"Songs I Can Sing Ya"

An Interview with Andy Kim and Kevin Drew

by Evan Sawdey

25 February 2015

He was the man behind hits like "Sugar Sugar" and "Rock Me Gently", but Andy Kim discovered something about himself in the creation of It's Decided, his emotional new album created with Broken Social Scene's Kevin Drew.
 
cover art

Andy Kim

It's Decided

(Arts & Crafts)
US: 24 Feb 2015
UK: Import

At the time of this writing, Spotify has not fixed their notable screw-up.

If you type in “Andy Kim” into the streaming service’s search engine, it pulls up not only one of the songwriting legend’s greatest hits compilations, but also his post-millennial pop confection Happen Again. There’s only one problem with that: despite the title being clearly listed on the album’s cover, Spotify erroneously has it listed as “Happy Again”.

To be fair, though, this error actually is more of a Freudian slip than anything else, because on that album, Andy Kim did indeed sound happy again. His story has become a tale of legend: born Andrew Youakim, Kim left his home in Montreal when was only 16, heading to New York City with only $40 in his hands and big dreams to make it in the music business, despite his limited grasp of instrumentation. The minor solo hit “How’d We Ever Get This Way” brought him into the industry, but his work penning songs for the Archies is what sent his stock into the stratosphere, eventually landing a gigantic monster of a pop icon in the form of “Sugar Sugar”. Other solo hits followed, but he managed to outdo himself in 1974 when he topped the charts on his own with the Neil Diamond-esque “Rock Me Gently”. A few singles for Capitol trailed off after that, but after 1976, Andy Kim stepped away from the spotlight for nearly three decades.

Although he released some moderately successful LPs in the ‘80s under the pseudonym Baron Longfellow, it wasn’t until the mid-‘90s that he discovered he had been lionized by a certain caste of Canadian musicians, which soon lead to songwriting collaborations with the likes of Ron Sexsmith, Ed Robertson with the Barenaked Ladies, and even the creation of his own annual Christmas show. Happen Again felt like a culmination of his entire career: upbeat, catchy, and high on the love for all things pop music. Spotify could be forgiven for such a mishap.

Yet for It’s Decided, Andy Kim has churned out what may be the darkest, most emotional album ever, and lo and behold, it’s still pretty darn catchy. Over the years, he’s developed a friendship with Kevin Drew of the Broken Social Scene, and what started as a sort of modern-day remix project has instead evolved into a dramatic pop album that doesn’t stray far from the aesthetic that Drew’s Arts & Crafts label has become known for. Drew rounded up his usual band of collaborators (Do Make Say Think’s Ohad Benchetrit and the Stills’ Dave Hamelin) and Kim rounded up his (Sexsmith, the Barenaked Ladies’ Kevin Hearn). Hell, Drew has been talking about this disc since early 2013, so for it to finally see the light of day has been nothing short of a minor miracle.

When it came to promoting the album, Drew has been wanting to push the album as a whole out in front, rather than trying to hang everything on a hit song, with the story of himself and Andy Kim front and center. “We have a great love story,” Drew tells us, “which is why we’ve been pushing the aspects of ‘us,’ ‘cos quite frankly we love each other.” Kim, meanwhile, is still bristling with energy, often sounding like a dead ringer for Elliott Gould’s character in Ocean’s Eleven. “I’m so awake for this,” Kim notes while having his morning tea, “so I hope I make sense.”

In telling the duo’s epic tale, we start, of course, with Spotify’s tiny little album title screwup.

* * *

Regarding the Spotify issue, the strange thing for me is that I think that Happy Again is actually a pretty decent title for that album, because it feels like a happy, upbeat pop record: nothing but feel-good songs and tunes about love. However, when I hear It’s Decided, this is a disc that feels very much riddled with doubt, as if you very much allowed doubt to seep in through the record more than you have before.

Andy Kim: You know, it’s funny: not only with the title of the album but also the song. I kind of felt nostalgic. The beginning lyric is, “There’s almost a sentimental feeling to another time,” and when I got together with Kevin, he just absolutely, in his own fashion, just pushed me to go deeper than I usually would want people to know. That was the most difficult part for me was to bring someone in. If you look at my history, I’m not gonna let that many people into whatever I’m going through right now. With Kevin, as I said, in his own way just told me “You gotta find that person that talks to you in your songs.” I think we succeeded. I feel relief, to be quite honest with you.

Which, of course, leads us to It’s Decided‘s lead single, “Shoot ‘Em Up, Baby”. That song has some brutal intents. “If you leave me now I’ll cry / If you leave me later I’ll die.” You’re mixing up these dark sentiments in happy melodies. I just can’t help but wonder: is this something you achieved just with the mindset for this album or might this actually be the way things go on for you now in the future?

AK: I think with all of us, sometimes we’re afraid to recognize that we’re here. I remember the day before my dad died, I was in a hospital room with him, and he had lived a long life. He was 94, and I helped him get up, and there were two windows separated by the partition. I took him to the first window, and he kind of found his way to the second window, and on the way there was a mirror, and he looked into it, and I saw through the corner of my eye, I remember the look on his face. What came over his face was “So I’m here. I’ve crossed that bridge.”

I’ve lived a phenomenal life, and there’s more life in me, but I’m here, I’m not yesterday, but all those yesterday’s brought me here. So I’m very comfortable with that.

Kevin Drew: The great thing about “Shoot ‘Em Up, Baby” is that it’s the first song that we went and recorded. It is from 1969, correct Andy?

AK: It’s 1968. The interesting thing is that, well, here’s what I think about songwriters and songs. Sometimes people sit down and say, “I gotta write a song today, I have a title” and all of that, and sometimes inspiration just happens, almost like “Sugar, Sugar” and a couple of the other songs. But basically, I just started playing the piano, and I’m not a great piano player, but I just started playing this thing. I started singing with the conscious thought of missing home (‘cos I was in New York) and missing my brothers. I was going through some stuff regarding my mom and dad. There was 30 years difference [between them], so when you hear the lyric, “Girl I love you / You know I do / And I do not doubt / That you love me too / But you’re so young / Your life has just begun”, that’s what I was wondering. They were married for 44 years.

In the midst of that, I often thought, “I wonder what they would say to each other.” And my Dad, god rest his soul, used to call Westerns “Shoot ‘Em Ups”. So for me, that’s what this song was about. It came out around the time that Robert Kennedy was assassinated, and the title itself became a divisive term, so radio stations in certain parts of the U.S. banned it and thought it was a song about shooting. It’s one of those things that was misinterpreted then. So now, as an adult singing that song, I kind of shied away from making this particular version. And Kevin said “We’ll start here.” And deep down inside, I was afraid to go there. Afraid enough that when I went in to do the vocals, they said “Hey you want some space?” And I said “Hey, it’s OK. Let me do these vocals ‘cos this song is not gonna make the record.”

“Heaven Without a Gun” is still a vaguely optimistic number, even with some of that darker imagery tacked on there at the end.

AK: Well. you know what? I first heard “Heaven Without a Gun” when Kevin sent it to me, and there was this kind of beauty about it. Ya know, Kevin, you can talk about the song, but basically, it’s beautiful. I don’t live that much in the literal world, so you kind of have to see beyond the veil of what you’re being shown sometimes. To me, that’s such a beautiful, wonderful sentiment.

KD: What would I say about “Heaven Without a Gun”? [Laughs] For me, to have this man, and our friendship grew really slowly and very consistently throughout the years before we decided to get into a studio together, I wasn’t sure if he wanted to do songs that were pre-written or what. We didn’t know what we were getting into.

There was this wonderful day where we sat and listened to all of Andy’s songs throughout the years, and I think we spent around six hours at my house, and then we played all these tunes of mine that have never found any version. And “Heaven Without a Gun” is one of them, and it struck him. If you can find a compadre who doesn’t live in the literal world ‘cos you’re not always fighting to explain yourself to make sense, that maybe it’s the dyslexia, maybe it’s the dreamer, maybe it’s the idea that grammar was not your foreplay—excuse me—see what I mean, your forte. [laughs]

It was written for him, and I had never really written songs for anyone before. With [Broken] Social Scene, you’re writing songs for others and your passing them around and exchanging things, but for a man who has the history that he’s had, and has lived the life that he’s had, you see such a youthful aspect of how he just wanted to create something again. He wanted to be part of creation again. That was maybe the third song that we worked on, and he just made it his own. The vocal, the way that he sung it, the sentiment and everything.

There’s an interesting story around that, because the girl I was dating at the time got into a bike accident and couldn’t make it into the studio, and the gentleman Dave Hamlin who worked on this record along with Ohad sort of took it, rearranged it, and brought it into that aspect of what the song is. Before it was just acoustic and had the big build, but Dave went and sonically changed it and changed the keys so that Andy could sing it better. All these pieces came together that suddenly displayed that the song was meant for Andy to sing. And he always said, “I’ll never understand it, but I’ll sing it with all my heart.”

Andy Kim (press photo by Norman Wong)

Andy Kim (press photo by Norman Wong)

So, given everything, I have to ask: Kevin, how did Andy save your life?

KD: [laughs] He didn’t save my life. What he did is he rejuvenated it. It’s hard: you get older, you have a career, the normal frustrations that come with what you do when you wear your heart on your sleeve and you try really heard. I was exhausted, and I couldn’t quite see the magic of creating at that time. That’s all. I couldn’t get into it, and Andy slowly resuscitated me, and that’s how I made Darlings. Those records were made side-by-side, and I said “I think I’m gonna make my record while I make yours” ‘cos the energy that was coming from what we were doing really started to inspire me. Putting your time and energy into something you believe in that doesn’t have to do with you is quite rejuvenating.

I put all of who I am into this album, but it’s really Andy’s album, and everyone knew this and wanted to be there for him. It just has such a natural way of coming together and people giving their time and talents and there was no questions asked. That’s literally how Social Scene began. That really helped me. I could be dramatic and go “He saved my life!”, but sometimes you just need to see it again. Sometimes you need to see that person want it so badly for all the right reasons, and it makes you realize that no matter what you do you already won.

I was listening to “Forest Green”, it struck me how morose the sentiment was. Unlike Happen Again, it feels like here you had done your “put all your chips in gambit” back in the ‘70s. I don’t think you care how much you care how it’s received: you almost just want to make it just for you. Would you say that sums it up?

AK: Evan, you’ve really come to the core of how I feel. I’ve mentioned this to Kevin: “You know Kevin? I wouldn’t change one syllable. I wouldn’t separate any verse from anything else. I wouldn’t change a melody line. I wouldn’t change the musicality of it, the instrumentation of it.” To me, it’s just a beautiful, perfect moment. If somebody likes it: wow, that’s just icing on the cake. But I know that I can forever walk the streets, drive the freeways, and be alive knowing that I created something with someone whom I love so very much that is such a powerful force. I would love for people to hear it the way I hear it, or the way Kevin or you’re listening to it, but I have no expectations.

I just know I was part of a moment, and everyone showed up with love. I’m just blown away by this all but you can feel it in listening, and it’s hard to listen ‘cos sometimes life distracts you or you run away from listening. We didn’t know what we were doing. I didn’t want to know what we were doing. It’s like a met a stranger who became a spiritual guide, who kind of, without conversation, took me to a place where I needed to be. How much more beautiful is that?

KD: As an artist, expectations are basically your enemy. If you’re truly making something to make it, then you’re not thinking about anything else except what you’re making. You know and I know that as soon as it’s done, you have to get it out there. You want what’s best for it. And especially in owning a label, which some days is the greatest thing for me and in some days is my demise because you see the truth and the work that goes into things and you see things happen and you see things not happen, and all you want in this world of currency right now is popularity, that’s it!

You’re not going out there to make a living out of it by selling records. You want acclaim and you want to know people are listening, and to have all of this going as Darlings was happening and tours were going on and tours were getting canceled… it was a tough year, and every time I found myself in that world of expectations and the challenges of trying to remain true, Andy would always be sitting there saying “Hey, it’s OK. You’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing. It’s OK. This happens, it’s fine. You move on. You keep going.” It helped for a lot of us to see that.

We do have to remain true to the idea of honesty within what you want to do. I think what we loved when we were doing this, especially Ohad and Dave, was that we were suddenly becoming a part of a record that we could bring ourselves to. More importantly, there’s this aspect that was just different. It was almost adult contemporary to us in a way that always made us smile, that we were partaking in a life that had been lived and a life that had seen things. As soon as he would step up to the mic, every time time we would look at each other and we’d hear his voice and we’d hear him sing, we just felt it. We loved being a part of it, and that he took us on a journey.

Now, just because for a project like this that you’re so emotionally invested in I feel this question may reveal more than you’d expect, I have to wonder: what is your favorite song on the album, Kevin?

KD: I actually don’t have one. We did live with this record for awhile. It took awhile to get this record out because a lot of people were confused by what we made. We were trying to figure out the best way to release it, and we went a lot of routes and we had a lot of meetings and in the end we went with what we knew: it’s the album, that’s gonna push this. Of course, after Searching for Sugarman, everyone says “You need to make a documentary about Andy! You need to tell the story of his life!” And Andy was never comfortable with that, ‘cos he wanted the work of today to be the lead in what this was. A lot of powers that be felt that “We so wish we could get this story out and also the story of the two of you,” so we just decided to go with the record as the beginning of the story. I feel, and Andy would agree with me, that we made the right decision.

It’s very hard for me to say “Do I have favorite?” because I find that each song represents a different sounds different emotions in Andy’s life. Particularly “Sister OK”, ‘cos that started everything. I remember where I was: it was raining, I was in the back alley way of the Wiltern in L.A., and it was three in the morning. I jokingly said to this guy. “Challenge me to write a song as I go!” We’re smoking underneath this fire escape that’s protecting us from the rain, and I joked around with this one tune and it never left my mind and then I went over to Ohad’s and recorded it.

When Andy and I were discussing doing this record, we had other plans at first that involved his past and his old tapes and was maybe a remix project of some of his work. When that fell through, I just on a whim sent him this song and said “Would you be interested in me writing songs with you and for you.” Andy didn’t want to sing these songs with him in the room, and so I left and came back and I heard his vocals just cut straight through to my lungs, and I felt “This is just perfect. This is a gift and I love it.”

“Why Can’t I” he wrote with Ron Sexsmith. “Sail On”, sittin’ there with Andy and me, right off the ground that was incredible. Something like “It’s Emotional” we wrote the lyrics sitting in a kitchen at John McIntyre’s place in Chicago. Dave heard that song flying around earlier in a little GarageBand thing and said, “That’s really good, you should do something like that.”

So you could see how difficult it is for me to say, “This song is my favorite!”

And for you, Andy? Favorite song?

AK: Well Kevin beat me to the punch because when he first sent “Sister OK” and I’m listening to it, it took me to a place that I had not been to in a long time. It took me to a place when you’re a teenager. I understand it all now, but in a moment of confusion, in a moment of trying to find some kind of solid ground in an environment that was quicksand in my life, it’s that first line just kills me all the time: “Well it’s just that your sister said you’d be OK.”

That just kind of blows everything wide open for me. I got so emotional I just had to call Kevin and said “Can I have this?” Then, when we went in to the studio, I tried to sing it the way Kevin sang it, ‘cos I’m seduced by his tonality, but Kevin was in the studio at the time and I felt emotionally that I kind of took a backstep ‘cos I couldn’t emulate what he was doing. When the opportunity came for him to not be there, I found my voice. I found me in this beautiful song he wrote. It really kind of opened it up for all the other songs. From an emotional place, there were a lot of moments where I go back to that song and realize it opened the floodgates for me. To be part of Kevin’s world, “Who Came First” is just kind of a magical symphony. If you’re asking me what that emotional timbre what is my favorite, my favorite “why” is the question. The other songs also have a revealing quality, but it started with “Sister OK”.

Andy, your career has stretched over decades, and you’ve been involved in so much pop iconography its sometimes hard to digest. So for you, looking back on everything that you’ve done, what has been your biggest regret, and, conversely, what has been your proudest accomplishment?

AK: I have no regrets. I have not one single regret. I was born with a wonderful DNA where I felt that my life was not a race against someone else or another artist. It was probably internal, ya know? I needed to this. I didn’t know why and I didn’t understand. I don’t come from a musical family and didn’t go to Julliard or anything, but I had this kind of vision of stuff that was so powerful that I just needed to find it. I have no regrets. There are times when, for many years, I’ve been irrelevant—and it was OK! I had my moment. No one is responsible for anyone else’s dreams. I don’t need a babysitter. I just needed to know that I could do this. I just think that my happiest time or my best time, upon reflection, is that I had the courage to do this. I had the courage to go to an environment that was the Brill Building and was actually welcomed but I had the courage to take this step. I don’t know if I answered your question.

KD: That’s the thing about rules is that there’s people out there that have a hard time with rules. It’s crazy how they come into your life without you having any knowledge of it in your relationships or your job and how you go and dine and eat and how you’re supposed to go out there and present yourself to society. Rules are what governs us as humans, but it was wonderful to meet a man who said “There are no rules. You gotta be what you gotta be and you gotta believe in it.” I know that’s a feeling I used to feel a lot at a younger age, and through the sense of responsibility and working with so many and taking on so many duties and actions, you lose if you don’t stay on top of it. So that’s what I love about this man, that there are no rules. And I hope that people of all ages, whoever listens to this record, hears a sense of honesty within it and can see that it was people making music for music, as always.

Splash image: press photo of Kevin Drew & Andy Kim

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