The Cinematic Narratives of Singer-Songwriter Kris Gruen
Born into a family that fostered passion and made space for music like it was air, Kris Gruen (son of legendary music photographer Bob Gruen) was destined to hone his own skills as a musician, though he didn't try until college. Since then, he has released four full-length records, the latest of which (Coast & Refuge) came to fruition this summer after four years of hard work co-writing with fellow talents like Brad Gordon, Peter Morén, and more. The new album, a celebration of collaboration, is cinematic and sprawling, full of robust, high-energy soundscapes.
Coast & Refuge opens with "Body In Motion," a high-energy rollicking pop-rock romp destined for the big screen. It's our first taste of Gruen's skill at writing for film, whether or not he intends to. Here, he perfects the recipe, pulling together elements of chart-topping pop (vocal echos, jangling percussion) and rock 'n roll (uptempo rhythms, searing bass licks). The result is a rapid-fire dancealong begging for your attention. It's quick, it's powered by Gruen's passion, and it's three fleeting minutes of frenzied fun.
Following this in-your-face introduction is the soft sweetness of "What Brings You," built on tender acoustic strums and some resounding percussion, crouching beneath Gruen's steady vocals. Soon, the track blooms with deep warbles and dreamy harmonies filling the space, culminating in a peppy brass section helping to complete the robust soundscape built up from a single simple strum.
Another cinematic reverie, "Lions" has a heartbeat, pulsing with a persistent percussive line that kicks in after an upbeat guitar strum opens the piece, followed by Gruen's impassioned vocals singing a series of poignant one-liners like "Hope is not some antiquated, orchestrated, long-lost notion." There's an urgency to this track, but it's playful, like running in a game of tag. There's less multi-instrumental layering than other songs on the record, but you can't tell because the sparkles from the keyboards and the quick bursts of percussion build upon each other, sharing the sonic space at times and nudging each other with puckish vigor. The track's standout moment comes near the end when the melody slows to spotlight Gruen's gritty voice howling the hook above a stream of steady percussion right before the breakdown hits again, a tender and vibrant swell of indie-rock arrangements.
On "Young Hearts," Gruen teams up with Finnish songstress Peppina, their voices perfectly matched: his with a hint of newfound youth, hers powerful but sweetened with twang. It's another high-powered track, built once again on those sweeping rhythmic layers, incessant foot-stomping, hand-clapping beats that never falter except during moments of soft reflection in which each voice gets their due among fast-paced strums and deep drum blooms.
"Tightrope" comes next, a really gorgeous (and unexpected) ballad-type featuring woozy string accompaniment. It's much slower than the rest of the record, taking its time at a quiet crawl as Gruen's voice aches among soaring string vibrato and the bittersweet sparkle of piano. There's a lot of heart in this one, as heard in the emotion expelled by those elements fighting to tell its story: "Even if we never see eye to eye / I couldn't love you more even if I tried."
On "You Say," Gruen adopts an eerie outlaw vibe, opening with a buzz of synth before his own voice -- subdued and weighted -- comes in. The bass and percussion are both swollen, emitting dark swells that trap the rest of the disjointed, distorted alt-folk arrangement. There are major classic influences here, cold rock treatment blended with the wail of psychedelia, ending abruptly, a curious (but welcome) visitor to such a colorful record.
Its more forlorn nature is mimicked in different ways with "Coming Down Around Me," a beautifully bittersweet track. A minimalist base of deep bass strums and shimmering slaps of percussion build the arrangement, but Gruen's voice leads, a husky wisp singing poignant lines like that straight-to-the-heart opener: "Like letters to an editor, the ones that love me send complaint / They tell me I'm so close to proving true that sinners can become saints."
The second half of Coast & Refuge gets back into those rich soundtrack-ready anthems, but in a manifold of ways. "Face The Music" is awash in cool blue tones, focusing heavily on the camaraderie between each guitar and that steady beat of drums behind them. There's almost an otherworldly quality to it, a soft pull that finds Gruen's distant vocals traversing the soothing soundscape he's built.
On "Every Day And Night Now," he teams up with Swedish musician Peter Morén for an indie duet featuring woozy strings and jangling percussion. The echos of harmony and increasing exigency of the guitar rhythms offer moments of extra flavor dancing beneath those two strong voices.
"By The Fire" offers more notes of big-screen usage, a high-energy track that finds a slew of multi-instrumental talent sharing the space. Booms of brass trills, echoing vocal riffs, the sugary jolt of melody, and more merge with Gruen's soaring vocals for a deliciously vibrant arrangement you can practically see play out in a feel-good Hollywood film.
Next comes "Giving It All Away," a heartbreaking ballad sparse in its arrangement -- we get the basic trio of guitar, bass, and drums -- but complex in emotion. With Italian songstress Cristina Taddonio's beautiful voice on harmony, the song moves with a palpable ache. There's not much to it, necessarily, but the resounding wail of bass and the duo's back-and-forth contemplation on love and loss are enough to create a rich, profound moment on the album.
"Big City" is a folk romp that finds many elements at their best. Gruen's voice oscillates between his soft croon and a soaring belt while the pulse of steady percussion beats beneath. Electric guitar warbles and resounds, giving a little zest to the track, and soon the swell of strings sneaks in. Every component of the track is independent, each layer of instrumentation doing its own thing, so there's a disjointed quality here, but there is no end to the sonic details your ear will be straining to pick up on, endless tiers of full rhythms and shimmers of melody to swoon over.
13 tracks later, Coast & Refuge ends with "2008," a marvelously stripped-down cut featuring indie duo Jim and Sam. The track starts off with hazy harmony and unobtrusive acoustic strums but it builds quickly, urgently, into a swirling (still sparse, though) arrangement of folk rhythms akin to Houndmouth's alt-country debut. It's the shortest song on the album, but it takes its time, strolling slowly and blossoming with the twang of three-part harmony and a ringing reverberation.
On his latest full-length record, Kris Gruen designs a masterful trajectory of cinematic revelation in the form of a sprawling, endlessly high-energy soundtrack to a movie just begging to be made. Coast & Refuge features thirteen expert efforts -- explosive anthems and tender ballads -- that seamlessly weave a narrative about love: for family. For travel. For humanity. For all of us. We hear the skill of Gruen's voice as it somersaults through soft croons and wild howls, we hear the collaborative talent of multi-instrumental camarederie between relentless percussive power, thoughtful guitar riffs, and moments of soaring strings, and, most importantly, we hear the things Gruen wants to tell us. Coast & Refuge is a vibrant collection of love letters disguised as glittering pop-rock folk gems.
Listen to Coast & Refuge below and read on for our exclusive interview with Kris Gruen who talked to us about his musical upbringing, the album's focus on co-writing, and a whole lot more. You can connect with Kris on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and his website.
The Music Mermaid: First, can you tell The Music Mermaid a little about yourself and your music?
Kris Gruen: I was born, raised, and currently reside in New England: The West Village of NYC, then Greenwich, CT, then Woodstock, NY, and now central VT. I'm a family man, musician, farmer and small public radio director (WGDR, Goddard College Community Radio). I believe in music as a tool to better the world, and cherish my exposure as a young person to the origins of late seventies/early eighties rock, punk, and jazz through my parents who worked with some of the greatest innovators of music-as-action. I believe my songs should "have something to say" if they're gonna be worth listening to, and most of what I point to through my music is the work of fostering honest and meaningful relationships.
TMM: You’re from NYC originally, born into the bustling world of music that colored your dad’s photography, followed by growing up in Connecticut’s suburban grips, but now you reside in Vermont. There’s gotta be crazy divides to those individual music scenes -- in what ways has each location inspired your work?
KG: My parents introduced me to live and recorded rock, punk, and reggae when I was very young. From the time I was just born, they took me with them when they worked. A small child absorbs music differently than a grown person -- I had no preconceived notions or motivations about what brought me to (or what was happening in) those venues. It was a mix of horror and bliss, being hit by The Ramones', The New York Dolls', and Blondie's walls of sound as I passed through the doors of CBGBs. The volume was threatening, but the melodies were gorgeous, and more true than anything else I'd ever heard a person express. It was similar, but less intimate, at the arenas and stadiums for The Rolling Stones, Alice Cooper, The Clash, Kiss, Ike and Tina, Patti Labelle, etc.
At the same time, my mother's second husband, Joe Beck, was one of the world's leading jazz guitarists, and introduced us to his genre at the same heroic level. He and my mother moved us to Greenwich, but my parents' professional lives were rooted in NYC. That said, Joe's passion other than music was farming, and we ran a small farm in Greenwich, one of only two of its kind in that town at the time. Living in relationship with the land became the most important quality of life for me.
When my mother's second marriage ended, she moved us to Woodstock, NY. I spent my high school years there, an area made legend by the most famous artists in the world seeking home and studio in nature and healthy living. I left Woodstock for Goddard College in Plainfield, VT, looking for a self-directed study in a natural setting. I hadn't even dabbled as a musician when I got to Goddard -- it was at Goddard that I was enticed to try my own hand at making music. College was really positive for me and introduced me to Vermont in a way that made me fall in love with place like I'd never known. My first songs -- and those I write today -- were and are shaped by the tranquility of these natural environments, but all of my music has been fueled by the determination that I felt in the bands of my youth.
TMM: What was the production process like behind your latest record, Coast & Refuge?
KG: Every song on Coast & Refuge is a collaboration with another songwriter/producer -- co-writes, as they're called in the biz. The production process varied a bit from one song to another, but the constant was sharing direction on more of each song than I'd been accustomed to prior to making this record. It's a great exercise for any solo singer-songwriter to exist in more of a band environment, if nothing else just to witness the dynamism of their own skill set when writing with shared authority. You end up finding out you have melodic thinking and performance capacities you were unaware of.
These collaborations were international, so sessions were located in VT, LA, NY, Sweden, Finland, and Brazil. There are probably thirty different artists on this record, when you take into consideration the team of producers who lent their talents after the songwriting was complete. Some of my partners here are real heroes of mine, like Peter Moren (Peter Bjorn and John), Brad Gordon (Vance Joy, Dan Wilson), Justin Gray (Mariah Carey, John Legend, Amy Winehouse) and Ramin Sakurai (Supreme Beings Of Leisure). There are some real masters on this project.
TMM: What about the songwriting process? What lyrical themes did you employ here?
KG: The song themes revolve around love for the road, love for family, and different kinds of activism. While I usually lead the lyric-writing process in co-writes, there are a few songs here where I moved aside for some really well-matched leadership from others on that front. When writing "Lions," for example, Justin Gray was effortlessly in the flow for a bunch of the amazing verse lines, and when writing "2008," Jim Hanft dropped into a sweet blues reminiscence that carried a structure all its own. I'd comfortably follow in these instances, and it was a pleasure for me, because I usually am pegged ahead of a songwriting session for a strength with lyrics, and so shoulder the responsibility of making sure quality lyrics are accomplished. It was nice to step back from that a bit, to witness someone else's lyrical craftwork that I could confidently support.
TMM: You’ve landed your tunes on both television and in film -- did you ever intend to make music for the screen? A lot of your work is definitely cinematic in that it’s grand-sweeping and high-energy. You can almost see scenes play out, especially on tracks like “Lions” or “By The Fire.” What’s it like to pen a song for the big screen vs. writing it for your personal discography?
KG: When writing for film, you're often given a reference track to work from, which distinctly colors the mood and feel of your writing. When writing on my own, the inspiration can come from a more ambiguous place, leaving more room for outside-the-box thinking. The songs on C&R were all aiming for distinctive themes and applicable structures, which helps when co-writing in a small amount of time. I'm hoping these new songs will serve lots of great film and television productions. They've already been featured by American Eagle Outfitters, Prudential Insurance, and a key scene in a beautiful film called All These Small Moments, written and directed by Melissa B. Miller.
TMM: How has your music evolved since releasing your debut full-length, Lullaby School, over a decade ago?
KG: When I started with Lullaby School, I was transitioning from amateur poet to amateur songwriter, and gave more allowance for cryptic, lengthy, and alternative song forms. Lullaby School has only a couple of full rhythm sectioned songs -- the rest of the record is dreamy strings and such, and prioritizes whispered vocal melodies and esoteric lyrics.
Since then, I've been on a mission to make a great rock record, and write really relatable, concise songs. Alternating power and restraint is something I've been learning to infuse in my writing and performances over the years. That said, I had something going on in the beginning that I feel I left behind too easily, and that's experimentation. I'm hoping to return to experimentation as a focal point in a near future body of work.
TMM: You’re both lyrically prolific and touring heavy -- you have a ton of stellar material (thankfully your albums are all jam-packed) and you’re big on touring frequently. The endless gigging and constant songwriting are, of course, major signatures of the singer-songwriter life. Can you talk a little about your experience with both?
KG: I'm glad it seems like I tour a lot, because I feel as though I should be touring more, bringing the music to more people in person. I love touring and playing live, but as I mentioned above, I love my family dearly and believe in being a real equal partner in keeping our home with my wife. She's a professional farmer and activist, so keeping home was never high on her priority list, but loving our two girls is the highest priority on both of our lists, and caring for all of them is a privilege for me, not just an importance. So, touring is a balancing act, but I get out there.
Writing can be similar in that making time to write takes discipline not only for me, but for my family to leave me undisturbed. I'll often do a lot of writing on the road, when on tour, but I have learned to write in the din of stomping, screaming children's play and the roar of tractor engines outside the window.
TMM: Who are three musicians you think the world needs to hear ASAP?
KG: Anais Mitchell is a Vermonter whose star has long been on the rise. She's written a concept record called Hadestown that became a musical that will be opening on Broadway later this year, but most of the world has still never heard of her before. She's a ferocious talent, a beautiful spirit, and a good friend.
Another friend, Jonathan Linaberry (goes by The Bones Of J.R. Jones), is an upstate New Yorker whose haunting blues-rock is lightning in a bottle. He sounds like he's singing from a back porch in Mississippi in the 1940s, but somehow still sounds fresh and current. His new record is out now and something everyone should have.
Jim And Sam are good friends from Santa Monica. They're making beautiful records that are cornerstoned by excellent songwriting and intoxicating harmonies. They just completed an amazing tour in which they played a show every single day for an entire year. The project took them around the world a couple of times. They're in the process of finishing production on a movie about the tour, which should be out next year. In the meantime, listen to the songs they've posted -- you'll thank me.
TMM: What has been your most memorable music moment so far?
KG: Impossible question and one I've been asked before! Every time I answer this question, it's a different answer, so here's today's: last New Year's Eve, I sang The Clash's "Janie Jones" in front of an all-star band that included Clem Burke on drums (Blondie) and Billie Joe Armstrong on guitar (Green Day). That was pretty damn cool. That said, backing my daughters on their own original youth-punk anthem, "Talent Show," at our local venues up here in VT might beat it out.
The Music Mermaid: Finally, what’s next for Kris Gruen?
Kris Gruen: I'm getting ready for a string of great dates at the end of August and early September to further this new release that include Jesse Malin's tribute shows for Joe Strummer in NYC and London, a sweet festival in Central Sweden called Live At Heart, more shows in Stockholm and around the UK, then back to CA in early/mid October for a Folk Alliance fest and shows in San Diego and LA. We'll be releasing another awesome set of Coast & Refuge related songs as an EP during all this, so folks should definitely watch for that and pick that up if they like what they hear on this current full-length.
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Featured photo by Bob Gruen.