The gospel according to Myles Kennedy

Myles Kennedy
(Image credit: Chuck Brueckmann)

The sound of Mozart bursts into the background as we catch up with Myles Kennedy over Zoom in the run-up to the release of his second solo record. 

“He’s a little spitfire!” Kennedy says from behind stylish glasses, glancing back at the closed door through which Mozart, the family shih-tzu, can be heard barking. 

Born in Boston and raised in Spokane, Washington (where he resides today), Myles Kennedy has quietly become rock’s voice to beat. He began as a guitar teacher, then moved on to globe-trotting success with Alter Bridge, singing for Slash and auditioning for Led Zeppelin, among other things, all the while retaining a reputation as one of the most down-to-earth guys in the business. 

His debut solo album of 2018, Year Of The Tiger, was a largely acoustic-based ode to his late father (who died when Kennedy was four, having refused to see a doctor due to his Christian Scientist beliefs). Conversely, his new album The Ides Of March reaches across his artistic spectrum, taking in boot-stomping rock, bluesy slide guitar, countrified sunset textures and king-sized tunes, much of it peppered with lyrical nods to the frictions of 2020.


Lockdown was a test for marriages

My wife and I got married back in 2003. We were married for about six months, and then I started playing with Alter Bridge. So from that point it was just go, go, go for however many years. Serena and I have a great marriage. I can count on one hand how many fights we’ve had in twenty years [laughs]. I lucked out with her. 

They would say: “Well, when you get off the road it’ll be interesting, because you guys just aren’t around each other that much.” So this was the test. And we’ve spent the last year, every day, just doing the same thing, hanging out together. If anything, it’s better. 

I worry about a lot of things

In the sixth grade, when all my friends were getting these awards from the teacher at the end of the school year, like ‘Best Athlete’ and ‘Best Student’, she gave me the ‘Worrywart’ award. It’s the only award I’ve ever won! I think, like everybody, you worry about what could be, the future, not reaching your potential, am I being the best person I can be, am I being the best husband I can be… I mean, there’s so many different worries, depending on which day you ask me. It’s an ongoing struggle.

Spokane, Washington is a great place

It’s far removed from that fast-paced urban life. There’s not a lot of traffic and there’s space. Now, with that said, it’s kind of becoming discovered, and more people are moving here for that reason. But I feel like the kind of people who live here are just good people, hard-working people. 

There’s not a lot of ‘peacocking’. In some cities, people will try and show their social status and they’re: “Oh, look what I have, look at my car, look at my lifestyle…” It doesn’t really fit the DNA of this town. Our real claim to fame from a musical standpoint is we are the home of Bing Crosby, and White Christmas, which is pretty awesome. I mean, that’s a heavy cat.

Grunge was the last musical movement to have a profound effect on the world 

Growing up here [in Spokane] we were four or five hours away from Seattle, and seeing all that starting to happen in the late eighties was exciting. We had no idea how big it was gonna get. In eighty-eight/eighty-nine, Zia [Uddin, drummer], who plays in the solo band with me, and I were playing a handful of Soundgarden songs in cover bands. And then Alice In Chains would come over and open for national acts. I don’t even know if they’d been signed yet. So it was really cool to watch all that take off.

On my new record i tried to create a congruent sonic stew

I probably listen to way more blues-based music, jazz, a lot of American music, and a lot of music that was taken by what was going on in the sixties and seventies over in the UK. Obviously Zeppelin was a big thing for so many of us, and Bad Company, bands like that, so that is a massive part of my DNA. 

But so is Ella Fitzgerald, so is Freddie Hubbard, so are contemporary artists like Sturgill Simpson. I do have an appreciation for a lot of different genres, so I really wanted to make a record that reflected that.

Timeless lyrics are the best

I’m always hesitant [in lyrics] when it comes to more contemporary issues. If you’re gonna have [those issues] affect the narrative, try and do it in a way where it doesn’t date it, you know? I want to be able to listen to these songs in ten years and go: “Oh, I was experiencing this then”, but in ten years the listener can go: “Oh, this is applying to me now as well” or “I can extract this meaning from it.” 

So that’s always the challenge, to keep it ambiguous enough where it can be timeless and won’t have a shelf life. That was really difficult with this record. Really difficult.

We all crave the truth

My big concern is how everybody’s getting their information from very polarised sources. It doesn’t seem like there’s any middle ground any more, so we’re all living in our own echo-chamber, and the narrative that we want to hear is reinforced… So for me as far as my political stance, and my concerns… Sure I have concerns, but I’m more concerned with: “Where’s the truth?” That’s what I think we all crave. We just want to know that what we’re reading or being told is true, because if the truth isn’t there what do we have?

Bonnie Raitt was my first guitar hero

I was in a cover band way back in the day, and they wanted to play Thing Called Love [written by John Hiatt, covered by Bonnie Raitt], which I love, and so I had to learn the slide. And I took to it. I really just loved how vocal it was. There’s something about slide guitar, there’s this vocal quality. 

So then fast forward to Year Of The Tiger, and we get in the studio and Elvis [Baskette, producer] is like: “What do you think of putting lap steel on this record?” So that became, basically because of my love for Daniel Lanois, and my appreciation for Robert Randolph. I can’t do it like that guy, it’s insane how good he is. I would just try and accentuate the songs and textures, attempting to do what David Gilmour would do when he would play the lap steel.

Led Zeppelin are up there with The Beatles

When we were in that free period jamming together, I think it was the first day, I pulled what I like to refer to as the ‘Chris Farley moment’, where I was like: “I just wanted to say I’m really grateful. You guys provided the blueprint for what I do!’ After I said it I started hitting my head going: “Oh no, these guys are never gonna think you’re cool” [laughs]. But I had to be honest, because of how much what they’ve created means to me and they did for so many of us. So to me they’re up there with The Beatles as far as important bands go; they were such a crucial part of my development.

As a kid I played trumpet in the marching band, and rocked out at home

I had Hit Parade magazines and Circus magazines that I would cut up all the pictures, and they were everywhere in my room. I had pictures of Eddie Van Halen, Aerosmith, all the rock guys I was into. It was harder to find pictures of Zeppelin, because at that point in the mid-eighties they weren’t being featured in the publications as much, so I’d really have to search high and low for some of those pictures. 

But my room was a shrine to everything I was listening to. I would literally run home after junior high and go into that man cave, or ‘boy cave’, with all my pictures on the wall, and I had an air-guitar that we cut out of a piece of wood, and I would turn on my boom box and rock out for like an hour, pretending I was on stage. I’d turn up Screaming For Vengeance by Judas Priest.

I try to emulate my stepfather's empathy

Who I like to refer to as my second dad, Glenn [a methodist minister], there were a lot of things I inherited from watching him and how he conducts himself, and I tried to incorporate certain aspects of that; he’s a fair human being, he has a lot of empathy, and I try to emulate those qualities. 

I watched how he would affect people, and how people gravitated towards that, and I thought: “Wow, he’s like this light in the world.” And I love him for it. He’s a special human. I kind of get choked up talking about it.

...but my musical geekery comes from my late biological father

He was a very passionate muso. Built his own stereo speakers, he loved Scott Joplin, he loved Herb Alpert And The Tijuana Brass. Now, there was a record that came out, a really famous record that had a naked woman totally covered in whipped cream [1965's Whipped Cream And Other Delights], and it’s an iconic record cover from the early seventies or late sixties, and he loved this record. 

He actually had the reel-to-reel of it. My mum said that any time that guests would come to the house he would hide it because he was such a proper, you know, proper man, very spiritual, and he’s like: “Oh, we can’t have people seeing this!”

...and my voice comes from my mother

I have a theory that my voice, to a point, might have come from my mother, because she has certain sonic characteristics, a certain timbre, and I think I got that from her side of the family. When we’d go to church and she’d sing next to me. She could sing. She wasn’t a professional or anything, but it’s the timbre. I hear it in my uncles, they have a certain sound when they talk.

Ram Dass made more sense to me the religion

I dabbled in it [religion] for a long time, really until my early thirties. I was a pretty spiritual guy, and I finally found that for whatever reason, there were things that never made sense. So I kept on searching, and my discovery of Joseph Campbell and Huston Smith pretty early on in my later teen years is part of understanding that there are different realms in philosophy of how to get through life. 

So I became intrigued with looking into other possibilities. It was Ram Dass [American spiritual teacher, psychologist and author] in particular. He did a beautiful job of conveying certain Eastern philosophies that, for whatever reason, have worked for me. I don’t know if that’s religion so much as a mode of thinking. I meditate, I stay present.

My Christian friends worry about me

Do I believe in a deity? Not necessarily. My definition of what is heaven, I feel like this is it, right now, this moment. I don’t have any clue what comes next, and I’ve kind of burned out all my options as far as continuing to go down those roads. I feel very content, I feel very happy. 

I have friends who are more in the Christian realm who seem genuinely concerned about: “Well, what will happen to him in the next life?” I appreciate that, I think that’s really kind of them, but I’m not worried about that. I’m just glad to be here right now.

Later-in-life success is good

I have a very comfortable existence as an artist where I fly at just a level to allow me to continue to do what I do. I’m not a household name. I don’t feel the pressures that a lot of these A-list celebrities must feel. I don’t think I would do very well in that realm. I think the wonderful things I’ve been able to experience over the last decade, had it come a lot younger, I don’t know how I’d have navigated all that. But I feel like I’ve been able to do it in a way where it’s been healthy.

Always be yourself

When I was in my twenties, I did briefly fall into some of those clichés. I was trying to be somebody who I wasn’t – there were certain things that were instilled in me early on that I chose to abandon for a brief period of time and it just wasn’t me. And it was funny, because my parents would call me out on it. My mother would say this to me – and it was such an important thing for me to hear: “Honey, don’t forget who you are” [laughs].

If you're in a band, it's more important to get along than to be "dangerous"

I’ll be the first to admit you’re not gonna watch me perform to watch someone possibly implode on stage! With rock’n’roll there is a part of the mystique where that can be… People do gravitate towards that, the dangerous rock guy, you never know how it’s going to pan out from night to night. But it’s just not in my DNA. 

[Classic Rock: Plus, if people are going to be stuck on a tour bus with you for months on end, there’s a lot to be said for just being a good ‘hang’.] 

It’s a good point, because we’re all trapped in this tube with wheels, and yeah, that’s certainly something we talk about as a band, with a crew. Oftentimes the band and the crew will be on the bus together, and you want to know that all these people are going to get along. It’s a family.

The guitar greats are workaholics

There were a few guys in my town, guitar players, who were just prodigies, they were crazy good in their mid-teens. And I would watch these guys and think: “I’m never going to be able to do that.” But the thing that I had was that drive. I’m too stupid to know when to quit. I’m kind of bull-headed. And I still am. 

I just kept working at it. I look at [Alter Bridge guitarist] Mark Tremonti, he’s hard-wired the same way, where he just refuses to stop. And Slash is a total workaholic. The common theme with a lot of people I’ve worked with is that work ethic. There might be natural ability there to a point, but it’s the work ethic that takes you to a different realm.

Formal training is no substitute for the experience of playing live

We had this cover band – we were going to high school – and there was this bar called Gatsby’s, and there was an open-mic night thing and you start out there. You’d play on a Monday night, one set, and if the club owner liked you he’d be like: “Come back and we’ll see how this goes.” 

Eventually we were getting full six nights from nine until one a.m., and then we’d have to get up and go to school the next day. It was a great period to learn. When you’re in front of a crowd, you learn what does and doesn’t work.

There are things I'd still like to do

Maybe one day I’d revisit the idea of covering standards. I have such an appreciation for Ella Fitzgerald, I love how she treated the Gershwin songs. Cole Porter and Gershwin, that was a very special, important time. So I would certainly entertain one day making a record of some of my favourite tracks with some interesting arrangements.

The Ides Of March is out on May 14 via Napalm Records.

Polly Glass
Deputy Editor, Classic Rock

Polly is deputy editor at Classic Rock magazine, where she writes and commissions regular pieces and longer reads (including new band coverage), and has interviewed rock's biggest and newest names. She also contributes to Louder, Prog and Metal Hammer and talks about songs on the 20 Minute Club podcast. Elsewhere she's had work published in The Musician, delicious. magazine and others, and written biographies for various album campaigns. In a previous life as a women's magazine junior she interviewed Tracey Emin and Lily James – and wangled Rival Sons into the arts pages. In her spare time she writes fiction and cooks.