A Conversation With Dustin Kensrue

qh_kensrue“Life is going well. Crazy at times, hard at times, but I have much to be grateful for.”




There’s something about a distinctive voice that draws the attention of a listener. When that voice communicates something equally striking, that attention is held. In the world of music, artists with compelling voices are coveted, and those sorts of voices are often supported by songwriters whose calling is to put compelling words in their mouths. There is an entire industry built to support this. The fruits of these labors have powered the music marketplace, yielding perishable goods. The performances shine, but fade fast; the connection to the material doesn’t resonate. The product is catered to rapid, perpetual consumption. The voices and messages fade into the periphery of our consciousness with little consequence.


In direct contrast with that are the distinctive singers who pen their own words, with varying measures of honesty and eloquence, and give them voice with sincerity and passion. It’s performers like these who lend themselves to devoted followings. Their works are grounded in their nature as human beings, and their fans tend to relate to the artists’ sentiments.


Dustin Kensrue, widely known for being the lead singer and guitarist in the band Thrice, is one of those artists. He displayed that talent over the course of Thrice’s evolution from a hardcore/screamo band into a boundless alternative indie rock band creatively at the top of the game. As a solo artist, he’s tapped into the folk-based singer-songwriter tradition for which his singing voice seemed suited. From his solo debut Please Come Home to this spring’s Carry the Fire, Kensrue has carved out space for his voice and message amid classic and modern rock that has been blended with the folk roots of his storytelling as a songwriter. He was kind enough to answer a few of my questions before his show at the Old Rock House on July 28.

Photo by Miriam Santos


How are things going so far with the album and tour, and life in general with you?


Well, this tour is just starting today, but the rest of the runs recently have been fantastic, especially this last run with The Rocketboys opening the shows and backing me for my set. They’ll be out with me on this run, too, so I imagine it will be great. Most people who’ve heard the record seem to love it, and I’m very proud of it. Life is going well. Crazy at times, hard at times, but I have much to be grateful for. Just celebrated my 13th wedding anniversary and had a blast with my beautiful wife in San Francisco.


It seems like with The Water and the Blood and Carry the Fire, you’ve hit a good stride as a solo artist. You mentioned when The Water and the Blood was released that it was meant to be sung in group settings, and thus restrained in a manner. That being the case, was Carry the Fire written with those sensibilities in mind? If not, was there a sense of liberation that came with not having that restriction in mind?


They are just completely different projects. Enough so that The Water and the Blood will be rebranded as a record from The Modern Post, as will any future records that are written more specifically for congregational worship. The new record Carry the Fire is more of the proper follow-up to my first solo record, Please Come Home. It was a fun, and liberating, record to make in various ways, mostly in that there was no one else involved at any point except for mixing. I wrote, played, and engineered everything. There are times that doing everything on your own can be rough and make you question your sanity, but much of the time it’s freeing to simply lay down a track and not have any other input on it.


Do you think it’s fair to say your solo material, much like that of Thrice, has shifted gears progressively, crossing genres and aesthetics?


Yes, but probably in a very different way from Thrice, in that the entire dynamic of Thrice is very collaborative, and the healthy tension between everyone’s likes and influences is what drives the progression. With the solo stuff, it’s more of something where I have to decide on a direction because I’m interested in making too many kinds of music. At this point, I’m thinking the next solo record will be more stripped down than this one, but that could change next week. In general, it will probably always loosely be some form of Americana.


At this point, how does it feel to be the role model for a subsequent generation of musicians, or to see various phases of your creative output championed and emulated independent of the rest?


Hmm. I hope if I’ve had any influence, it would be in fostering a sense of the possibility of music having immense value, and walking through both the artistic and commercial side of this industry with integrity. I haven’t modeled that perfectly, I’m sure, but it is something striven for.


As a fan, I’m compelled to look at the Earth portion of The Alchemy Index as a launching point for the thread that leads a listener from Thrice to Carry the Fire. If you had to guide a fan through your collected works, outside of just playing them the song “Anthology” and inclusive of solo material, where would you have them start? Would you focus on chronological continuity or aesthetic continuity?


First of all, I probably wouldn’t have them listen to anything before Alchemy Index. It’s not that I think everything before that is bad, but more that I am more satisfied with everything from that point forward. But that approach wouldn’t end up being a very good guide through my collected works. Still, I’d rather introduce someone to the things I like most first, and let them explore further if they chose to. As far as an introduction to my writing in general, I would say that Carry the Fire and Alchemy Index would probably be good ones to start with to get some broad context.


Carry the Fire feels like a classic album, but in a very contemporary way. It put me on the mind of Ryan Adams’ self-titled release, in that it sounds like how I wished a few of my childhood favorite albums had been recorded, with songs as good as, if not better than, some of that material because you have the advantage of hindsight to avoid genre tropes or dated clichés. Was it your intent to harken back, or did these songs just lend themselves to that style of production?


I guess I’m not totally sure what exactly I would be harkening back to? In the sense of harkening back to older music, anything roughly in the vein of Americana is going to be doing this, and I definitely am, as well. I think the record does blend some of those older influences well with a more modern approach and intensity at times, which is probably part of what makes the record work as a whole, even though it covers a lot of ground in general genre and arrangement.


For me, there is something very resonant about your songwriting that feels “in place” in the postindustrial Midwest, even though that’s not your home. Do you have any connections to this region? What does it evoke when you travel here?


I don’t have any strong connections to the region, but I think I can understand what you mean. I think the record evokes at times a sense of wilderness and abandoned spaces. For me, the main aesthetic to look to was the California desert. I had just moved back to California from being in Washington a few years, and I came back with new eyes to see and appreciate the desert beauty there. I think that aesthetically there is a connection between the feelings of the desert and the wide lonely spaces of the Midwest, of the lonely spaces anywhere, really. More than that, though, I think in a real sense there is a distillation of those varied spaces in all of the music that I listen to and it seeps into what I write whether I’m conscious of it or not. | Willie Smith


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