There are certain places that can conjure up artistic inspiration in the mind of creative people – a scenic vista on a mountaintop, the crystal-clear water of a lake or the comfortable confines of a room in a home.
Kelsey Kopecky – the lead singer and keyboardist for the Nashville-based indie rock band Kopecky – has used all these locations to write her own songs that focus on relationships, her appreciation for the outdoors and coming into adulthood in the modern digital world.
The band’s newly-released album, Drug for the Modern Age, is a leap forward for Kopecky that initially formed in 2007 as a group students from Belmont University in Nashville. The album builds on their danceable alt-pop sensibilities that emerged on their 2012 debut, Kids Raising Kids, expanding their lyrics from songs like “Heartbeat” and to even mature themes that encourage reflection and debate of what it means to be a 20- or 30-something coming of age in today’s society.
Kelsey, who besides her musical career has also developed a deep appreciation and devotion to the study and teaching of yoga in recent years, says Drug for the Modern Age was a labor of love for more than a year, initially recording more than 30 songs for the project before cutting it down to 12 tracks for the album.
Kopecky returns to Central PA for the first time since headlining the Long’s Park Summer Music Series last year. (It’s also the first time the band plays locally under its new moniker, shortening its name from Kopecky Family Band last December.) I recently caught up with Kelsey by phone at her new home in Nashville.
Michael Yoder: How are you, Kelsey?
Kelsey Kopecky: I’m so good. How’s the weather up in – do you say LANK-us-stur, or do you say LAN-caster?
MY: We say LANK-us-stur.
KK: That’s what I thought. I always try to say it right. Hey, can you hold on for one second?
KK: OK, I’ll be right back. [30 second pause] OK, I’m back. Sorry, my mom was calling – you know, catching up from Minnesota. [laughs]
MY: What part of Minnesota are you from?
KK: So you may have never heard of it. It’s called Ham Lake, MN. It’s about 20 miles north of Minneapolis. It’s just a little town with a lake shaped like a ham. [laughs]
MY: [laughs] Is it really called Ham Lake because of a lake shaped like a ham?
KK: I guess. And honestly, until I got a smartphone with a GPS map, I didn’t realize it was actually shaped like a ham. One day I pulled it up to get directions from leaving my parent’s house, and I was like, “Oh my gosh. It is certainly shaped like a ham – like Green Eggs and Ham-style.” [laughs] I miss Minnesota for the lakes. Being in Nashville, it’s funny because it’s so hot here in the summer. It’s 93 degrees today with crazy humidity, and there are two lakes in our area. And they’re overused and dirty. I’ve been so spoiled in Minnesota with all the fresh, beautiful lakes everywhere. It’s just awesome.
MY: I’ve always wanted to go to the state park in Minnesota that has the headwaters of the Mississippi River.
KK: Lake Itasca. Honestly, I’m going to do that. I’m going home next month, and you’ve just sparked something. I need to do that. I’m from Minnesota, I’m all about exploring the great outdoors. I need to go to the origin, so you’ve just inspired me to put that on my to-do list. [laughs]
MY: As someone who loves the outdoors, what’s the most inspiring hike you’ve ever been on?
KK: So in Ojai, CA, which is where I spent my yoga teacher training the last two years I did it over two-week periods where I would go out, there’s this little trail. I don’t even know if it’s a park or a trail with a proper name, but it’s kind of sandwiched between the tiny main downtown area and over to these foothills. All of a sudden, you see these insane boulders and a valley. And honestly, many people of different spiritual backgrounds will say that Ojai, CA, is very energetically blessed – whether you’re a Christian or a Buddhist or whatever. There’s no doubt that this place has some sort of divine blessing. You’re there, and it’s very peaceful. Not only was I going through this very deep soul searching training and retreat time, but it was really incredible. All of a sudden there were butterflies, and all of a sudden there was a lizard – some wildlife. [laughs] We try as a band to hike really wherever we can. We were just at Yosemite a month or two ago, and when we’re in Texas, we’re trying to go around Big Bend.
MY: Sounds like some good hiking spots.
KK: There’s nothing like being outside – especially as much as we have to be inside with our computers and this digital age. Everyone just needs to go outside. I should write an album that’s like, “Hey everybody – drop your computer and go outside, and you will find the fullness of life.” [laughs] I think we just co-wrote a song right now, and you’ll hear it on the next album.
MY: Have you ever written a song while hiking?
KK: You know, I definitely have. Gosh, it’s hard to be like, “Oh, it’s this song on this album.” I know for me, music is always and overflow – like I can’t write a song if I’m super depleted or feeling worn out. I guess I could, but that’s not when I’m moved to sit at the piano or with my guitar. Usually it’s after I’ve had time to go on a hike or spend time outside walking around or connecting to nature. Then I can come in – or bring a guitar outside, for that matter – and have something to say. Lately I’ve been realizing that you can write pop songs and make lots of money or whatever, but at the end of the day you have an opportunity as an artist to say something and for people to listen. What job gives you that really casual opportunity to just say, “Yeah, here’s what’s on my mind. I’ll sing it to a melody”? I told my manager the other day – we were having a heart-to-heart about my solo album that I’ve been writing on the side – and I was like, “I honestly just want to make a list of the 10 things that are my life guidelines – what I’ve learned, what means something to me politically or as a human.” I want to make music like Bob Dylan and Jefferson Airplane and Janis Joplin who really spoke what was on their mind and created a movement of people who were like, “Wow. I’ll never forget that song.” [laughs] It was so different from a lot of the cheap music of our time – and that’s not to say we don’t need it. Everyone loves like “All About that Bass,” and hey, sometimes you need that, too. But for me, I kind of feel called to write a little bit deeper, and I’m still exploring that and trying to make that a reality, because it’s hard. It’s hard work to dig in and be like, “What do I really want to say?” That’s a big question. It’s interesting that you ask me that now, because that’s totally on my mind right now. It’s like, “OK, I want to write a song fresh off of a hike.” What would the chords sound like? What would it feel like to sing a melody that represented what it felt like to be so exhausted, but you made it to the top of an overlook? How do you put that into a sonic expression? I don’t know how to do it, but I’m going to try. [laughs]
MY: Has your pursuit of yoga worked its way into your songwriting?
KK: Definitely. I feel like there’s a level of honesty on this new album that I wasn’t really capable of on the last album, which was due to a few things – kind of wanting to water things down, kind of wanting to appease people, kind of not wanting to ruffle feathers, and all these things. But in the last few years, I’ve been on the road so much and really come into who I am as a woman and who I am as an adult human. Through the process of yoga and through being present, I’ve been able to really articulate what’s happening in my body – like when I experience a heartbreak or what’s happening in my mind when I’m totally full of fear. The process of yoga is a tool to help you realize that everything is one, so then your problems seem smaller. You feel more connected to others. It causes you to reflect and just be like, “Huh, I kind of have a sense of humor about this. It’s all fine.” [laughs] Not that I’m singing in Sanskrit or that I’m talking about the deities or moving someone from Asana to Asana, but because I’m devoting my life to this sacred practice, it shows me how music is yoga and how friendships are yoga. Because it’s really uncovering the fact that literally at the cellular level, we’re all this moving, evolving human experience. The breath in and the breath out is like the waves in the ocean or the sky – everything all together.
MY: I was curious about your song “Closed Doors” on the new album. How did it start to come about?
KK: So I lived in this house that I wrote the song in for five years. This house was built in 1920, and I think it was one of the most beautiful houses in Nashville – full of character, had like four apartments in it, so all of us had lived there forever. I wrote a few songs for the record – with the only one that ended up on the record as “Closed Doors” – that were actually love letters to the house. One song was called “1920,” and it was thinking about, “Will I lose my creativity when I move out of here?” There was a lot of my sense of being an artist that came from that house. My piano was in this big hallway and was full of echoes, and I was like, “All right, so if I move out of here, what if I can’t write a song?” As silly as that is, it’s kind of like a real thing. So with “Closed Doors,” I was going through this major breakup. When I lived in that house, I had been dating this guy for five years, so of course there were all these memories – life talks and growing a relationship with someone that were all housed in that house. So the song “Closed Doors” is about this one time he came over, and I knew I had to end things. We were best friends, and we got to a point where that’s what we were, and that was the healthy way to part ties. I can picture these two doors in my room, and it was like, “Ok, I’m closing this door. The next time you walk out of here, I’ll never see you walking out that door again. And it’s figuratively closing a door on a season of life. That song means a lot to me. I feel like we captured so much heartbreak. But I also look back on that time with a smile – even now. That song is a gut-wrenching favorite. We started playing it live, which I really enjoy.
MY: What’s the process like of whittling down more than 30 songs to 12 songs for the new album?
KK: Oh my gosh, so hard – especially for me being more heart than head. I was like, “No, let’s put 15 to 20 songs on this album. Who cares?” And everyone was like, “No, that’s ridiculous.” I was like, “No, it’s not. We love all these songs. Why wouldn’t we put them all on?” So that’s something I’ll still never understand. Yeah, maybe people would get bored – I don’t know. But also, these songs all go together, so for me, it’s really hard. It doesn’t make sense to put out a record with 20 songs, but then you have that song “1920” not make the cut and other songs. We had this song called “Paul Simon,” and it was really uplifting and kind of like an afro-beat. It kind of reminded us of a Paul Simon song. It’s favorites that don’t make it, and you’re like, “Aw man, I wish we could have done that, but maybe we’ll do it as a B-side.”
MY: What makes the perfect dance song?
KK: Oh. Well, I can tell you what the perfect dance song is, and then we can evaluate it. [laughs] I think it’s Talking Heads’ “This Must be the Place.” It is the best song ever recorded. I’m such a fan of it. I’ve never gotten sick of it. There’s something about David Byrne’s voice and the groove. You don’t know what it’s about, but you feel like it’s about your day. You hear, “Home is where I want to be,” and you’re like, “Yeah, me too.” So I feel like a good dance song uses words that everyone can sing and be like, “Yeah, I’m with you.” [laughs]
MY: You should cover it.
KK: I want to cover it, but The Lumineers covered it. We did a tour with them in 2010 or something – right before they blew up. The funny thing about our tour with The Lumineers – I love telling people this – is that we were co-headlining, and it was small clubs. And a week before, all of the clubs started selling out one by one. We were kind of like, “Are we blowing up? We’re kind of blowing up right now.” [laughs] But clearly it was not us, which I think is hilarious. But they did a cover of that song, and if I say it wrecked it for me, I don’t mean because they did a bad version. They did an amazing version. But I don’t think after hearing a cover of it, our band would probably never want to do it just because they’d be like, “Oh, that’s what The Lumineers did.” But who knows.
MY: Thank you so much for your time.
KK: Thank you! This is like literally my favorite interview ever – the easiest. I learned so much about my upcoming trip to Minnesota. [laughs]
Kopecky headlines the Taste of the XPoNential Music Festival concert, along with the Lost Bayou Ramblers, Angela Sheik, Kate Faust and Ton-Taun at Tellus360 on Saturday, July 25 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $15. Kopecky also plays at the actual XPoNential Music Festival at Wiggins Park in Camden, NJ on Sunday, July 26 at 4:45 p.m.