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Me, Myself and I – 2005

By Tom Cardy, Dominion Post, 15 April 2005

AMERICAN singer-songwriter Ken Stringfellow, who performs in Wellington on Sunday, leads a charmed life. Stringfellow first came to world attention when he formed the Seattle band Posies in the late 80s. Their music was compared to the British songwriting of XTC, Elvis Costello and Squeeze, while also influenced by the rougher sounds of alternative American acts including Husker Du.

While Posies are name-checked by New Zealand critics and musicians, they’ve never sold in the same numbers as their Seattle contemporaries Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Mudhoney — who Stringfellow played with. But Stringfellow says they’ve done well, with five albums selling in excess of 250,000 copies — the equivalent of going platinum in New Zealand 16 times over — but only half way to a gold record in the United States.

Soft Commands can be best described as a gentle album, with Stringfellow’s influences ranging from soul and reggae to The Beach Boys-tinged When You Find Someone, which touches on George W Bush. But unlike some musicians who avoid listening to their own albums, Stringfellow doesn’t shy from hearing himself on a stereo.

Last year Stringfellow also played on stage with Neil Young. But it’s his other job that’s raised the most eyebrows — regularly playing in supergroup REM.

Stringfellow was part of REM’s shows in New Plymouth and Christchurch last month and is using a break after Australia in REM’s world tour to return to New Zealand for some solo shows. Being in REM hasn’t changed his audience, he says.

“Most people come to see me and that’s growing all the time. There’s a lot of crossover as I do occasionally play the odd Posies’ song in the set, depending on the mood. But the solo stuff has a life of its own, which is nice It’s how I’d want it to be.

“But it’s all of course inter-related. All the things that I do between the Posies and Big Star and REM and my stuff, they’re all circles that overlap”

While Posies are name-checked by New Zealand critics and musicians, they’ve never sold in the same numbers as their Seattle contemporaries Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Mudhoney — who Stringfellow played with. But Stringfellow says they’ve done well, with five albums selling in excess of 250,000 copies — the equivalent of going platinum in New Zealand 16 times over — but only half way to a gold record in the United States.

He has his own theories on why some music acts become huge and others don’t Partly it involves people at times wanting to embrace acts that are “unreal”, he says. “People like to sometimes avoid troubling, ambiguous things that make them question.

“I’ve definitely tried to understand why some things can catch on and some things don’t. The best and most long-lived things are people doing what they really believe in and people feeling a sense of relief that they can have something real in their lives.

“Neil Young would be a classic example. He just does what he does. He’s done what he’s felt like doing and people accept that, which is a wonderful thing. I think there’s a lot of posing and posturing in rock and roll and some of it looks silly after a while.”

AS someone who seems to think long and hard on most subjects, it’s not surprising Stringfellow has his own views on REM after working with them for seven years. He was a fan of the band up to their 1988 album Green, at the cusp of REM being signed to major label Warners. But he didn’t follow them through most of the 90s when they became superstars.

“At that point I had my own band and was starting to tour . . . because I was focused on what I was doing I sort of missed it. They had already converted a certain number of people to believing in them. What happened next is that it spilled over into a whole other group of people. It wasn’t necessary for me to participate. You didn’t have to convince me by the release and subsequent re-release of Losing My Religion. I was already converted but I moved on to other things.”

Stringfellow says when he started playing with REM, he had to backtrack and play their biggest albums including Automatic for the People because he had never heard it.

“I thought `Wow, I’m sorry that I missed this. It’s a devastatingly brilliant record.’ I saw the band in a whole new way. They’d gone through this intense journey. What happened to them took them so far out of what they were expecting and then they dealt with it. They responded to it really well. It didn’t destroy them. They had a choice, they could do more of the same or they could just keep experimenting and doing what they felt like doing.”

Stringfellow will showcase his latest album Soft Commands in Wellington. The album was recorded in Seattle, New York, Sweden and, of all places, Senegal.

Posies had been producing albums for 10 years when Stringfellow released his solo debut in 1998. He wanted to release his own work for a long time. “I desperately needed to do my own thing and to do things in a way that was just an expression of me. I hid behind a band name for a while called Saltine, but that involved other people. I realised I was really just getting into another band. Rather than make up a nom de plume for myself, I presented myself as myself.”

Soft Commands can be best described as a gentle album, with Stringfellow’s influences ranging from soul and reggae to The Beach Boys-tinged When You Find Someone, which touches on George W Bush. But unlike some musicians who avoid listening to their own albums, Stringfellow doesn’t shy from hearing himself on a stereo.

“This is going to sound really weird, but when I’m feeling particularly distressed or depressed or stressed, I actually will listen to something I’ve made that I’m really proud of,” he says.

“It’s a way of sort of reminding myself who I am. It’s the pleasant memories I have associated with certain records. Certainly Soft Commands was a really pleasant record to make. It was a really free and creative space. It wasn’t like an ordeal I had to go through. It’s showing myself what I am capable of . . . It’s all I can really ask from a record. It’s `This is all of human life as seen through my eyes. I give this to you so you can tell me how you see it. Or maybe that will help you see it in a different way.’ That’s what music just does, you know.”