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John Carroll Kirby on the stories behind his new album, My Garden

The Los Angeles jazz artist tells us about the myths, memories, and mistakes that inspired his new LP.

April 24, 2020
John Carroll Kirby on the stories behind his new album, <i>My Garden</i> Danny Scott Lane / Biz3

Few artists embody a particular vision of Southern California more fully than the jazz musician John Carroll Kirby. Raised in a Pasadena home that once belonged to the pioneering architect Charles Greene, Kirby has a unique relationship with the Arroyo Seco area, where Southern California’s waterways and highways knot together. He grew up playing hide and seek around in its greenery, got arrested for the first time as a teenager for smoking weed on the concrete benches of the Bird Bath, and now meditates nearby in the middle of a mustard field. Now he’s self-isolating at his home in the ruggedly beautiful Mount Washington area, and he’s moved his studio equipment in with him. “I'm up in the third-floor attic of a beautiful craftsman house with a big palm tree, looking out my window,” he says serenely over the phone. “It’s quite cool.”

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Kirby’s new album, My Garden, out today via Stones Throw Records, focuses on his Los Angeles. Its nine instrumental songs range from piano-led meditations to synthy new-age digressions — but no matter how far he wanders, his head stays in L.A. “The concept behind it is stories, places, people, and emotions that are important to me,” he says. “My previous albums have been a bit more about looking outward, to travel. I released an album called Tuscany. Now I wanted to bring it home and reflect on L.A., reflect on myself a bit, and stories that are important to me. I wanted to call it My Garden as an invitation to come into all that.”

If parts of Kirby’s sound on My Garden (or the even more meditative surprise album Conflict, released earlier this month) sound familiar, that might be because you’ve heard him on some of the past decade’s most groundbreaking records. He worked closely with Solange on A Seat at the Table and with Dev Hynes to create Blood Orange’s Freetown Sound. Frank Ocean, Shabazz Palaces, Connan Mockasin, Kali Uchis, and even Harry Styles have all turned to Kirby in search of a kaleidoscopic but traditionally rooted jazz sound. On My Garden, left completely to his own devices, Kirby uses mythology, fiction, and memory as inspirations for his compositions. To guide us through those stories one by one, Kirby spoke to The FADER about each song in order.

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“Blueberry Beads”

The FADER: You told me in an email that this song was about your guru, Sri Dharma Mittra. Tell me about your relationship with your guru, and with religion and spirituality.

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John Carroll Kirby: It's something I wasn't really brought up to appreciate. My grandma was a religious enthusiast, and her and my dad had a bit of a tumultuous relationship, so I was brought up to be pretty wary of that stuff. And actually, later in my life, my dad became a Satanist. He was in a bad motorcycle accident and, according to him, made a pact with the Devil to relieve him of some of the pain that he was in. Whether or not we believe that, or to what degree we believe that, I did see him descend into a pretty miserable person. And he seemed to be possessed by something outside of what I knew him to be. So I did grow up pretty cynical of all that stuff.

It wasn't until I moved to New York, and just by chance was introduced to the teachings of Dharma, who I consider my guru — I wouldn't say I'm his top student or anything, but that's just helped me a lot. I like to apply some of what I learn through him in my music. "Blueberry Beads" is another name for rudraksha beads, which are a rosary bead to the yogi, and there's all these pictures of Dharma wearing his rudraksha beads. That tune is a particular dedication to his light and easy-going sense of humor. He has his teaching, but he'll always say, "Hey look, if this isn't speaking to you or if you just want to grab little bits of this, feel free. I'm just telling you what someone told me that I found helpful." Which is the approach I like to take to all that, hopefully not too sanctimonious.

Why did it feel important to you to put that at the beginning of the album?

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I think, as a scene, it brings people in. It's probably the most beat-driven tune, I would think one of the more fun tunes, the most playful. I thought that would be a good way to open the album, with getting things started on the up vibe.

"By The Sea"

You carry that into "By The Sea." It's quite a playful song. The synths are kind of new-agey on there, and there's some interestingly chaotic chord changes too.

That's funny. I'm happy you noticed it. When I was making that tune, I was literally by the sea, in Tamarama Beach in Sydney, at the home of my friend Daniel Stricker. The whole thing starts with this two-chord progression, almost vanilla. And I hit this one [chord], you can hear it in there at one point, it's actually a mistake. I just flubbed something, and I said, "Why not? Let's just leave it in there, it's kind of fun." As a jazz musician, it's fun to play with being irreverent, it's fun to play with mistakes. Sometimes even in my work as a session musician, I'll try to do that. I might try to create a character who's playing the piano, not necessarily me, who might be drunk or something and who would make mistakes. I enjoy playing with that kind of stuff.

"Night Croc"

This is another quite pretty song. What did you imagine would be the ideal setting in which to listen to this?

When I was composing it, I was in my studio with my friend Michael Dwyer. He was doing these really funny exercises that almost looked like a ballet warmup [Ed. note: Kirby sent us Dwyer's exercises in a text message this morning, and you can see them in the video below]. I was composing it with him moving in my periphery. Maybe the ideal listening atmosphere would be doing your morning calisthenics. If you think of maybe older folks in the park doing toe taps, or sunshine motions from left to right, that might be the ideal atmosphere for that tune.

Was it important to you to have these three quite blissful-sounding songs open the record?

I definitely want to entice people. I understand that there's other stuff that they could be listening to, and don't want to make things too complicated. That's been my challenge as a musician. I did study more what you might call progressive jazz in my life, but sometimes I feel like that can just be more about the musician indulging himself than serving the listener. I try to do my best with that, but also maybe try to make it a bit interesting for the people listening.

"Arroyo Seco"

You have a long relationship with the Arroyo Seco. I think a lot of people would be shocked by its natural beauty.

If you told people that there's an L.A. River — granted it's not the most impressive thing in the world — but most people wouldn't even know what you're talking about. If you said, "It's where people drive on that wash in Maroon 5 videos," that might be the only cultural reference that people might understand.

What does the legacy of L.A. jazz mean to you, and what do you think makes it distinct?

There's a few ways to think about it. Eric Dolphy, who was part of Charles Mingus's band, who had just a very unique approach to composition: pretty angular music, very expressive, borderline free jazz. That's certainly one side of L.A. jazz that I love and appreciate. And then another which people might know or more recognize or more associate with L.A. is the West Coast movement. I think about people like Art Pepper, or Shelly Manne, who had a club in Hollywood, where it's a bit of a more of an easy, laid-back, West Coast feel. I think now about people like Kamasi Washington, who are really at the forefront of jazz. Kamasi, I would play with from time to time back in the day at Billy Higgins's club called The World Stage. Billy Higgins was drummer for a ton of people, Herbie Hancock among others, and he fostered this whole scene of young jazz players coming up.

There's a really crazy movie called the Southlander, and it stars everybody. Beck's in it, Elliott Smith is in it. It's this tripped-out saga about finding a magical keyboard. There is a scene with Billy Higgins and his crew, and they're on this green screen, going through this insane, intergalactic jam. They just seem like the most tripped-out people on Earth. I was asking Ross [Harris, who starred in and co-wrote the film] about that, and he was like, "They were the only people who weren't acting. It was funny. They were just on that plane."


"Son Of Pucabufeo"

Speaking of tripping, you're going to just have to explain the story behind this song to me.

It was inspired by a man named Pablo Amaringo. He has a book called The Ayahuasca Visions of Pablo Amaringo. He was a shaman and painter in the Amazon, and the book is of all his visions. The story that really resonated with me was about the Pucabufeo, which is the magical freshwater pink Amazon dolphin who has the power to turn himself into a very handsome man. In the story, he goes into a village and seduces a woman, and has a child with her. And then he retreats back to the river once he gets the news. Amaringo talks about the dolphin coming back to his hybrid dolphin-boy child and bringing him a kind of child support regularly, would give some bananas and other fruit from the jungle. I play that song live a lot, and it's a kind of ridiculous story, but at the same time really I think relates on a very typical human situation where the dad is not so present in the child's life. The song might come across a bit melancholy, which it kind of is. I tried to imagine it from the boy's perspective, waiting for his dad to come back. But at the same time, it's totally tripped-out.

How do you treat narrative when you don't have words to play with?

In a way it's kind of cool, because as you're composing it you're not being told what the song is about because of the words. You're free, because you can create this melody, and you're letting the meaning of the song develop as you're composing. Have you ever heard the show Piano Jazz with Marian McPartland? It's amazing. She plays and then she interviews some of the great jazz piano players. She was interviewing [the pianist] Andrew Hill, who's a big influence on me, and he was saying, ‘Sometimes the meaning of the tune comes later. It could come days later.’ And that's the kind of interesting process in composing instrumental music — sometimes you don't even know what it's about for a long time, and then it hits you.

"San Nicolas Island"

Which came first with this one, the story or the melody?

The melody came first. This woman who was a Nicoleño tribesperson was left alone on her island for maybe 20 years, when her tribe got more or less captured by missionaries from the Santa Barbara mission. When she was brought to Santa Barbara, almost all if not all her tribespeople had passed away, so there was no one to speak her language. And she would sing this song over and over every day, but no one could really translate the song. So I was thinking about San Nicolas Island: What if I'm trying to discover this melody that's been lost? I was thinking about it that way, it could be my take on this lost melody and these lost words. Like this musical-archeological endeavor.

"Humid Mood"

There’s definitely a change of pace with Humid Mood. Why sequence it there? Were you trying to relieve some tension?

I think so, because I feel like just the narrative — and I think it's reflected in the music — "Son Of Pucabufeo" and "San Nicolas Island" have some pretty strong emotional content. And I thought "Humid Mood" would lighten things up. It's kind of sweet. And with that one, there's really not much of a story. So yeah, maybe a bit of a palate cleanser.

"Lay You Down"

But there is a story behind "Lay You Down." Tell me about Jean-Michel Jarre's "Souvenir de Chine."

Souvenir de Chine I think is a really beautiful song because Jean-Michel Jarre made it in a time where — this is ongoing — people trashing on China and hating on communism. But he went there and he played this amazing show and seemed to really connect with the people. And that was my experience. I went to China in September, and I really vibed with a lot of people there, really laid back, really kind folk. It's kind of weird to have a lot of propaganda in the US to skew our minds.

"Wind"

"Wind" is my favorite on the record. Why did you want to lead with the piano to close the album out?

If someone makes it that far in the album, then they're good — you can do what you want at that point. So I thought, ‘Here's a chance to show some of what I'm working on in my piano expression.’ That tune was heavily inspired by Tsegue-Marian Guebrou, who's an Ethiopian pianist and nun, who actually studied in Italy classically and went back to Ethiopia. I'm always interested in that, when people make music in a bit of a bubble. Like I said, she had trained in Italy, but otherwise it didn't seem like she was going to too many jam sessions. So she made this fusion of classical music, religious music, and Ethiopian music. I love how expressive she was with her flourishes.

It’s interesting that you mention isolation. What impact do you think our current situation will have on a genre and a format so collaborative as jazz? How are you planning to circumvent that?

I've already fully gone off the deep end. I was watching a version of The Canterbury Tales that Pasolini directed, and it's such a loose translation. It just descends into raunchy humor and slapstick, and veers off the plot. You don't know what the hell is going on. And I was inspired by that freedom. I started working on a concept album called The Canterbury Tales, which is my own take where I'm just doing my impression of what The Knight's Tale or The Nun's Tale or The Priest's Tale might sound like.

We can't collaborate in the same room. It's going to be a period of making music on our own, and I think that's okay. If it wasn't for the pandemic, I wouldn't have watched that movie, and I wouldn't be in a place where I think it's relevant to make an album about The Canterbury Tales. It's not, but I'm forced with my own solitude. So I have to see it through, I guess.

John Carroll Kirby on the stories behind his new album, My Garden