Interview: Drew Kennedy on the Fine Art of Receiving Inspiration

“If you see somebody that looks like me sitting by himself in a bar or restaurant close to you, don’t talk so loud,” Drew Kennedy laughs on a sunny September morning in Nashville. “‘Cause we’re definitely eavesdropping, trying to find the next thing that we’re gonna write about.”

For Kennedy, whose eighth studio album, At Home in the Big Lonesome, comes out November 3, songwriting is centered around those moments.

“I write mostly vignettes, but it’s always informed by me,” he says. “I don’t have any crazy internal conflict to draw from  – and I’m happy about that,” he laughs. “So I just observe and apply myself into the situation, like how would I feel about that, make sense of that, get out of that, or get into it, or whatever. I think a lot of the inspiration comes from some external sources but then it’s internalized.”

It’s very like the artist and songwriter, who currently lives in New Braunfels, Texas, to prefer to focus on the world other than himself. “I don’t get a ton of joy about talking about myself,” he says, a statement that seems ironic in the context of our interview but fits perfectly with the way he gushes, for instance, about the syntactical joy of a Pizza Hut sign he saw reading, “now hiring smiling drivers.” “I like talking about the academic pursuit of songwriting, or where inspiration comes from,” he says. Though being an artist is inherently ego-driven – you’re creating something – Kennedy shrugs off praise of his talent or discussion of his skills. 

Part of the troubadour’s modesty comes from his almost anthropomorphic view of inspiration – essentially, that it’s its own force, kind of like God or karma: “If inspiration is an actual force in the universe, it probably operates like all other living forces of the earth operate and that is that its sole purpose is to stay alive as long as possible,” he says.

“If inspiration is like that, the high school tight end for the local team is probably a really great person, but if he’s not making art, why have some amazing thing pass right by him or have somebody say something awe inspiring right next to him? Why not find the people that are looking for it and run those pieces of inspiration past those people?”

“I think it knows who to send stuff to because you’re clearly open to receiving it,” he continues. “And I always try to be open to receiving it. That sounds weird, doesn’t it?”

Kennedy’s not alone in his thinking – Elizabeth Gilbert, for instance, describes a similar viewpoint in a TED Talk in 2009, in which she discusses inspiration and the ancient Roman concept of having a genius, not being a genius. Romans, she says, believed that a genius was a force that lived in the walls of an artist’s studio and invisibly aided the creation of their work; today, people often talk about having a “muse.” Gilbert shares a story from a Tom Waits interview, in which he was driving on the freeway in LA when a piece of melody entered his head but with no way to turn it into a song, he looked up at the sky and said, “excuse me, can you not see that I’m driving?”

It’s a perspective that takes much of the ego – and the pressure – out of artistic creation.

“There’s so much less frustration when stuff just isn’t firing on all cylinders like you’d like it to when you look at it that way,” he says. “We’ll take a break and then try and write on that porch instead of over here, or whatever. Just change it up. Let me get a different guitar, there’s nothing in this one.”

“It also makes it feel like there’s a little bit of magic in it,” he continues. “I was going to law school, I played baseball, and I was studying history and then I just picked up the guitar just to do something else for like an hour. It’s a weird thing,” he continues. “I definitely think that other than to be a father or a husband or whatever, I was made to be a songwriter and it found me. I didn’t go looking or it. It just showed up.”

Though Kennedy would be quick to deflect the credit, At Home in the Big Lonesome showcases his talent in its own right. He’s a keen observer: he describes in vivid detail witnessing a man walk out of a hospital wearing two wristwatches, one belonging to a woman, and how that moment sparked a song about his imagined story. He’s inquisitive: where many people would take something at face value, Kennedy sees a world of possibilities. And he’s a bit of a word geek: just get him started on great alliteration. It’s a perfect storm for the troubadour, whose intense dedication and easygoing demeanor combine to yield some incredible songs.

Listen to a taste of At Home in the Big Lonesome here: