Interview With Cletus Kennelly

By Damion Wolfe

Throughout my touring over the past 6 years I've had the honor of meeting and performing with many talented and wonderful souls. One of those many that has really stood out to me personally has been Singer/Songwriter Cletus Kennelly. I first heard Cletus perform at The Kensington Coffee House in Maryland a couple of years ago, and later had the opportunity to perform with him at The Fredericksburg Singer/Songwriter Showcase. I was struck by Cletus' quiet sincerity, which conveys itself both onstage and in one-on-one interaction. As a songwriter Cletus gracefully bridges the space that lies between early Cat Stevens and Adam Duritz (Counting Crows). With a voice vaguely reminiscent of Don McClean, and the solid cadence of his 12-string guitar playing, it's easy to see how one can be easily seduced by Kennelly's consistently magical music.

One of the reasons I'd asked Cletus to be interviewed was because I didn't really know him that well, as compared to previous interviewees. I knew that Cletus had won a WAMMIE (Washington Area Music Award) for Songwriter Of The Year (2001). As I delved further into Cletus' achievements I became in awe of his many awards and accomplishments! He has also won WAMMIES for Best Contemporary Folk Male Vocalist (2001) and Best New Artist (2000). He has also won several Mid-Atlantic Song Contests, as well as a competition in Louisville.

Cletus hails from the Washington D.C. area. In addition to being a great asset of D.C.'s flourishing singer/songwriter scene, he is also very much involved with other great musicians in the area including The D.C. Road Crew (featuring Cletus, Verlette Simon, and Rachel Cross), performances with Lea, Richard Dahl, and currently performing often with Lori Kelley.

Cletus has three releases to his credit. The first is a self-titled seven song recording. He followed this up with his debut, "Thread," which has also garnered him much acclaim. After the 9-11 tragedy, Cletus did a special two song release featuring the song "Looking Up." This was released as a 9-11 Fund benefit CD. I've only had the privilege of hearing "Thread," and I must say that it is well worth the purchase. The songs are diverse, yet flow with a great ease and joy of their own. Songs like "Boy" and "Frozen Minds" have me almost instantly singing along. Cletus really seems effortlessly able to fuse great lyrics with great melody and rhythm....something not often seen in the world of modern folk. His lyrics are very thought-provoking and insightful, leaving you wanting to hear them again and again.

In addition, Cletus surrounds himself with a Who's Who of D.C. musicians. Marco Delmar and Pete Kennedy provide great, and sparsely appropriate production. Ray Ruskin offers up some tasty guitar treats, while Lea provides angelic vocals and bass playing. Others featured are Maura Kennedy, Morgan Rowe, Steve Hansgen and Tamir Eid (Emmett Swimming). This is one of those albums that you will surely listen to for many years to come.

To find out more about Cletus you can check out his website: WWW.CLETUSKENNELLY.COM for song samples and purchases. You can also reach Cletus via email at

This is a somewhat lengthy interview that I did with Cletus, but please read on because he offers many great insights about songwriting and overcoming artistic obstacles. Thanks a lot to Cletus for taking the time to meet with us. Ladies and Gentleman, Cletus Kennelly!

1. Cletus, I've really been enjoying listening to your CD, "Thread" and finding out more about your career and remarkable achievements as a songwriter. Could you talk to us about how you've developed your craft over the last few years?

Mostly by continuing to try to write. I wish I had a better answer than that, but that's it. I've been trying lately to make more time for it. It's easy to get so busy booking gigs, rehearsing for gigs, and playing gigs that I forget to make time to write. And I'm not good at working an hour here and an hour there. I wish I were. But I seem to need to immerse myself in writing and not think about anything else. It can be hard to think of nothing else for a while, when other thoughts and responsibilities keep creeping in.

Also, I attend a couple of songwriting groups, where people share songs they've been working on. I learn a lot by trying to articulate what I like about someone's song, or what I'd change, and listening to other people's feedback on others' songs. I tend to give more feedback at those groups than play new songs. A partially-written song for me often doesn't have a verse and a chorus and only needs more verses and a bridge. It usually looks like Swiss cheese, where I have the whole song, but smatterings of lyrics throughout. It's difficult to play that kind of song in front of people and sing gibberish on the lines that I don't have yet.

2. What is the personal criteria that you use to decide whether or not a song is going to be a keeper or not?

Usually it's just whether or not I enjoy performing the song. But I can certainly be swayed by an audience's reaction (i.e. I may enjoy a song more because the audience likes it). So it's not purely based on my own feeling. But I do have songs that audiences enjoy, and I will continue performing them but will probably not record them simply because I don't think they say enough. So I guess that's one of the criteria. Usually by the time I've finished a song I've spent so long on it and have heard the melody so many times, that if I can stand it after all that time it must be OK.

Songs are simple in many ways, but they're also very complex. They involve melody, harmony, chord changes, rhythm/groove, the meaning of the lyrics, the phonetics of the lyrics, rhyme schemes, the sound of the singer's voice. They can have verses, choruses, bridges. And all of those elements affect the way a song is heard, and whether or not a person is going to like it. Oftentimes some people will like this song, and others will like that song. It's a matter of taste. Even if you're the writer, you may not like the song as much as someone else does. For me, I rarely get all of everything I want into a song I've written, because the song structure won't hold more lyrics so I don't get to say everything I want to say, or I say everything I want to say but the melody isn't as engaging as I would like it to be, or I have to slow down the tempo a bit to make the lyrics intelligible, etc.

Then there's the whole tug-of-war between meaning and phonetics when it comes to lyrics. I love the sounds of words. I usually start a song with what I've heard described as the "babble technique", where I get a good groove or chord progression or melody and just start singing gibberish for a while. Usually there will be some parts which sound good even though I'm not really singing any words. Those sounds eventually become words and phrases, and the song develops from there. Sometimes I'll have a phrase which sounds really good phonetically, but doesn't say what I want to say as clearly as another phrase, which doesn't have the same phonetic groove. So there's usually a bit of a battle over which phrase wins, and it's almost always the phrase with the clearer meaning. But the more phonetic line puts up a good fight, and I'm usually sorry to have to let it go.

3. When people ask me who has influenced me most I always feel stupified. Yet I'm gonna ask you the same question! Who has influenced you the most regarding your songwriting?

When I write, the songs feel like they're coming purely out of me, and yet I know that I've been influenced by everything I've ever heard. So the only way for me to answer that question is to talk about who I've listened to the most over the years, because that's who probably influenced my writing. Here are a few: Joe Jackson (possibly my all-time favorite), Stevie Ray Vaughan, Ani Difranco, The Smiths, 10,000 Maniacs, R.E.M., Patty Griffin, Rage Against the Machine, Neil Young, CSN, Bruce Cockburn, Indigo Girls

4. Songs like "Boy" and "Frozen Minds" are very catchy and filled with great lyrical depth. "Christopher (Columbus As A Child)" also comes in high on the list. I've been dying to ask you about this song because what immediately comes to mind for me is the childhood bully scenario that makes me totally relate (I feel my heartrate go up and my fists clenching!). Yet I feel like there is more meaning to the song than that, or if that at all. I would love to have you talk about the meaning of this song, as well as its conception if it's not too revealing for you?

It's actually about Christopher Columbus. It's based on the notion that when he "discovered" America, there were many thousands of people already living here, whose ancestors had discovered it centuries before. It was a bit more of an invasion than a discovery. I wanted to write a song about what it was like for the people living here when he "discovered" America. It started out as being a very serious, pointed song about the treatment of Native Americans, but it felt too heavy-handed. So instead I wrote it about him as a child, "discovering" other kids' toys, and pushing the kids around. As it turns out, the song made its point to more people by being a little sly in its presentation than it would have in its first incarnation. A few teacher friends of mine have used the song in their classes around Columbus Day, which pleases me to no end.

Lots of people relate to this song without understanding the Columbus part, and that's fine too. I've had people tell me they like this song because "everyone remembers a bully in their past". If people relate to the song and like it, it's not essential to me that they get everything that I was trying to say. It used to be important to me, I wanted everyone to know exactly what I was saying. But now I understand that music is art, and is open to interpretation.

5. I've noticed from your schedule that many of your performance dates are with songwriter Lori Kelley. Could you talk about this collaboration and how it came about? Are you still doing any solo shows?

I'm still a solo artist, I just happen to play most of my shows with Lori. We're both solo artists, in that we write and record independently. She sings harmony on one of my CDs and I sing on one of hers, but they're not released as duo recordings.

We met in November 2000 at the Mid-Atlantic Song Contest Awards Night. I was performing and Lori talked to me afterwards, asking if I knew of some good venues to play. We traded CDs, and she went home and learned harmony to all 12 songs on my CD in a week. One day the next week she called me and asked if I'd like to go to the Folk Club of Reston, and when we met there she offered to sing harmony. I asked her which songs she knew, to which she replied, "Oh, all of them." I knew she was an amazing singer, by what I heard on her CD, but I was skeptical as to how well she knew the songs after such a short time. But she did. I had a gig coming up and I asked her if she'd like to split it with me, and we did that for a while. Eventually we started rehearsing and really getting the harmonies tight. Now we're playing a little lead guitar for each other as well.

I LOVE harmony, and when I write songs I usually hear the harmonies in my head, so the songs feel a bit incomplete to me until the harmony is on them. I also love singing harmony on other people's songs. I love the sound, and I love the vibration in my sinuses that I feel when our two notes are locked in with each other. Lori has a very high voice, a huge range, and is a very precise singer, so singing with her has stretched me as a vocalist. She even has me singing falsetto, which I don't do when singing my own songs.

6. Many artists, including myself, seem to go through some low points where you find yourself wondering whether this path is worth continuing or not. Do you ever find yourself in that situation? If so, what do you do to bring yourself out of it?

Absolutely. And while I'm sorry that you also go through these low points, I'm also heartened by the fact that others feel like I do sometimes. There are certainly easier ways to make a living. But this is what I love, so I do it. At my low points, I feel completely inept as a singer, guitar player, songwriter, and I feel like I'm just fooling myself by choosing this profession. At my high points, I feel deeply that music is a gift, and it's a privilege to be able to play it. I feel deep gratitude that I have the ability to write and play and sing, and that I have the freedom to be able to do it. It didn't have to work out this way. I could have had kids and therefore needed to make a living that could support them. I could have stayed working at the mental health agency in Arizona, always dreaming of pursuing music, but never giving myself the freedom to do it. I could have ended up not making the time to really focus on writing and learning how to do it. So when I really get that feeling that making music is a privilege, I have no doubts, and I feel only gratitude. I guess these times are what bring me out of whatever insecure funk I'd been in.

7. You of course have had much acclaim as a songwriter. Where would you like to see things progress to regarding your career?

More than anything, I'd just like to continue to enjoy writing and playing music. If it ever stops being enjoyable, I'll do something else, though I don't see that happening. As far as career advancement, I don't dream of national acclaim, or stalkers, or filling stadiums, or the inability to walk down any street without being swarmed with autograph-seekers. What I would like is to be able one day to fill venues like the Birchmere in Alexandria, VA, in different parts of the country. Whether or not that will ever happen, I have no idea. But that's the top for me, as far as how big a career I dream of having. There are so many of us out here performing, writing, scrapping, and the odds are against us. So that's why I set my sights on enjoying music, rather than gauging my career based upon CD sales, venue size, radio plays, etc. We all know people we think are far more talented than what we hear on the radio. If I could be one of those people, that's cool with me.

8. What are your personal top three album pics?

Well, I haven't listened to it in quite a while, but the only recording I've owned on vinyl, 8-track, cassette, and CD is CSNY's "4-Way Street", a live recording. I got in first on 8-track when I was very young from a guy who was a number of years older than I was. He gave it to me because 8-tracks had been replaced by cassettes a few years earlier. My older sister still had an 8-track player at the time, so I listened to it and fell in love with the album. The recording has all of what the four of them do: folk songs with gorgeous harmonies, rock songs, some blues by Steven Stills, stories, and there are mistakes that they left on the recording, which is really cool to hear after listening to slick digital music these days.

Patty Griffin, "Living With Ghosts": One voice and one guitar throughout the whole recording, and I can listen to it four times in a row and not get bored for a moment. Patty is brilliant, I love all three of her CDs, but this one is my favorite. She's an amazing songwriter, and one of my all-time favorite singers. If she sang "Happy Birthday" at a party, I'd buy a copy of it.

Counting Crows, "August and Everything After": When I first started going to open mikes to perform my songs, I would listen to this CD in my van on the way to the venue in order to psyche myself into a place where I could let myself sing out. I was very inhibited in my singing, and Adam Duritz is very free with his singing. Feeling that passion allowed me to let some of my own out.

Rage Against The Machine, "The Battle of Los Angeles": I loved this band, and was bummed when they broke up. Political statements, indignant social commentary, innovative guitarwork, thumpy bass and drums, and Zach De La Rocha's powerful staccato lyrics.

Anything by Joe Jackson (I honestly tried to name one recording of his, but there too many that qualify as top album picks for me.)


1. What was your favorite childhood toy?

Two toys that I loved and still have are these: I recently rescued from my parents' attic an NHL Hockey set, where the players move forward and backward and also spin to shoot. I don't watch real hockey, but I like this game.

The other toy is a stuffed animal called "Chester O'Chimp". He's a cool looking chimp, who came with a vest designed with shamrocks (hence the "O'Chimp"), but he now wears a Marshall amp black T-shirt. Every year the Easter Bunny would hide an egg in his mouth.

2. What song of yours is your personal fave?

There are songs that are my favorites, in that I'm proud of the way that they turned out. The whole muse thing is interesting to me, because there are songs of mine that I don't feel like I wrote myself, even though I was the only one in the room when they were written. My 9/11 song "Looking Up (Three Days in September)" is one of those. But there are also songs that are my favorite to play live, just because they're fun to play. For a long time my favorite in that way was "Jesse Knows", and now it's "Celestial Dance". For pure melodic Pop, I like "Looking For Superman". But at any given gig, most any song can be my favorite of the night.

3. What artist/entertainer, dead or alive, would you most like to sit down and have coffee with?

Amy Ray (of Indigo Girls), Zach De La Rocha (of Rage Against The Machine), Joe Jackson, Ani Difranco

4. What was the name of the first girl you ever kissed?

The first girl whose lips ever met mine in a romantic fashion was Adelita Padilla. (Due to my anxiety over the situation, they met with a hard crash and only for a nano-second.) The first girl I ever REALLY kissed was Karen Excel.

5. If you had your druthers, what songwriter would you most like to
collaborate with?

Patty Griffin

6. Would you ever date a biker chick?

Sure I would, though I'm not sure she'd want to date me.

7. What is your favorite book of all time?

As you can see from all of my other answers, I can never name one of anything. But here are my two favorites: "The Power Of One" and "To Kill A Mockingbird".

8. What has been your most favorite performance that you've ever given, and why?

There are probably a few, and I'll probably forget some. Playing at the Kennedy Center was pretty cool. My favorite might be the Takoma Park Folk Festival in 2001. I was very tired and my voice was quite hoarse, but there was a wonderful audience there, all the way up the hill, and I swear they cured my raw vocal cords. I love festivals, and I especially love that one. There's always a very positive vibe there. One more: Last summer we put on three concerts on my friend's schooner sailboat on the South River near Annapolis. We sailed up the river for about an hour, dropped anchor, put on a two-hour concert, then headed back to the marina. Despite the fact that I get seasick, I love boats, and we all had a great time.

9. (Spelling Question) Spell the word "geocentric".

Well, phew, boy. You know, I ain't never been much on book lernin'.

10. What advice would you give up and coming songwriters?

Well, when I was trying to learn how to write songs, I asked some friends of mine who were songwriters for advice. Though I got some good suggestions, none of it seemed to help me directly. Later I got a book called "Successful Lyric Writing", and didn't find it helpful either. I remember that one of the suggestions in the book was to pick an everyday phrase that people would know, and to use that as your hook. My reaction to that advice was that I would rather find a new way to say something, a new metaphor, a new allegory, something creative, than to use a trite phrase. So I abandoned the book and went searching for a way to write that suited me.

One of the problems I was having was that I would spend a long time on lyrics, then try to cram the lyrics onto a melody that I had spent very little time on. I ended up writing really boring songs, and I couldn't figure out why they were so boring after I had spent so long on the lyrics. Then I realized that I needed to spend more time on the music, and had to consciously resist thinking about lyrics for as long as I could in the early stages of the song. I decided that I'd just start singing gibberish. (I hadn't yet heard of the "babble technique", so I didn't know that this was done. I was just desperate to find a way that worked for me.) I discovered that I could write much more engaging songs this way, and that I could come up with topics and phrases that I wouldn't have come up with in my conscious mind. I had to put my very active left brain on hold while I let my right brain be creative. Eventually I learned how to incorporate both at the same time, where I let my right brain explore while my left brain is whispering in its ear. So the lyrics I stumble upon are on the topic. I put myself on a path, but then I let myself wander and stumble around. I let the song lead for as long as I can.

This is a long-winded answer to the question of advice for up and coming songwriters. What I'm trying to say is to keep searching for what works best for you. Elton John was handed lyrics by Bernie Taupin, and Elton wrote these amazing songs with the lyrics. He has the gift of turning lyrics directly into songs. I don't. Other people sit down with a guitar and a blank piece of paper and an idea, and they start writing very consciously and deliberately, and that works for them. Some people set co-writing appointments with other songwriters and decide that they're going to write a song before the leave. Some people in Nashville get a job to write a certain kind of song on a certain topic with a certain kind of feel, and they go and do it. Some people write very quickly, others take a very long time. Some write a song every day, but only a few are what they would consider "keepers". Others write more slowly, but most of their finished songs are considered keepers to them. It took a while for me to find out how to write from an honest, real place. I felt like I was just pretending I was a songwriter for a while until I found a writing style that worked for me. But I had to fumble around until I found my place. This is probably true in most of what we humans undertake.

One more item of "advice": I suffer from the ridiculous disease of perfectionism, in that I'm not completely satisfied with anything I've ever done. I'm getting better at dealing with that, but it still creeps in. What I know is this: Perfectionism in art is absurd, because there is no perfection in art, there is no perfect art. It's art. It's like trying to find the perfect human being. It doesn't exist. I do what I do, I like doing what I do, that 's enough.