If fans lost track of Jim Keller after his days in Tommy Tutone, for whom he co-wrote the immortal ’80s hit “867-5309/Jenny,” they’ve missed out on a string of effortlessly engaging solo records released over the last dozen years. His latest, By No Means, comes out this week, and Keller thinks he can corral those New Wave fans from back in the day with the easygoing slices of life found on this latest collection.
“If something is engaging enough that it gives them a pathway in to go to wherever this is and accept and enjoy it, if it does that, I feel like I’ve been successful,” Keller tells American Songwriter. “I’m a far cry from Tommy Tutone. That was 40 years ago. And I loved that band, especially the beginning. I have incredible and fond memories about being young. Let’s not kid around, I was in my 20s and man, it was happening. It was like, ‘I’m exactly where I want to be.’ Well, now, I’m exactly where I want to be with this music, right here, right now.
“That doesn’t always happen. There’s no rule that once you have success, or once you hit something that works, that it’s going to be there for any period of time. There’s no guarantee, especially with pop music, which is supposed to have a shelf life of 30 seconds. I think, in life in general, when something works, then suck it up, brother, and enjoy it there, because you don’t know what’s going to happen next. I’m just happy it works right now.”
With By No Means, Keller inadvertently happened on a new approach, one that he discovered with the help of producer Mitchell Froom. “It wasn’t like Mitchell and I had some grand plan to do this for years,” Keller explains. “I sent him probably close to 30 songs without any expectations of him doing anything other than being polite and saying, ‘Hey, great stuff, Jim. I’ll see you for dinner next time you’re in town.’ But he got back to me literally the next day and said, ‘There’s something really great here. And I totally have a bead on it. Let’s talk about it.’
“His thing was that he gravitated towards the simplest things I had, which was basically my core, raw writing demos, which is me singing with kind of this voice that I’m using talking to you, or lower, at first thing in the morning with an acoustic guitar,” Keller continues. “What usually happens is I take that and I go into a room with four musicians and I take it up an octave to cut through the band. What he thought had the most nuance to it and the most character were these really intimate, low vocal things with minimal acoustic guitar. I went out to LA and we spent a bunch of time together trying to figure out what stuff worked in that kind of vibe and whittled it down from there.”
The record also benefits from an ace group of musicians (David Hidalgo, Bob Glaub and Michael Urbano) who were able to follow Froom’s directive to enhance the inherent grooves in Keller’s spare demos. “Those guys’ ears are so good and Mitchell is so straightforward in terms of being able to describe that, it came together very easily,” Keller says. “A lot of that is I’m sitting there and I’m not fighting anybody when I’m singing. When you’re the singer, if that doesn’t work, nothing works. To be able to be in a place where that is so supported and simple, it was great.”
With that foundation in place, Keller’s songs settle into an easy-going swing that somewhat masks the subtly profound turns that his lyrics tend to take. “It’s what I work on, it’s what I love doing,” Keller says of his and his frequent co-writer Byron Isaacs’ preferred method of sneaking in gut punches underneath the surface simplicity. “For me personally, it’s always when something seems simple but isn’t, that’s when the magic stuff happens. When I hear a song that seems like a simple song, but it destroys you, I say, ‘How did the fuck did they do that with three fucking chords?’ And I’m melting on the floor. It’s just three chords. There’s no end to the joy of what that brings to humanity when that happens. And if I get anywhere near anything like that, I’m thrilled.
“The joy in songwriting is that deception. I don’t want to sound tricky. I’ve done that in songwriting, and I think that’s not what I’m into right now. I don’t want it to sound like I’m trying to be smart,” Keller adds. “But if I can be simple and have some other dynamic going on, whether it’s a storytelling, emotional or musical dynamic that’s hidden in there in a way and understated, I’m very happy.”
Many of the narrators in Keller’s songs, even the bluesy ones, evoke a sense of acceptance at their current state in life. “That’s one of the benefits of getting older,” he laughs. “I’m more comfortable in my own skin at this stage in my life than I was when I was younger or even seven years ago.” But he can also reach back when he needs to express something more cutting. “I’m 66, about to be 67 years old. I got a deep well. I use that well for touchpoints. While the song’s story may not be specific to what I’m thinking about when I’m writing, the access to that well allows me to hopefully create an emotion or a feel or a sense in the song, whether or not it’s autobiographical.”
He also believes that understanding what he’s incapable of doing as a musician has made him a better songwriter. “I’m a limited musician,” Keller notes. “And limitations are the fountain of intrigue. I’m not a jazz player. There’s only so much I can do in my comfort zone. I’m limited to a certain extent. You get basic structures, because I don’t know how to be that fancy. When I do get a little too fancy, a lot of times it really doesn’t work. When you think about guitar players, whoever you want to pick, you know in two notes who that person is, and they can’t try to sound like somebody else. They have limitations. And those limitations become beautiful.”
Keller doing such top notch work at this point is something that shouldn’t be taken for granted, especially considering that he stepped away from music for a long stretch. “There was the crash and burn and then the seven years of purgatory and then me crawling out of a hole and bullshitting my way into a job with Philip (Glass, the composer for whom Keller serves as manager), and then working with him for 25 years,” he recounts. “There was a lot of stuff going on. And during the course of that, me stopping playing, starting again. 12 years ago, the first studio album came out.”
Now that he’s back at it with a vengeance, gigging and getting together with top musicians regularly (pre-pandemic, anyway) and releasing what feels like a career best album in By No Means, Jim Keller is filled with gratitude. “You have to have songs,” he says. “You can go into a recording studio with the best musicians in the world, but if you don’t have your shit together, it’s not pretty. To be able to go in and have songs that I like and the players like, I feel really incredibly lucky, not just at this stage in my life, but at any point. To be able to go into a situation and a room with great players and have it work, it’s just magical. There’s just no way around it.”