Theres a healthy dichotomy at work on Seeds and Thorns, the engaging new album by Philly folk artist UP THE CHAIN. The words and images of 'seeds and 'thorns are used throughout the album in different contexts, explains Reed Kendall, UP THE CHAINs frontman/creator. Its about potential and struggle.
In a way, this dichotomy is a continuation of Kendalls prior work, simply more realized and nuanced. It also applies to UP THE CHAIN itself, a band in a unique sense in that its really an extension of Kendall.
Its my vessel, says the singer, whos been performing as UP THE CHAIN for a number of years. For the moniker, he credits one of his musical idols: Conor Oberst.
When I started out I was listening to a lot of Bright Eyes, and I liked how Conor chose not to use his own name despite having a different lineup of musicians for each tour. That put the idea in my head.
Before UP THE CHAIN, it was simply Reed Kendall, an aspiring musician from Ardmore, PA, who already was performing at legendary Philly-area venues like The Point at age 13 and releasing albums under his own name by high school.
Despite his early success, Kendall felt restless. It took an aborted stay in college and a soul-searching six-month journey to New Zealand to help him find his way.
I released these albums under my own name, but I think after New Zealand I really started considering how to turn my songs into a career, he says. It was a real move-forward moment. I even started changing the way I write. I wanted to turn over a new leaf.
That change was UP THE CHAIN, a collective of some of Phillys finest musicians, but at heart a vehicle for Reeds new musical impulses.
Seeds and Thorns follows UTCs 2011 full-length debut Holy, Open, Drying Road (which earned the band both praise and radio support, including time on taste-making WXPN), a live record and some early demos. In addition to Kendall, basic tracking was done with Anam Owili-Eger (keys, vocals), Avery Coffee (electric guitar), Matt Scarano (drums) and Matt Wong (bass).
Generally speaking, I dont script out parts for the musicians, says Kendall. Sometimes there are specific things Im looking for, but I prefer to get people involved that I trust and then let them do what they do. Well vamp on a groove, and it may take a song to a different place during the recording.
Inspired by his musical heroes Oberst, Neil Young, Ryan Adams, local fave Amos Lee, Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes, even Paul Simon Reed kept the recordings for Seeds simple at heart, making sure to serve the songs the way they were written, simply on guitar or, for the first time, on piano.
I wanted to make the songs compelling with just Reed, says producer Bill Moriarty (Dr. Dog).
That said, Seeds is as rich of a record as it is intimate, full of piano, trumpets, strings and big harmonies. And theres a real Americana vibe at work, a rootsy feeling thats never twangy.
Lyrically, Kendall tackles his struggles head-on, questioning his motives and resolving to find an inner peace. Seasick Sailors musically nods at the '70s singer-songwriter, a deceptively upbeat track that rails against complacency (his own and others). But then, the piano-driven Same Story finds Reed confronting his own restlessness and his contrasting need for a familiar stability, as he calls it. In The Horses Course, he argues for the combination of keeping a steady course while staying grounded, and on For to Give Away he finally rediscovers faith in himself in light of a relationship gone sour.
These songs are intensely personal, says Moriarty. Its about whats going on with Reed at this time in his life, at this very moment.
With the album finished, UP THE CHAIN returns to the road, bringing a show thats decidedly energetic and upbeat. If theres anything that stands out about what I do, says Kendall, I hope its the sincerity of the live performance. Touring in nearly every setup from a duo to a five-piece, Kendall has made waves both in his hometown (including a recent, well-regarded show at the historic Philly Folk Fest) and up and down both coasts.
Its different every time I play live, he says. I like using different playersit lends itself to spontaneity: the songs get different personalities in different situations. He laughs. And its hard to lock down the schedules of the caliber of musicians I like working with.
With all this talk about personal struggle and growth, it should be noted that Kendall remains incredibly upbeat and affable in person. Hell happily discuss local folk heroes (Hezekiah Jones and Cowmuddy), embarrassing early music loves (names redacted), his love of recreational sports (Im never without a baseball glove) and even the bizarre origins of his band namewhich grew from a throwaway line on the cult cartoon Space Ghost Coast to Coast (just something goofy that stuck around and a nod to my oldest and closest friends.).
In other words, Kendalls journey may be personal in many ways, but hes happy to share it.
Somebody once said I write songs that are somehow both energetic and laid back, says Kendall. They also said 'catchy yet substantive. I was proud of that. I hope thats what Im doing.