Amplify Nights: Corey Kilgannon
Earlier this year we had the pleasure of having Corey Kilgannon, a Nashville-based singer-songwriter, play at an Amplify Session in the 12 South Neighborhood. Releasing two EPs since moving to Nashville several years ago, Corey's most recent effort, Hospital Hymns, has seen Corey touring across the country, being featured on numerous music blogs and session series, even playing a spot on a local NPR show. After the session, Amplify's Forrest Brown (FB) had the opportunity to sit down with Corey (CK) to talk with him more about his record, Hospital Hymns.
FB: What is it about the community of artists in Nashville versus other cities?
CK: I don't know if everybody does, but I've gone through like six different stages of Nashville. When I moved here I quit music, just hated it. I was like "I don't want to do music in this town." I've just kind of been all over the map since. There was a time when I was kind of jaded towards Nashville and thought, "I'm working harder than everybody and why isn't stuff happening for me?" But when you can get through all the competitive and the weird business side of it I just really enjoy the city, and I think for the most part you can find a lot of good creativity going on around here. It's so inspiring to me. Most of my favorite artists are people I met in the dorms [at Belmont]. It's just cool to be inspired like that. It's a hard place to live at first, and if I'm here for three weeks I'll want to go away for the weekend just because I don't get easily inspired to write here, I need to be out of the city, but as far as the business stuff that you have to put a little bit of time into, there's no where else to be. Everybody's here. Relationships are more organic here– you don't have to send people emails and hope for a response, you can just bump shoulders at a bar and end up talking.
FB: Do you think that living in Nashville impacted your writing for Hospital Hymns?
CK: Yes, 100%. I think that by nature I'm a very skeptical person, I've always been that way, but Nashville looks skeptically at everything musical. You go to a concert for an artist that everybody loves but most people are just kind of analyzing. In a way, you're forced to improve your quality to be able to say “How am I gonna present this lyric or this idea?” in a way that you can very critically scrutinize and then hopefully lead people past that to a place where they can enjoy it. It challenges me to spend a lot of time working on something. You can't live here and not be affected as a writer– it makes it harder more than it makes it easier. I have an easier time writing a song in a rural town in northern California near the beach or something– that’s easy. But here, it's like I'm inspired but how do I say it really well?
FB: The first time I listened to Hospital Hymns it was a really cathartic experience for me. Do you think the writing process of this album was a cathartic process for you? Do you usually take a cathartic approach to songwriting in general, just kind of working through stuff?
CK: I would definitely say so. I realize a lot of things after the fact. Like, oh I wrote that line, sometimes just 'cause it felt right but afterwards it reveals a way that I actually feel about a deep issue. I think it's both. I think there's been a lot of feeling for me with relationships, with God…it's been a great way for me to wrestle with questions, but at the same time I want people to leave my concerts inspired to think of their own ideas, not to adopt anything I say as truth. It's not truth, it's poetry, it's art. It's not supposed to be like, "Here's some good theology"– it's not. I try to work that in, and there's certainly supposed to be truths in there, but also a lot of it is I'm angry or I'm upset. There are hard questions. You can find healing in that by identifying with the question. Most of the songs on [Hospital Hymns] are three or four years old. The song "Hospital Hymns" is newer than that, but I was always just unsure of how to share it because I didn't want people to use it as a crutch to be more angry. It's like how do I present these ideas in a way that makes us more open-minded, not more angry? So that's a long answer to a short question.
FB: Going off of that, Hospital Hymns is a very complex record, and I feel like it says a lot about Christianity in America right now. Do you think there are a lot of philosophical questions on here that are very personal, very tailored to you, or do you think that it's more of a struggle with sort of the mindset that some people have about Christianity or with God in general? I feel like I'm sensing that frustration with the Church as a whole.
CK: Oh, I think so. I think maybe it's both. As a response to “Is it ultra-personal, is it supposed to a reflection of today's Church?” is just that I think a lot of the record came from growing up and never feeling comfortable with not understanding. It always felt like Christianity was supposed to be so black and white and so then as soon as I come to college and I'm all on my own, suddenly people are introducing tough issues into that, like homosexuality and Old Testament genocide. Does that mean you throw everything out the window and become a pissed-off atheist? No. By no means, I love those people, too, and they have great points, but the hope of the record is like "Aren't you guys experiencing this, too?” “Aren't we all having these questions?” “Why is it so bad to admit that it doesn't make sense and seek peace together?” So that's the hope for [the record].
Y'know when I put [the record] out I had a bunch of friends from home responding in different ways. Very strong Christian friends were upset about it, but I've also had some friends who aren't Christian who have always appreciated my music straight up tell me, "Yeah I just didn't really listen to your new thing. I’m kind of bummed to see you making Christian music." And I was like "What do you mean?" It's a hefty idea I tried to tackle, and I by no means tackled it. I think the most beautiful thing about the songs is that they ask a lot more questions than they try to provide answers.
So yeah, I am frustrated with the Church. I always leave church anxious, I always feel uncomfortable cause so often it feels like people are trying to present hard, cold answers that make sense and I've never really seen it that way. So that's probably where all that tension came from. That, and I always wanted to make a worship album that had that explicit "E" next to it. I've always wanted that– I don't know if they gave it to me on Spotify or not, I don't know how it works. [laughs]
FB: Before I had listened to the record all the way through, it occurred to me that some people might have thought it was anti-religion, or anti-Christian, but ultimately I don't think Hospital Hymns is putting the blame on or pointing a finger at God or the Church. In fact, the album has a really beautiful resolution with the last song, "Heaven," which I think offers a few concrete answers to the initial dilemma that you present in "Hospital Hymns." So what would you say is the main takeaway of this album for Christians, or for people of faith in general, or for people who don't profess a faith?
CK: I'm probably a dying breed, but I'm a very firm believer in track list and that the order of the songs makes sense. I think if you just pull up "Corporate Eyes," which is right in the middle of the record, it's saying the world is a messed up place, but the album is a journey. When we recorded it I had it drawn out and was looking at it as we went.
We started with "Hospital Hymns," and that song is just confused. It’s the one where everything goes wrong.
And then I think you hit that place of doubt, but a hopeful doubt, and that's "Doubter's Prayer."
"Corporate Eyes" is just like “what the hell” angry.
"Soft Gentle Brilliant" is worshipful and then I think it leads down to this point of, like you said, like the last line of “Heaven”– still not fully understanding but at peace with that lack of understanding.
So the main point, and I think what I'm trying to wrestle with in my own life, is being okay with not understanding all the time. So for me it's how do I try to seek peace when everything doesn't make sense? That's what I hope people take away from it. And if that's not Jesus or Christianity or faith for somebody that listens to my record, that's fine. I'm not trying to point anybody straight to that.
FB: And I don't think it comes across like that, either.
CK: No, I don't think so, either. I mean the only song on [Hospital Hymns] that you could argue for that is "Soft Gentle Brilliant." For me that song is not, "Look at all this beautiful stuff, isn't God great?" To me it's like, "God is not making any sense, but I look around and I can still see this beauty in the world, so maybe there's still hope in that." And y'know I've gotten messages and emails from people using that at churches and in Communion and stuff, but I'm like, “That's cool, but you might be missing the point”– we're all missing the point. I try to just put the songs out and let people think. People can ultimately take it any way they want to take it. It scares me to think that anything I say would bring somebody to a darker place and not a lighter one.
FB: I think if you listen to the album all the way through it does the opposite of bringing someone to a dark place.
CK: That's what it did for me. Those songs helped me process through dark places.
FB: We've talked a lot about religious themes in this album, but I think it also does a very good job of having universal appeal. Even though it does have a lot of religious imagery in it you don't necessarily have to be religious to appreciate it. Do you think non-religious people or maybe people who are religious but not Christian can relate to this album as well?
CK: I'd sure hope that they could. Because it’s written from a personal standpoint I certainly understand that there are enough religious themes that if somebody just hates even talking about Christianity at all they're probably not going to love my record. If somebody is not into it but at least curious about why people have acted in the way that they do, hopefully they'd listen to it. When I've played these songs in bars and played these songs in places where I know the audience is not probably all Christian, my hope is that their takeaway is, here's a guy who is a Christian and does not have it together.
It's never trying to tell them that they should believe what I believe, it's almost apologetic. So the hope is, here's a piece of art, here's an album that is Christian– and Christian music is not a thing, that doesn't make any sense to me– it contains religious themes but it's not everything else they've heard, so it can at least open a door.
That's what I've done with my past music, too. The Hollow, my first EP, doesn't really have any of those themes– that was supposed to relate to the people who have dealt with divorce in their family or depression or those things. I've talked to a lot of people that have been lost or had someone go through cancer, and that's really just barely a part of Hospital Hymns. I think there are other takeaways.
FB: Cool. So just to sort of wrap it up, I know you've been traveling all over the country, playing shows…do you think you'll stick around Nashville a little bit more now and play some shows here?
CK: Yeah I'm really trying to. It's just been such a struggle because I feel like you book a show, you do all this stuff, and then you're basically just begging all your friends to come when you could just be back at your house hanging out. But I think that's kind of a cop-out. On Friday I'm playing full-band, and I'm hoping to give people something that they're not getting on my albums, just to give them a performance that matters and that they can really connect with.
If you had asked me six months ago if I was sticking around Nashville I probably would have said no, but I think really this summer I was here and I just settled into a place where I loved living here. It's nothing against anybody. It took time for me to like living here, but I really do. It's a cool town, it's a great place to be based. Like you said, just traveling and playing shows, we're like smack-dab in the middle of everything. it's 10 hours to everything…Chicago, New York, Florida, Texas…it's the ideal touring location.
It's hard to play here. People are punks. I'm a jerk, I'd hate to play a show for me 'cause I have to analyze, it's what I do. I've seen some crazy good shows for people that are just like staring. And I have to realize that I've connected emotionally and deeply with songs and with artists that I'm just standing there staring at because I'm thinking about every word, I'm thinking about what they're trying to say. There are pros and cons. Are you going to have the most fun ever? No. But you'll probably have your best listeners. I like it here.