Folk/Blues Singer Liz Kennedy Gears Up for Live Performances in 2014; SPEED BUMP Album
Liz Kennedy (www.lizkennedymusic.com) had been composing wordless songs on the piano since she was 12, always wondering who was going to come along and finish them for her. By her late '40s, she finally gave up waiting and began adding the lyrics herself. Performing for the first time in her early '50s, she knew she was taking a bold risk. Divorced and remarried, facing the kind of fears that come with the pain of loss, never playing for anyone but her young children asleep on the floor below, she was protecting a budding need for self-expression. She worried that one sharp critique could destroy her deep connection to something that had always been her greatest passion.
True to the title of her latest full length independent recording, the fourth generation Southern Californian, San Francisco-based singer/songwriter faced many a Speed Bump - both creatively and emotionally - on the road to her exciting emergence in 2006 with her debut album Clean White Shirt. Battling confidence issues and facing the daunting idea of getting out and establishing a fan base in her '50s, her deepest soul-searching involved a positive response to a question that would change her life.
What would happen if she didn't give herself a shot?
At first, Kennedy simply "didn't want to die having so many songs still inside" of her. Now 63, fit, beautiful and full of the kind of life affirming energy she could never have imagined before opening up to that glorious collaborative musical universe, she's very confident with her choice - and coincidentally inspiring men and women both to take risks in middle age with the passions that drive them.
In addition to recording four critically-acclaimed albums, including A Good Peach and Nothing Like An Angel, Kennedy has performed over the years at such renowned Bay Area hotspots as the Razz Room and the Throckmorton Theater. "It can be easy for people of a certain age to stay in their comfort zone. Which is nice. But if you're going to step over into something you haven't done before, it takes a fresh mindset and a new level of confidence," says Kennedy, an anthropology and journalism graduate from Stanford University who previously enjoyed a lengthy career working for film companies that produced cutting edge TV commercials.
"I was reasonably accomplished in my other work, but for years, despite my love for music, I never thought I was good enough to write, sing or play it. I kept it inside for years," says Kennedy. "I became someone who told people I was writing music but I would never share it. Which began to feel slightly weird. When I finally met my producer, Joel Jaffe, his encouragement allowed me to step inside the studio and record my songs so I wouldn't have to hold them in any longer. And that felt very freeing. Very good. And I improved over time, which led to more and more writing. Meeting and playing with incredibly talented musicians lead me even further along the path.
"As touched as I am now when people connect with my songs, the hardest part at first was just becoming comfortable with the attention that comes from playing for people. That went right to my core. As I got older, and maybe many feel this way, it seems both easier and harder to find a new passion or feed an old one to keep us going. We have more time, but it's tougher to pinpoint what it is that will keep us excited about getting out of bed. I think we all need something that we love to keep us feeling young and alive. I notice women particularly, who have devoted their lives to the happiness of others, can especially feel awkward when it comes time to pursuing their own dreams. There's nothing more rewarding to me than asking people what they really love to do. So often they start out saying well it's nothing much really but I love to -------. And it is fascinating how great some people are at things they don't feel are important enough to focus on. Small things grow. I have been right where they are."
Influenced by legendary artists like Bonnie Raitt, Paul Simon, Randy Newman and Carole King, Kennedy puts the unique, inviting stamp of her sandpaper and honey tinged vocals on Speed Bump's 14 dynamic folk/blues influenced pop/rock tracks. From the high flying gospel/blues driven opening title track through the whimsical, horn fired closing track expressing her long held desire to write "A Hit Song," Kennedy tells cleverly spun, deeply lived stories about experiences that she could have barely fathomed having, let alone writing about, when she was at the age when most hopefuls with her level of talent pursue their musical dreams.
Jaffe, a renowned Bay Area guitarist, engineer and producer whose credits include Maria Muldaur, Lenny Williams and Magic Christian, has been one of the greatest influences on the singer's musical development. His home base is Studio D in Sausalito, where legendary artists like Raitt, Ringo Starr and Carlos Santana have recorded. Two other Bay Area musicians have also played a key role in her evolving sound since she began recording and performing live: keyboardist Eammon Flynn (The Commitments, Michael Franti and Spearhead, Zigaboo Modeliste) and drummer Billy Johnson (Santana, Maze, Joyce Cooling).
Kennedy's emergence as a recording artist has allowed her an outlet for the emotional range that has impacted her life. Particularly difficult was her divorce from her first husband, renowned advertising industry executive Hal Riney, after 13 years, when her children were only five and seven years old. Some years later the family suffered another terrible loss when Riney passed away. Happily remarried, her current husband, now healthy, battled cancer twice for several years early in their marriage. Speed Bump reflects a very different tone than Kennedy's previous albums, as if she has worked through her pain and sadness and emerged at peace, ready for a more informed and varied take on life.
"I think the previous three albums were more cathartic, and I was working out my sadness and some anger, trying to process my life and get through those issues," she says. People, like my mother, used to say that my songs were so sad. But I don't think they were sad so much as full. On the other hand, there is nothing quite as wonderful as singing and playing a sad song for your own emotional circulation. My lyrics on Speed Bump are reflective of someone who is more used to the myriad outcomes of life and open to a wider range of emotions. I'm very interested in humor and in making general observations on many subjects. It is a lot of fun to write fun songs."
Several tracks stand out as powerful and magical stops for the heart and mind to ponder along the winding road. "Stowaway" is a moody piano driven pop/folk ballad about staying with a person in spirit even when he or she is long gone as a physical presence from our lives. Colored beautifully with a violin intro, the traditional flavored folk tune "Half Sad" is partly a reflection on what went wrong, and-once the tempo amps up-a resolution to pick oneself off the ground and move on. Kennedy also has a moment of spirited fun on "Take A Break" before engaging the listener with the clever love song "Arugula" and the image rich, autobiographical "Raised By The Orange Trees."
A touch of jazzy sax and other horns spice up the folk/blues of "The Thing Is..." while "Overnight Sensation" is another story song told in a more country music styled setting. One of the most touching pieces is the haunting and poignant "How Was Your Life," about two reconnected friends/lovers looking back on their memories of long ago.
Growing up in Orange County, California, Kennedy's home was always full of an eclectic array of music, and from the time she began composing on the piano at age 12, she was fascinated by the process of chording and song structure via the work of Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and the writers of favorite musicals like. Beyond show tunes, the budding musician was inspired by everyone from jazz artists like Louis Prima, Count Basie and Duke Ellington to the folk/pop of Bob Dylan.
As she gears up for more live performances in 2014, she has taken the last year off from writing and recording to hone her chops on piano and rehearse as a streamlined band with greater emphasis on vocal harmonies.
"I like to feel that while the sound and production of Speed Bump is closer to where I am evolving to as an artist, as a songwriter, I'm also tapping more into the scope of my entire personality," Kennedy says. "It's as if now that my life is stripped of its sadness and anger, who am I? That's what this album explores. I am happier now as an artist than I have been at any point in the past. I love the diversity that comes from being of a certain age. I'm old enough not to have to try to impress anyone, but am still deeply interested in making music and maybe touching people's lives with my songs."