Kevin Garrett is having a good year. He released his debut EP, Mellow Drama, last April, toured with X Ambassadors last fall, and with Alessia Cara this past January and February. Based in Brooklyn (previously of Philly), the singer-songwriter is clearly stretching out and finding his rhythm. I caught him at the Sidewinder in August on Thursday and found him to be considerably more self-assured than when I saw him last year at South By.
And there’s no question that he’s better known—the Sidewinder’s front room was packed to capacity, everyone pushing to the stage—in a friendly fashion, of course—and it was hard to gauge the demographic. It was an all ages show, and I’d expected to see screaming teenage girls, but it was a lot of older dudes and women of all ages, including the ones behind me saying, “This is my jam.”
Musically he seems to be exploring more: using a true falsetto, but also dropping down into a lower register, using more vocal effects, and bolder choices in the bass subs and ambient fills over and below the central chord progressions. But the big change is in Garrett’s poise—he seems looser, standing for this set, and moving more, even taking his hands off the keys in some moments to just move and sing and feel it, almost channeling Justin Timberlake. Garrett crushed his new track “Refuse,” and the crowd swayed and mouthed “ooo”s to “Coloring.”
SXSW is a bitch logistically, and during a technical glitch Garrett handled it well until a douche in the crowd yelled, “Plug it in.” Garrett said, “It is plugged in, man,” with a smile, and then tossed off, “how do you think we got here,” which was hard to read. While on the road last week, I emailed Kevin to see how it was going.
I’m somewhere in Wisconsin at this very instant. Just ate a salad. The show last night was amazing. To see that many people in a place that isn’t my hometown was very moving. It was a great way to start the tour.
I don’t know that “miss” is the right word. I like touring and traveling to play for people. But hopefully I can get home sooner than later here. Also I’ve been on this diet so I’m constantly craving pizza always and forever.
I think the changes happening to Brooklyn are good and bad. It’s kind of a bummer seeing venues die out and watching Dunkin Donuts and Starbucks take their place. Absolutely nothing against donuts and coffee, but it’s sad what the city is losing for the donuts and coffee. To me that’s not Brooklyn becoming “cool.” That’s Brooklyn becoming “the same.” I think the deeper you get into Brooklyn the cooler it actually gets, because those neighborhoods haven’t been touched as much. But even still those parts of town are on a countdown until they become the same as everywhere else. I spend a lot of time in Crown Heights when I’m in town. There’s a bar called Catfish near my old place. That’s where the hang is.
I love this thing you’re doing on Twitter where you set up a place to meet with the kids who are too young to get into your shows. How important is that for you—and how has it been meeting up with your fans in such casual environs?
Yeah, I wanted to come up with some creative ways to meet everybody. Especially after coming off tour with Alessia [Cara], I wanted to make sure that I could connect with everyone even if they can’t get into the shows for now while I keep growing. Honestly, it’s been surprising because I’ll set a location and not expect people to show, but they actually come and wanna chat and that’s a really fulfilling experience. Nothing crazy has happened yet either so, so far so good.
I caught your act at the Driskell last year at SXSW, and was blown away not just by the performance but the audience. It was such an intimate venue, and the crowd was so drawn in and quiet—a far cry from the usual SXSW boisterous nonsense. Do you think about that actively? creating work that is an oasis in a very loud world?
I tend to assume people go to shows to listen and watch instead of talk about their day was. I know that’s not always the case but that’s just the type of person I am at shows. It’s incredible to have a crowd silent and attentive during the set, I’ve been very lucky to experience that almost all the time with my shows. It’s a little different as an opener on tour, but in any case I always try to make the set and my music something that can cause you to stop what you’re doing and pay attention. Because I’m paying attention to you the whole time I’m playing.
You’ve been compared you to James Blake, Jack Garratt, Jarryd James — and often compared you to Sam Smith, a comparison I wouldn’t agree with). Smith just won an Oscar—does this bode well for your “genre”? Did you notice?
Of course I noticed. I don’t know if it does anything for my genre because I don’t know that any of us are actually so similar and I’m not sure I really have a genre. I do think it’s great to see honest musicians and singers earning awards and recognition. The music industry needs more of that.
I’m still unsigned and on the road a lot, so it’s been a great year and a half for touring and a trickier year for writing and recording. But I have a whole bunch of new stuff and I’m definitely working on my full-length when I’m not out on shows. That’s all I can really say. I want you to hear it all just as badly.
Never say never. Guitar is what I started writing on when I was 13. I definitely haven’t given that up.
Kevin Garrett plays March 18, 7 p.m., at St. David’s Historic Sanctuary in Austin.
Bradley Spinelli is the author of “Killing Williamsburg” and the writer/director of “#AnnieHall.”