Owen – the acclaimed solo musical guise of singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Mike Kinsella – has made an astonishing leap forward with The King of Whys, the first work in his two-decade-plus career to be made entirely outside of the greater Chicagoland area. Produced by S. Carey over 18 days last winter at April Base Studios in Eau Claire, WI, the album is Owen’s most inspired and evocative thus far, interpolating a group dynamic into what has long been an intensely intimate sound. Fraught with hurt and wry humor, The King of Whys is a portrait of a restless artist grappling with doubt and ghosts of the past but searching for meaning through candor, creativity, and an ardent need for emotional release.
“I think this record is totally romantic,” Kinsella says. “I told my wife, she wasn’t convinced. I said that this is how I get it all out of me. It leaves me more content to deal with reality.”
For more than two decades, Kinsella has been a central figure in Chicago’s indie rock universe, serving multiple
roles in a string of bands whose influence continues to resonate across a span of genres and musical approaches. A founding member – with his brother Tim – of Cap’n Jazz, Joan of Arc, and Owls, Kinsella’s own vision first manifested via American Football’s cathartic rock, but for most of the years since 2002, through Owen’s raw homespun offerings. Adopting the solo singer/songwriter persona freed Kinsella from a lifetime working in collectives, giving him complete control over every aspect of his creativity.
Still eager to push Owen’s hermetic parameters, Kinsella enlisted producer S. Carey – frequent collaborator of Bon Iver, Sufjan Stevens, Mason Jennings and acclaimed solo artist in his own right – to helm his next album, the two like- minded artists having first met as Carey supported a handful of dates on American Football’s 2014 reunion tour.
Where Owen’s prior outings were almost entirely performed by Kinsella on his own, Carey brought in some of the Badger State’s finest players to add new flesh to his bare-boned songcraft. Kinsella, as usual, is up front on guitar, vocals, bass, drums, and bells, accompanied by Carey (keyboards, vocals, drums, bells) and such WI musicians
as Zach Hanson, who also served as engineer on the record, violist Michael Noyce, pedal steel guitarist/keyboard player Ben Lester, horns player Andy Hofer, and bassist Jeremy Botcher, all of whom share credits including Bon Iver, S. Carey, and The Tallest Man On Earth. Together the combo crafts an expansive but still grounded backdrop for Kinsella’s candid confessionals.
The sheer songcraft on The King of Whys more than warrants the expanded production, Kinsella dissecting his own foibles and familial relationships with caustic wit and a mordant sense of self-awareness. “Lovers Come And Go” and the elegiac “Saltwater” see the songwriter processing his experiences as he approaches the big four-oh, using his art to learn how to be a better father and husband.
The King of Whys has far more going on than the self-deprecating Kinsella suggests, touching on universals like addiction with “Empty Bottle,” the place where so many long dark nights of the soul begin, whether it’s the venerable Chicago club or a just-finished fifth. Songs like “A Burning Soul” – a scathing looks at how his dad’s alcoholism has affected his own young family – and the closing “Lost” are haunting and poignant, alighting upon such common themes as love and loss, rebirth and redemption.
“It’s dark on the surface but those are real feelings,” Kinsella says. “For a while I was pretty self conscious about my songwriting. There are Internet memes about how sad I am. I just feel there are enough love songs playing at grocery stores – I can write about darker stuff.”
An intimate singer/songwriter album recorded under contemporary circumstances, The King of Whys utilizes progressive techniques, song structures, and time signatures, but Owen’s introspective humanity is timeless. Having made music for a very long time, Mike Kinsella continues to push himself towards transcendence with honesty, artistic ambition, and a sense of real circumstance.