Kirk Kenney talks to Loreli about his love of the Chinese music scene and why he decided to turn that love into a podcast. Find China Arts Podcast on iTunes and also at Beijing Pickers website.
Posted Jan 22, 2016
About Kirk Kenney:
Kirk Kenney is an eclectic musician who studied Mandarin and music at Bennington College before moving to Beijing full time to teach and perform. As a leader in the Americana scene, he performs solo shows and runs community square dance events with his bands, the Hutong Yellow Weasels, and Sourpuss, as well as with other local and international musicians; his regular Beijing venues have included Jianghu, Modernista, Mako Livehouse, DDC and the Bookworm. Kirk has organized and taken part in music festivals in Beijing, Shanghai, and Suzhou, and been involved in workshops for university students at the University of Shanghai for Science and Technology, Xi’an Normal University and Xi’an International University. He has toured and performed around China, including with American fiddlers Emerald Rae, and Michael Ismerio. With fellow musicians, Hadi Eldebek and Kate Smith, he organized the Compass World Arts world music camp hosted by the Linden Centre in Yunnan -- the first of it's kind in China. Cooperating with Ping Pong Productions, Kirk has also managed and coordinated tours around China for prominent musicians, as well as for the China screenings of the film, Gideon’s Army, a recipient of grants from The US Department of State, and the Ford Foundation. He has collaborated with Pojie Arts and Handicapped International to promote awareness of people with disabilities through dance. When he’s not memorizing lyrics on a plane, or editing the China Arts Podcast, he’s teaching violin and guitar to students in Beijing, managing the local musicians group, the Beijing Pickers, and working to bring musicians together from around the world. Kirk has shared one of many episodes of China Arts Podcast with Loreli - Episode 5: Paul Meredith. Download China Arts Podcast for free on iTunes or on the Beijing Pickers website.
AD: How did you get into podcasting?
KK: About a year ago I found myself sitting in my Beijing apartment trying to stay warm, playing Civ 5, and listening to podcasts. I didn’t have any voiceover gigs or that many musical performances lined up and was feeling introspective, so my friend Nathan Paul, who is an actor, recommended I listen to the Nerdist. I had been listening to Radiolab for a few years, but the simplicity of the Nerdist’s format showed me it’s actually super easy to get started, even if you don’t know what you’re doing yet. With the work I’ve done in music, recording and voiceover, I’ve spend a lot of hours in front of a microphone. Might as well do something I initiated, and in the process learn how to talk to people, learn how to tell and pass on stories.
AD: What’s your connection to the music scene in Beijing and the rest of China?
KK: I came to Beijing because of it’s music scene. When I first came, Nameless Highland was still around, so I got to see and meet some of the folk rocker heroes of mine from Chinese studies in Vermont. The presence of the Beijing music scene on the internet was pretty minimal in 2006, and so very much has been done in a short amount of time to make it accessible to people anywhere in the world, from Badr’s Beijing Daze, to Live Beijing Music’s mixtapes. If those mixtapes had been around back then it would saved me a lot of trouble. They’re amazing. One of the key articles I found and held onto for dear life was Matthew Corbin Clark’s PBS Frontline article about the “Birth of a Beijing Music Scene,” which included Realplayer files of his recordings of key underground bands. The Wild Children’s song, "Leave," in particular, got me hooked, and I knew I had to come to Beijing, and try to involve myself in the music scene, even if River Bar was no more.
AD: What do you aim to achieve through the podcast?
KK: The podcast aims to create a record of the people who are involved in China’s creative industries now while they are still here, and hopefully connect them to each other so they can collaborate on new things in the future. People come and go from China quickly, and I want others to hear from the many many interesting people I’ve met along the way, many of whom are ex-pats and locals who ended up where they are unexpectedly. I started with just music in mind, and I started with my close network of musician friends, but I’m not just interested in musical stories, so why stop there. I plan to make it bilingual eventually, and ultimately I hope that diversity in the creative and cultural industries here gain validity and support from those above (cultural visa? cough cough).
AD: What’s been your most interesting interview?
KK: John Flower, who guests on Episode 2, is the Sidwell Friends School’s China program director. Every spring the Linden Center near Dali, Yunnan, hosts a group of Sidwell students. I met John, “interviewed” him, played a square dance, jammed and had beers with him all in the span of 24 hours. I was majorly surprised by how academic and cool he was, and though I had no idea he existed beforehand, here he was with all these amazing stories of playing bluegrass in China and studying Sichuan folk songs way back when. That was the interview where I decided that I wanted to try and interview people in interesting locations, or in their surroundings if possible, too, complete with background noise. I like less formal conversations more than interviews, but I’m still trying to train myself not to say “嗯” all the time, or giggle obnoxiously.
AD: What’s your outlook for the china music scene after doing the podcast?
KK: I have hope for the future, though I don’t think anything’s just going to fall into place. It’s going to take a lot of work from a lot of dedicated people who aren’t going to profit too much. Thankfully there are more and more of these people. The China music scene sometimes seems kind of stagnant, especially if you look at Beijing, where you have long-time venues closing down, but a music scene is like an ecosystem, and a sustainable ecosystem requires a lot of players on different levels. I wish there was more growth in the legal side of things, but at least people are actually making contracts now sometimes kind of. Promotors like Splitworks are making great strides in professionalizing and standardizing best practices. MusicDish*China is bringing interesting people over and creating forums for learning. There’s been a lot of growth in venues in smaller cities and towns, which is creating performances opportunities that while small, are fun and can actually pay all right, as well as longer-term residencies. Whiskey and dice bars that would normally just have some pop band play “My Humps” are starting to have to compete with each other because of the corruption crackdown, and diversifying their musical offerings. There are more and more tour managers setting up low-budget tours. There are more people connecting smaller players to larger world-class venues and concert halls, as well as to the International scenes. Groups like Ping Pong Productions and Creative Asia have been working really hard behind the scenes to build trust and productive working relationships between different art social strata, and putting tons of time into educational performances and workshops for migrant schools, universities, and so on. If you want a music scene to sustain, you need young people. Likewise, there are more and more younger sounds guys who actually care about what they’re doing, and more older sound guys who cared ten years ago who actually have capital now to make a difference. You have photographers who actually specialize in music, like Aurelien Foucault and Laurent Hou, who make all this amazing music LOOK amazing. Booking has been made a bajillion times easier with WeChat. I can’t imagine doing all of what we do without WeChat, with which you can book a weeklong Shanghai tour in almost a few hours. Incredible. I wish there was a Mastertour Pro for China. The music scene in China used to be pretty much be Beijing, Wuhan and Shanghai, but it has spread to places like Chengdu, and Dali, where people have moved to get away from giant cities and Pollution.
AD: Anything else you wanna tell us about this project?
KK: Staying consistent is one of the hardest things to do with a podcast, especially when it’s not your “Main Thing.” I’ve spent a year on the China Arts Podcast, and only now do I feel like I have a handle on how to proceed, and a basic workflow, but my major challenge for 2016 is going to be to keep it going NO MATTER WHAT amidst all the other stuff I’m doing, and I have some super cool ideas coming up that will make it way easier, and incorporate it into my life more. For example, my bandmate Chris Hawke and I are preparing for a music and storytelling podcast performance at the Shanghai and Beijing American Centers in February and we’ll build on this idea and open it up to the public in Beijing at Jianghu on Feb 20th. I'm looking forward to stitching it all together.