Theatre artists, sign up now for Celebrate The Smith: An Immersive Theatre event! Learn More »

The Smith Blog

A dozen questions for Kenny White

If you were at The Smith June 26 when Stephen Stills and Judy Collins performed, you’ll remember Kenny White as the laid back opener with the clever lyrics, elegant keyboard playing and some fun stories.

The veteran singer-songwriter-pianist Kenny White is back on Friday, Feb. 15 at 8 pm as part of The Smith’s Jan Regan Club Series. This will be a very intimate experience as audience members will share the Smith stage with Kenny. A limited number of tickets are available.

White is kind of a Renaissance Man in the music business, having pretty much done it all. He started in the 1970s as a touring keyboardist. In the 1980s and 1990s he became a fixture in the New York City studio scene, producing and arranging hundreds of commercials for TV and radio. He then began working on film soundtracks as a musician/writer, and recorded with other artists, produced their albums and toured with them. His long list of musical collaborations include Mavis Staples, Marc Cohn, Glady Knight, Ricky Skaggs, Peter Wolf, Shawn Colvin, Judy Collins, Merle Haggard and Linda Ronstadt.

In the early 2000s White decided to create his own album, and has since delved into the life of a touring solo artist. To date, he has seven albums of his own (the latest is “Long List of Priors”), has appeared on dozens of other albums as producer, songwriter or musician, and has contributed to several feature length movies.

The Smith caught up with Kenny by phone to chat about his career.

Q: You are going to be here the day after Valentine’s Day. Have any songs for the occasion?
White: Somebody recently asked me if I had any positive songs about love because I always seem to have a disclaimer in my ballads. So I did find one. And I played it for him, and he said, ‘Yup, you’re right, that is a positive song.’ So maybe I’ll play that one.

Q: How about a positive song about not being in love?
White: Oh, I’ve got a lot of those!

Q: You seem like one of these people who never had any other job other than music. Is that true?
White: Not so. I last punched the clock at age 21. It was a paper bag company and I was loading 30,000 pounds of paper bags onto trucks and train cars every day. And playing gigs at night. So I wasn’t sleeping much in those days. I didn’t mind it, somehow. That was the last time I collected a paycheck of that type.

Q: At what point did you decide music was your livelihood and you are going to stick with it?
White: Early. Before I even realized it could be a livelihood. It disappointed my father. Not because they weren’t supportive–my parents were very supportive. But he had a brother who was a terrific piano player and writer, and really a Renaissance man. But he had no confidence whatsoever, so he wouldn’t show up for these beautiful auditions he would get. He would think he was the wrong guy. So he ended up, you know, working one nighters and cruise ships his whole life. He was never able to put anything in the bank. So that was all my father could think about when I decided to quit college after a year and play music. Which is what I did. And somehow, as it worked out more and more, he stopped talking about having something to fall back on each year. I was happy about that. I got lucky.

Q: I am sure there was a lot of hard work there too, right? 
White: There was. But there are a lot of people that are great and never get the breaks. Arnold Palmer or somebody once said, ‘The more I practice, the luckier I get.’ So it was kind of that situation. You have to be prepared for when you finally get a stroke of good luck.

Q: You have worked so many corners of the music industry. Is there anything at this point in your career that you have not experienced?
White: I’m very satisfied doing the things that I’m doing. I never thought I would be a touring singer-songwriter after starting at the ripe old age of 46, twenty years past when anyone would be interested. And yet I’ve never had more fun or satisfaction in my life, even though I’ve been in some wonderful situations. I imagine there is some kind of album I would wish to make. I don’t know whether it’s an orchestral album, something a little less song-oriented. I’ve thought of that now and then. But you know, I’m so into lyrics right now, that’s where I get the most satisfaction–agonizing over a lyric. So if the other things come, I’ll be happy. But right now, I’m also happy where I am.

Q: I listened to your album, “Long List of Priors,” from beginning to end the other night without interruption, just lying on the couch. It doesn’t seem like people listen to music that way anymore, does it?
White: It’s a different level of enjoyment when you listen to an album in the order in which the songs were intended. The songs that they were playing on the radio, they were great, but then the fourth song on the record, which you hated the first time you heard it, ends up being the favorite thing. I’ve slaved over the sequence of songs on a record. And also on Peter Wolf records. We will look at each other and say, ‘You know, there are going to be four people who care about this sequence. They will listen once, pick their favorite ones and put them on their phones, and that’s it.’ Still, we’ll spend weeks laboring over the sequence.

Q: I have always wondered about how musicians decide the order for their albums. Do you ever think about it as you are writing the song?
White: If I ever write for what I think the audience might like the song has always been short-lived. You can’t anticipate that. You just have to write what you need to write.

Q: Do you write the lyrics first?
White:  It’s 50-50 at this point. There’s a song on my first album, a duet with Shawn Colvin, called “In Our Hands.” I had that music for about a year and a half and I kept trying and trying and couldn’t find the lyrics.

The lyrics I write are more free and more storytelling, I think, when I write the lyrics first. I paint myself into a corner, and the lyrics becomes more confined (when I have to write the lyrics after the music).

Q: You have written hundreds of catchy commercial jingles, such as “The Unsinkable Taste of Cheerios.” It seems like a good commercial jingle is an endangered species these days. Can you give us insight into this trend?
White: I know what you mean. You used to write a song for a commercial, play in on the piano for one or two, maybe three people, tops, that let you know if it passed muster, and you would produce it and it would get put on the air. The whole design changed, who you had to please, and how many you had to please. By the end of my time instead of pleasing two people you had to please, like, nine. Which is impossible. So things would get watered down and diluted until by the end it was a shell of its original self. That depressed me, so it was the beginning of the end for me. 

I thought jingle writing was a real art. I was never embarrassed or felt any kind of a stigma attached, even though there was. I always took it seriously.

Q: What do you like to do that’s not related to music?
White: I used to play golf, but I don’t do that anymore. I played a gig last night with some friends, mostly just cover songs. It was just so much fun. Shawn Pelton, the drummer from “Saturday Night Live;” Tony Garnier, Bob Dylan’s bass player and musical director for the past 30 years; Mark Schulman on guitar, he played with Suzanne Vega for years; and me. That to me is just clearing out my head. It’s not performance, it’s just playing.

Q: Do you have a dog? I’ve seen pictures of you with a dog.
White: No, that dog just walked into the photo shoot. I said to the owner, ‘Hey, does that dog want to be in the photo shoot?’ and he said, ‘My dog loves photo shoots.’ And he did !I never got the guy’s info so I never got to send him the picture. My cat right now is yelling at me.