Edmonton-based musician, Kenya Kondo, as his name suggests, grew up in Nairobi, Kenya, where he learned to play music on a guitar his mother had bought from a carpenter. He moved to Edmonton for University in 2001. I first heard Kondo when he opened Day 2 of Utopia Music Festival in June. This week, I had the opportunity to sit down with him to discuss his musical background, Edmonton’s music scene, and how he markets his music. Part one of the interview focuses on how Kondo started in music, and how Edmonton’s music scene contributed to his development as a musician. Part two will cover Kondo’s recent undertakings.
You can listen to the full interview (approximately 30 minutes) here:
Jenna: What inspired you to keep playing music while you were here at the U of A in Edmonton?
Kondo: I think it goes back to what got me into music. I never had a traditional music education – I didn’t go to any formal music programs. It was just the culture and environment I grew up in – music was a key part of that… I played [my Mom’s guitar] along with the radio, and just had a lot of fun with that… When I moved here, I was staying in Lister Hall. There was a whole bunch of other people who played guitar on the floor and we’d always be jamming and playing… It’s always been about enjoying the music and finding passion for it has always been a driving motivation.
Jenna: So, you’ve been in a couple bands – did you start bands with people you met in Lister or, how did that come about?
Kondo: I guess my first band was when I was in Kenya. There was a youth group my brother and I were involved in and there were annual concerts, so the first technical band I was in was my brother and myself. At the time I was so afraid of my voice, I would write the music and get my brother to sing it. I would play guitar and sit in the background. After that, I formed a second band. There was a talent competition happening nationally in Kenya, so I went to one of my other friends who is a really good vocalist … and I got him to join me – he sang and I wrote and played in the background. When I came here, after jamming with a few people, I decided to form my own band called Kitchen’s Passport and it was a collection of a bass player, guitar player, a keyboard player, a violinist, and a cello player… The impetus was a show happening for International Week on campus and we were invited to perform in it.
Jenna: Some people say that when they’re writing songs, it just comes from a place that’s not even, they can’t even claim it as their own, it just flows. Is that what your songwriting process is like?
Kondo: Yes, definitely. One example from this album is “Moses” … it just seems to come out of nowhere… It’s a song I didn’t second guess, I didn’t overanalyze it, I just wrote it as it came out and I could actually hear the melody as I was writing it out. Those are really cool moments as a songwriter… it’s almost effortless. When I wrote the song, I didn’t think it would have as much of an impact, I just thought “oh, it came out so quickly, no one’s going to like this type of song, it’s a dark song, it’s a sad song”… but as I played it more and more, it’s the song I’ve always gravitated back to.
Jenna: I think I’ve heard you say in other interviews that people tend to connect to the song “Moses” – What is it about that song that gives that reaction?
Kondo: I think, maybe it goes back to how I felt very self-conscious as a vocalist. There’s a lot of songs on this album that have hidden meanings… “Moses” again, was one of the songs that just came out – I didn’t censor myself as I was writing it. It came from a real and true place. I think the genuineness with the emotion and what I was saying and how I was saying it, maybe that’s what connects to people.
Jenna: How do you take this song, that you’ve written naturally, into the recording studio?
Kondo: “Moses” is an older song, so I’ve had the chance from the time I first wrote it to when it came out commercially to refine the delivery of the song… What changed is the title. When I first wrote the song, it was called “Brown Bottle” – but as I performed it more, it seemed the song was more about Moses, rather than the connection to alcoholism or addiction. The first time I recorded it was just in a home studio. Just trying to get a sense of what I could do to produce it commercially… What changed is the instrumentation. It is essentially a vocal and guitar track, but adding the drums, the bass, the piano to it helped flush it out a lot more.
Jenna: Just coming back to being in Edmonton, or having been in Lister, what do you think about Edmonton’s music scene?
Kondo: It’s just amazing how much there is in a place like Edmonton… Over the course of my first year, I realized just how much music and arts and culture the city had, it was really amazing… I’ve been in Edmonton now for about 10 years – the number of bands, the diversity of genres … it’s just amazing the amount of diversity there is. For me, once you have that community, it allows for a lot of creativity, a lot of collaboration, a lot of support of your art and craft. Because there’s so much music in the city, a lot of venues open up their doors to support local musicians… We’ve got a lot of support provincially in terms of funding for the arts, even down to the federal level. So, as an environment for creativity, it’s really good.
Jenna: The city’s so alive in the summer – you walk down Whyte Ave and you’re like “what’s going on here? What’s going on there?” – there’s a lot of room for exploration.
Kondo: For me, the highlight is Folk Festival – that was a really pleasant discovery for me… In my first year here, someone mentioned that I should check out Folk Fest. At the time I didn’t have a clear sense of what folk music was… My friend and I signed up [to volunteer] and we instantly got hooked. That’s been one of my musical highlights anywhere in the world. The Edmonton Folk Festival is seriously amazing… The diversity of music – from folk to pop rock is really amazing.
– Jenna Marynowski