About halfway through our conversation, Kiefer Shackelford launches into one of his favorite jokes: “Can you imagine Duke Ellington teaching a piano lesson and going, Now remember, son, make sure they always think what you’re doing is jazz? That’s got to be the most idiotic thing I’ve heard, and yet we’re so stuck in that.”
A UCLA-trained pianist who records under his first name, Kiefer’s light jabs at jazz snobs are in-bounds, since he admits that was once his mindset. But after seeing MNDSGN at the late-lamented L.A. showcase The Low End Theory in 2015, he dived headlong into the city’s bohemian, genre-fusing scene as a producer, earning co-productions with the likes of Kaytranada and Anderson .Paak.
While last year’s debut, Kickinit Alone, was an instrumental travelogue through the wake of a break-up, HappySad (released Friday on Stones Throw Records) takes more of an overview of an artist trying to balance a scale of ambition and anxiety. Beneath the accessible speckling of MPC-inspired rhythms, cool jazz noodling, and molasses-slow G-funk that play under the soft-white vinyl hiss of the record, one might not catch the looming uncertainty– or true reverence for American composers–Kiefer demonstrates on each track. HappySad’s hip-hop readymades establish his foothold in Stones Throw’s unsinkable roster of beatmakers, upholding a jazz heritage while envisioning its boundary-less future.
“Your job as a musician is not to be the smartest, most esoteric, eccentric or artistically superior person out there,” Shackelford said. “You can develop those cool harmonies and rhythms, but your job first and foremost should be for the purpose of encouraging people and making their lives better.”
Ahead of his New York debut performance at Elsewhere on Friday, Kiefer caught up with B+B to chat about HappySad, the link between education and jazz, and the freeing feeling of “abandoning” art.
Kickinit Alone doesn’t start in the same place it ends emotionally; it takes listeners from a dejected mood to a optimistic one. Did you go into HappySad thinking it would have a similar emotional arc?
Definitely. I think at a certain point I realized that although writing about sadness is particularly potent, I wasn’t as emotionally distraught as I was when recording the previous record. This one’s more of a hodgepodge, but it’s consistent in that I’m writing with the same mindset all the time. It’s emotional journaling, and [HappySad] is my journal for 2017. A lot of songs are about my anxiety, being ambitious and having dreams and trying to follow them, romantic feelings. A lot of songs are about ego and trying to control that. I think it’s about an emotionally complex person who’s … just a got a dream [laughs] and just trying to make it work and balance my emotional life with my musical aspirations.
It seems like these records are a pretty distinct snapshot of where you are as you make them. Was that always a natural path for you? Many artists try to shy away from wanting people to think of their music as diaristic.
It’s definitely natural for me. I’ve been playing piano since I was very little and learning how to improvise from day one. Being an improviser offers you the chance to write for the moment; being able to make music extemporaneously allows for me to put down whatever I’m feeling in that instant. Usually every single song I do [starts by] sitting down at the piano for 60 seconds or so, and then I think about the most emotionally captivating thing in my life at the time. Over the next 20, 30 minutes I’ll have the basic idea finished and I’ll put it away.
When do you know when the recording is complete?
It’s kind of a cop-out answer, but it’s an artistic decision when to stop. I’m of the belief that no art is finished. Michelangelo once said, “All art is abandoned.” At some point you just have to stop and be content with it not being done. Even Kanye West with The Life of Pablo, he’s still updating that shit and re-uploading it to Spotify. I just read yesterday that Bob Dylan is always rewriting his greatest songs that a lot of people have deemed as “perfect.” But we have such a reference for musicians, sometimes, that we forget that songs are not necessarily finished with they’re recorded.
We try to get as close to perfection as you can within reason, but for me it’s more about being real with myself. I find that a feeling only visits you for so long, and as an improviser I’m trying to channel those constantly changing emotions very efficiently. If you have aspects of your technique that are blocking you from getting that out, that’s something that you need to work on.
What aspect of your technique do you think you’ve spent the most time working to un-block?
I think the biggest one was mixing and understanding how to use software. The laptop is quite literally an instrument, a tool for creative expression, and learning how to see my computer as a part of my process as opposed to just the piano has been an essential part of this new art form I’ve been trying to develop.
That was a huge fork in the road for me, actually. In August 2013, Mndsgn played, and he became one of the most irreplaceable presences in my musical career, because had it not been for watching him perform and really loving what I’ve heard, I would have never considered this as a career path. I used to be one of those jazz snobs who only wanted to play jazz, but then I saw this jazz-influenced type of thing that I suddenly became very interested in, and that was all at Theory.
You’ve spoken before about the importance for jazz musicians not to get in this mindset of I only can play jazz music. What’s some stuff that you’ve been listening to that helps get you out of that bubble?
I love a lot of my contemporaries. I love Kaytranada, Knxwledge, Anderson .Paak, Kendrick. I listen to a lot of Brazilian music, but that’s still kind of jazz. I think especially in this day and age, jazz musicians dedicate ourselves to tradition, we think it’s really important. But the irony is we’re ignoring a huge part of the tradition, which is that a lot of the great jazz musicians throughout history were not playing [what we call] “jazz” at the time. Think about Duke Ellington; he called his music “American music.” Miles Davis called his “social music.” Same goes for John Coltrane. Even Robert Glasper is doing things he doesn’t even consider jazz all the time.
I think a favorite person that I have taken the most influence from in recent years was my teacher, Abraham Laboriel, who’s played bass on Stevie Wonder records, Quincy Jones records, Michael Jackson records, everything. Something that he reminded me to do all the time is most fundamental thing of all: play from your heart. Don’t ever touch your instrument if you’re not doing that. Even if you play one note, if you put your heart into it, your stresses and your self judging, any insecurities start to go away. You’re less concerned with “Are people judging me? Am I doing this the right way? Oh man, I sound terrible.” Those thoughts kind of subside.
“HappySad” is out now on Stones Throw Records. Kiefer’s record release show at The Del Monte in Los Angeles on July 12.