Pensacola, Florida
Thursday October 17th 2019

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Room for a Show

By Savannah Evanoff

Ken Stringfellow wrote his first and only fan letter at age 14, to R.E.M.

He can’t be sure, but he surmises his teenage penmanship set in motion a series of events that would someday land him on stage with the legendary rock band.

“It was a lot of bad poetry,” Stringfellow said. “I tried to make it really clever and arty and serious. I don’t really know what I was expecting writing this cryptic poetry. I thought maybe they would find me a kindred spirit. They don’t remember some letter they got in the ‘80s from a fan, but somehow, they did recognize that kindred spirit without even realizing it.”

Stringfellow, a singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, started in The Posies and played with R.E.M. on tours and albums, as well as the re-formed Big Star. He has also played on stage or in studio with artists such as Neil Young, the Afghan Whigs, Mercury Rev, Thom Yorke, Patti Smith, Robyn Hitchcock, Ringo Starr, Damien Jurado, Nada Surf, Brendan Benson, Mudhoney and the Long Winters—appearing on more than 250 albums and performing in 94 countries.

He sometimes wonders, “Why me?”

Maybe he has some hidden talent to convey emotion that is invisible to him, he speculates. Or it could just be genetics.

Stringfellow was happily raised by his non-musician adoptive parents, obsessively listening to records and taking piano lessons as a child.

The 50-year-old musician met his birth parents just a few years ago—once two L.A. teenagers in the 1960s not ready for parenthood. He discovered his biological father is a musician, too.

“It’s very clear that my abilities and even my style is very much encoded in that DNA,” Stringfellow said. “There are things he does that he and I would have no idea about each other up until 2016. I’ve also seen that play out with my daughter (Aden). She plays a lot like me.”

Or—he seems surer of this hypothesis—he just didn’t screw things up.

“I’ve had a lot of moments of, ‘Oh, my God, if my 14-year-old self could see me now playing with John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin,’ and then I didn’t fuck it up,” Stringfellow said. “In situations where I had one shot to play with somebody I admired, like R.E.M.—I spent 10 years working with them—I didn’t fuck it up.”

‘Touched’
Stringfellow will never forget the day his solo album, “Touched,” came out. And how could he? It was Sept. 11 of 2001.

“Up until that day, it was a day I was really looking forward to and was preparing to celebrate and launch an album I really believed in and put a lot of work into,” Stringfellow said. “But I woke up that day and somebody called me and said, ‘Turn on the television. I can’t really explain; just turn on the television.’ It was a really powerfully disturbing image that didn’t look real.”

He played the record Sept. 20 at The Mercury Lounge in New York City—the venue’s first night open after the tragedy. Many musicians (Stringfellow cites Nick Cave as an example) canceled their tours, but he had a different perspective.

“Music was something that was always there for me in hard times—if I was feeling sad, lonely or confused,” Stringfellow said. “Records I loved were comforting things to turn to. Music is not inappropriate, given the right spirit. Not all music is unwelcome at this time. I thought, ‘Maybe music is useful.’ I don’t have a lot to give. I’m not a first responder, a nurse or a doctor, a psychologist or someone that’s going to give professional help to someone.”

Music was his small way to help.

“I felt like the album’s themes were not inappropriate,” Stringfellow said. “I was not laughing or enjoying myself while people were sad and suffering. This album is a serious album that does talk about grief and loss.”

As part of the venue’s 25th anniversary this year, The Mercury Lounge hosted Stringfellow for a commemorative performance of the emotional night 18 years and one day earlier.

Stringfellow decided to follow up that concert with a U.S. tour of 27 shows in 28 days, re-playing “Touched” on electric guitar—and a piano if one happens to be around. He currently lives in France with his wife Dominique.

Despite his history, it’s not a rock show, so Stringfellow isn’t performing in rock venues—more like living rooms and intimate spaces with the one-on-one vibe he digs.

“I want to make it special,” Stringfellow said. “I want to make it in a cool place, not a crummy bar where there’s a lot of distractions from drunk people that don’t care about the show. Whether there’s five people, 60 or 100 is immaterial to me. I just want everyone to have the experience they deserve.”

“Touched” has always stayed close to him. The songs were about an uncertain time in his life after the breakup of his relationship and his band The Posies.

“This record is the sound of me climbing out of that and trying to figure out the next chapter of my life after some big losses,” Stringfellow said. “I can’t say it was a fun period in my life, but the songs that came out of it have such powerful emotions, they’re kind of hard to let go of. There are few moments in my life that have ever been that intense. It’s powerful to go back there into those songs. Things that happened to us that were traumatic, I think they’re never fully gone. It might be that you have to empty that tank regularly now and then.”

AN EVENING WITH KEN STRINGFELLOW
WHEN: 7 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 5
WHERE: Address will be emailed to ticket holders only 24 hours before the show
COST: $20-$75
DETAILS: kenstringfellow.com