirely different approach to a musician son-in-law trying to make his way in the music world. [laughs] So that really was an amazing privilege and space and time. I would love to do it again, if I could make it happen, but there's life and family and work. So I hold out hope, maybe. It's such a changing industry - well, you know all about that.

Do you have anything special planned for the vinyl release show?

It's at the Cedar. We'll probably pull out a couple of Christmas songs, holiday songs. And I think we'll have some guests playing with us - no rock star guests, [laughs] but yeah. KaiserCartel are opening, that'll be fun. We've got a little stint in Madison and Chicago the weekend before, so it'll be nice to get in our groove a little bit. Because when you don't play for a while, it takes a few gigs just to get back in that groove. Really, it's like living in another world when you're performing. 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. And it's very interesting to me that it's sort of 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, or even - there's so many elements of performing that are entertainment. And that's great if you're an entertainer, but for me that's a lot of effort. It's not my personality, it's not my character to be a performer or entertainer. So that's the real tension with music, too, what does it all mean? Is this a life that I want to pursue? Because I love to write and to sing, and even to share it, but if you have to always share it with a smile on your face... [laughs] That's just a very curious thing about our culture and the way that musicians, particularly, you know people who write novels, every once in a while they might be asked to interview on the radio or something, so they have to be able to articulate something about themselves, but they're not asked to perform. That's very curious.

You have to wonder if the novel would be different if you had to read it out loud every night to a crowd and entertain them.

Yeah, we should make them do that! [laughs] We should. Why don't you go on tour for a month? Read your novel to Dutch people?

Do you get nervous on stage?

I don't really, no. I mean, if it's a very special occasion, I'll get nervous. I got nervous when I had to sing with Ryan Adams, I was pretty nervous about that. I was even nervous before I got to the theater - I had no idea what he was going to be like, if he was going to be an asshole. He turned out to be pretty sweet.

So there's a few moments, but generally, no. Generally I just try and dig deep and I want to give it everything I've got, and I want to believe in what I'm singing at the moment, so that can translate. Because if you don't believe it people don't believe it. That's important for me. So even though I don't feel like a natural performer, I give it everything I've got. I at least try to be sincere about it, try to be authentic. But yeah, it's a curious time in my life because -- lots of things seem on the upswing, but I'm really just, 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. You know, the whole music as a career, as your profession, is such an interesting animal, you know. So you kind of caught me at sort of a real critical point.

I still go through those waves, too. 'Am I doing the right thing?'

'Are you doing the right thing,' yeah. And then something confirms it for you, and you keep doing it for another year, and then you're like, 'ok, am I still doing the right thing?'

Winter is good for evaluating these things.

Yeah, yeah exactly.

For the print version of this interview, click here. ROMANTICA play a vinyl-release show with KaiserCartel on SUNDAY, DECEMBER 12, at the CEDAR CULTURAL CENTER; 612.338.2674.