Kevin West puts the funk in his new rock
Getting up, getting down
by Jared Booth
Songwriter and guitarist Kevin West regularly embraces the scenery of the Lowcountry. The cover of his 2001 debut On the Way to Nowhere featured a silhouetted figure with a guitar strapped to his back standing on the corner of George and Glebe streets downtown. His next album, 2006's My Life and Times, placed the same figure in front of the loading gate at the Music Farm. For his latest, Once in a Lifetime, West knew exactly where his avatar would be standing: Center Street on Folly Beach.
"I've been living on Folly and James Island for most of my adult life," says West. "I feel such a kinship with it. So for my third album, I had to show where my heart is: Folly Beach, my favorite place in the whole world."
Recorded at Collective Recording Studio in West Ashley, guided by the hand of engineer and veteran local musician Alan Price, the new album is essentially the acoustic sibling of the hip-hop centric My Life and Times, which featured West's younger brother Mike [a.k.a. "O.C."], an established rapper in his own right.
If My Life and Times embellished the usual rock band production with drum machines and digital samples, Once in a Lifetime aims for a more organic, Southern-fried funk-rock style — from the riffy opening grooves of lead-off track "Sky High" to the acoustic guitar-based ballads "One Too Many" and "So Long."
"Hip-hop was a better vehicle for me to tell my story," says West of his earlier work. "I've gone through a lot of difficult things, and if I'd gone in a singer/songwriter direction, it might have seemed whiny. But this album is more about my life now in Charleston, and it's much more representative of my live show."
While it doesn't tackle difficult subjects and life experiences, the new album is still very personal for West; his songwriting style has always leaned that way. In particular, he draws inspiration from Tupac Shakur and the frankness of the rapper's lyrics and rapping style.
"Tupac is one of my favorite artists of all time," says West. "Rappers seem to be able to tell their stories more clearly, while rock artists tend to be more vague about things. Once I started writing in that hip-hop fashion, it was hard to stop.
"I'm not a great storyteller," he continues. "I can't come up with a lot of fun, interesting things, but I write about my personal life and how I feel, and that's what people relate to. Like on the song 'One Too Many' [a sparse acoustic duet with singer Brittany Linder] — that could be a theme song for Folly Beach."
While West's influences range from hip-hop to heavy metal, Dave Matthews to Harry Chapin, the action of the local music scene invigorates and inspires him more than anything. Some of West's longest collaborations are reflected by the guest musicians on the album, including performances by bassist Jesse Anderson, drummer Karl Anderson, guitarist Kenny Meyer, and trumpeter Kenny Price.
"There's so many amazing artists in this town who are more influential to me than big rock stars," he says," "people like Graham Whorley and Elise Testone, who has one of the best voices I've ever heard. Where else can you go on a Monday night and see talent like Sarah Cole and the Hawkes? And everybody else keeps getting better, so I've gotta keep up."