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Your broken dreams can still be beautiful!!
John Carroll Kirby the Smooth Chune God on finding your inner The Crow, flowy clothes, Frank Ocean & more
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John Carroll Kirby — he’s a Spyplane Musical Hero and, not coincidentally, a Smooth Chune God.
Born and based in L.A., he’s got twinned careers: One is as an ace session musician who’s made studio magick with Blood Orange, Solange, Frank Ocean, Harry Styles and Eddie Chacon, among others. The other is as a solo visionary responsible for a bunch of fantastic instrumental albums we keep in heavy rotation here at HQ… Some are beautiful contemplative solo-piano explorations… others are mad fun polychromatic, polyrhythmic jazz~funk grooves laced with impeccable vibes … and irrepressible FLUTES !
The other day John put out his newest LP, Blowout, and it’s phenomenal. He wrote it in Costa Rica, which is very pimp and baller, and while he was whipping it up he had both tropical birds and doomsday cults on the brain …. This s**t, in other words, is not regular !
Importantly, John is also nice with the fits. The man has enough Mach 5+ sauce — and just the right sense of humor — to make winkingly wild outfits look dope that would look preposterous on other people. For instance, peep the granny glasses + deep-v-sweater-vest over a bare chest + long braided ponytail that he rocks in the 2021 “Rainmaker” video, screencapped further below….
The other day I (Jonah) was stoked to get on the Spyphone with John and chop it up about flowy clothes; tricks for striking collaborative gold; what’s up with Frank Ocean; his Satanist dad and Utopian fantasies; and beautiful broken L.A. dreams, as embodied by cool old photographs he found of a dude in the ‘90s auditioning to replace Brandon Lee in The Crow !?
Blackbird Spyplane: I was almost late to this call because I was out in the garden weeding and I really got into the zone. Someone told me that monks weed, so that’s where I’m trying to get with it. You made a great album a few years back called My Garden — do you f**k with weeding too, John?
John Carroll Kirby: “No, I’m a bad gardener. I have a garden here in L.A. and it’s beautiful, but I don’t touch a thing. My mom was an amazing gardener, and as a kid that was one of my chores — you don’t see it as so meditative when you’re that age, though. I think I got paid like 1 cent per weed. But I was just talking with my girlfriend about gardening and how we can see ourselves getting into it.”
Blackbird Spyplane: Let’s talk about yr style for a second — I look at your music videos and pics of you & see a lot of flowy shirts, a lot of sick, louche, vintage ‘70s and ‘80s auras… What’s your relationship to clothes?
John Carroll Kirby: “I love clothes. I really love them — and at the same time I really don’t like fashion. I’ve gone to fashion shows from time to time and it’s always kind of funny to me to see people put that much importance on clothes. Maybe I’m wrong, though. But I try to keep it pretty light. I do love flowy shirts — I like to keep things airy.”
Blackbird Spyplane: The first song I ever heard of yours was ‘Wind’ — a beautiful homage to the Ethiopian legend Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou — and the first album of yours I heard was Tuscany, so I came to know you for these solo piano compositions that are very spare, full of empty space, pretty bittersweet. That deepens what I get out of an album like Septet or Blowout, where the tempos are upbeat, the colors are bright, and the vibes overall are groovy and funky as h*ll. Do you feel like different people record to record, or is it all cuttings from the same cloth for you?
John Carroll Kirby: “I think about that, too. I’ll wonder if people are gonna be surprised by one thing or another. I try to just go with what comes out, and I try to always be writing, so a piece will be for this project, and another piece is for that project, but they were written one day apart. I’m not necessarily thinking of it as a different person so much as the mood of the day. I was inspired when Mac DeMarco released his whole hard drive — he’s a friend, and I was talking to him about it, and he was saying he just did that for him. He needed to release it so he could move on. I feel a bit like that — I have to release what I have at hand so I can get on to the next thing.”
Blackbird Spyplane: Speaking of which, I’ve heard a rumor about Frank Ocean from friends in the L.A. music scene, which is that he feels frozen under the expectations people have put on him to follow up Blond with a 10/10 classic. Like, he can’t bear the idea of putting something out and people going, ‘Huh, kinda mid,’ and he’s paralyzed by that. Since you’ve worked with him, I’m curious if you have any firsthand insight into that rumor…
John Carroll Kirby: “Well, having worked with Frank I’m on an NDA, so I can’t speak specifically to the process. But commenting from the outside, you can see that he’s a perfectionist and an artist with so many ideas, and a very emotional person — I think what makes him so compelling is his volatility, and there’s a flip side to that, which is sometimes in executing deadlines, or trying to make a follow-up, or meeting expectations, there can be volatility. But I have high hopes for whatever he does next. And it’s crazy because Blond came out 7 years ago and it still has this trickle-down effect of kids trying to sound like Frank.”
Blackbird Spyplane: Any collaborator needs to be able to subsume their ego to some degree, maybe project themselves into other people’s heads or even play-act as characters. As a veteran collaborator, can you share some wisdom for how to go into that dance of egos and hurt feelings and pridefulness, trying to find creative breakthroughs working with other people?
John Carroll Kirby: “I do play around with the idea of characters a lot, sometimes when I’m collaborating or even on my own stuff. I like to imagine I’m a different band member, if I’m playing MOOG bass versus a Rhodes versus a synth. I think a lot about those Miles Davis electric groups from the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, where each person in the session is their own planet, whether it’s Chick Corea or Hermeto Pascoal. I’ll try to apply that in my collaborations.
“Sometimes I even try to work with ego, where I imagine I’m a session player who’s behind the spotlight and resents it and plays something that serves their own ego, even if it doesn’t necessarily serve the music. I’ll intentionally try to invoke that, just to bring a different kind of attitude into the room. I do that on Blowout, too — I was imagining this egomaniac saying, ‘Turn me up! Turn down the drums!’ Thinking of someone maybe like William Onyeabor, where the mix is kind of wacky, but it’s all him.”
Blackbird Spyplane: Your father became a Satanist later in his life, and you’ve talked about grappling with his dim view of “feel-good ideologies.” When you were writing the new album you were thinking about cult gatherings, imagining “a festival where everyone gets beamed up to utopia or heaven instead of starving or dying unfulfilled.” I like the premise of envisioning a doomsday cult and asking, What would it sound like if they were actually on a path to transcendence and salvation? The tension between cynicism and faith seems to still be alive in you….
John Carroll Kirby: “Yes. It’s something I’ve been playing with my whole career as a solo artist, because sometimes my albums are quite meditative, but other times I’m looking at these darker things, and the way it all comes together. Which is a big part of L.A. — looking for these answers. The L. Ron Hubbards, the Jack Parsonses, the Kenneth Angers, they were looking for answers in the same way that the Sri Dharma Mittras, the Self-Realization Fellowships, the Alice Coltranes were looking for answers. I see myself somewhere in that mix.”
Blackbird Spyplane: On the subject of L.A. searchers — you sent me three pics of a dude stanced up in some wood-paneled room looking gothed the f**k out. What’s the story with these?
John Carroll Kirby: “I was at the Fairfax Swap Meet in Hollywood, and this guy was selling these photographs. He explained that, when Brandon Lee died in the middle of shooting The Crow, this guy made these audition shots, trying to get the gig. We know he didn’t get the gig, obviously, but he left behind these photos. He’s maybe a bit too old for the role, and it looks like he’s standing in some, like, grandma’s trailer, with that plasticky wood and the red carpet — but he’s in good shape, and I like his conviction. He really feels like he could get the gig.”
Blackbird Spyplane: D*mn, I loved The Crow as a kid — R.I.P. to Brandon Lee, killed during filming by a ‘firearm malfunction.’ People have been digging back into The Matrix and Blade for ‘90s fashion-goth style inspiration, but besides like Lil Uzi Vert, I think the culture has been sleeping on The Crow. So props to this guy. An uncharitable person might mock these pics, but he’s not half-assing it, he’s owning it.
John Carroll Kirby: “Yeah it does kind of connect back to that L.A. ‘looking for answers’ thing, where people are really searching for something here, searching for dreams. These pictures have a kind of ‘broken dream’ element to them. But there’s also something inspiring about them, because whoever this guy is, he seems to have found his inner Crow. He’s really expressing something about himself.”
We also love his albums My Garden, Tuscany, Conflict and Septet. He’s on Instagram here.
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