Free as a Bird

Andrew Kenny's rebirth in the Wooden Birds

Free as a Bird
Photo by Sandy Carson

It ended the way they had planned: one final album, one final tour, and one final show at an intimate hometown venue. As the American Analog Set swaddled the Parish with its rhythmic lull that December night in 2005, Andrew Kenny stood out in front of the local quintet once more, letting the low-ringing notes to "She's Half" linger in the dead silent room, his voice a slight, frail whisper sliding into darkness.

Holding back the emotion of the moment, trembling with the last lyric repeating, Kenny ushered out an era and a band that over the course of a decade had subtly ushered the transition from Austin's Trance Syndicate- and Emperor Jones-dominated sound of the 1990s to the rise of indie rock in the new millennium. With the release of Set Free, the American Analog Set had realized the album's declaration. The band went out on its own terms.

Afterward, everyone picked up the relationships and careers and schooling that they had put on hold, Kenny returning to his New York City apartment only to realize that the ending is the easy part. It's what's left behind that can crush you.

"I pushed all in because I knew if I left anything on the table after that last Analog Set tour, I would have been wondering what would have happened if I'd put that last little bit in," reflects Kenny. "So everything went into that last tour; every favor I had to call in to get that last tour to go right, I called in. I felt that's what I owed the Analog Set, especially the guys that had been with me for 12 years.

"It was a huge tour with a band that I considered to be my actual best friends on the planet, but when we got done, it was really just a very unsatisfying breakup, because breakups are supposed to be when you're not getting along. It was a shitty Christmas that year, to be honest. I wasn't making music for the first time since I was in high school, and it felt bad. And it felt bad for months. I was a horrible wreck. I was a really miserable boyfriend and just a kind of troubled individual. I really didn't know what to do, and I didn't know who to do it for, and I really didn't have anything to sing about that wasn't really, really depressing."

American Analog Set had almost disbanded when Kenny left Austin in 2002, moving to New York to pursue a doctorate in biochemistry at Columbia University. With an album's worth of songs already recorded, however, Promise of Love came out in 2003 and Kenny left graduate school to dedicate himself to the band. Then their label, Tiger Style, closed shop a few months after the LP's release and AmAnSet lost the small but dedicated infrastructure it had built up. Facing a music industry in downward flux and the increased pressures of managing the band's business on their own, Kenny and company decided Set Free would be the band's swan song.

"I didn't realize how tough that was going to be, losing the label," offers Kenny. "We thought that we were just going to find a new label, but we were a band you knew was probably only going to sell so many records and no more than that. No amount of marketing was ever going to break the Analog Set. It would have been good if we could have accrued a little business savvy faster than we did."

Kenny took four circuitous years to find his way back to writing songs, finally emerging two years ago with Magnolia, the Wooden Birds' debut for Seattle indie label Barsuk. The sound was intensely familiar, Kenny's mellow, aching vocals exerted into a heavy and steadfast rhythm (see "Texas Platters," May 15, 2009). Yet even on the first offering from the nascent band, it was clear Kenny was coming from somewhere new, somewhere looser. Kenny hadn't just refound his voice. As this year's Two Matchsticks proves, he's matured into one of the best songwriters in Austin.

Long Time To Lose It

Sitting outside Cherrywood Coffeehouse in the viscous pall of a Texas summer evening, Andrew Kenny flashes an easy grin between sips of beer that accentuates his self-deprecating air. At 40, the lanky songwriter still wears the thick crop of dark hair lilting precariously to one side that marked his years with AmAnSet.

He moved back to Austin in 2008, the Wooden Birds still then an unbound affiliation with guitarist/vocalist Leslie Sisson and drummer Sean Haskins filling out a core trio. The project, and Kenny's return to music, may not have happened, however, without the aid of another Austin expat, David Wingo.

Wingo had been playing with ex-Analog Setters Mark Smith and Lee Gillespie in Austin, beginning to craft the material that would eventually make up the eponymous 2007 debut of Ola Podrida. When Wingo moved to New York, he recruited Kenny to play bass in the band even though the latter had little experience with the instrument. The bass Kenny plays in the Wooden Birds is that same one Gillespie mailed him when he joined Ola Podrida.

"If it hadn't been for David, I probably would be a scientist right now," admits Kenny. "That wouldn't be the worst thing in the world either, but that's just probably where I'd be. He really dug me out of a major hole.

"I learned Wingo's songs, but I was really wondering what was going to happen at that time," he continues. "I thought I might just freak out. Ola Podrida was the first thing that made me realize I really like making music. I had forgotten how much I liked showing up at band practice with my amplifier and guitar and going in and making music with people."

If Wingo introduced Kenny to the bass and back into music, then it was Broken Social Scene's Kevin Drew that reinspired his ambitions onstage. Joining the Canadian collective's indomitable live tour, Kenny played keyboards for them through 2007.

"After Analog Set, I might have been ready to crawl in a hole and just do whatever it took to be a person on this planet, but David Wingo honestly started a resurrection process that was very patient and respectful, and Kevin Drew continued the process, whether they knew it or not," offers Kenny. "Between those two guys, 2007 was about learning to do whatever it takes to put on a show."

By the end of the summer, Kenny had begun recording demos of both old and new material. Most of the songs that made up Magnolia were Analog sketches that hadn't fit the mold, and as the Wooden Birds took shape, Kenny began reconfiguring his songwriting as well. The result was shorter pop songs that drew power less from the intricate grandeur that defined American Analog Set than from the compact narratives that unfolded with purpose.

The difference may be most noticeable in how the Wooden Birds have evolved live since 2009. Kenny's more relaxed and fluid onstage, while an adjunct cast that includes Matt Pond provides a flare of guitars atop Kenny and Haskins' rhythms. Likewise, Sisson, a Fort Worth native who splits her time between Brooklyn and Austin, has become a prominent feature of the band, her vocals shading Kenny's meditative tones with a slight twang and effortless harmony.

Taken all together, the Wooden Birds ring with the sound of possibility, of a songwriter fully come into his own and having put together the pieces to not simply accentuate his songs, but now push them into new, unwritten directions.

Struck by Lightning

The Wooden Birds is a band formed in reverse. Before Haskins moved to Austin last October, the members were spread across the country, recording Magnolia without ever having played live. Among the band's first shows was a European tour.

"Being in the Analog Set, I learned what colors were on my palette, and by the last few records, I knew what we were good at and tried to introduce songs that took advantage of that," explains Kenny. "Once there was no Analog Set, I began with not knowing what the palette was, just the songs I liked a lot and what sounds might make them real. The band was an imaginary project, but I tried to describe what the band might do musically. It was a bit ramshackle at first, but after the first few shows, it defined itself really quickly. When we started the tour, we didn't know what our band sounded like."

Magnolia reels from the uncertainty and struggle of Kenny's post-Analog Set years, a largely dark, searching, and wounded exploration carved in thick, acoustic percussion and the wanting pull of Kenny's tenor. Even amid the bitterest sentiments, however, Kenny distills something beautiful and intimate. His songs play like snatches of overheard conversations, scenes personal and meaningful if not fully understood in their passing extraction.

Two Matchsticks, by contrast, springs from a place of perspective, conveying confidence and direction both lyrically and musically as Kenny opens up to the possibilities of the band's sound (see "Texas Platters," June 17).

"The most growing up that I did as a songwriter was between Magnolia and Two Matchsticks," acknowledges Kenny. "I'm more of a tinkerer. When I write songs, I don't think of myself as an artist. I think of myself like in a laboratory and I'm trying to create a better song. I enjoy the part of the process where the song is written and you're figuring out what instruments are going to tell the story – what relationship they will have to one another – and how to make the song into a better version of itself."

Traces of American Analog Set still inform the sound of the Wooden Birds, but in starting anew, Andrew Kenny has a new musical purpose.

"Having been someone that has started, and been someone that has started over, starting over is a lot harder than starting," he offers. "I think more than the American Analog Set, the Wooden Birds are built to make fans. With the Analog Set, the live shows were geared toward putting on an awesome performance for people that knew the music and wanted to see it played in a more immediate and expressive way, whereas the Wooden Birds, even with just one record out, we were trying to play what we thought was like a greatest hits set.

"The Analog Set wasn't meant to do that. It was meant to make something beautiful while we had the time, but Wooden Birds, these songs, and the live set are meant to make new fans of the band every night."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Andrew Kenny, the Wooden Birds, the American Analog Set, David Wingo, Broken Social Scene, Trance Syndicate Records, Ola Podrida, Magnolia, Two Matchsticks, Leslie Sisson

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