Kevin McWha Steele is a prolific singer, songwriter and performer from New York and is our latest Sonicbids competition winner. Despite Kevin’s incredibly hectic schedule we were delighted when he agreed to complete an in-depth feature interview for Song Revelation. Read on to find out about Kevin’s musical background, who inspires him and which modern-day artists he looks up to.
Q: What are you called?
My stage name is my real name, “Kevin McWha Steele”, though fans have alternately called me “McWha”, for short, and “Ki” . One of the groups I’ve worked with, The Heyna Second Sons, a Native American drum in NYC headed by Louis Mofsie, started calling me “Ki” back in ’99. Periodically, I use it as a stage persona, as I did recently on the glam concept album “Ki & The Arrowtooth Waltz”. I guess it’s a nickname, but I really only hear it with my friends in the Native community.
Q: If you could use a tagline of less than 20 words to describe your music and who you are what would it be?
Bilingual singer-songwriter poet pro-Frenchie with a penchant for folk, rock, pop, jazz, psychedelic, and cabaret.
Q: What is your musical background?
My mother was a drama teacher and father an opera singer, dancer and educator. My brother was/is an actor, director, musician, saxophonist. Growing up in St. Cloud, MN and Baltimore, MD we listened to a lot of great music. My brother had an extensive jazz collection and was esp. crazy on Charlie Parker and Monk, while my mom and dad listened to opera, musicals, Streisand, Seals & Crofts, Beatles, Lloyd Webber. There was a great mix on in the house at all times. My dad also worked as a cultural liaison with Taiwan at the University of Maryland and some of the concerts we saw were phenomenal. In particular, I remember the National Chinese Zither Orchestra. It was wonderful!
By age 12, I was listening to Prince and the kind of music that came out of that time period, Sheena Easton, Sheila E., Billy Joel, Elton John, Billy Ocean, Police, Michael and Janet Jackson, Tears for Fears, Styx, etc. I had a funny moment on my 12th birthday where all of my friends knew I wanted the new Sheena Easton’s “Private Heaven” album. I got something like 7 copies of it (with some of Shelia E’s thrown in, for those who got confused with the name).
From a musical training perspective, my brother and I were always lucky enough to be encouraged to take classes. I took up piano, voice and dance, and participated in local companies like Kinetics Dance Theater.
After high school in Baltimore I studied voice and composition at conservatories in Virginia and France. It was in France in ’92 that I really started to listen closely to what else was going on in the music world and what I had missed out on growing up. Although technically, I was on scholarship to study poetry at the Sorbonne through Hamilton College, most of my days were spent at the Centre Pompidou looking at old live performances and listening to recordings. I loved it… and that neighborhood. I’d start in the morning with a coffee and baguette then go look at music/ cabaret videos for 3 hrs., eat lunch, then go back and do it again until I’d pass out!!
I wasn’t ready to leave France when the school year with Hamilton College ended, so I moved to La Rochelle, France, as an au pair, where I studied counter-tenor at the La Rochelle Conservatory. That added a lot of Baroque music in the mix of what I was listening to. I studied Pergolesi and Vivaldi, among others, with the vocal teacher Herve’ Caresmel…. and, as it was an “ecole ancienne”, I also started playing around with the lute and harpsichord. I was listening to Alfred Deller and Dowland from my singing lessons, so I think it was a natural progression.
Herve was one of a handful of people in France who also repaired harpsichords. I’ll never forget going to his house at the beach for lessons and there were approx. 12 different harpsichords in his house in various states of repair (not kidding).
In La Rochelle, I was also introduced to new “world” talent as I worked at the “Maison de la Culture” part-time and helped to coordinate the La Rochelle Music Festival. It was the first time I heard Geoffrey Oryema and Cesar Evora.
Since moving to NYC in ’96 I’ve been involved in many different projects and can honestly say that it was the best move for me. However much I loved living in France, identifying with myself as a songwriter within the context of my own culture remains an important development. One of my favorite recent highlights was performing at the Jeff Buckley tribute, curated by Gary Lucas, at The Knitting Factory back in March 2011.
Q: How have the last 12 months been for you?
Some of the best of my life. I don’t know what took me so long to realize that I actually had to release songs in order for people to want to listen to them, but it did. I have a back catalog of about 150 songs and I’d just started releasing them in March. The Glam LP, “Ki & The Arrowtooth Waltz”, a co-write with French guitarist Aurelian Budynek, came out in March with a solo EP, Lumiere Violette, shortly thereafter in April. I have a 12-17 song self titled LP debut coming out at the end of this month. Very excited about it.
Q: Who inspires you musically?
So many! but I could give you a few for starters off the top of my head. Prince, Bowie, Dylan, Cohen, Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, The Beatles, Serge Gainsbourg, Edith Piaf, John Lennon , Paul McCartney, Alan Price, The Move, The Faces, Rod Stewart, Roxy Music, Joe Cocker, Ray Charles, Terence Trent D’Arby, Sheena Easton, Sheila E., Sting, Stevie Winwood, Leo Ferre, Aznavour, Cab Calloway, Sara McLachlan, Tori Amos, Carole King, Indigo Girls, Nick Cave, Nick Drake, Mark Sandman, Morrissey, Tupac, (breath),…
Q: Which modern day artists do you look up to?
Mostly those that are still alive from the previous question.
Alicia Keys, Lauryn Hill, Conor Oberst, Beck, Manu Chao, Jamiroquai, MeShell Ndege Ocello, Mary J. Blige, P!nk, Christina Aguilera, and Ray LaMontagne are all writers that I respect. I’m song and lyrics guy, so if the songs are overly formulaic, I won’t pay much attention… unless, it’s just a really good song. Case in point, I could listen to Ella Fitz scat all day!
I don’t care for many of the younger pop artists today. They hit it too early and aren’t studied… and it shows in the themes of the music they write. Most of the contemporaries that I respect aren’t “popular”, but are oftentimes more talented than what is being played on the radio.
Q: Is there anyone you would like to collaborate or gig with?
Sure. Bowie, Bryan Ferry, Prince, Sting and many of my talented friends.
Q: Some songs that are on your iPod at the moment?
“Allah Hoo Allah Hoo,” Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, “Stride the Mind,” Patti Smith, “Regatta De Blanc,” The Police, “When You Were Mine,” Prince, “Surfacing,” Sara McLaughlin, “Strut,” Sheena Easton, “Oooh Child,” Nina Simone, “Musique de Nuit,” Mozart, “Feelin’ Alright,” Joe Cocker, “Star,” David Bowie, “Stay With Me,” Faces, “American Boy,” Estelle, “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” Ella Fitz, “The Distance,” Cake, “Leopard-Skin Pill Box,” Dylan, “Come Together,” The Beatles, “Ventilator R-80,” Ojos De Brujo, “Take Those Lips Away,” Alfred Deller, “Rock Steady,” Aretha Franklin
Q: What is your creative process for creating a track?
Every project is different, but when left to my own devices, I normally hear the music first, then come up with the story. Sometimes I’ll be dreaming the music and in the dream I’ll have a self-conscious moment, i.e. “Wait, has this song been released? No!!” Then I’ll wake up and hum the verse and chorus into my phone, cum recording device.
Q: What’s more important, melody or lyrics?
I think what’s most important is that you’re successful at telling the story you want to tell… and making it unique or inspired. Use what you’ve got. If you can do it better with compelling lyrics, then do it! If you’ve got an incredible melody that doesn’t need a lot of words, then do it! Each song calls for different attention.
Q: Where are you based?
New York City and Santa Monica, CA on occasion.
Q: What’s it like being where you’re from?
Stressful, but exciting when in NYC. Mellow and lovely in Santa Monica. Making ends meet on either coast is always a challenge.
Q: What are you currently working on?
Debut LP, ‘Kevin McWha Steele,’ subsequent EP, ‘Sweet Lime,’ and gigging with new band “The Nightly Howl”
Q: What’s been the highlight of your career to date?
Opening with group Heyna Second Sons for Bruce Springstein at Queen’s World Fairground in front of 20,000.
Q: What are you hoping to achieve in over the next 12 months?
New LP release, New EP release, some balance, some sunshine, some touring, enjoying friendships and good food/drink, a couple festivals. And a sincere desire to live on a different budget other than week to week. Some dental work. All that would be just dandy.
Q: Do you have any gigs or shows that you’d like to tell us about?
For my 40th Birthday I’m playing Cafe Wha? (somewhat in honor of the McWha fanbase) in the village on Feb 16th. Doors open at 8p. $5 cover. I hope I can pack it in… though certainly not like Van Halen did last week at the same spot.
Q: What do you do to relax?
Hang about in cafes with friends and people watch, drink wine or beer, sex, play cards and backgammon, take photos, sketch, garden, go out to see new films/theater, occasionally watch TV… in no particular order.
My mother used to accuse me of “flarbing around” when I was younger when I’d be hanging out with friends with no particular intent on doing anything except hanging out, but I love doing this. Very relaxing.
Q: Where would your favourite holiday (vacation) be and why?
Well, if we’re talking about the Xmas holidays, than with family. Any other holiday… if I had the $ I’d prob live in Paris, but for now it’s nice to visit. Also love the warmth, so South America and SoCal are great… and I imagine the Sub Tropics in Asia would be cool, though I’ve never been.
Q: If you could give a little piece of advice for new or aspiring musicians what would it be?
Get paid when you can, but more importantly play as often as possible. Don’t get stuck in NYC (as I have) playing to your 5-15 friends at local venues. Hit the road and tour with other bands that have a larger following, whenever possible and get good (really good!) with your band. People will take notice. Ever read “Outliers”?
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to let our readers know about?
If you only have time to listen to three tunes, listen to “Be With Me Tonight”, “At The Serial Killer Disco” and “Sexy Liar”. Fans tend to like “Lovely Madonna” and “San Diego” too.
Editor’s Note: Kevin McWha Steele is a prolific and very talented singer, songwriter and performer whose music has both catchy and has enduring appeal. Make sure you check out one of Kevin’s live shows!
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