Kim Churchill: Down Under Dynamo

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Kim Churchill’s always had an independent streak. Growing up in his native Australia, Churchill was steered into taking classical guitar lessons by his dad, which is where he developed his impressive finger-style chops. But once he hit his teenage years, the music’s formality – not to mention the rigorous exams –began to rub him the wrong way.

“I was trying to find as many messed-up things  …  that my examiner would look at me and say, ‘That’s terrible, you know, you can’t do that kind of thing’ and I was like, ‘Yes you can, and I’m gonna.’”

And he hasn’t stopped. Onstage, the 23-year-old Churchill’s hands are a flurry of activity as he not only expertly finger-picks, but pounds out tribal rhythms on his guitar’s body and even slips into some occasional Van Halen-style finger-tapping. His left foot, meanwhile, comes down hard on a kick-drum pedal, a stomp box and a snare-drum trigger. Oh yeah, and he also plays harmonica, dropping in overdriven, bluesy solos as well as psychedelicized, effect-pedal-aided swirls of texture. It’s hard to imagine what a full band could add to his performances, since he seems to cover all the bases himself.

“Musically, I guess, I committed myself to being a solo artist. I did it early on, and it’s become part of my music and part of what I do,” he says.

To achieve his live sound – “singer -songwriter on musical steroids,” he calls it – Churchill uses upward of 15 effects pedals, as well as the aforementioned percussion. He’s constantly swapping out pedals, which cost as much as $300 apiece, though he’s also snagged the occasional bargain on gear.

“[The] kick drum was cheap as chips – I bought it off some dodgy guy in Vancouver from eBay for like a hundred and sixty bucks,” he says.

While Churchill’s 2012 album Detail Of Distance saw him opening up his sound, exploring White Stripes-esque garage blues and dense, electric guitar-heavy soundscapes, his latest record, Into The Steel, returns his warm acoustic style and vocal melodies to the forefront, utilizing a string quartet on several songs. Recorded in just five days, the album – now streaming on Soundcloud, with physical copies only available at Churchill’s shows at the moment – has an offhand spirit that may remind listeners of another famously idiosyncratic artist, Bob Dylan. Churchill says Dylan, whose “Subterranean Homesick Blues” has become a frequent live set-closer, was crucial in the development of his style.

“I’ve found a lot of inspiration in the things he says, you know, like ‘You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.’ No matter what he meant by that, it’s meant a lot of things to me that have really helped me throughout my life.”

Surfing is another of Churchill’s inspirations, the result of a childhood spent in Merimbula, Australia, an oceanside tourist town in New South Wales. Images of the natural world pop up frequently in his lyrics, while song titles like “The Seagull” and “Waves” make the connection even more overt.

“It doesn’t matter if they’re easy to understand or if they’re sort of drenched in layers and layers of metaphor … as long as you’re being honest, I think that’s the key to the lyrical side of things in a song,” he says.

Already a force in Canada, where he’s played in prestigious settings including the Montreal International Jazz Festival, Churchill is gradually making inroads in the U.S., most recently as an opening act for Billy Bragg. The two songwriters met at another Canadian festival when Bragg, one of the headliners, shared his van with Churchill, who was stuck without a ride to the gig.

“I found him really interesting, so I was just asking all these questions, and then he was courteous enough to sort of stick around and watch my show when I’m sure there were a bunch of other things he could’ve been doing, should’ve been doing,” Churchill says.

If Churchill has his way, he won’t have to worry about transportation much longer. He keeps a van in Australia and another in the U.S., and has plans to buy a third one for touring in Europe. His dream, he says, is to have a vehicle on every continent so that he can fly in at his leisure and hit the road.

“I find that I’m quite content to be on my own, to be sort of hopping around from place to place and moving in with different circles of people for short amounts of time,” he says. “You know, having little tasters of all different forms of life.”


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