“You can’t feel sad and play the ukelele. It’s a mathematical impossibility”
Korby Lenker is one of the reasons I sometimes have second thoughts about my gig as house photographer for Legionarts/CSPS Hall. John Herbert and Mel Andringa make it a point to bring in up and coming singer/songwriters as often as they can. I get to hear and photograph every one of them. Therein lies my conundrum: my list of “Favored New Performers” keeps growing. I have trouble prioritizing the list. Now I have to add Korby Lenker to the list and mull over where to place him. It’s a terrible job, but someone’s got to do it.
Hailing from Idaho by way of Seattle and Nashville (his current home) Korby is one of those musicians who makes you ask “Why haven’t I heard of this guy before?” It’s a good question, because his level of talent and the scope of his songs are on the same level as better known performers of similar style such as Grant Lee Phillips, Ellis Paul or John Gorka. As far as I’m concerned, it’s just a matter of time before Korby joins the ranks of the best known and appreciated singer/songwriters.
The small crowd that braved the snow found their efforts worth it as they were treated to a fun show by a talented songwriter and guitarist. Korby made some new fans with both his music and his infectious stage presence. He is a bit quirky: his wardrobe hints at that. He wore a bow tie and a oiled wool jacket that was not your average tog. “Fans of lederhosen really like this look.” he joked. It’s also hinted at by the name of his record label “Stuffed Piranha Records”, named after a gift from a friend. That quirkiness leads to some interesting stories that can take a moment to catch on to. Eventually I ended up feeling like Korby was the sort of guy people in school would want to hang around with because the quirkiness isn’t an act, it’s the way he really is.
That’s what I liked most about Korby: he’s accessible. His songs are evocative without being pretentious. If anything, some of them seem deceptively simple, or perhaps childlike, in how he expresses certain ideas musically and lyrically. That’s not to say his music is simplistic: he digs deeply into his own soul to express a songwriter’s perspective.
That songwriter’s perspective ranges from the touching and personal (“Her Heart is Like a Rose”, explaining to his mother why he loves the woman he wants to marry) to anger-tinged social commentary (“Last Man Standing” a tribute to Lakota chief Sitting Bull). Along the way, Korby lets us in on his way of dealing with the common fodder of songwriters: love and breakups, historical events and the various, seemingly circumstances of their own lives.
Korby’s range of musical and lyrical expression makes for some interesting juxtapositions of songs. I really liked how the sentiment of the beautiful “If I Prove False to You” contrasted with the cynicism of “Paper Cuts”. They both speak of loving a woman, but while the former speaks of that love being strong enough to overcome doubts about the relationship, the latter is the “Dark Side”. In it Korby sings of the toxicity of being in a relationship that you shouldn’t be in but stick with anyway. In the middle of these extremes is the fun “Hurts Me So”: an upbeat song about a painful break up.
A lot of people would have written the lyrics of “Hurts Me So” into a mournful ballad. There’s where Korby’s quirkiness comes into play. He takes a string of cliché lines about how a breakup feels (“looked up and the sky is falling”, “struck by lightning” etc) and breathes new life into them by setting them to an upbeat pop-sounding ditty that I should have lyrics that continue the upbeat theme of one line “the first kiss was a supernova” but doesn’t. The song goes deeper than the cliché with lines such as “You are a holy roller and I’m a roller coaster. You are the telephone pole and I’m the show poster”. It was an odd feeling to find myself tapping my foot to music that has such a depressing message. But, that’s Korby’s style.
The highlight of the evening was when Korby grabbed a mini-ukelele (yes, there is such a thing) for the delightful “My Little Life”. The instrument adds to the playfulness of the song, which contrasts his life as a not yet A List performer living in Nashville. It musically confronts what so many musicians in “Music City USA” deal with: just getting by in a city filled with multimillionaire celebrities with legions of fans. As is typical of Korby, a song that could have been a sad or angry commentary on the situation ends up being a fun, quirky take that demonstrates his ability to pursue certain subjects off of the well-beaten stereotypical creative path that lesser songwriters would have followed.
I would be shortchanging both Korby and readers of this review if I didn’t mention his guitar playing. His instrumental chops are much like his songwriting: almost a minimalist approach which makes the most out of every lick he plays. Simplicity without being simplistic, his technique left me thinking that he’s a much better guitarist than I witnessed during the concert, but that he simply doesn’t want to show off. He uses just enough technique so that what he plays compliments the song.
After the show, I had a chance to chat and joke around with Korby. It felt like we were old friends, joking about his wardrobe and the aspects of his life on tour. That’s one of my favorite parts about the gig, getting to know the people behind the music.