It takes most of us the better part of a lifetime to work out what it is that we were put on this Earth to do. Once in a while there comes a rare soul who knows, from a very young age, precisely why he’s here.
Connor Kennedy is one such soul. And he was put here to make music. Great music. Heartfelt music. Lasting music.
“Connecting with music kept me out of trouble—a lot of the kids I knew when I was younger ended up in jail,” says Kennedy, who grew up in a working-class neighborhood of the upstate New York town of Saugerties. Now in his early 20s, Kennedy has had experiences many musicians can only dream of: leading his own band, making records, playing to packed houses on tour, and sharing stages with personal heroes like Graham Nash, Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen and NRBQ’s Joey Spampinato. Now the seeds sown by his experiences have come to full fruition with Connor Kennedy, the stunning self-titled third album by this artist chosen for Yahoo! Music’s “25 Singer-Songwriters Under 25” list.
For Kennedy, it’s all about the songs. Songs that glow with the kind of durable melodies, vivid imagery, and timeless warmth that will see them radiate from his generation to the next: the soaring “Summer Days,” a wistful, warm-weather earworm that weeps with Harrison-esque guitars and doomed romantic ennui; “Tied Up, Lied Down,” a fuzzy rocker that chugs like the best top-down highway tune Tom Petty never wrote; and “Star,” about a young actress-turned-singer and the machinations of fame. Co-produced by Kenny Siegal (Langhorne Slim, Chris Whitley, Marco Benevento) and featuring guest appearances by John Sebastian and Amy Helm, Connor Kennedy is set for release in July 2017.
Kennedy was raised near Woodstock, a region well known for its prior musical contributions (the Big Pink house made famous by Bob Dylan and the Band is right up the road). He started on guitar at 10 and by 13 was playing open mics and writing songs. Initially timid about performing his tunes, he honed his live chops as a solo blues player. At 14, he got a job emptying trash cans at Levon Helm’s celebrated Midnight Ramble events in exchange for free admission. “I’d sit right behind Levon and watch him play,” he recalls. “It taught me so much, it was an amazing opportunity.”
Kennedy’s songwriting confidence was bolstered by his 2013 solo debut, Nothing Lasts: Nothing’s Over, a rag-tag collection of tunes he’d written throughout his latter adolescence. He next assembled Minstrel, a formidable new backing band: longtime drummer Lee Falco, bassist Brandon Morrison, and organist Will Bryant. The buzz kicked up by their soulful indie rock led to rabidly received opening slots on North American tours with The Waterboys and the Gipsy Kings. The unit recorded 2015’s transcendent Live in Utopia at Todd Rundgren’s former Bearsville soundstage.
To another of Kennedy’s heroes, Little Feat’s Bill Payne, the singer-guitarist and his group are among the brightest young torchbearers of the Americana tradition. “That’s four generations of music right there, and Connor and his band fit right in,” Payne says. “He’s creating his own music. His band really feels like a band to me.”
Although his songs have proud links to earlier styles, by no means is Kennedy overly beholden the brown suede and buckskin of decades past. “I think The Flaming Lips deserve to be called Americana as much as anyone,” he says. “I’ve been influenced by The Lips as much as I have The Band.”
Indeed, such openness to new sounds and those other elusive qualities—seasoned musicianship and, above all, impeccable songwriting—are exactly what Connor Kennedy brings on his new record and wherever else he’s going on his musical journey. A journey that, lovers of fine music should note—euphorically—is still only just beginning.