Soft-spoken, bespectacled, and a self-described skinny white guy from the woods who only recently left his day job as a software engineer, Chris Kirby is the unlikely face of East Coast R&B. Since coming to St. John’s from Norris Arm just over a decade ago, he has gone from a blues-rock musician to a pioneer in his own musical hybrid style – and, with the release of Wonderizer earlier this month, a full-time musician and producer with three albums under his belt.
“We were a little more easily classified [when we started]. We had the blues and the rock thing going on, and it was more about the partying,” he said. “I wasn’t writing songs that had meat to them, like I’m doing now.”
“The song-writing has that story-song tradition that east coast artists have – you don’t see a whole lot of that in soul and funk music, which is more about the groove. What we’re doing is about the groove, but it’s also about the lyrics.”
While no stranger to performing solo (“Throw the guitar in the trunk and go!”), Kirby is frequently backed by his band, the Marquee: bassist Craig Follett and drummer Mark Marshall, who have been with the musician since the early days, and Chad Murphy, who has been playing guitar with the group for the last few years. And while it hasn’t always been easy to market their unorthodox sound to a local club audience, they have nonetheless remained concentrated on their goals.
“I’m a little too much of a singer-songwriter to open for a dance-pop band, but I’m a little too funky and danceable to open for a rock band. At the same time, I love that,” he said. “I feel like I’m waiting for my band and my music to influence enough people so that there’s people coming up in whatever footprints I lay down. I don’t have any delusions about it – I’m in no way a star, I just hope that down the road enough people are influenced by what I do to pick up the torch.”
The Wonder of Wonderizer
Wonderizer follows Kirby’s 2009 release Vampire Hotel, an album that won a MusicNL Award and was nominated for four East Coast Music Awards, had parts recorded in Willie Nelson’s Texas studio, and was produced by Gordie Johnson of Big Sugar. Kirby had to set his sights high to follow that, opting to produce the record himself.
“I’ve been trying to sell myself as a producer these days, so I wanted a challenge to produce my own project. And that was heavy-duty pressure, producing my record after Gordie Johnson produced my last one,” he admits.
“Normally people try to up the ante every time, and perhaps they would have expected me to either go back to Gordie or try to go with an even better-known producer. And I did the opposite. But the feedback I’ve gotten so far is it’s right where it should be – it’s a natural progression.”
That should not surprise too many of Kirby’s fans, who know that he’s been dabbling in audio production for a few years concurrent to his own music, working with the Mountains & the Trees, Shawn Beresford, and Charlie A’Court.
The new disc was originally planned to be two EPs, recorded at two different studios in St. John’s – Henge and Groove Dens Studios – and separated based on their sound. In doing so, Kirby found that many of the tracks actually worked side-by-side, and instead simply divided the album into a ‘Greasy’ side and a ‘Honey’ side.
“‘Greasy’ and ‘Honey’ went from a texture thing to a good versus evil thing – lust versus love, dark versus light, and thematically that’s exactly what’s happening.”
“I’m Your Man,” the follow-up single to “Waiting So Long,” comes from the ‘Honey’ side, and will be hitting the airwaves this summer. “It’s about trying to impress a girl with my gentleman-ness,” Kirby laughs. “It’s basically saying, if you’re looking for a good guy, I’m your man.”
Funk and the Rock
“I love female singers – that’s where I get my influences. I love Aretha Franklin, Mavis Staples, Joss Stone, Norah Jones – those are the kind of people who sing one or two notes and you’re hooked. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing, they’ve got your attention.”
For Chris Kirby, his relationship with music is very much a romantic one, and an unambiguously exotic one. When asked where he would like to play his dream concert, he responded without hesitation in New Orleans – which leads some to wonder if St. John’s will be able to contain him forever.
“I love Newfoundland, but I realize the challenge I’m faced with by being here. There’s no one really doing what I’m doing – we buy up all the traditional music, and I’m as far away from traditional music as you can get,” he said.
“I’ve thought about going to centers like New York, or somewhere in the south where this music is everywhere, but I’m really hesitant about doing that because home is home. One day maybe I’ll do it, but if I do move you can mark my words that I’ll be back. Ron Hynes did it, Figgy Duff did it – they go away, they make their mark, they come home. And what they bring home with them is stories, experiences, and knowledge from other parts of the world that they’ve been. And suddenly, that culture of home is broadened and enriched.”
For now, though, the only bags he’s packing are overnight bags – Kirby has a full schedule of touring this summer throughout Atlantic Canada, moving into Ontario and the United States in the fall. He’s got the funky, soulful new album Wonderizer to promote, in addition to upcoming sessions in the producer’s chair and his own show “Whose Song Is It Anyway?”, an inverted songwriter’s circle where musicians perform each other’s material.
True to his word, home is home, and the St. John’s album release party on June 8 at the Rock House promises to be a worthy kickoff to a busy coming months, featuring Charlie A’Court and the local ska favourites the Idlers. As he sings in the chorus of his current single, Chris Kirby has been waiting so long for your love – if he has it his way, that wait could soon be over.
For more information on Chris Kirby and to see the video for “Waiting So Long,” visit chriskirbyonline.com.