Korby Lenker writes songs that are unassuming and often simple, yet capable of eliciting a remarkable depth of meaning. He often has you pondering whether there is a difference between melancholic hopefulness and hopeful melancholia. It’s amazing how such playfulness can attach us to what is most real.
Although his songs cover a broad range of musical styles and textures, there is a method to his madness. The mantra is, “Be true to yourself, follow your interests, and always be brave.” His self-titled Korby Lenker is a brave album, full of turns and surprises that are both calculated and carefree.
NYMM: You just released a new album. Tell me a little about that.
KL: It was the next logical step in the direction I’ve been going over the past few years. The album is very produced and polished, but it still represents the approach to songwriting that’s been there from the beginning. My writing style, for better or worse, hasn’t really changed a lot over that time. I want to say something, I want to use simple words, but I also want them to hang together. I don’t want to be impressionistic. The sonic trajectory of my sound has been different, however. The first three were acoustic roots records, without any post-production. I was really into bluegrass music at the time. About four records in, I started moving a different direction. For one, I was really excited about the musicians I was working with and wanted to include them.
NYMM: The songs on this album are very different from one another. How did you establish a cohesiveness?
KL: The songs are very different from one another on purpose. For one, I enjoy writing different types of songs. Following that, we produced each of the tracks to fit the song. I wrote “Forbidden Fruit” on acoustic, but that’s not a folk song. I have a lot of interests and I just follow where it goes. The governing force has always been trying to write a great song, and having it reflect an innate thing about me. Right or wrong, that record is my personality.
NYMM: There seems to be a theme of mixing happy and sad within the same song.
KL: I like having a little salty in my sweet, and the other way around. I’m not 22 anymore, and I feel like I’ve lived a bit. Part of living for a while makes you notice that no matter what you’re feeling at any given moment, it’s going to change. You can’t ever forget that there’s another side of the coin. A lot of times, that manifests itself with there being a tinge of melancholy in the happiness, but to me, it has been more interesting to write something that sounds happy but has a little something bittersweet in it.
NYMM: What kind of living?
KL: Like I didn’t go to college right away. I was good at school, so my parents just died when I didn’t go. My mom actually hand-wrote a letter, begging me to go to college instead of playing music. She was so afraid that I was going to turn out like this guy she knew in high school who ended up on heroin. She wrote, “HEROIN, Korby, HEROIN!!” [laughs]. A year later, I ended up going to school and was really into it. I stayed until they basically kicked me out. It was such a privilege to just be surrounded by ideas.
NYMM: Is that when you got interested in other types of writing?
KL: I’m very interested in writing. I actually feel like I know more about books than I do about music. I’ve been a total book nerd since I was old enough to read. Writing became a way of life at some point. There’s another freedom in writing prose that doesn’t exist in music. You can explore an idea, develop a character, or say something more that you can’t say in music. I take it very seriously and read a lot of literature by people who take writing seriously.
NYMM: Sounds like you have a lot of other interests and influences.
KL: I’m interested in a lot of things. I’ve always been pretty good at a number of things, but never great at any one thing. That’s just how I am, and I don’t spend too much time trying to fight it. At a certain point, that’s just banging my head against the wall. At the same time, I try not to go in too many directions, because I do want to be good at what I’m doing.
NYMM: If you get writer’s block, what tends to snap you out of it?
KL: I don’t know. Panic and anxiety? [laughs] I think a lot of what I do creatively comes out of acute anxiety, and the weird basic need to be paid attention to, which is ultimately vain no matter how I approach it. I mean, why do people write, or get up on stage? At some point, it’s because you have to. That’s the way it is with me. I can’t do anything else. I actually think about it a lot: what’s so important about anything I have to say? It’s annoying.
Images by Jon Karr
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