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Acclaim Digital Cover 025: Kenny Beats

The mega-producer traverses the tumultuous terrain of family ties as he arrives at his debut album, finding acceptance in the adversity, the beauty in the imperfections, and the winding paths to love along the way. For our latest Digital Cover, we spoke to Kenny Beats to find out more.

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Kenny Beats’ LOUIE opens with ‘Leonard’, a conversation between him and his father. They’re discussing the origin of the producer’s nickname that this debut album is named after, delving into the origins and reminiscing on how the moniker stuck. Dusty keys build as the dialogue flows, enhancing the emotions as we hearken to this father-son dynamic. As it leads into ‘Parenthesis’, the conversation fades out, and Kenny’s curation of heartfelt sonic soliloquies begins.

Words become scarce across the journey of this record, making their presence known through brief guest appearances, samples, and spoken snippets. It contrasts the Kenny we’ve come to know via his Youtube show, The Cave, or on his Twitch streams, where he’s cracking jokes or discussing the ins and outs of the music business with his ever-growing community. Instead, he approached this project over 30 days, inviting in close collaborators who were unaware of the album they were working on, whilst also taking a break from his social media. His goal was to craft something to play for his father, who has been battling the effects of cancer, as a gift. Spending every day over December dedicated to this quest, Kenny began to navigate the tumultuous terrain of family ties, finding acceptance in adversity, and the beauty of the imperfections along the way.

Every lingual memento or easter egg that Kenny incorporates on Louie blends into the beats, allowing the plucking of guitar strings, playing of piano chords, and the snapping of snares to speak a universal language we can all apply to the time capsule we’re all filling as we make our way through life. “I realised that if I told my whole story, it wouldn’t leave room for someone to relate it to their own experiences,” Kenny tells me over Zoom, detailing the process of this becoming a personal project, to something he presents to the world. He’s situated in his home studio that Twitch fans will instantly recognise, and where much of the sonic smorgasbords, lavish live instrumentation and sincere songwriting for LOUIE came to life. To learn more, Kenny and I took a deep dive into the rocky roads of family relationships, media literacy, the magic of human errors, and how this album is a companion, rather than a distraction.

Congratulations on LOUIE, my friend. How have you felt about the reception so far?
Thank you so much. It’s been really eye-opening, especially as someone who has been working with artists nonstop for over 10 years. This is my first work as the sole artist, and it’s something so personal to me. Having a warm reception and just any reception, in general, is crazy because I made this album for my dad. It’s helped me get a better understanding of how I work with artists, and how I help them make music that tells their personal stories. It all feels very different than I thought it would, and I never thought I would do it.

I often feel like I’m bad at putting myself out there in life, but good at encouraging others to do it; I can only imagine it’s the same for a producer, who more than often remains behind the scenes. What’s the feeling of being the sole focus like?
I feel very grateful to have had the team around me who have helped build these digital communities throughout places like Twitch and Youtube, where I now have a fanbase to drop a project for. It feels great not only to have people say that they love the album or are taking something away from it, but also to have something to give to the people who have supported me for so long, whether it’s through watching The Cave, experiencing the music I make with others, or tuning into the Twitch streams. I never really realised how many people wanted to hear what music solely coming from me would sound like. I’ll probably get torn down on the second album; my friends have been telling me that [Laughs]. But for the debut, everybody has been very nice.

When releasing a project, is there a sense of trust you need to instil in your fanbase?
Media literacy is at an all-time low. I think the understanding of an artist’s intentions with a project or the context that leads them there is the lowest it’s ever been, because of how much people are expected to read and watch any given week. As of 2022, there are 100,000 songs uploaded to Spotify every single day. For someone to listen to every album and understand is pretty much impossible. So now, every album reviewed or commented on is either a 10 out of 10 or the worst thing they’ve ever heard. Trying to have nuance or provide easter eggs for people to discover on an album in 2022 means that a lot of the time you have to go beyond the music. That could mean putting out different visuals, hosting events, or talking to your fans on whatever social media platform you use. You see someone like Tyler, The Creator drop 8-10 videos and perform to a level that matches his content, rolling it out and talking about it for the whole year. When you give people enough time and content, you can help them understand your intent with the music without having to spell it out directly. I’m someone who talks about the music industry a lot with my fans, but as an artist, I didn’t want to try and dictate or tell them how they should feel listening to this record. So I tried to cut back on social media and release a high volume of different videos, really trying to focus on what this project is about and who it’s for. If an artist is putting out music in 2022, I think you need to give people more than the album artwork, one video, and one interview to guide them into understanding.

It also seems that when creating a close-to-home project like this, you need to understand what you want to say. When dealing with the emotions attached to this body of work, did you ever question the utility of this art, and what it serves?
I think I’ve always questioned if I had a good enough idea to do my own record, and I think that’s why it took this long. To make LOUIE, I had to take time away from all the other artists I was working with and the projects I was working on. So if I’m taking time away from working with the geniuses I feel blessed to work with, this art better have utility. The thing about this project is I had the idea for it after my father got sick, and I wanted to make it for him as kind of a gift. During this, it made me realise that every time I heard a love song pose a question like “Do you still think of me?” I would think about my dad. I was never thinking about a romantic relationship in my life, I was thinking about my parents. And it’s not a record about how much I love my parents either, because I’ve had some hard times with my dad, besides him being sick. We’ve had a lot of hard years in the past where we wouldn’t talk to each other and it was very estranged. I started realising the utility of my record was to flip what you’re thinking about when you’re listening to it, because “Do you still think of me?” is a completely different question when it’s about your parents; it hits in a completely different way. I think this is what kept me working on it during that time, and what prevented me from working on it before because I didn’t have that internal compass pointing me in this direction.

I love how you convey this message throughout the album without relying on in-your-face lyrical themes. Do you think when it comes to the rough terrain of a family relationship, some things are just better left unsaid?
Definitely. Especially when it comes to art and making stuff about specific feelings or situations. I think once it leaves the studio, it becomes the world’s, and I love when people remind you of what you’ve made. It’s the first music I’ve ever made for myself, but I’ve seen it relate to people and their family situations in ways I could never understand, just based on the little tidbits I give throughout this album. You get bits of my dad and me talking and you get some personal moments, but I hope it’s open-ended enough to where you can think about your situation, and not be obstructed by the Kenny Blume story 100% of the time. Louie is just my nickname, and I hope the people listening think about the people who gave them theirs.

I think that’s one of the beautiful things about instrumental music because it serves as a universal language.
That’s something I’ve been able to see for the first time, and it has inspired me to make more music from that place. The hard part is finding something you want to talk about that means something to you, but when you find it, the rest is super easy. The creative process was so simple because I knew what I wanted to say. It’s kind of like when you go to therapy, and you wonder why certain things are happening with certain people in your life. You think back to that one thing from your childhood that you’ve thought about a million times, and you make that connection, realising that particular moment is why you’re having issues with trust, or struggling with what you’re currently going through. It’s often not obvious at first, but when you think about what you’re trying to make and what you want to say, it’s usually right in front of your face. That’s a muscle I’m trying to flex more often.

I’ve heard Benny Blanco liken his role as a songwriter to that of a therapist, where he’s encouraging the artist he’s working with to find that thing they want to say. However, you recorded this album in a very insular manner, setting a time limit of 30 days and having collaborators visit, while not knowing what they were working on. During this process, how did you act as a therapist for yourself?
That’s a good question. I think a lot of times in my life, whenever I’ve been overwhelmed, music has acted as the foundation that prevents me from getting in my head too much. But working helps me not in the sense of hiding, but channelling the energy of a fucked up things happening in my life into something productive, as opposed to placing that on the people I care about. I think this thing with my dad is something I couldn’t process in another way. I’m so close to my father, but we’ve also been through so much. So I spent every day of December with different artists and musicians that I care about, to try and find the shape of this thing that I couldn’t explain until I heard it. There was a moment every day when I started to feel a couple of minutes of the thing I was looking to feel. By using the outlet of music to express the different sides of how I felt about these situations, I started to go to bed every night with a sense of hope regarding the music itself, the situations I’m talking about, and lots of other things. If I were to sit here and constantly think about these experiences, I would lead myself into a hole. I kind of have to look at them from different perspectives so I can find the light at the end of the tunnel. Having this thing to make for my dad stopped me from thinking about all the other obstacles and things in the way because I kept thinking of the day I was going to play it for him. The drive to play this album for him helped all the other anxieties dissipate.

In your appearance on IDEA GENERATION, you said that the more you doubt yourself, the more you eventually love an idea, because it has to pass the checks and balances. Do you think the process of creating this album changed that concept for you?
I think that because of this album, there are more checks and balances that an idea has to pass, because of the number of people I work with on the records and played the record for, as well as the number of times I had to listen and continue loving it. Anything that comes after LOUIE will have to make me feel all that plus more, because why would I settle for something less? So yeah, I think the checks and balances are going to continue adding up. I watched a video the other day of Glenn Gould, who is a genius piano player and is playing something at an unbelievable speed and dexterity. He then stands up from the piano to look out the window, and you can hear him humming a million notes while tapping on his head; he’s fully lost in it. You can just tell he’s in hell, wondering what he can do to make it tighter, or how we can illustrate it better. It just seemed like this snowballed for him until he got older, and I honestly think I’ll probably lose my mind to the music at one point; this is just the start. So the checks and balances continue to serve as obstacles in everything I do, but also as a guiding light.

With that in mind, I remember Louie Pastel of Paris Texas, telling me that he doesn’t think you get any feeling without imperfection. Do you agree?
Yeah, and sometimes weirdly, I’m thinking about the imperfections way more often. I’m just trying to pick and choose where those imperfections come from. There’s a concept in engineering and production called gain staging, and that’s how many things a signal runs through that are potentially different spots you can add volume to. For example, if a microphone is running through a preamp and then running into your computer, which is what you call a vocal chain, I can turn up the gain on both my compressor and in my program, creating many different ways I can make something louder. I think it’s the same with how mistakes are made, where there are so many different parts of the process that have to be considered. To me right now, human error has become the bread and butter, because there are so many samples, loop packs, and amazing technology like chord generators that make the whole musical idea just a couple clicks away. At this point, hearing someone’s hands on a nylon string guitar, the drop of a drumstick, the lack of autotune, or a note being missed is what makes the music feel alive to me.

My friend Mac Demarco always talks about ‘the thing’. He says that every record pre-1984 could even have a baby crying in the background of a recording, and if everyone in the room possessed that thing, it wouldn’t even matter. He calls it the crying baby theory. I think it’s kind of true and it’s why I love working with multiple artists or full bands because when you write a song and it has that little bit of dragging rushing, and slightly off pitches from people in the room, that feels like the beginning of greatness. Perfectly tuned kicks and perfectly mixed channels just feel more disconnected from the music than it ever has for me, whereas all those years ago I was a part of that loudness war when I was making dance music; I wanted my stuff to be the shiniest and brightest it could be. I think the idea of perfection is something I hide from now or is something that has taken on a new definition for me.

This album not only showcases your love of imperfections in music but also in the people who are a part of your personal life. Flipping that around, do you think you’ve learned to love your own?
Well, I’ll tell you this, the way people are talking to me about this record is helping me. I go to therapy, and the longer I spend talking to people about shit, the better I feel about just being me. Maybe that’s how I’ve gotten to the point where I can put a record out based on my nickname, and how I can now take my hat off in press photos. I’m getting there, but I haven’t gotten here alone.

As you mentioned before, the whole creation of this album was leading up to the moment when you play it for your dad. How did that go?
It was a top 10 moment for us. It’s been a long, arduous couple of years with my dad, and not just because of cancer. I’m sure anybody reading this has someone in their life affected by this type of stuff. There are lots of stages, types, and people who are much worse off than we are. In that sense, I think cancer is kind of the least of the things my dad and I have gone through. So the moment where I sat there and played it for him before the world heard it, and to have him feel something from hearing it, is what let me know that this is going to mean something to somebody out there. If it’s worth something to a lot of people, that’s amazing, but as long as there’s another father and son, or brother, or sister, or mother, or child brought to a place of love while they’re listening to it, I know that it’s worth it. My dad is a lover and listener of music, so the fact that he felt something made me know that others would too. One thing about him is that with anything he hasn’t understood or has gotten wrong on his path through life, he’s always instilled in me the ways to appreciate art and close your eyes when listening. He’s always understood how to take his time thinking about how something makes him feel and to see him do that with a record about him and leave the experience crying and laughing is better than any plaque or Grammy for me.

That’s what’s most important, and I appreciate you sharing this body of work with the world because I also have had a tumultuous relationship with my dad, who is also battling illness right now. Albums like this make it feel okay to love through all of that, while not necessarily forgetting, but accepting the past.
Henry, please keep that in whatever this ends up being because that makes me want to cry just sitting here on Zoom. The fact that you’re 6000 miles away from me, and we can hang for 20 minutes and already have that thing where both our dads are our dads, and now we have to deal with everything that went on, look them in the face, and be there for them regardless. That’s a feeling a lot of music doesn’t bring me to, where I can share that with people and tell people what you just told me. That’s why I knew that this album was worth showing, and it means the world to me that you listened to it, and were able to share that.

Follow Kenny Beats here for more and stream the new album ‘Louie’ here.

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