After spending three years in London, Nashville singer-songwriter Kim Richey is back with her 7th studio album, Thorn In My Heart. The album (out April 16 on Yep Roc) features appearances from Trisha Yearwood, Jason Isbell, My Morning Jacket’s Carl Broemel and Wilco’s Pat Sansone. We asked her about working in the kitchen at The Bluebird Cafe, getting her big break at the age of 37, her approach to songwriting and more.
Who are your songwriting heroes?
Joni Mitchell, first off. She was the first songwriter that I really studied. Tom Petty, I love for his deceptive simplicity. Steve Earle. I moved to Nashville in 1988 partly because of a Steve Earle cassette. Guitar Town, brilliant lyrics. I’ll stop here. I could go on and on.
Tell us a bit about getting your first record deal at 37, and what you were doing before that. Were there many previous attempts?
I was signed by Luke Lewis at Mercury records after he came to see me play at 12th and porter in Nashville. I didn’t realize who he was at the time. When he told me he was at Mercury I asked him how he liked it there. My publisher, Blue Water Music, set me up with an appointment to play for Luke and Keith Stegall in Luke’s office. While we were there we were talking about our influences and he and I had a lot in common. All at once he said “wait – how old are you?” “37” I said. They signed me anyway. Before that meeting I had been to a couple of labels with Richard Bennett who produced the first record. There were a lot of emotional ups and downs. It was a long time between having producers ask Blue Water for my demo tapes so they could have a listen and actually getting to record my own songs. Frank Liddell produced the Blue Water demos. We had great players like Dan Dougmore who had just moved to town. They sounded like records. Before getting a record deal I: waited tables, bar tended, cooked in restaurants, lived lots of different places, worked at a raptor rehab facility, as a naturalist, in offices as a temp, as a practice patient for the osteopathic school of medicine and as a staff writer at Blue Water Music.
You were a chef at The Blue Bird in Nashville. What was it like, as a songwriter, to work there?
Chef is maybe too generous a term for the cooking I did there. I was just learning to cook when I worked at the Blue Bird. It was a fantastic place to work though – such a great group of people. After dinner every night, once the diners cleared out, the Blue Bird Café became a music club. I used to stay after and hear all these great bands play – John Scott Sherrill and the Wolves in Cheap Clothing, Tim Kreckle and the Sluggers, The Nerve, Kevin Welch. Amy worked so hard and turned the Blue Bird Café into a Nashville landmark of songwriting. It’s a pretty cool thing to have worked there back in the day.
What’s the best dish to order there?
I don’t know about now. When I worked there though, the best things on the menu were the deserts. A girl came in and made them every weekend and they were killer!
What do you like to listen to when you’re at home?
I listen to a lot of Public Radio mostly. I just looked on my iTunes and here is a list of some of last things I listened to. Brian Eno – Music For Airports, Carl Broemel – All Birds Say, Lowell George – Thanks I’ll Eat It Here, Telekenisis – 12 Desparate Straight Lines (I met Michael when he was in high school. He made me a mix tape when I went to visit his family in Seattle), Tom Petty – Wildflowers, and I just bought Air and Father John Misty on vinyl. All I need is the turntable. My record will be released on vinyl so, I’m in the market for one.
What’s co-writing like for you? What do you need to make it work?
There is nothing better when it goes well. I have met some of my closest friends that way. Collaboration is the best part about music for me. I love playing and singing with other people. My dream gig would be to be a back up singer. It is really great when people ask me to sing on their records. A couple of nights ago I sang on Jason Isbell’s new record – two songs! Both songs were amazing and they let me go wild and sing crazy harmony parts all over the place. I don’t like writing with loads of different people so much – ideas seem to get watered down and become neither here nor there. It is best when you can find one or a couple of people that you really click with and stick with them. Then you can take time with the songs. I don’t get the whole thing of having to finish a song in one sitting.
What’s your typical approach to writing lyrics?
Usually, I start with a bit of a musical idea and then let a phrase or piece of lyric be inspired by that – what does the music make me feel or think or maybe some nonsense syllables came to mind when I sang along with the music. The hardest thing about song writing for me is getting started on a lyrical idea.
When did you start writing songs? Were they good right away, or did that come later?
I started writing songs when I was in college. I was in a band at W.K.U. with Bill Lloyd and some other guys. We played all originals except, I think we did one Van Morrison cover. I decided to try and write too.
What was the first song you ever wrote?
Well, I didn’t want to take up too much space on my first song so it was pretty small.
It went like this:
I’ve been thinking about you
for a long, long time
and I don’t know just what I should do
to make you mine.
I guess this song’s as good as any way to say
That I’ve been thinking about you
for a long, long time
And I wondered if you’d thought of me too.
It lasted 1 minute and the guys called it the FTD song. They said it would make a good florist advertisement.
What percentage of songs that you start do you finish?
I finish most of them. I don’t record them all though.
What’s a song on your new album you’re particularly proud of and why?
I’m really proud of “Thorn In My Heart”. Neilson Hubbard and I wrote this song. Every person writes differently. Neilson and I like to spend a good deal of time talking about what is going on with us and around us and write about those things. this song came about in that way. We were talking about people in our lives that we love to bits but, how they can make things real hard on you and on themselves as well sometimes.
What’s a lyric or verse from the album you’re a fan of?
“Angels’ Share” is one of my favorites on the record in terms of the craft of song writing. It seems a new way to say something that’s been said many times before. For me it isn’t about just drinking whiskey until you forget what ever it is that’s chasing you. Whiskey can stand in for any vice that you take to extreme excess – “until there’s nothing left” to escape. The idea of “angels’ share” came from an article on bourbon from the magazine “Garden and Gun”. I wrote this one with Thomm Jutz.
Is it easier, or harder to write songs, the more you write?
It’s harder – harder to come up with new things I feel like writing about. That’s one reason why I like working with other writers. It makes me think differently than I would if I was just sitting on my own trying to come up with an idea for a song. You have twice as many experiences to draw from as well.
What’s a song of yours that’s really touched people?
“A Place Called Home” is the song that seems to connect with people the most. I guess just about everyone is or can relate to searching for some place where they belong.
Who do you consider an underrated songwriter?
Hmm. I don’t know about that. I’ll say Lowell George maybe. I think sometimes when people are great singers and musicians as well they are over looked as songwriters.
What do you consider to be the perfect song, and why?
Wow. You’re saving the hardest for last. Ummm. I’m going to say “Moon River”. The melody is gorgeous and has such a lovely melancholy feel to it. it is like a little movie or story in a song. The imagery is beautiful.