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Urban Folk & Jazz from a Girl like KJ Denhert

Gina Vodegel By

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AAJ: You're a finalist in the Independent Music Awards (category folk singer/ songwriter) for your album Songwriter's Notebook you did with Adam Falcon. How would you describe the connection the two of you have and are there any plans to record more?

KJ: Adam and I are great friends and our little CD has gotten some very nice responses. There are a few international stations in France and Australia that play it. Our connection is purely musical. We are so similar we approach guitar - and especially rhythm - from a similar place. I can't believe I produced that record. Adam has had a lot of success in this business and seems to know everybody. He knows George Benson and has provided songs to Al Jarreau - working with Adam is like in sports, when you play with someone who is very skilled you discover the best you can do. That has been a gift. We don't have plans for another CD yet - we both have bands and our own projects, but we just completed three shows supporting our release and each one got better and better. What is great is the amount of improvisation that we do - that's the real thrill. A lot of music that we see on television is choreographed and rehearsed down to the smallest detail. We have a framework that is open, like jazz, and it's a high-wire dance that we share. I hope we get to do more shows soon - it's so envigorating.

AAJ: Composing your own music and arranging work from others, are those two different skills in your view?

KJ: Yes, I certainly thought of those things as different, but here's where it gets related. Whether I write a song or someone else did, it's about hearing it in your head. If I were to teach any young musician one thing it would be to pay attention to what's in your head. We can get so caught up in what our hands can do - practicing licks or scales, but our ears and minds are progressing faster than muscle memories of chords and scales. When we try to recreate things using our physical skills it's actually a distraction from listening to what is happening. I always had a bit of a chip on my shoulder because I had no formal training, I spent so many years feeling like I had to catch up - but I don't learn things the way a lot of folks do. It took a long time for that concept to be resolved, emotionally for me. Once it did, any song, my own or a cover, became the same mental process - very liberating. I get told all the time that I make cover tunes my own - it's really because I learned to let my mind lead, or my ears. I essentially gave up on being a technician and started listening to every note I sang and every note I played almost as though I was listening to a new recording and what needed to come next began occurring milliseconds before I would play or sing it. Milliseconds sound very short, but it's all so relative. We can have many thoughts in a millisecond, learning to do anything from the heart is like meditating, focusing and turning off all of the useless (ego-driven thoughts) and then a millisecond, when the next note is arriving is a long beautiful time. Thoughts like "Who is in the audience," "Do they like it," "What's that really cool lick I played last time" can all go on simultaneously. I have to keep a constant vigil to just listen.

Cover tunes are fun for me because I really spend a lot of time improvising and try to be true to the harmonic structure of the original. At the same time I tend to find little vamps that are my own that occur between sections. It was an unconscious result but I noticed when I was teaching my arrangements to other players that I had almost derived a little formula - I never go at any tune with any formula in mind. I like covering tunes I don't know as well as the ones I literally played hundreds of times over and over growing up.

AAJ: You also love the music of Steely Dan. What are your fav tunes and do you ever think of arranging and performing a SD song? If so, what song(s) would that be?

KJ: I really, really love Steely Dan music. When I was young I think it seemed to hard to do justice to. Today I know we could, but some songs - it's just so much fun to be able to sing the solo from Kid Charlemagne note for note in my head - that it doesn't inspire me to pull it out for a reworking.

I discovered Steely Dan - though I knew their "hits" in high school - really in college. I can remember what I was doing, what I was wearing the first time I heard Peg on the radio. Actually, I was brushing my teeth, in my friend's father's shirt. I was in an unusually good mood (college was a dark time of feeling overwhelmed) and I danced myself into a frenzy right from the first listen. AJA is a later album from them, but Peg on the radio once made me buy it and devour it. I then worked backwards and found earlier records and got most hooked on the Royal Scam but (also) Katy Lied, Dr Wu- Black Cow, Haitian Divorce, The Fez, the list could run on and on. There was so much to lock into as a musician - guitar solos, arrangements, guitar riffs - like the one from Josie. Donald Fagen's Nightfly is another one, from start to finish a masterpiece. Though not Steely Dan, per se, it offered everything I gleaned from Steely Dan previously.

If I covered a Steely Dan tune it seems like it would be fun to cop stuff note for note because they have the kind of songs that you (if you're obsessed like me) end up learning note for note even in your head. I know a lot of guitar folks used to transcribe solos and stuff - I never did that kind of stuff. Sometimes I just want to play the music, the lyrics brilliant in their own stylized way seem so personal that any other voice would seem odd.

What I do for fun sometimes - I'll take a verse of Oleander ( I think the only use of the word Oleander besides my song that I know of - occurs in one Steely Dan song) and sing the verse in my best Donald Fagen imitation. I use a four-chord phrase from Josie in not one but two songs - a song called "I Got Time" and one from the new Another Year Gone By Live Record called "The Deed is Done."

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