Often times, music is what offers us comfort and gives us solace when all else fail. For James as a child, not only did his little heart find comfort in music, it sparked a fire in his soul. James Kivlen is what we like to call a personification of pure creativity and everything beautiful. One who flows with the wind and goes where ever his passion takes him. The beauty, peace and fulfillment that comes with freedom and living the life of your dreams one step at a time. This ICON is an inspiration to take our chances at life and have fun while at it. His appealing sense of humor has us riveted to his stories.
Join us on this special issue-
As James shares a truckload of inspiration on his transition from the theatre to music, glimpses of his journey as a creative and gives us an insight into the story behind his current journey through the US, Caribbean and West Africa.
Your music is the type we like to refer to as soulful. We love how you beautifully combine being a singer, banjoist and violinist.
Can you please share a glimpse of how you began your journey as a creative.
Music for me has always been a surprise and a go-with-the-flow experience. I didn’t know I had music in me until 5th grade when my school decided to make chorus mandatory. We still had to audition to see if we could sing and when I sang for the music teacher she stopped playing piano and looked at me funny. I was put in a “select” chorus and given the solo and then a special chorus for the region. I got in big trouble because I kept trying to make my fellow singers laugh by doing ridiculous bows at the end of each song. It was around this time that I got an Irish tin whistle and learned to play “Amazing Grace” through my nose which my teacher did not like but she tolerated it enough. Unfortunately, I wanted to try and be cool and being in chorus wasn’t cool, so I quit the next year. But my friends always remembered I could sing and when people started forming rock bands I was asked to be the lead singer. My parent’s divorce when I was 12 hit me brutally hard and it was during this time of having to move houses and stuff that my oldest brother taught me a few chords on his guitar and I used that to distract myself. I never did homework but for some reason I could practice scales on the guitar for hours and feel happy and calm. That’s the way it is with all instruments for me.
I stopped playing music for years and got into linguistics, foreign affairs, and travel. I lived in Spain, China, and finished college in Chile. I would always buy a cheap guitar wherever I went and mess around a bit. Then I moved back to New York to try and work in foreign affairs but took a left turn and got seriously into theater. Theater people made me feel normal. But once again, during an audition for a Shakespeare company I was asked to play a song on guitar and from that audition I became music director of the company. And then the real journey began. Slowly my acting responsibilities diminished as my music-direction responsibilities increased and eventually I looked around and wasn’t acting anymore.
Banjo is no doubt a unique musical instrument away from the regular, what’s the story behind your love for it?
I was the music director for a production of As You Like It, Shakespeare’s most musical play. It was set in Hooverville, a shanty town in New York City during the Great Depression and the directors wanted banjo. They asked me if I played and I shrugged and said, “Sure, I play the banjo.” I had never touched a banjo. I cursed myself when I realized I had 45 days to convincingly learn to play for the first performance so I grabbed a cheap one and practiced three hours a day for 45 days until the production went up. The play closed and I was in such a rhythm of practice that I continued playing everyday for a year. Sometimes five hours a day. The overhand style of banjo is so meditative and it’s good to calm me down. Some youtube rabbit-holes pointed me in the direction of John Haywood from the mountains of Kentucky. That was a moment of elation for me. I mean, when this guy plays it’s like he’s playing three instruments at once. I researched how to study there and for the next few summers I would go and study with him. I’m lucky to have been able to spend time with him as well as his teacher, the great George Gibson, on this trip.
How was growing up like?
I’ve spent most of my life in New York but many of my formative years in suburban Pennsylvania. Most of my early memories are of books. My earliest memory is actually my mom teaching me to read. My second memory is of her asking me to be quiet so she could take a nap. I was raised to be very polite by a family of very polite people; it comes in handy when I’m in rural China or South America or wherever. Everyone in my family is a steady hand in times of crisis. I have two older brothers who looked out for me.
I always had a lot of friends but had a rough time in school. I’m a daydreamer. My teachers were confused because I was so polite and had read more than them but I stared off into space all day and absolutely refused to do homework. There’s a quote from Of Human Bondage where a schoolmaster says, “Of course schools are made for the average. The holes are all round and whatever shape the pegs are they must wedge in somehow,” and I think about that all the time. I was a competitive swimmer from 7-18 years old so that was my main focus. 100 yard butterfly and 100 yard backstroke. Swimming over 6,000 yards a day. Although now that I think about it, swimming means your head is underwater for most of the time so I was daydreaming then as well.
What does Art mean to you?
A relief from the near-constant and inevitable suffering we face.
What would you consider most fulfilling about your trip to Ireland?
Kevin Burke has been a strong influence in my life these past few years. Similar to my fascination with the banjo and John Haywood, when I saw videos of Kevin play I was hooked. There’s something meditative about his playing and his right arm. I could watch it to relax. After a year of taking weekly lessons with him we became friends and he asked me to come to Ireland for a tour he was doing. He’s a bit of an idol for me so to just . . . hang out with him and have dinner each night was incredible. But my favorite parts were the late nights we drank beer or wine and listened to music. Here was this master musician, easily one of the best ever in his genre, and all he wanted to do was stay up and have some beers and listen to the blues and talk about music and politics and books.
You know, I loved to read fantasy as a kid. Wizards and magic and stuff. And in all those stories a young man or woman would go and visit an old master in some old tower and just listen and learn to do spells by ear and understand the true nature of things. And that’s what it’s like with traditional music. Tunes passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth. And that’s what it’s like with Kevin.
What’s the drive (story) behind your current journey through the US, Caribbean and West Africa? Can you share any highlights of the journey so far?
I think the trajectory of the banjo is interesting. You know, there’s so much talk of race and cultural appropriation in my country now. It’s on everyone’s mind. And no one really knows what to think of it. And here’s an instrument that is undoubtedly a mix of cultures. It has ancestry in Africa (although you could go further and trace spiked lutes back to Mesopotamia), developed in the Caribbean, and morphed into what we know as the 5-string banjo in the U.S.
I hadn’t spent time in the Caribbean and I’ve barely been to Africa so it was a lot of unknown to me. I like that. I also like stories that have three parts so it was perfect. I had written about my travels in China and Eastern Europe just for family and friends and I had a great time doing it. After I got home I started doing more music for theater and got into playwriting as well. One day I was bartending and had a frustrating day; I wanted to play banjo, I wanted to write, and I wanted to travel, so during my frustrated dinner break I had the idea to trace the banjo back through its origin and write about the people I met along the way. It took about five seconds for that idea to take hold and then here I am, almost five years later, still pursuing it. I moved out of New York to save money and then COVID hit and I put it off for two years.
The highlights have been when I’ve left things open enough to let the journey be whatever it is. Originally I planned for a three month trip. That went right out the window. It’s been almost a year now and I’m barely halfway through. Although “halfway” is false because I don’t know when I’ll finish. When I was in North Carolina I saw that Dirk Powell was playing in Knoxville and I’m a massive fan of his. I went to see him and told him what I was doing and he told me to come down to Louisiana to visit. I said sure. I drove down there and ended up living with his band for a month. You know, I never even got to interview him or hang with him but living with his band – amazing musicians who I now consider friends, staying up until 4am drinking and listening to rare tunes from the mountains and small towns I never heard of, all of us silent during a good section of music – my god, it’s a dream.
Or when I was invited by John Haywood and Randy Wilson to watch them perform traditional Kentucky music for a group of visiting students at a settlement school. Everything they had learned, generations of music passed down and distilled and they did it just because it was a part of themselves. To be invited to something like that, I just can’t express what it meant to me.
And the most frustrating moment, when I ran out of all the money I saved for this trip which meant I was forced to find work here in the Virgin Islands, a place I originally considered bereft of authentic culture, that ended up being a blessing. Now I’m a music teacher at the school of the arts. Not only that, there’s an authentic, unique banjo legacy here, a whole genre of music “Quelbe” that I never knew existed. It’s in these beautiful unforeseen moments that travel really makes me feel alive. Because . . . of everything that’s happened so far, even when I’m looking out at the most beautiful beaches in the world, I’m only here because I pushed forward, and who knows what other places and people I’ll meet.
Do you feel creatives in developed countries are at advantage than those in developing countries?
Yes. There’s a romantic inclination to say no – that creatives from developing countries are more closely rooted to their art and don’t have distractions or competition and do their work out of pure joy. It’s a lovely thought. But the reality is that creative work needs infrastructure. It needs museums for inspiration, galleries to give legitimacy to local artists, and most especially higher education to nourish that creative work. I’m from New York so . . . basically the epicenter of development. And I spent a few years devoting all my free time to playwriting which I was able to develop because of a massive theater infrastructure. I had master playwrights to study with, actors to read my work, and physical spaces solely dedicated to aspiring playwrights.
I now live in the Caribbean and I’ve found that most art is diaspora based. And that’s understandable because the infrastructure just isn’t here. I’m impressed by so much of what I see but especially impressed by the artists I see staying and building for the future generation.
I will say that music is a slightly different story because of streaming and open platforms which have leveled much of the playing field. There are disadvantages to that, sure, but the kingmakers aren’t as powerful as they used to be.
We understand how balancing work time and rest time is a struggle for many Creatives. Please can you share a few tips on how you try to balance work time and rest time?
Oh, man. I’m not the best person to ask this question. To sustain myself for music, theater, and travel I’ve had to bartend full-time for the past 13 years. I’m eternally interested so eternally busy. If you get a good answer just let me know.
Dreams. We believe every creative has a dream. Aspirations and goals that give us utmost fulfillment when we reach them.
As a creative, how would you best describe your ‘dream life.’
I’ve been thinking about this question a lot recently. There’s a book called Guerrillas by V.S. Nauipul in which a character asks his friends to write down their day-to-day activities if they had no financial or health worries. Their “dream life”. Before they answer he secretly writes down on a piece of paper, “The answer will be something the person is already doing or is a life they have previously lived. The setting might change, but no one will start a new life.” And indeed, that’s exactly what the characters did.
I’m in a place I never thought I’d be, day-by-day getting to know the Caribbean and connecting with the local community. It’s the most beautiful landscape I’ve ever seen. Later, I’ll do the same in West Africa. I’d like to not have to bartend to support my dreams anymore but even then, I wouldn’t have stayed in the Virgin Islands if I had money. Once in a while I can get out of my own head and see that there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing.
What would you consider most fulfilling about your journey in music?
I have no musical ambitions. I have writing ambitions and I had acting ambitions. I work hard at music simply to get better at music. My journey in music is uncomplicated and beautiful. It’s untarnished. Everything that’s happened with music – the people I’ve met and jobs I’ve gotten – they’ve all been a happy surprise. I’m obsessed with Kevin Burke’s fiddle playing and now we’re, like, good buds and I hang out with him. I think that comes from general interest and a resistance to burning out.
If you could do a collab as a banjoist or as a violinist with any other artist, what art would that be?
I’d love to play banjo with Sona Jobarteh. I selfishly think a banjo would sound awesome with the kora.
Who are your ‘ICONS’ in the Creative Industry?
Mark Rylance for the theater world. I’ve never seen anyone make words come alive like him.
I have to say Dave Grohl and Adam Duritz simply because they’re the ones that made me fall in love with music. I clearly remember falling in love after hearing “Sullivan Street” and “My Hero”. Kevin Burke and John Haywood for traditional music. These days I’d say Ryuichi Sakamoto is my biggest musical influence. His music encompasses everything I’d ever want to feel. Every time I’m around a piano I play his stuff.
Arthur Miller and Annie Baker for playwriting. Somerset Maugham for fiction and Leanne Shapton for memoir. Lester Bangs for music writing. And of course the great Paul Theroux for travel writing. I’m desperately attempting to follow some of his footsteps with this project.
Can I give one more? Let’s be honest, I still have a thing for Marlon Brando. I hate that I do, but I do.
What does success mean to you?
I’d like to make this book financially successful enough to do it all over again on another project. I’ve got them lined up in my mind. What could be better than that?
Let’s go a little poetic: If poetry is a rainbow and you have a choice of one color in that pallette, what would that be and why?
Indigo because as a child I read a book about goblins trying to steal the colors of the rainbow and I thought indigo was the coolest word. Definitely. I’m so satisfied with that answer.
Please briefly tell us something we do not know about James Kivlen
When I was in 5th grade I had huge front teeth. And I mean HUGE. They called me “Bucky the Beaver”. The teeth basically stuck out instead of down. And we had a basketball net in the driveway that could be lowered so young kids could dunk. I went up for a dunk and opened my mouth and stuck out my tongue like Michael Jordan and my teeth got caught in the net. No, I wasn’t hanging there but it did some damage. That’s pretty much all you need to know about me.
Massive Love James!
The ICONIC Team