Monday, November 30th, 2020
Jesse Kivel On His Debut Solo Record “Infinite Jess”
Nov 30, 2020
By Caleb Campbell
Jesse Kivel spent much of the 2010s making disco-tinged indie pop with his bands Kisses and Princeton. His bands were, in many ways, family affairs as he played with his wife, Zinzi Edmunson, in Kisses and his twin brother, Matt Kivel, in Princeton. However, Kivel has largely sat out much of the latter half of the decade, releasing only his 2017 solo EP Content since Kisses went on hiatus in 2015.
His newest release, Infinite Jess reinvents Kivel as a solo artist, imbuing his music with more of himself than ever. Under the Radar caught up with Kivel to delve into his writing as a solo artist, the inspiration of Oasis, Don McLean’s “Vincent,” and more.
Caleb Campbell (Under the Radar): So it has been five years since your last album with Kisses and three years since your solo debut EP. What has been occupying your time in between?
Jesse Kivel: Well, that last Kisses record, the year it came out my wife, Zinzi and I, had a son. It was unexpected and instead of touring the record we decided that it would be our first album that we’d just release and let it go into the world and focus in on family life a little more. I also have a business with my friend Michael [David] that’s a DJ and band company that I have been running for seven years and that was picking up at the time. So I had to put a lot of time into that, I had my son, and then almost two years ago I had another son.
Parenting is a bit all-consuming if you want to do a good job. I am not sure I’m doing a good job but I am at least interested in trying to. [Laughs] I think even having that interest means that you have no time to yourself. You’re giving it to your kids and working with them and, theoretically, when you have this space in the evenings you’re so exhausted. Creatively you really need to carve out time in the day, I find with parenting, to be productive.
So it wasn’t like I wasn’t songwriting, I was. I wanted to be more careful about releasing a record. Instead of just being like, “I have 10 songs. Let me release an album,” I wanted to like every song. You always go in on a record wanting that, but sometimes by the end something happened to a few of the songs and the magic was lost but you push that record out anyway. Part of the luxury, to me, of not touring was to be like, “Okay, if a song doesn’t make it, it’s not going on the record.” If I, at the end of it, don’t connect with it it’s gone. And that can slow the process down a bit. But it makes for a record that I’m more proud of and can feel more confident about.
Well, I’ve been really enjoying Infinite Jess, I think it’s a great record. How long have the songs been around for?
It’s ranged from the past five years. The oldest track is probably “William.” I probably wrote that four years ago, maybe four and a half. Then the newest stuff, the cover of Don McLean’s “Vincent” was done in the past year. So there was a huge range of time, but I felt like a coherence between all the writing. Because I’d written a bunch of other songs within that window as well that I’d ignored and I felt stylistically weren’t relevant or didn’t fit the narrative. When I was younger I could never do that. I could never just write a song and then two years later write something in a similar world. I’d be on to the next idea and style. Because I was trying to find what I was looking for and now I’m more comfortable in where I want to be. It allows me to work over longer periods of time and still have coherence to the music.
Did you feel like the writing, recording, and creative process was different solo than making a record with Kisses or Princeton?
Yeah, it was pretty different. The writing process itself wasn’t wildly different. Most songs I’ve ever written I’ve written alone, at least the beginning, the structure of it. Even with those other groups I definitely was writing on my own. But I think what was unique to this writing was that all these songs were written in this house that I’ve lived in for the past five years, so I have my own little space in there and way of songwriting.
Stylistically, the way I write has evolved a bit. I do a lot of looping and writing melodies over these loops and then I remove the loops and create structures around them. That’s something I only really started doing towards the end of Kisses. So that’s been more something I’ve focused on with my solo music I think it stems from someone sending me an instrumental track and me writing over it. I got into that style of writing because it got me to work against chord structures and styles I wouldn’t have written organically so it put me in different places. I think the main difference is time, not an intentional difference. Just me living my life.
Absolutely. So, the title seems to be referencing David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Was the book an inspiration for the record or did you just enjoy the pun?
Yeah, I think the book, as in the novel itself, is not an inspiration for the album at all. I think maybe the idea of the book and, obviously the title and the pun, are big. I think, also the imagery it evokes is a big part of it for me. A lot of my songwriting over the more recent years has focused on mortality, existence, and bigger issues and it’s not written in this grandiose way, but I think it’s a little bit more meditative. And so, there is this literal concept for me of the record being this lasting piece that I have done and infinite in that nature.
Sure, there’s this pun that’s fun and silly and that’s important to me too, because I think a big part of myself that I’ve left out of my music over the years is my sense of humor. It’s something that is an essential part of my personality, and to find a way to appropriately weave that into the music has been really hard. Because I don’t really want to be a joke band, but, at the same time, I do want my lens in these songs. And part of my lens is a little bit humorous and a little bit obsessed with the banal.
So that needs to come out in the song titles and in the album. Like “Burning Man.” I’ve never been to Burning Man. What inspired me to write that song was someone telling me about their time at Burning Man and being like, “Why in God’s name would anyone want to go to this?” But then, a couple weeks later sitting in my studio, I was like, “Okay, let’s say I went to Burning Man.” I’m not going to do any research, I’m not going to look into even what this is. If I went where would my head be at? I wanted to write a piece where it wasn’t doing it for me or the party was over and I was stoned and a little bit withdrawn. I think everyone who comes back that I’ve spoken to says it’s a life-changing experience. I just felt like I would be there and be super lonely and I wanted to write something like that. So, I think that is an example of me putting myself, a sincere version of what interests me, to the forefront.
One thing I also noticed was this sort of nostalgic sense of place on tracks like “Northside” and “R&D Kitchen.” Can you go into some of the places and experiences behind the record?
“R&D Kitchen” is probably the easier one than “Northside” because it’s a literal restaurant on Montana [Avenue]. I think there’s a couple of them but the one that I’m referencing is one in Santa Monica, where I grew up. I will like eating at the hippest eatery in town, but I will also like the R&D Kitchen and these fairly generic places for personal reasons.
I like the customer service there, I have fairly generic needs that are met. They come with this chilled glass when your drink has been sitting out too long. It’s amazing. Things like that have left an impression on me for years and I just felt like I needed to write a song about it. But again, to write something a little bit lonely about the place and honestly find something infinite about that restaurant, where every time you go in it’s like Groundhog Day. The same service, the same look, the same menu. It’s not a forward thinking place and its whole job is to deliver this one note perfectly. I like that, but it’s also a little maddening and I think that is what that song is touching on.
“Northside,” it’s funny because that song wasn’t super lyric-driven. It wasn’t what led that song. It wasn’t really until I spoke to my brother, as we were talking through the album, that he pointed out the throughline to me between our upbringing and the Northside of Montana and what that signified as we grew up. I wasn’t super intentional with that, but once I reflected with him and we meditated on our upbringing, and the genre and style I was trying to pay homage to for that track, it made a lot more sense. Because the sound I was trying to pay tribute to was really about me and my brother in high school and finding Oasis and finding these bands that made us feel like it was magic to be a rock and roller, that it was cool and you could do something important with music.
Growing up I learned piano, I played flute, I played saxophone in the marching band and the honor band and it all was super uninspired. I don’t know why I did it and I don’t even know that I liked it. All I knew is that I wanted to play guitar eventually and for whatever reason that was being withheld from me. Then, I did well on a test in my freshman or sophomore year of high school and I got a Fender Squier in a box from my mom. It was sunburst and I put all these really lame stickers all over it. So I was early to music, but late to anything that I was inspired to do in my freetime and really practice.
Then, me and my brother watched VH1 Behind the Music for Oasis and then we started collecting all the DVDs for their live performances. And we saw these huge crowds and these guys who just didn’t give a fuck and they were so funny and so real in their strange way. We just could not get enough of them. Their songs are the easiest songs on guitar so it is immediate gratification for someone who doesn’t know how to play guitar. Within 10 seconds you can learn all of Oasis’ songs because they’re basically this modified G chord. Then, Noel’s guitar solos are easy too because he is not that good of a guitar player. It all comes together, but it is iconic and distinct and so satisfying. You can really put yourself there when you learn the songs. So that was a good jumping off point.
We became super into Britpop and anything NME said. We would go to the Barnes & Noble near Montana and we would read through the British import magazines and be like, “Oh them, them, them. This is cool!” That was the beginning of getting any semblance of taste in music, because my brother and I are twins. We didn’t have an older sibling so nobody was telling us what was good. We were without a rudder for years and that began to help move us towards music that we connected with on a deeper level.
Is there a story behind the Wurlitzer cover of Don McLean’s “Vincent?”
No doubt. That song, I feel like it has just hummed in the background of my life since I was a kid. I think it was sung in my second or third grade class. Somebody did some music time thing. We would sing that song and I thought it was called “Starry Starry Night.” I just took that and left it. I didn’t know who Don McLean was or maybe I knew “American Pie.”
So years and years go by and I think I decided to look at what that song was to just find it and I listened to the original. I was blown away. I was like, “This is a masterpiece!” And I talked to Michael [David], who owns Dart [Collective] with me and is a really close friend, and he was like, “I know, actually it’s one of my favorite songs.” So we reconnected on that track. It became something we would put in playlists and share as a gem song.
At the same time, I vividly remembered a different version of the song. I didn’t know there were verses and elements of the song missing from my memory. I only really knew the melody of the chorus and I didn’t know where it went after that. So what I wanted to do on the recording was to make that false memory of the song. If you listen to it structurally it’s like a minute thirty or forty. It’s missing a lot of the actual meat of the track. But I feel like it’s the memory that I wanted to preserve and I had Joey basically play on my Wurletzer the parts that I had remembered from my childhood and not really the full Don McLean structure. Because, while that’s a beautiful song, it’s incredibly wordy and detailed and I wanted to write a simpler fleeting memory. Then I layered in these found recordings from last year when I was in Maine over the summer. So then I went to the very end of this point where we usually stay and just tracked some water and ambient noise so we used that as well.
So what’s next for you after this record? What’s your hope for it going into 2021?
I mean, this is it I think. It’s like there is no future. I feel like I don’t have plans, you know? I want to make more music in the future. I have a very, very rudimentary idea of a record and some characters and thoughts. But I have nothing written. I have no time right now to write. I think in the dead of winter in Maine I envision myself being more creative in songwriting but I feel, realistically, that I probably won’t come out with a record for years. I think I won’t play any shows, I won’t have a release party. I think it’s just over.
I think all it was in making this album. I’m really proud of it and that was hopefully an end in itself and I’ll hopefully rethink where I’m going to go. But the one thing I learned from this record was it was one of the first times I made a complete album. Every song decision was my own and my favorite. Instead of thinking, “I wrote something catchy so this is a catchy song. I don’t really like it, but it’s catchy so that’s good right?” And then I put that on the record instead of identifying with everything. So, moving forward, regardless of the success of this record, I’m definitely going to stick with that because it feels good and I feel much more confident to have a conversation with you and other people about this album because I know it represents me.