Klump-thump. Klump-thump. Black boots on a flat board. Klump-thump. A twang. There’s a twang. Wiry plucks on a banjo’s neck. A darkness in the air. Dark words in a sweet voice. Words that warn against the dangers of too much drink. Words with a playful edge, a wry bite: “You’re mine, taste my fire / and your walls come tumbling down / You’re fine, I like you better / when you’re crawling on the ground.”
The boots, the voice, the banjo, and the words belong to Kelleigh McKenzie, who’s playing tonight to a packed, rapt room at New Paltz’s Unison arts center. The song, “Gin,” is off McKenzie’s outstanding recent debut, Chances (2008, Zatchubilly Music). There’s a bit of a quirky story behind it.
“I like to think of inanimate objects as having personalities,” says the svelte and striking singer-songwriter. “And the different kinds of alcohol each have their own personality. For instance, whisky is mean. Beer is lazy, slothful. Tequila, of course, is crazy. And gin is sneaky.” Indeed, the song’s sinewy, snaky main riff is a perfect match for the imagery of its cunning lyric. “Gin” is a catchy, clever masterpiece of form meeting function.
In a similar stroke of functional form, McKenzie grew up in a town whose very name mandates the eventual exodus of its youth: Boring, Oregon, an unincorporated logging community whose population topped out at 12,851 in the 2000 Census. “[Boring is] about half way between Portland and Mount Hood,” she says, adding, not exactly surprisingly, “There’s not a lot going on there.” Before her own exodus occurred, however, in addition to learning guitar and absorbing her father’s taste for jazz and the sounds of her older sister’s classic rock LPs, McKenzie inherited her Southern-born grandmother’s fondness for country music—though the latter genre is one to which she was initially resistant. “[Her grandmother] used to listen to the Carter Family and watch ‘Hee Haw’ on TV all the time,” remembers the singer. “But as a kid I just thought it was goofy. It wasn’t ’til later on that I totally fell in love with the classic country stuff, and I’m thankful that she exposed me to it. I always say I got the hillbilly-music gene from grandma.”
McKenzie came east to Pittsburgh to study acting at Carnegie Mellon University, where she found the curriculum edifying but grueling. “It was a very cut-throat, conservative program, designed to break down and rebuild the techniques of the students,” she explains. “So it really crushed a lot of kids, emotionally. But it ended up really helping to give me confidence and presence as a performer.” And, oddly, it was her time in the school’s acting program that also led to her picking up the five-string banjo. “We were doing a production of [the June Havoc-penned] Marathon ’33, which is about the dance marathons during the depression, like the one in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?,” McKenzie recalls. “My character had to play a stringed instrument very poorly in one scene, and since I didn’t know how to play the banjo at the time that’s the instrument I chose; I’d also loved Steve Martin when I was younger, and he plays the banjo. Anyway, I ended up learning to play and even picked up on [traditional] claw hammer style from a banjo player I met after college. He also turned me on to Pete Seeger, who’s one of my biggest heroes, and I got even more deeply into folk music.”
As an aspiring actress, McKenzie spent the ’90s in New York, where, in addition to working the requisite odd and temp jobs, she understudied for and was cast in several Off-Broadway productions and a few “really awful, lo-fi cable TV sitcoms.” While soon growing frustrated with acting as a medium, she continued to write songs and play music for her own amusement. “With acting, I felt like I couldn’t say what I really wanted to say,” she recalls. “Plus the work is so inconsistent. When I was creating songs I was getting a rush of excitement that I wasn’t getting from acting.”
It was during her later New York period, however, that McKenzie’s musical aspirations would be sidelined by an unforeseen—and still unexplained—tragedy. In 1998, she suddenly developed a mysterious illness that affected her motor skills and resulted in bouts of crippling pain to her extremities, leaving her unable to hold or play an instrument. Her doctors were totally baffled, and the disease remains undiagnosed to this day. “At first, we thought it was some kind of repetitive motion injury, since I was doing a lot of office temp jobs where I was typing at the computer for long periods,” McKenzie says. “But it didn’t match up to the characteristics of those types of illnesses, and nothing we tried worked. [The doctors] were never able to figure out what it was or how to treat it, which was heartbreaking because I was just starting to get serious about my music.”