When Ben Kyle climbs the stairs to perform on the Cedar Cultural Center’s stage tonight, he’ll not only be celebrating the long-awaited release of his new album. Tonight also serves as the Twin Cities’ first introduction to Ben Kyle, the solo artist, after nearly a decade spent performing with popular alt-country band Romantica.
It wasn’t a decision that came easily for Kyle, who has spent the past eight years building a career with his Romantica bandmates and gaining some national and even international notoriety.
“I was thinking about sort of going with Ben Kyle & Romantica or something, and then I realized, what I’m doing is I’m trying to compromise these two ideas and not let go of Romantica and sort of also suggest this a personal venture. And I realized I need to choose,” he says, chatting over coffee and scones in Uptown Minneapolis. “Actually, that very night I had a dream that I was in this house, it was almost vacant, and in the dream it was as if the band owned the house and we did all our stuff there, and we were all packing it up. They were all helping me and we were moving out, and it was as if this sort of era, or the season of this house was over. When I woke up from that, it was so clear to me that it was time.”
The songs on his new album, Ben Kyle, are cyclical and meditative, his vocal delivery calm and sighing, and his lyrics literal. Though the record is stacked with special guests, including four separate pedal steel players, Kyle spends the record front and center, exposed.
“It’s not like the Romantica songs weren’t personal, but this collection is definitely very autobiographical,” Kyle says, reflecting on the decision to release his new songs under his own name. “With the band name, you can sort of hide behind it. You’re not entirely responsible for it, you can kind of shift the blame to other people. But with this it’s like, ok, it is what it is, you are who you say you are, and you have to take responsibility, for better or for worse, for what you put out there.”
The decision to break away from his band — all of whom still appear on Ben Kyle, along with violinists Carrie Rodriguez and Jessy Greene, plus pedal steel players Eric Heywood, Joe Savage, and Aaron Fabbrini — allowed Kyle to work through some personal and existential dilemmas he was experiencing at the time, including his relationship with his own music.
Songs on the album include a sparse, repurposed version of Romantica favorite “The Dark,” the sweet odes to his hometown landmarks “Minneapolis” and “The Turf Club.” If the album has a thesis statement, however, it’s likely the resolute “God Only Knows,” tucked toward the end of the disc’s 11 tracks.
I would rather be / A lover for my lady / A mother for my baby / Than a sailor on the sea
“I remember coming back from Europe and the tour I did with Carrie and just sort of, as much as I loved it, and being there, I just remember at the end of three weeks being away from my family, realizing that, wow, this feels so far away from them,” he says. “You know, my kids are growing up and I’m just not there. I just realized, wow, I don’t really want to work toward a lifestyle that means I’m away more.”
During that time, he also grappled with the fleeting nature of recognition and attention and the need to stay rooted in the relationships he had formed with his friends and his responsibility to his family (Kyle is married with three young children ages 8, 6, and 2), a theme that is echoed throughout the record.
Underneath the lights / We look bigger than we are / We look brighter than the falling star / Of brief celebrity
“When it comes down to it, we play under the lights,” he says, shrugging. “And we look bigger, we sound beautiful, we’re sort of glorified because of that. When it comes down to it — if you’re not in that position, you don’t really get how normal we are. We’re just like anybody else. We go through the same feelings of emptiness and depression and joy and just mundaneness. Our lives are very mundane a lot of the time too. I just think it’s important to remind people of that.
“Our culture, we live in such a celebrity culture, and I just think it’s such a misappropriation of value, and a misunderstanding of value. It’s just a farce. So I think it’s good, as someone who’s been in the spotlight, to be able to say it’s just lights, and stages. You could do that to anybody and they’re going to seem bigger than they are. We’re all such normal people.”
God only knows how the wind’s gonna blow / And how it all flows together / If the words we use or the wars we choose / Are gonna change somebody’s life forever / God only knows
On that same tour of Europe, Kyle says he came to terms with his own feelings on balancing his life on the road with his home life by contemplating the journey of a notoriously troubled songwriter. “On that tour we were doing a Townes Van Zandt song, ‘If I Needed You.’ We were doing that a lot, every night,” he remembers. “And my big gripe with Townes was that he ultimately didn’t do what his songs said. He thought that the art was more important than the people in his life, so he followed the art.
“People are the greatest works of art that we know. People are the greatest art, so there’s no art that’s worth pursuing over people in our lives. I just don’t get how Townes could leave that for some songs. When to me, I’m having a hard time following songs when I want to be with the people in my life.”
Ben Kyle performs with an array of special guests tonight at the Cedar, which will also feature an opening set by Carrie Rodriguez and Romantica’s Luke Jacobs.