Kendell Marvel may not be a name you recognise yet but he’s the man behind hits for Jake Owen, Gary Allan and Chris Stapleton.
Stepping into the spotlight as an artist in his own right, Marvel today releases his debut album Lowdown & Lonesome in the UK. The album was originally released in the US last year and now UK fans can enjoy it following his critically acclaimed support slot on the recent Brothers Osborne UK tour.
I caught up with Marvel before he took to the stage at KOKO in London last week to talk about his experiences in the UK, find out more about Lowdown & Lonesome and to discuss his plans to return to the UK soon.
This is your first time touring here. How have the audiences treated you?
It is! It’s my first time just being here, much less touring. (The audiences are) insane! It’s crazy how they hang on every word and listen. They don’t do that in America. We have great crowds in America and they party hard but over here it’s like the whole time you’re singing they’re deathly quiet and when you get done they just erupt. This tour that I’m on with Brothers Osborne, it’s been packed venues every night. It’s pretty nice to be able to go play somewhere that’s sold out, it don’t hurt my feelings either.
Do you find it disconcerting to play to such quiet audiences?
Not at all because I’m playing just acoustic on this one. It’s just me and a guitar on this tour so I prefer it that way. They rock a little harder when the band comes on and they don’t just stand there and listen to songs, they have a good time as well.
Are you already thinking about coming back for your own headline shows?
Yeah, I think I’ve made a lot of headway. I think I’ve made a lot of fans this week and we’re already looking in a few months to come back and maybe doing something on our own here in London, and doing some other things like maybe jumping on another tour in the next 3 or 4 months.
You and the Brothers Osborne are kind of the perfect pairing…
It is ! We’re old friends too so it’s fun to get to go hang out with them. We hang out a lot in Nashville and I do a lot of dates with them in the states so it’s fun to come over here with them. They’ve been over here before so they know what they’re doing and they can lead me around.
Have they been giving you any tips or advice?
Yeah they’ve been great. They can tell me what works and what don’t work and more importantly where to eat and things like that. They found some restaurants last time so we’ve had a great time.
There’s plenty to do in this city…
Yes there is. In every city there’s been a lot of stuff to do. They’ve all been very entertaining.
Let’s talk about the album Lowdown & Lonesome, which is out in the UK. The album was released in the US last year. What’s the reaction been like since you put it out there?
It’s been a slow build in the States but we’ve been getting a lot of really good press. Rolling Stone for some reason took a liking to me and some other good publications. I’ve been getting some really good press over there. It’s just a little slower build because it’s a big country. Over here it seems like it can blow up overnight, on a smaller scale in America, but really a bigger scale as far as the excitement from the people. In the States we’ve been building slow and we’re making headway but it just takes a little while to get going. It’s getting there.
Breaking the US is a relentless task as you have to be touring constantly and it’s all about radio…
We don’t attempt radio. I’m too old for that and our music does not fit the radio mould at all. Satellite radio is playing us some and stuff like that and maybe some small stations but corporate radio won’t have anything to do with us.
The album embraces tradition but I feel like it’s modern enough as well and I’m surprised to hear you say it’s not getting picked up by radio, I’m sure it will over here…
Well thank you! Yeah we’ve actually had some people already it pick it up over so we’re really excited about that. It’s a little rock ‘n’ roll and a lot of country lyric. Some of the tracks we used some rock ‘n’ roll guys. Half the guys are rock ‘n’ roll e rs from The Black Crowes and some other bands, and the other half are Country players so it was the perfect mix of guys to make it something pretty cool I think.
I was quite surprised by your sound as I knew you’d written a few hits for Jake Owen earlier in his career. This sounds nothing like that. Were you consciously doing something different or is this more natural for you?
What I’m doing now comes naturally to me. The stuff I wrote with Jake was when his career first started 10 years ago. I had his first few years and he’s completely changed direction from when I was writing with him. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a hit with him but he’s doing well and I’m proud of him. I had more in common writing with guys like Jamey Johnson. I don’t know if you listen to him but he’s really good. Chris Stapleton, Brothers Osborne… that’s more my vein of stuff that I gravitate towards. I’m naturally inclined to write stuff like that.
There’s a real backlash at the moment in the Country genre with some fans, especially with music they consider to be non-traditional. You see a lot online people that are very quick to say what is and isn’t Country music. I presume that your music, and the music of the artists you mentioned, is satisfying the more traditional audience?
I think it is. Some of that stuff is pop leaning. A lot of stuff on the radio sounds a little more pop than it does Country but things change and people do what they do. A lot of it’s just not good lyrically, it’s just like the same song over and over and over. People get tired of listening to it. I don’t even listen to the radio anymore because of that, it’s like the same song all the time. It’s really stale to me a lot of the music hits. I try to be conscious and not do that, and when I write songs not write songs like that.
Do you have a favourite track on Lowdown & Lonesome?
I think my favourite song on there is Hurtin’ Gets Hard. It’s a heart-wrenching sad song really but it’s just so Country. It reminds me of 70s Gary Stewart records, I don’t know if you’re familiar with him but he’s a really cool honky tonk singer. That’s probably my favourite song on there but I like them all. I’m proud in the sense that I’m not tired of any of those songs yet.
The album showcases lots of different sides to you and your voice is incredibly versatile…
Oh thanks! I can rock a little bit and I can Country it up too. I always say it’s a mixture between ZZ Top and Merle Haggard, that’s what the whole album feels like to me.
I’m excited that you’re performing acoustic tonight. I always think that’s when you get a real feel for an artist…
Sure and I’ve done that for a long time doing songwriter shows so I’m used to playing like that. I have a band but financially you have to start small and see what happens if I bring the guitar player next time or maybe bring the whole band. I’m just glad to be here.
Being a songwriter, I imagine you had a lot of songs to choose from when it came to recording Lowdown & Lonesome. How did you end up with these final 10?
We had the one song Lowdown & Lonesome and I sat down with my producer and he said, ‘what do you want to do?’ I wanted to build everything around Lowdown & Lonesome and all of the songs I wanted to be either lowdown or lonesome. It’s kind of a concept record me good or bad. We started digging through songs and found three or four older things that we really liked and wrote the rest of it. Me and him sat down and just figured out what was missing.
Do you have a particular process when you’re approaching a song like writing a melody first or starting with lyrics?
Both. It depends. Sometimes I’ll have a guitar riff and sometimes I’ll have a title or a verse, a chorus or whatever. A couple of those songs, my producer Keith Gattis came in with a chorus and I just helped him dot the i’s and cross t’s.
Was there any song on the record that surprised you in terms of how it turned out?
Yeah a couple of the old songs that me and Chris Stapleton wrote were completely different. They were demoed with the band and then my producer would say, ‘we’re not going to play the band version, you’re just going to play it on guitar and then we’ll see what they come up with’. To hear their take, from just me playing guitar and where they went with it, all those songs turned out completely different from what they were. It’s a little uncomfortable at first when they started doing it because I was used to hearing it this way but now to me it’s way better the way they are. They feel more natural to me now anyway.
You must have very strong ideas when you write these songs about how you want them to sound. Is it hard to go back and forth with a producer to get the song completely right?
I guess it could be. I respected him enough and he was the only guy I wanted to do it with. I hired him for a reason price. If I could have done it by myself, I would have done it by myself. I used him because we’re great friends and he writes well with me and we write some good songs together. I trusted him. There was maybe one or two things that I didn’t really agree with him on. I heard him out and then changed a couple of things back the way I wanted, and he was fine with it. 90% of the time I went with his gut instinct.
When you play live you can always switch the songs up and change parts. Is that something you do?
Oh absolutely. I do different tempos and different feels.
Is that based off how the audience is feeling?
Exactly it’s like a set list and I can be like, ‘I don’t know if I want to play slow one right now’ so I’ll play the song a little quicker that I normally would.
As this is your first time in the UK, has anything surprised you other than the audiences being so attentive?
Well there’s something that surprised me. I was told that the food was a little bland over here, for some reason. We have had great meals. I haven’t had one meal where I was like, ‘I didn’t like that’. We’ve had a lot of different ethnicities around here so we’ve tried lots of food. The food’s been fantastic so that has surprised me. When I go to a foreign country I expect the worst. I have stuff that I like to eat and I’m like, ‘oh I’m not going to be able to get my hamburger or whatever I want’. That’s been great and the fans have been great. The venues are old and cool and hot and sweaty and sticky. It’s like bar room grit back home. It’s like playing in Texas honky tonks without the noise or the cowboys. It’s been awesome.
As Lowdown & Lonesome has been out for a while in the US, are you already working on new material?
Oh yeah. I’ve got a couple things. I’ve actually got a couple of old things that didn’t make this record that I’ve got my eye on. I’m sure I’ll write more stuff for it and dig through some old songs. We’re a ways away. I’m not going to do anything really this year, maybe leak a song or two out there at some point. It’s really expensive to do that process in the States so we’ll see what happens between now and November.
Streaming, while not my favourite way to listen to music, is a good way to get music directly to fans and test material out…
It’s a lot easier to make fans. We’re still baby steps in the streaming thing. We’re not killing it by any means but we’ve got a few hundred thousands streams in the States. I’m hoping over here it’ll pick up a lot after this tour and get on some bigger playlists. I’m only one one playlist that’s got 90,000 but the rest of the playlists I’m on are small. Hopefully we’ll get on some bigger ones and get those streaming numbers up. That seems to be where unfortunately everything is going, digital. I like a hard copy. I like to buy a CD, put it in my car and listen to it. A lot of people don’t and they just want to have it on their phone. I get it, that’s fine.
We’re having a little resurgence at the moment in terms of older formats like vinyl and cassettes. Would you like to embrace those formats with your music?
I love it! We’re going to make some vinyl for over here. I didn’t know anybody dug cassettes anymore. As a matter of fact I recorded on cassette when I wrote songs until about maybe six years ago. I was still using a cassette player, then it became hard to get cassettes so I thought, ‘to hell with that’ and started recording on my phone.
Lowdown & Lonesome will be awesome on vinyl!
Oh it would be awesome on cassettes or 8-Tracks. I’d like to see 8-Tracks come back! I’m probably talking crazy now but that would be cool.
Kendell Marvel’s album Lowdown & Lonesome is out now via Snakefarm Records.