Glowing in the DarkKevin Bartlett's been in the music business for more than forty years and he's still as excited about creating music as he was when he first began as a kid in Albany, New York. It's not an easy life – Bartlett's lush, cinematic electronic music and sinuous guitar defies genres, and that means that it's hard to market.
by Alexandra Barnes
"That's always a challenge," Bartlett says. "You're supposed to be able to encapsulate your style in a neat little phrase. On some level I'm going to emulate what I like to hear through my own filters and abilities. So it's a hybrid of sorts. I grew up playing Blues Project and Paul Butterfield and Willie Dixon songs in bars when I was 13. I was also nuts about all the British invasion material. Then Jimi Hendrix appeared from outer space and sonically the universe opened." Bartlett says he loves the electronic noise and timbres, the beauty and complexity of art rock, pop melodies and raw emotion. "I never know what to call my style. All I know is that it's hyper visual music. It won't ever sound the same way twice because upon every listening there's always something new to focus on. I simply don't know what to call it. It's just my music, unique and derivative at the same time."
His latest album, Glow in the Dark, made Echoe's top 25 in its release month and is getting regular play, but host John Diliberto laughingly scolds Bartlett for its "Genesis-esque" elements. It's too big to be ambient. But it gets played on ambient stations. It gets played on prog stations. And it's being used as the soundtrack for the upcoming documentary Peaceable Kingdom. But you won't hear it on top 40 radio.
Bartlett is president of Aural Gratification, Inc., an independent label he started twenty five years ago as a way to distribute his own music. After he began working with cult favorite Happy Rhodes, the label became about her music, and Bartlett stepped aside to help promote and co-produce nine albums with her. He played guitar for her live gigs, translating her synthesizer lines into live performance by, as he puts it, "doing an intricate dance onstage with pedals and loops." "It was fun," he says. "I love live performance. It's probably my favorite thing to do, even though it's been ten years. And it was fun to play her music. But it wasn't my music."
After Rhodes moved to a different label, Bartlett went back to composing and performing. His 2003 release, Near Life Experience, was a critical success. And he says that caught him by surprise.
"It was such a personal Kevin Bartlett recording, and it had been almost ten years since I'd done my own music. The response was phenomenal... there were amazing accolades. I mean, it was chosen as one of the top five albums that matter most by Backroads music. It was my deeply personal record, and I was expressing the things that mattered to me…my expression of my realization that we're living a near life experience, that there's a real life that's open and honest and true that we're all trying to achieve. And I think why it was successful because it was such an honest record – I didn't hold anything back: I didn't try to do anything clever sonically. I think when truth is put on a record, when it's a real human experience, it triggers something in people and they respond to it. That's the stuff that will make you cry when you hear it. It's going to make you laugh, it's going to make you dance."
Five years later, Bartlett has released Glow in the Dark. This album, he says, is more universal than personal. "There was a lot of personal darkness that I was composing about. But I'd also come a long way from the near life experience. I had become more aware of the glow within me, that no matter how dark it got there was something still there, still glowing and keeping me going. And I also realized that's going on on a global scale. We're in very dark times, in my estimation. But there are also people around the world working hard to become more aware and more awake. Hope is still very much alive. And that's the light in the dark. This record, to me, was translating that personal light in the dark experience to everyone's experience. So it was coming from a different place. It wasn't so much about discovery and confession as much as taking a good look around and seeing where things stand not only for me, but on this planet we inhabit."
Glow has gotten a rousing welcome into the world. Bartlett's been featured in interviews on NPR, Echoes, Delicious Agony and ProgArchives. It has been described as "something unique and profound," "breathing simple, straightforward honesty and an overall joy of life itself next to a whole range of mysterious and hard to depict sonic undercurrents."
In person, Bartlett is self-deprecating and funny, maintaining that he doesn't consider himself much of a guitar player.
"I'm just good enough to get across what I want to play."
He also admits that whenever the equipment in his upstate New York studio acts up, he'd be happy to chuck it all. "I would throw my computer out the window if I could be assured that it would hit Steve Jobs squarely in the head. What stops me is that I'm usually in the middle of a film score or album track and tomorrow I'm really gonna need it." Bartlett's studio is always humming, whether it's with his own music, or he's composing for commercial gigs. Aural Gratification recently moved into a brand new building that Bartlett designed, and he's still occasionally juggling his schedule to make room for contractors. And through it all, he's giving some serious thought to playing live again. I asked him to describe his dream gig.
"My dream gig is playing third base for the Braves and hitting .400 but they already have a guy for that. My first impulse was to choose all these great famous monsters that I love to listen to, but my dream team would actually be a bunch of relatively unknown cats that I've worked with in the past. People who appreciate what I'm doing with my writing and don't mind being shocked with a prod when they play something other than what I want."
"I suppose the dream gig is a hall full of people who've come to listen and have a sense of the album and your work. I've had that experience of playing the first few notes of something and the place goes wild. It's a thrill like no other. The sense of receptivity lifts you to an incredible high and there's nothing more you want than to deliver them the best possible version of that piece. All of a sudden, there's nothing existing but the music. It's not always like that live, but it's a place you're always striving to honor and be. It's an absolutely amazing exchange of energy. You become pure electricity and you can't tell where the music ends and you begin. That's the dream gig."
Bartlett's been playing with his music, discovering that it translates to live performance more easily than he'd expected. And that may mean that perhaps we won't have to wait another ten years to see him perform it live.
And of course, in the meantime, he's already working on a new album, but that's just because music is what Kevin Bartlett does.
Also see Kevin Bartlett's Aural Gratification site
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