Q&A: Tony Kevin Jr. and Poverty

One of the problems with being a prominent historical figure in this modern era -- aside from the fact that you are dead -- is that you are essentially public domain. Your name and image can be employed by anyone to validate their own personal and political aims. Che Guevera, Thomas Jefferson and Jesus Christ have all been trotted out to support, respectively, discontent college students, tri-corner hatted Tea Partiers and morality merchants of all stripes. At best, such appropriation is an educated guess at unknowable intentions. At worst, it is a clumsy marketing ploy.

Enter Tony Kevin Jr., a 24-year-old Marysville native who has recently emerged on Seattle’s new folk scene. Having previously released an online-only EP called I Should Love You But I Hate You, as well as a single, “Paper Thin,” last year, Kevin created a minor stir last month with the digital release of Poverty, an EP he created with the help of fellow musician Bryan Jon Appleby and local luminary Damien Jurado, among others. But those names aren’t the most noteworthy thing about Kevin’s latest.

On appearance alone, Poverty possesses a curious power. The cover of the EP, displayed on Kevin’s Bandcamp page, is the mugshot of a 27-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. taken in February 1956 following the civil rights leader’s arrest at the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Across King’s chest, below his arrest number, is the album’s title, in all caps: “POVERTY.” To the left of that image is the tracklist, which includes the title track and two other songs: “Mahatma Gandhi” and “Mother Teresa.” Below the tracklist sits a quote attributed to Mother Teresa: "We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty. We must start in our own homes to remedy this kind of poverty." Below that is a plain description of the EP, written by Kevin: “An album about Peace, taking care of one another, and loneliness - The greatest poverty.”

Within are three songs that play to Kevin’s musical strengths. His voice, though untamed, is powerful; his delivery undeniably moving; and his acoustic guitar work, featuring a dusty cowboy twang, endearing. The opening track, “Mahatma Gandhi,” proves this. A rousing spiritual, the song features Kevin repeating the line “Oh Great Soul, he won’t raise up a fist to fight,” between lines that harken to some of Gandhi’s most memorable words, sometimes quoting them directly. “Mother Teresa” follows with Kevin at his most impassioned, painting a street scene littered with beggers, a screaming Mother Teresa and Kevin himself, whose loneliness, by the end, dominates the song. By the close of “Poverty,” the spare and very pretty ballad that ends the set, Kevin’s loneliness consumes all, with him singing, “And like a king I may live in a palace so tall, with great riches to call my own, but I don't know a thing in this whole wide world that's worse than being alone."

It is an odd, unsatisfying ending to an otherwise impressive collection of songs. As the album descends into solipsistic moping, its promise of empowerment disappears and its ultimate intentions are left unclear. It appears that loneliness isn’t, as Kevin wrote in his liner notes, the “greatest poverty,” but the only poverty. And as proof of the validity of his loneliness, Kevin has employed three of the most influential figures of the twentieth century. It’s an unsettling mix, asking more questions than it answers.

I sat down with Kevin at a Greenwood coffee shop on a recent afternoon to ask those questions. Affable and bearded, he was quick to engage, telling me that the EP grew out of that final song, “Poverty,” which he first played four months ago at the Conor Byrne open mic, backed by members of the Head and the Heart. He will be returning to that same stage this Sunday to celebrate the physical release of Poverty.

Tell me how you came about writing that first song, “Poverty”?
I was really, really lonely, by myself for three straight days. And I don’t do well by myself; I’m a people person. So, I was depressed, it was evening, I closed the blinds to my apartment and it was just like the outside world was completely gone for me. I have a really good friend named Cait; so I swallowed my pride, admitted that I needed to see someone and called her. She came over and I spilled and told her what I was feeling and she listened. And its rare for me to have friends who will sit there and listen to me; it’s hard to admit the really tough stuff you are going through. So she listened and we talked and it was really inspiring and lifted me up and I started writing this song.

I had been listening to this song performed by the Peasall Sisters called “Where No One Stands Alone,” -- it was on the True Grit trailer -- and that was really resonating in my head. So I took two verses from that song and included it in the song I wrote and it just really seemed to work.

I wasn’t really sure about the song, so I took it to Conor Byrne open mic the next Sunday and I was hanging out with Bryan Jon Appleby, and Jon Russell and Josiah Johnson from the Head and the Heart, and I asked them if they wanted to hear the song. So, we went outside and I played it for them and they said, “Sing it! Sing it tonight and we’ll sing it with you.” So they sang the back-up parts that Damien Jurado and Brian sing on the EP. The whole bar was silent and someone filmed it and it was this very special moment. And people were just like, “Oh that is so sad and depressing, but I love it.” So that’s the story of the song.

How did that song grow into this EP?
Well, I’ve become pretty good buddies with Abbey Simmons, and her and I have been having coffee and talking about relationship a lot, and friendship and community ; the kind of buzzword thing that is happening right now. And we talked about how we just need to be there for each other and how we were there for Drew Grow when he got into his accident and we were all there within a day and he was top-trending on Twitter and it was just insane. So, we were really encouraged by that and then I read this Mother Teresa quote that someone posted on Facebook and I was just like, “Oh yeah, that’s good.” I looked up the quote and I got more from her, and I decided that I wanted to write a EP themed around this. I want to have peace be a theme and I want to have taking care of each other be a theme and I want to have loneliness be a theme. So, Abbey was like, “You should call that song ‘Poverty’ since you’ve been trying to come up with a name for it.” And I was like, “That’s amazing, because I just decided to call the EP Poverty.” It was a really cool way it worked out.

Then it grew into this thing. Damien and I have become buddies. He heard me at the open mic and came outside and said, “What the fuck, dude. You’re amazing,” and I peed my pants. And he asked me to open for him and we’ve just been hangin’ out since then. So I was like, “Dude, come over and sing on this record.”

The really great thing about this EP -- whether or not the quality is perfect -- is that it was a community driven EP and people wanted to be a part of it, and when I asked people to sing, they would show up and they didn’t ask for money and they just wanted to be a part of it, which proves the worth of the theme in my opinion. And every time I play that song, it’s just silent; it proves that people can relate to being lonely.

So, is this the beginning of your engagement with these issues, or is this something you’ve been interested in for a while?

I’ve been raised with and have, all my life, had very Christian roots, and I was very hurt by the Church for the primary reason that they did not take care of people the way that the Bible actually says to. I mean, Jesus Christ, whether you believe that he is God or that he was just this dude that was here on this Earth 2000 years ago, was saying things like, “Take care of the hungry. Take care of the homeless.” And I was really upset that the Church didn’t do that and a number of other things as well. So, through my transition from leaving the Church and trying to build real relationships with people, I learned a lot. I was actually homeless for a couple weeks and I stayed with some people who were intentionally homeless and who took care of drug addicts and all this stuff under a bridge, and it was amazing. They taught me so much.

It’s something I’ve always been passionate about. Now, whether or not I am Christian anymore, I think it’s the thing that we should be doing for each other; taking care of each other’s needs in any way we can and just being real and instead of saying, “Oh, yeah, I’m doin’ great today,” saying, “Actually, you know, I’m not doing that great.” Actually having confidence in being able to say those things and having a friend who will listen. I am all about the real relationships, and that just stems back down to the roots of the desire to be taken care of and to take care of others. This is the first time that I have ever made a piece of art that expressed that. I’ve always been talking about it, but I was kind of scared. Could I actually do it justice in any way, this whole idea. But people really resonated with it and there was some press and people talked to me about it, so apparently it did part of its job at least.

From here on, those themes are still a part of who I am, so they are still going to come out in my songs. I don’t know if I’ll be releasing any other themed, “poverty” records. I’ll be releasing a full-length record that I’m recording with Kory Kruckenberg, about being alone and just the different ways you can be with your girlfriend and then breaking up, or whatever, but it's all about being alone. Other than that, I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future.

The thing about the figures that you have brought into your art is that they did spend their lives committed to spreading knowledge about issues of social justice. It does seem a little like you are using their work in service of this larger theme of loneliness ...
In a way, yeah.

... and I know  that you said you want to do justice to what these people stood for, but don’t you worry that if you pull back from this theme in your art that it's going to look like you were just being opportunistic.
It’s cool that you say that. I was thinking about that. Because I don’t want to use those people in any way. Number one, if you are going to write a song about those two people [Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa], you better know your shit. There isn’t much biography about those two people in those songs, which is good, because I’m not well versed in their biographies.

But the concepts that those people stand for – Ghandi was all about peace, peace at any cost; he said crazy things, like, If the Nazi’s are trying to invade your home, and they aren’t going to let you out without killing you, then you let them kill you. That’s crazy. That kind of peace is very dangerous to talk about. So, I did bring that up at the end of that song where my brother read those Ghandi quotes, but the greater theme is just all about peace and being peaceful and not trying to stir up any kind of bitterness or resentment or fights.

Mother Teresa, she literally, physically, was with people her whole life; sick people and lonely people and poor people. But she was a nun; that’s what she felt called to do by God. For me, though, the points that she is making are good for whatever life you’re living. And again, because those two themes are things that I have tried to do, and definitely failed at, in my life, it will always be a part of who I am and will always be in the songs in some way. I’m just honestly not sure if I’m able, up to snuff enough to, in the future, try to do similar things in my songs. I feel like I made my points, not just in the songs, but in the promotion of the songs, on Bandcamp and talking about them enough – and I’ll continue talking about them – but I feel like this record is what it is and it’s a picture of where I was at for a few months, and I wanted to capture what I was thinking about and what I was feeling.

Why is there a mug shot of Martin Luther King, Jr. on the cover of the EP? You don't mention him in any songs.
Yeah, that’s a confusing one too. There was a plan for two other songs that were being written. I wrote three and there were two others that were going to be written for the EP. And one of the songs, I had the theme and I had some verses written down and it was called “Dr. King.” That was going to be based around the theme of segregation and being cooler or better than someone else. Obviously, we don’t really struggle with that as much these days, with racism; I mean, it still exists, but the idea that no one is better or worse than anyone else in this culture, in this society, is really huge. Sometimes I can feel segregated in a way, like I don’t fit in in places like Linda’s, you know. Even though that might be something all in my mind, I still feel it.

So, “Dr. King” was going to be a song and I tried to force that and another song out of me and I couldn’t do it; it would have just been shit if I would have done it. Those are songs I am still working on and might release as a B-sides free download type of thing.

Because of the song, “Dr. King,” I found that artwork and it was so striking that I chose to just stick with it anyway because enough people know who that is on the cover and know what he did. So, that was a trip trying find the album art work. I had to go through a bunch of different copyright stuff and then I finally found that it was public domain. So we stuck with that; I just didn’t feel right trying to change it. And it was also just like, “Holy shit, that’s a crazy album art cover.” It grabs people right away; that’s one of the reasons, shock factor, you know.


Top photograph by Michael Porter