Kyle Hollingsworth turns 50 on 2 March and though the title of his latest solo album nods to that milestone year, the longtime String Cheese Incident keyboardist points out that the material was not intended as a roadmap to this point in his life. That said, you can’t help but find some clues as to where he’s been and where he’s at in 2018. In the literal sense, he’s standing outside String Cheese Incident’s Colorado recording studio, The Lab, when he rings for this interview. In another sense, he’s been balancing solo gigs and band writing sessions, along with launching a new beer, Ground Score IPA, Limited Edition Dank Tank Brew in conjunction with SweetWater Brewery and venerable jam magazine, Relix.
He’s not unaware of his status as a member of one of the leading touring acts in the U.S. and what it affords him. “I just played with my band in New York City, some solo dates,” he says, “and the other guys have to hustle all the time. They’re on the phone trying to get the next gig and I have to say, ‘Oh, man. I’m so lucky.'” Plucked by String Cheese from his own band in the 1990s (while he worked a day job at a shipping and packing store) for what he thought was a quick run of dates, Hollingsworth is joined on his latest venture by a cast that includes the Motet Horns, Andy Hall (The Infamous String Dusters) and DJ Logic among others.
His sense of humor is not only evident in the conversation that follows but in the single “Stuff”, premiered here. Funky in the extreme, the tune is a fine example of 50‘s varied musical settings and emotional reach.
Were you in a reflective mood when you started working on this material?
The songs do follow an arc of experiences in my life, some more than others. “Finding Our Way” is very specific about my life journey. But the title of the album came after the fact. It was my wife’s idea, so I said, “You’re always right!” It wasn’t necessarily set up to be a statement of where I am but, in the end, as I look back on it, I think it does represent that for sure.
This is your fourth solo album but I’m curious what the impulse behind making a first studio album was.
Probably the same that made me want to do the fourth. With the first one I was ready to try some music that was really inspiring for me. My band at that time was the Motet guys, a really great band from Colorado. Playing with them inspired me in a different way than playing with String Cheese did. It was that experimentation outside my main band that inspired me to make that first album. Once I was finished and realized I could complete a project that I’d begun, I realized it was really fun. This time out, it really felt like something I could grab ahold of.
Is the audience for the solo albums largely String Cheese fans?
Ninety six percent of my fans are also String Cheese fans. I think I’m speaking mostly to them with my music. Sometimes I’ll jump way out of genre and do a Vampire Weekend-type song or something and the fans say, “Oh, OK.” My big hope is that I can stretch beyond that. It is a challenge. With the last three albums I’ve said, “I want to push myself out of the scene.” That’s been extremely difficult. So, with this album I’ve kind of gone the other way and been more inclusive. I’m lucky to have a fanbase and happy to embrace them more.
Was there a song that really started the creative process for 50 or are you always writing?
String Cheese got a new space called The Lab, which is basically a big warehouse that we turned into a recording studio. When people weren’t looking I would steal the keys, go in late at night with my side project and we would work on song ideas. There was no one particular song but there was a process where I would write three or four at a time and do that across a few months. Slowly, an album would start coming together. Some songs would drop off and some that I didn’t think were going to work out actually came out stronger.
Do you have to be sitting at the instrument or can you compose on paper or hum into your phone?
I hummed twice today already. I sing things into my phone constantly. I would bring a lot more songs to String Cheese but the way it works is that you have to be delicate, everybody has to bring in a song every six months and everybody gets a chance. It’s very democratic. And it’s nothing against those guys but I have stuff busting out of my brain that I have to finish. So, I’ll hum into my phone, then pick them out on the piano, then bring it to my band or String Cheese and we flesh it out together.
Do you get attached to songs or do you finish them and say, “OK, it’s up to the audience to decide now”?
Oh God. I wish! I wish I could let that go but I do get attached. I’ll get obsessed. “How come nobody’s listening to this one song?” And then somebody will say, “Oh, I like that one.” I’ll be, like, “OK, cool, somebody liked it! But why didn’t they listen to this other one?” I think that what my solo band hates about me the most is that I get obsessed about making sure everything works the way it should and comes across the right way. “Finding Our Way” is a slow build of a song so it’s hard for me to present that in the live setting. I feel like, “C’mon everybody! This is a song about how I grew up and here’s the chorus!” and they say, “I’m just going to go to the bathroom for this song.”
How do you protect yourself from being hurt when something doesn’t go over the way you want it?
When you figure that out let me know. For me, it’s about moving forward and writing new music. I’m working with String Cheese right now, we’re working on a new album, so I’m just trying to stay focused on what’s in front of me. I focus on what’s in front of me instead of what’s already done. But last night I was listening to something from the new album and said, “I could have done that better!” [Laughs.] So, when I woke up this morning, I started working on a new song to get myself away from that.
I’ve talked to guys who have a vision for duo albums or classical albums, whatever. Do you have things like that?
I do think about types of songs I would like to write. This morning I heard a riff-based band, like Living Colour. They’re all playing riffs together. I never write songs based on riffs. So I’m thinking about that now. But as far as big projects, I don’t. But now I want to. I like that idea. You’ve got me going down that road.
You also have a new beer. How did the whole brewing thing happen for you in the first place?
I’ve done probably 36 beers with various breweries around the country and this is my fourth national beer. But I’ve been a home brewer since I was 18. I’m really passionate about the process. I think about how I take risks when I brew and how I take risks when I perform live. And I’ve wanted to bring those two worlds together, just in the last five years, so I’ve been pushing that relationship between music and beer. It’s not just about we’re going to hang out and listen to music and drink some beer, but the actual process, the ingredients. Water can be like drums, yeast can be like the lead singer because it doesn’t always show up. Hops could be like the lead guitar player because it goes to 11. I actually do talks all over the country about how these two worlds connect. So, when I got with SweetWater it felt like a very natural thing.
You said you started when you were 18. That’s early days for home brewing.
Exactly. My brother was home brewing before me. We grew up in Maryland and there was one home brew shop maybe 45 minutes away. You’d go there and everything was in a can and all the beer kind of sucked. You could only make four types: There was a Newcastle Brown, then lager styles. Now, the whole industry has exploded and it’s been nice to have grown up in that industry and see how it’s changed.
Do you have a private network of guys?
My neighbors and I have a really nice brewing system. I honestly only brew once or twice a year on that just because it’s difficult with my schedule. It’s hard to be on tour and make beer. I guess sometimes I would make beer and then go on tour and by the time I came home it’d be ready to drink, which is nice.
It strikes me that you have a pretty good sense of humor. How has that helped you in your chosen profession?
It’s important in band settings when you’re dealing with people that live together and have known each other for as long as we have. You have to be able to take arguments and frustrations and be light with it and find a way to break the tension. Everybody has their roles. In my band, I’m probably the guy that helps bring the tensions down. And of course being on the road, when you have long trips, it’s important to take life as light as you can.
As you approach 50, what are the things you look back on and say, “Well, if nothing else, I pulled that off”?
Can we just have this conversation in 18 years? Thus far, I think it’s been a lot of hard work that brought me here. But being on the road band being passionate about what I’m doing, being able to play music for a living, is what I’m most proud of, right up there with my family, my wife and my children. Being in a space where I can make a solo album and still make a living with my band is a blessing.