Having received national awards such as the Wildflower! Performing Songwriter Contest and the Michael Terry People’s Choice Award in 2018, Kyle Donovan’s track record eluded me to preconceived notions of the prosperous folk artist. Upon meeting him, would I be intimidated by his young success? Would his titles weigh heavily on his ambitions, portending an attitude of a ravenous want for more? I was beside myself with self-inflicted anxieties.
On the contrary, the songwriter brought with him a gentle enthusiasm and thick rimmed glasses as he walked into the coffee shop door.
Driven to his current career track by a deep-rooted love for music—he has a background including acapella, musical theater, and barbershop quartets—and motivated by the love of those who saw it within him, Kyle turned away from the degree in Political Science and Philosophy he attained after moving to Colorado in 2009. From his tales of working in an environmental non-profit, to a desk job, to passionate artistry, Kyle and I began to unfold his musical roots that elucidated his community-based values, proving quickly that the artist is as grounded as his narrative harmonies.
K: A couple of my friends were like, ‘Yeah, you need to quit that job.’ They were the same friends that had really told me that they believed in me, that if there was anyone they knew that could do music, it would be me. I think having people who are really close to you, people who you really trust, say that kind of thing, it really got me on track. I was like, ‘Okay, maybe I should do music. I’ve always loved this, and I’ve never taken it seriously as a career path.’
Kyle turned from his unfulfilling career and passionately committed to music. The transition began with producing his first album, ‘Moon Howls.’
K: I was a 22, 23-year-old kid in his bedroom, with a little audio interface, an electric guitar, an acoustic guitar,
anda USB microphone, doing my best. It doesn’t sound incredible, but some of it still gets me when I listen to it. That’s kind of where my musicroots come from.
M: Was that how you got started as a Colorado household name?
K: I actually moved back to New York. Trying to be a full-time musician here without any background in it is really, really tough. I ended up going out on Pearl Street most days in Boulder and busking just to try and make some money. That proved really good for me. I always tell people that if they really want to hone their chops and practice being humble in performances and get rid of stage fright, go busking. People won’t pay attention to you at all. They’ll totally ignore you, and then you’ll realize it’s not all about you.
Kyle described his move home back to upstate New York, where he settled down into his Dad’s home, whom he described with admiration. He paused, letting the ambience of the coffee shop wash over him before describing his appreciation towards his father for providing him financial agency as he grabbed his footing in music.
K: And that first year after I moved home, I played over a hundred gigs. I just worked super hard, I worked my ass off.
The artist spoke with an experienced dedication coupled with a sense of fatigue. Feeling the results of hard work and a disjointed relationship with his hometown, Kyle felt a pull away from the North. In 2015, Kyle began his journey through the heart of the United States for his very first tour, where he found muses and a home.
K: Once I hit Colorado, I did this amazing house concert, and I was like, ‘This is it. This is where I belong.’ I don’t know why I left, because this is what is right for me. I ended up moving back and producing another record, one that I called ‘The Kindness of Strangers’ after all the generosity that I experienced from people on the road.
M: You must have had an inspiring experience.
Kyle excitedly introduced me to the couchsurfing app he used on tour, affectionately speaking of the people who offered their space to him.
K: There’s a ton of people who will just give away their space and share their refrigerators and share whatever they’ve got. There were so many experiences of people opening their homes to me and sort of opening themselves to me and wanting to share their stories. It was just amazing being able to step into someone’s world as they shared their libraries with me and stories about growing up.
One resident who opened their doors to Kyle was a Saudi Arabian expat who provided the traveler with an entire trailer to himself, encouraging him to use the kitchen and the living room on an estate of many more open homes. The two stayed up late together drinking beer, watching the river and sharing memories. This pattern of genuine experience led Kyle to write his album in Boulder.
K: There’s one person who has made a really big difference in my musical life, and his name is Daniel Herman. He has a couple of different production companies, and after I moved back he got me a job at the Laughing Goat running live sound, and he produced my record. He really brought me back into the Boulder music scene, and I feel really grateful to him for that.
M: Where does your infatuation with this particular scene come from?
K: I think there’s a real feeling of collaboration that exists. I feel as though it’s not as competitive as other songwriter towns.
He references the competitiveness and possessiveness he experienced on the East Coast, and he shakes his head.
K: I feel like Boulder is more like, ‘Hey, do you want to play this night together? Do you want to co-write a song together?’ There’s a workshop that Boulder In-The-Round is associated with, it happens the week after the show, and it’s at one of the founder’s houses. He just invites any songwriters who want to come to come and maybe share some songs and give feedback. The songwriting groups aren’t just limited to Boulder, but it’s a really powerful aspect of the music community.
With an eager desire to work and learn with other people, Kyle moved to Longmont in the pursuit of another open-mic scene. He progressed into an excited anecdote about traveling to Longmont to promote a show at a venue and unexpectedly falling in love with the people there.
K: Jessica Carson—I now play in her band—was one of the hosts of the open-mic event at the time. And also Antonio Lopez, who I play in a band with, as well, was also based in Longmont. So, I think my move to Longmont was kind of two-fold: it was based out of a desire to get cheaper rent since Boulder is expensive, but also to collaborate with people, like Jessica and Antonio, who I really believe in. I’m kind of rooting of Longmont, I really want it to succeed.
M: Are you a part of more Longmont collaborations?
K: I wear a lot of different hats. I’m an artist, but I’m also a live-sound engineer, I’m a studio engineer, I’m a podcast host. In terms of the studio engineering, I just worked with the city of Longmont, the LDBA, which I think is their creative district, basically, to create a series of jingles. They hired three or four independent musicians to come to my house, come to my studio, and record jingles. I produced them, and I sent them back to the city, and they are going to put them in little sound boxes all throughout the city.
Kyle bursts into a momentary playful tune about crosswalks while snapping his fingers. It’s so effortless, he sounds like a recording. He chuckles.
K: It’s all about planting music and really valuing music in the center of the city and promoting music as a big part of the community. They also have an art walk twice a year, as well. There’s some good stuff going on.
M: Including your podcast? Assuming it’s centered in Longmont.
K: It takes place in a venue in Longmont called Still Cellars, which is, I think, my favorite room in the whole world. It’s a small room, and the max capacity is around 45 people. It’s dark, it’s rustic, there’s whisky barrels everywhere and there’s metal and stone. It’s so beautiful there. The people who own it, Jason and Sadye, are really great supporters of the arts. I’m working with Sadye right now to host an event called The Song Writer Hour, my podcast, once a month. It’s an interview-style show where I sit down with a musician, kind of like you’re doing with me, and talk with them about music, song-writing, their lives, their roots and sort of have a lively conversation in front of a live audience. I’ll record it all and later, I’ll mix it down and upload it online.
M: I didn’t realize it was live! Seems like that brings in a whole other feel and element to it all.
K: Totally, there’s an energy that you create when you make a live event. And, you bring people together; that’s powerful.
M: Where did this live podcast idea come about?
Kyle began to reflect on a show he partook in at Still Cellars. The room was sold out and packed, and he played with band members of Ordinary Elephant, who won the International Folk Artist of the Year Award last year. He ended the set reeling with bliss, and Sadye approached him with the proposition to do something regular at the venue.
K: That got me thinking—because I’ve been editing a podcast called ‘Sacred Conversations on Work’—I’ve been wanting to do something kind of similar to Boulder In-The-Round, but also I love podcasts. I love talking. I love the exchange of energy that happens when you put songwriters together and get them talking and get them interested in each other. That’s kind of how I got the idea for it. I’m kind of an idea guy. I have a lot of ideas, and I don’t execute all of them. But that was one that pretty much within the first few weeks of thinking about it, I got it off the ground and did it.
M: You’re a part of so many things—I appreciate your drive to collaborate, and it sounds like you’re integrated
into other people’s music journeys, too. This is inspiring, but it also seems like you’re extremely busy.
Kyle admits that it’s a lot, naming off his various daily endeavors before he leaned in with a playful smile, as if the barista with the blunt bangs across from us was eagerly eavesdropping behind the bar, to reveal a role not before mentioned on his list: He heads a children’s music program about climate change. He seemed bashful and excited.
K: Nobody knows about this. This is kind of ‘The Secret Life of Kyle.’ Basically, it’s called Rock On Science. I told you I worked at an environmental non-profit before I quit my desk job, so I’m really passionate about the environment. I wrote this environmental science music program, and it has to do with climate change and photosynthesis and the water cycle. I go to schools and libraries all over the state, and I performed for little kids to get them excited about saving the planet.
M: That’s so cool!
K: Yeah, it’s kind of cute!
M: That’s really special because I know as an artsy child growing up I found these kinds of subjects inaccessible because I wasn’t good at science and math, but you molded it all together, and the little art kids are going to feel like they can understand science now.
K: Yeah, that’s kind of the goal: to use devices like music and art to bring people to science. It’s so much easier, and that’s kind of the hope.
M: It’s less intimidating.
K: Yeah, they can remember the melody.
Kyle again burst into the melody of a climate change jingle, naming off elements such as driving cars and C02 as factors of climate change with coffee shop chatter acting as a melodic background. His secret agenda to cheerily educate children coupled with the unique positivity of his recent album urged us into a discussion about his musical voice and its relationship with emotion.
K: I was talking with a few friends on my last podcast, Johnny Miller and Monica Marie, and Johnny made this really good point: Even when you’re in the darkest dark place, there’s still that glimmer of light. Even when you’re in the greatest, highest moment that you could ever achieve, there’s still that little shadow of
doubt. I think there’s always a balance to be had. I think the most important thing for me is that my music makes people feel deeply. That could be really positive emotions, that could be beautiful ecstasy, and it could be total heartbreak and sadness. And I’m okay with either. I think some of my favorite music is music that makes me cry. If I’m being honest, my first album was rooted in heartbreak and darkness, and my second album, ‘The Kindness of Strangers,’ was rooted in light and generosity. I think with this next album I really want to strike a balance. I really want an album that can make people feel deeply in both ways.
Considering the mindful goals of the upcoming album, we ran deeper into Kyle’s existential mindset—I inquired about what daily satisfactions suffice a job well done, and he thoroughly described his all-encompassing day-to-day goals and motives as an artist and friend. His roots, he mentioned, began in research to understand the mind of
K: To put it in a way that more qualitative and less quantitative: at the end of the day, I want to feel like I’ve done something meaningful, I want to feel like I’ve contributed to people’s lives and I want to feel I’m doing good, whether that’s good work or good service. At the end of the day, I want to be happy. I want a life where I have a close-knit community where people love each other and care about each other. I want to make income to survive, and I want to eat good food and have cool parties with my friends. I want to serve people around me and help kids with my program and singer-songwriters with my podcast. I want to have clout and have people know who I am. I want to be a pillar of the community. I want to feel like I’m connected to people. And last, I want to express myself. I really want to feel that at the end of the day I have put what is in my gut out into the world and have done it in a way that doesn’t hurt anyone but helps them feel connected.
M: I feel like redefining success is pivotal to the development of young artists. I know a lot of artists making music right now, much like how you started, and the ‘stereotypical’ signs of success can be discouraging.
K: I heard it really well on a Ted Talk once, that once you have the ‘why,’ it informs your ‘what,’ your ‘who’, your ‘when,’ your ‘there.’ At the end of the day, if you haven’t defined your own success, how are you going to know if you achieved it? Are you going by someone else’s definition? Like you’ve made $100,000 dollars or you got 1,000 likes on Facebook. If we go by somebody else’s metric, you’ll look back in 20 or 30 years and ask, ‘What was I doing all of that time?’ Constantly checking in with myself and making sure what I do aligns with my core beliefs and values is super important to me.
M: How do these goals apply to your future?
Kyle admits that he is at a crossroads. He has not toured since 2015, and if his upcoming album releases the way he intends, he predicts an opportunity to travel with his music once again. This impending decision brings him both elation and reflection. Michael Wooten, a drummer who has played with Carol King as well as local band Leftover Salmon, warned the artist of the isolation of spending life waiting to get to the next place during their time playing in Clandestine Amigo together. Kyle talked of respecting the wisdom of musicians who have lived and learned. He references the advice of Anna Tivel, one of his major influences, upon meeting her at Folk Alliance International in Kansas City.
K: She blows my mind. She writes super sad songs usually, but they are just heartbreakingly beautiful. It takes a lot of me to get really moved during music, but I think the second song I watched Anna play, I just burst into tears. I could not help myself. That feeling of watching someone perform and really connect you with a powerful emotion, I think that brought in a lot for me. I had a little bit of envy, pure gravitation, and a profound, deep sense of gratitude. I remember the next day I got to meet her.
Kyle stiffened his shoulders to reenact the greeting.
K: I walked up to her and I said, ‘Hi Anna…Uh! I’m Kyle! I saw you play yesterday!” It was so awkward. Horrible! I’m never awkward around people like that. But she was so sweet, and I asked her, ‘How did you get so good at doing all these things?’ And she said, ‘Well, I read a lot of books, I listen to a lot of Guy Clark and I never make a story 100 percent truth or a 100 percent fiction.’
M: How do you know which advice to follow?
K: It’s hard for me, because most of my songs are basically 100 percent truth with embellishment, maybe 98 percent truth. They are often rooted in a space, in an environment that’s not real, like my single ‘Asleep at the Wheel.’ It’s based on this starry drive with blue tail lights and one distant start that’s guiding me home. The environment isn’t really, but the feeling is real. It’s surreal. It’s dreamy. I think you have to try out advice and see what works for you. I do love Guy Clark, though, she got me on that one.
M: What is some of your own advice, and how do we see that in what we should expect in your upcoming album?
K: My advice for people is to write when you are sleepy because your inner critic will be asleep at that point. The things that come to you will often be more of a flow, downloaded from wherever songs come from; I don’t really think I’m the author of my songs, I often see myself as a channel through which they appear. Almost this entire album was written in the early, early morning. People can expect a
mixof fully produced, lush songs with drums, electric guitar, loads of piano, upright bass, and a mix of more paired-down, acoustic songs that have just a base and piano in them. They can expect to hear music that will speak to deep, powerful emotions—themes that most people can probably relate to like letting go of a lover, moving out of your childhood home, trying to preserve childhood innocence or the recognition of mortality. The passage of time is a huge theme, that’s why the album is called “Then and Now.”
M: Sounds very human.
K: Yes, it will be a very human album. I like that.
With 221 backers, Kyle’s Kickstarter to produce “Then and Now,” his new album, has been successfully funded at $21,599. According to Kyle, a new single called “If This Is Love” is coming out soon. For access to his music and more information about Kyle’s podcast, The Songwriters Hour, go to his website: https://www.kyledonovan.com/media.html