Kelly Pardekooper always had a day job.
It’s one of those harsh realities of the music biz: To “make it” you’ve got to spend a lot of time working hard not only on your artistic output, but on … something that actually puts dollars in your pocket.
The Iowa-born Pardekooper toured on and off for the better part of 20 years, releasing seven studio LPs and two live albums, soliciting roots rock greats like Bo Ramsey and Teddy Morgan to serve as producers on various projects, all the while grinding away at various side gigs, including house-painting, prop shop-minding, doorman-ing and sales dude-ing at three different alt-weeklies. That is, he’s been grinding away at the day job thing until now.
See, Kelly – who now makes his home in Downtown Indy – found something of a loophole in the music biz money quandary: His vast catalogue and appealing, accessible Heartland roots music landed the attention of a music publisher in Los Angeles. That publisher (Bob Mair, founder of Black Toast Music) placed dozens of Kelly’s songs on the soundtracks to a wide variety of TV shows, from cable dramas (Sons of Anarchy, True Blood, Justified) to basic cable (Chicago Fire, Blue Bloods) to reality TV (Jerseylicious, Wife Swap UK). Film is next: the Katie Holmes/Luke Wilson flick All We Had picked up one of Kelly’s tracks.
As placement picks up, Kelly thinks the time has come to turn to recording and writing in more of a full-time capacity, and thus, the day job has to go. The way I see it, this is Kelly’s third act. Act one: touring and recording heavily, from his Iowa City home base with backing bands The Devil’s House Band and The Horse Buyers. Act two: bouncing around the US following his badass spinal-surgeon-wife’s medical training, residencies and eventual full-time position at IU Health Methodist Hospital in Indy, while recording intermittently – plus jetting off to Alaska and back to Iowa for some weekend gigs.
These days, his music publisher is hoping he’ll record more, both in Indianapolis, where’s he’s assembled a three-piece band of veteran locals that will play out for the first time together at the Melody Inn next Friday, and in Los Angeles, where he’ll fly out a few times a year to cut new tracks as a vocalist with session players. He’ll return to Europe for a short tour later this year, too.
… And, oh yeah, for the last three years that day job involved sitting at a desk not 10 yards from my own. That’s right: Pardekooper was a sales dude for this very magazine you hold in your hands. I always knew that Kelly had songs that managed to work their way onto my favorite TV shows, but I didn’t get a chance to dig into the ins and outs of the publishing gig until his time with us was up.
I sat down with Kelly on his very last day at NUVO. This is our conversation, annotated with bits and pieces from various musicians, publishers, journalists and music supervisors that have worked with Kelly through the years, plus a little bit of German Wikipedia for good measure.
Two notes before you dive in: The print edition presented this Q&A with a variety of sidebars with corollary interviews and notes. This online edition converts those to inline notes. If you'd like to read a PDF of the print edition, find that here. Note two: Kelly compiled a playlist of his songs that have appeared in film and on TV. Listen as you read.
NUVO: You wrote in No Depression in 2009, “Since I was 14 years old, I have always had some type of job or work that was not at all music related. And have always felt this was a big part of my songwriting … just the regular day to day living, breathing and bumping up against other people.” How has this job impacted your songwriting? Where can you find that in songs you put out in Milk in Sunshine [released in 2014, during Kelly’s tenure at NUVO]?
NOTE: Kelly both wrote in and artist's blog and was written about in roots authority mag No Depression. Longtime writer Easy Ed [Maxin] wrote of him often, including in an email to me. Ed said: “Kelly has the singer-songwriter lyrical attributes coupled with the bar band experience, and that makes his songs particularly appealing and welcoming to a much wider audience. If you’d like to know what really sets him far apart from the herd though, it’s the business acumen that allowed him to figure out he could reach a much larger audience by placing his songs in film and television rather than spending 300 days a year living in a minivan and playing in front of a couple dozen people each night for table scraps.”
Kelly Pardekooper: I’m still living that life. I would say that, as a songwriter, I’ve always been more needing to bump into regular people and regular life. It informs my songs. It probably lends to any authenticity that people hear in it.
NUVO: Which is often remarked upon.
KP: It is. It also keeps me sane. For me, I’ve never been comfortable being in a bubble. I needed to live a regular life. Sometimes that was house-painting. Often, that was alt-weekly newspapers, because that was my education. And NUVO is my third stint at an alt-weekly. After three years, I can definitely say that from the album Milk In Sunshine, the title track is completely informed by my outsider perspective indie-vibe mixed with Stephanie Turner to sing that very gospel-y call-and-response style. I’ve never been anything like that in my music. Indy’s the first city that I lived in that felt like it had that kind of soul a little bit. I’m from Iowa. There is quite a difference.
NUVO: Do you think that comes out of the legacy of jazz here?
KP: I think so. And even the amount of churches. I don’t know how prevalent Baptist churches are [other places I’ve lived]. And LA was quite segregated – really segregated. The churches where the black folks were going were in Compton, Watts, Inglewood, South LA. And as diverse as LA is, it’s a very segregated city. I live in Downtown Indianapolis. This is the [first]city that I felt is more diverse in a real way. People have been trying to live together for generations, in ways that certainly my Iowa upbringing didn’t have, and also LA didn’t have. There’s a better mix of cultures here in some ways. And maybe that’s what I was feeling, living downtown and driving to NUVO from downtown every day.
NUVO: I think I read in that piece that at the time you were working in a prop shop.
NOTE: The prop house is called Bischoff’s. It’s 94-years-old and specializes in exotic taxidermy. The Hangover tiger stand-in? Bischoff’s. The location for Rilo Kiley’s 2004 music video for More Adventurous’ “Portions for Foxes”? Bischoff’s.)
KP: I was. In Los Angeles, I was working at a prop shop, so every day, people were renting different props for different TV shows and films. Just kind of one of those Burbank businesses that can only exist in Hollywood because the business is all out there. And I loved that, because I met different people from all different parts of the country and the world every day in short little fun interactions. Well, not always fun. I got to actually be living with folks.
[My] Yonder album would be more LA-informed. There are more songs about shady strip clubs and these seedy Sunset Blvd. settings that I’m sure that I was seeing and imagining. I need that. Honestly, I’m not a spec writer. For as much success as I’ve actually had in getting songs on television shows, it’s not been on call or on demand or spec work. It’s just been that the music supervisors of these shows have liked the songs that I’ve written for albums, just out of my own sort-of imagination. I’ve been lucky that way, that they’ve liked it. It’s also a shortcoming. I know there are people in Hollywood and other places that that’s what they do. They crank it out. I was never built that way. I had a chance to try it, and I tried it for a few months, and I told my music publisher, “This is not for me.” I can’t write for this never TV pilot that needs “A, B, C for lyrics and in this kind of genre.” That’s just sort of a little soulless and just not kind of the way I’m ever going to create.
NOTE: For a time, Kelly lived in Nashville and considered writing songs with the goal of writing for other country singers. Easy Ed interviewed Kelly for No Depression in 2005 and asked, if Tim McGraw should decide to cut one of his songs? “I don’t have any philosophical issue with that,” Kelly answered. “If somebody wants to record my songs it could give me a break from house painting so I could write some more.” More on this later.
NUVO: Tell me I have this correct: Your path is Iowa City, Nashville, Madison, LA, Indy.
KP: That’s perfect. That’s my last 10 years.
NUVO: Seven albums: three in Iowa City, one in Nashville, one in every city that you’ve lived in?
KP: Yeah, that’s about fair. The last one, Milk in Sunshine, is a combination of a lot of those places. But yeah, that’s the decade. And I started late. And I started at 30. I didn’t start with big illusions, starting at 30 with a funny last name. I knew that I was going to sort of be doing this out of love.
NOTE: Kelly’s discography includes:
• 30 Weight (1998, Leisure Time Records, his own label)
• Johnson County Snow (Trailer Records) • Live at Gabe’s
• House of Mud (Trailer Records, Trocadero Records)
• Live in Europe (Leisure Time Records)
• Haymaker Heart (Trailer Records, Trocadero Records)
• Brand New Bag (Sonic Rendezvous Records)
• Yonder (Leisure Time Records)
• Milk in Sunshine (Leisure Time Records)
“Pardekooper” means “horse buyer” in Dutch. Kelly named his second Iowa backing band The Horse Buyers in a little joke that only those versed in Dutch etymology could get.
NUVO: What was the moment that you thought, “I’m going to do this.”?
KP: I don’t know if there was a moment in Iowa City. It was a slow burn, and I was a slow burn anyway. I kind of got through college, worked at the weekly paper, got married. I went to University of Iowa in Iowa City and studied communications. Bloomington would be a very good match, I would say that, for a great kind of liberal, progressive, Big 10 university town. But it’s also my hometown.
NOTE: Kelly’s Horse Buyers and Devil’s House Band drummer Matt Winegardner played with him beginning in 1999. He remembers the early days as thus: “We had such a range of gigs going from opening for national touring artists such as Dale Watson, Big Sandy, Chuck Prophet and Jack Ingram, to playing parties to playing small town dive bars across the state of Iowa. I still remember the Brrrr Ride After-Party (a winter time bike ride event) in Nevada, Iowa being a real trial-by-fire event. One of our very first gigs and the audience was pretty fired up and out of control, a real sink or swim experience. I felt like we learned to at least doggie paddle as a band.”
I grew up with about as a diverse background as you can find [for Iowa]. I mean, I married one of the few Korean American women that are from Iowa [wife Karen Myung], probably, at least from my generation. [laughs] So, I’m happy to have been in a university town, where there were lots of [outlets]. The Iowa Writers’ Workshop is there. Iowa City loves Kurt Vonnegut almost as much as Indy in some ways because of his connection to the Writers’ Workshop. And Tennessee Williams, and a whole slew of others. But Vonnegut’s a big one, and it made me very comfortable when I moved downtown and I saw the huge painting on that brick wall downtown and was like, “Oh, this is like the Kurt Vonnegut May Day parties that I used to go to, and that still go on at the Writers’ Workshop,” and that’s very cool.
NOTE: Kelly’s two main bands in Iowa were The Devil’s House Band and The Horse Buyers. Bassist and recording engineer John Svec worked on Johnson County Snow, Haymaker Heart, Yonder and Milk in Sunshine. Svec said attributes Kelly’s success in publishing to the fact that, “His tunes are always a vision of a place, a person, an experience that tend to be phrased in a straightforward and memorable way. The tunes are neither easy or difficult to play which generally means, there’s a tasteful amount of music to support the lyrics and with an easy melody to grasp.”
But you’ve got my decade down pretty good. And it’s worth noting that a lot of that was, still, working different kinds of jobs, following Karen. When I left Nashville, really from that point on, I’ve been following Karen’s medical career. I would say from 2007 since, I’ve really dialed the touring down. That was the last time I toured in Europe, which I think I toured four times.
NUVO: At the height of your touring, how much were you gone? How much were you out during the year?
KP: A lot. I would say for me doing a lot of touring was doing about 125 shows a year. Europe would take easily one to two months of that of a year, just because I’ve got a funny Dutch name and got an Amsterdam booking agent pretty early on.
NOTE: Kelly wrote for the Isthmus in 2007, of Amsterdam: “Artists are treated very well here, just like any other person with a skill/trade to offer. In America, I have often felt like a fringe/gypsy group when trying to make a living via music. The beer is also better — and Wisconsin beer is the best I’ve had in the U.S. — but it’s amazing here.”
NUVO: And a Dutch grandfather?
KP: Great-grandfather is from Holland, yeah!
NUVO: I translated your German Wikipedia page, which is quite extensive! And a little bit hard to parse.
KP: It’s got a total German vibe. My Wikipedia page is in E Minor, basically, if I had to assign a chord to it. It’s an E Minor. And, all kidding aside, Germany kicked ass for me. A lot of the independent labels that helped me were actually based in Germany.
NOTE: A sample of that German Wikipedia page, run through the Google translation machine: “Kelly Pardekooper was lucky, and he was originally enough for the business. His rough, Roots rock-heavy sound and his fluctuating between melancholy and sarcasm texts were also registered nationally.” and “Generally Kelly Pardekooper less than Genre virtuoso than as a credible country songwriter with the heart in the right place.”
NUVO: You’ve released on many labels.
KP: I’ve been on a lot of small labels. Things that were not self-released would kind of start with Iowa’s Trailer Records, which is legitimate in that Greg Brown, Grammy dude, is still a friend. Bo Ramsey is a guitar ringer who produces a lot of Greg Brown’s stuff and has done his own albums. He’s very much the mentor figure for me, if I was to name one. One of the reasons the Yonder record is one of my favorites is because I was able to go into the studios and give control over, and that’s the only time I’ve ever done it, because Bo is so good.
NOTE: Record producer and guitar maestro Bo Ramsey is married to musician Pieta Brown and a frequent collaborator with her father Greg Brown. He said of recording with Kelly: “When he asked me to produce a record, I was kind of surprised by that, but at the same time I was very honored to do it. I enjoyed working with Kelly, and one of the things that sits in my memory of that session was just his disposition. He’s got an almost kind of zen-like approach the music, anyway. So it was enjoyable for me to work with him. That set a tone for the session, and for everyone involved. As a producer, I appreciated that. I’ve worked in a lot of different kinds of environments. I just have a really fond memory of that session. Because of that temperament, he was very solid. Like, if you needed to do more than one take, or if you needed to do numerous takes, it was not a problem. It was just kind of that calm steadiness that I really enjoyed and appreciated.”
He produced Lucinda’s big album Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, he was one of a couple producers. [He produced a six-song session with] Joan Baez, etc. He’s one of those Iowa guys that’s been around Iowa forever. He and Greg Brown are my dad’s age so [they showed me] you can be from Iowa, and come out of a small state that, like Indiana, is a flyover state for a lot of people, but still have a career. It may be a lot more blue collar and less fancy, but if you start with the small college town and build your own following, you can do it. And they still do it. They’re looking at retiring like my parents, soon.
NOTE: Bo Ramsey says, of the Eastern Iowa sound, “I think one of the main things with Iowa is that it sits next to the Mississippi River. The Mississippi borders the eastern part of Iowa. I think the river is a means of transpiration for all kinds of things, from goods to music. I feel it, music from the South has come up and affected me. I know that.”
[Releases were] certainly higher-profile in Europe. I got to go on their equivalent of the World Cafe. The public radio that played me in Holland and Germany and Austria and those Benelux countries, I got it. When we started touring over there, we were embraced. We got paid in Euros! — which was 25 percent more. It was all good.
NUVO: When I was writing a piece on the Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band, I talked to someone in Norway and he told me something to the effect of, ”We just love the blues here.” The allegiance to Americana is astonishing.
KP: And that they know that there’s a lot of stuff like the Rev, and a lot of stuff that Americans won’t see on MTV or hear on the radio dial, but they are so educated and they KNOW [about it]. In fact, they covet and look for the ones that are much more underground. They love the history part, and they like folks that are a little more off the grid. I always appreciate that when you go to those shows, they’re quiet. They pay their 10, 15, sometimes 20 Euros and they really want to listen.
NOTE: Nashville-based musician and producer Teddy Morgan toured Europe with Kelly in the early aughts. When reached by phone and asked about this European blues allegiance, he said: “I’m not a musical historian, but it even dates back to jazz musicians in France in the ‘50s. How come they found a life there? How come in England and in Europe these amazing blues artists in the ‘60s were discovered by people like the Rolling Stones? It’s pretty amazing that they launched second careers for them. As far as the American roots thing, I don’t know if it’s something special because it’s foreign and imported, but there really is something there.”
NUVO: Were you mostly doing clubs there?
KP: I did two theater-sized shows. With me, it was usually a festival that would anchor the whole thing. One of the big ones was the Take Root Festival, which is still going on. I got to play that. There was always at least one [festival]. I think there’s another one that’s called Orange Blossom Special Festival – these are mostly American roots acts like Ryan Adams will headline something like this. I got to know the Cracker guys pretty well because we were on this festival and did shows together. That is kind of what would pay for getting the band over, a big gig that paid more, like a festival.
Then we would do – at least at my level in Europe – two to three hundred room clubs, sometimes interspersed with opening for a bigger act at a theater. For me, that was bigger than what I was doing in America, even in the Midwest when I was touring the most. I was still pretty much playing places that were more like [Radio Radio-size], but in different markets. And I was slowly building places like in Minneapolis. I will forever think of cities as, Minneapolis is Lee’s Liquor Lounge; Omaha has a place called Mix. Outside of Chicago, there’s a place called FitzGerald’s. It’s a little more suburban. There’s a guy who has a great Fourth of July festival every year and loves American roots acts and pays them really well. So Chicago was always FitzGerald’s, and Schuba’s. That would be more the city show, although they never wanted us to play them back-to-back. Those would have been the ones.
NUVO: What did you think of Indianapolis as a city before you moved here to work?
KP: I had played it, and honestly the place that I had played, mid-week, because they paid so well and treated us so well, was the Slippery Noodle. Back to your blues. I was close enough to blues – even if it was country blues, swamp blues – that they could [book me]. Hal and Carol especially really, really liked me, and Teddy Morgan, who is a guy that I toured with for a little bit. He’s the one that turned me on to Slippery Noodle.
NOTE: Teddy Morgan served as producer for 2007’s Brand New Bag. He says, of recording with Kelly, “I had a house in East Nashville, and converted the garage into a studio, had a tape machine, and was making records there. We recorded it mostly live, honestly. Most of his locals were live. He’s a very consistent, really good singer. … His voice is … how would you describe it, you know? There’s just a really cool quality to his voice. It would make sense to me why it’s been used so much. You feel the emotion of it, but it’s not going to overpower you or the song. It’s going to tell a story. A song, whether it has lyrics in it or not in a film, needs to help on an emotional level to tell the story.”
NUVO: It’s a big room.
KP: It is! And there’s always people there. If you can ever, middle of the week, get paid $400, have a place to stay – and they still have a band house – and get fed, it’s like gold on the road. If you’re on a van tour? That has to make up for the Melody Inn-type places where you show up for the first time ever with three other bands, and you’re trying to expand your audience a little bit, and you’ve got to put your dues in and win them over every night.
I still have an email list that to me is gold, because I earned it. The folks that liked me 10 years ago still like me now, and have been loyal enough to continue to buy what I put out. It’s grown a bit, and I’ve definitely made a lot more fans from the TV stuff.
NUVO: Let’s talk about the TV stuff. Now I kind of lost the thread with True Blood, never finished Justified. But I watched every episode of Sons of Anarchy.
KP: Well then you know that scene where she’s smoking that cigarette. That may be my favorite usage, just because, I like that woman [Katey Segal] anyway, and I liked her comedy show [Married with Children]. And she’s a singer, too! She’s a musician.
NOTE: Kelly’s song “Tell Me You’re The One” from Sons of Anarchy episode “Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em” soundtracks a pivotal moment when biker mom Gemma, outrunning murder charges, starts talking to someone who is definitely … dead.
NUVO: These are dark shows, Kelly!
KP: Well, back to my German Wikipedia. [laughs] It is. It’s kind of a ballad that’s one of my more popular songs, certainly from feedback that I’ve gotten. The one they use in particular at the diner is a very melancholy love song that is perfect. She’s smoking, and there’s cigarettes, it’s in a diner, and I’m clearly the guy on the jukebox. True Blood used my songs like that a lot. A lot, I’m that guy. Cold Case had probably the most lyric-connected use.
NUVO: How often are your songs played in association with murders?
NOTE: I’m joking here, but also not. There’s a lot of murder!
KP: That’s a really good question. Because Justified, same deal. I’m the guy on the bar jukebox, and that’s a pretty violent show, too.
NUVO: What do you think that says about the kind of music that you make? It’s very scene-setting, and very atmospheric. I think that’s something that’s very typical of Midwestern roots music traditions. You can feel the smoky bar.
NOTE: I asked Kelly’s music publisher Bob Mair, the owner of Black Toast Music, why Kelly’s songs work so well in scenes like these. He said: “The reason Kelly’s music appeals to me is a visceral one. You can actually feel the pain and struggle as well as the self reflection in his music. Not unlike a great painting, Kelly’s music is something that grabs you by the chest and says “LISTEN TO ME.” It’s honest, earthy, rootsy, sometimes raw, but it’s never trying to be something that it’s not. It’s good, honest, and from the heart. Kelly’s music grabbed me the minute I heard it! I was honored that he wanted to sign with me as a publisher. And, truthfully, I think the reason his music works so well for film, TV etc., other than the fact that I really haven’t heard anybody stylistically do what he does as well as he does it, is the fact that the supervisors, producers, and the like, all hear exactly what I’m sayin’. It’s honest heartfelt, well written, GREAT music! Of course the fact that Kelly is an amazing lyricist (who can paint an amazing picture with words) as well as an amazing singer, doesn’t hurt."
KP: I would agree, and I’ve heard that about my voice a lot. I was never a big smoker, but I spent plenty of time in smoky bars, and I hear this smoky voice reference all the time. It does fit it. I think that there’s something to be said for creating with a sense of place. Certainly, my early years that would have been Iowa, because I spent most of my time there. I agree that there’s plenty of Midwest roots music that you can just tell. You can just feel it. It’s a little spacious.
I get so little contact with these music supervisors. It’s always through my music publisher who will say, “So and so, he loves your voice. He wishes they would write a scene for this ‘Grandma’s Rosary’ song.” There are certain music supervisors in California that I know have songs stuck in their head, and they’re waiting. They’re waiting for the right way to use them. And like a lot of people, they jump around town. This has been six years now, since True Blood, second season, [“Never Let Me Go”] I think is what the episode was called. And I came on the jukebox in Louisiana, somewhere where those hip vampires were. It was a bass, swamp blues music kind-of track.
NOTE: Grammy Award-nominated music supervisor and badass KCRW DJ Gary Calamar was named Music Supervisor of the Year (Television) by the Guild of Music Supervisors in 2011. That’s probably due in no small part to his masterful work on True Blood, which used three of Kelly’s songs, along with Six Feet Under, House, Weeds and Dexter. When reached by email, Calamar says that, “Generally the songs within the show were used more for atmosphere and texture as opposed to lyrical content that might be too obvious or too ‘on the nose.’ I was able to have a little more fun with a lyrical and thematic connect with the songs used that played over the end credits. … Kelly’s badass, roots music was a perfect fit for True Blood.”
But the one that’s made me the most money is the one that they used when they were releasing the first seasons. They would put these DVDs out, and they would release them and they would make a big deal about it. And if you remember that era, there was always this music in between scenes. One of my songs is used in between scenes. It’s a lot lower-key.
You’ve heard my music enough to know that I have really three different vocal styles. Kind of a low, speaking type; then a more high, lush type that gets more into the Elliott Smith part of my range. And then just more of a straight rock, driving rock and roll type. And I like all three, but that is the one, the song “Can’t Go There,” that is used on the DVD that I ended up making a lot more because it’s used between every episode, and they released it in Europe.
At the time, at least in 2009 and 2010, those DVD releases, they were pressing a million of those. And I get paid a little bit every time that they sell them. And they were actually selling them. It’s changed now because now you’re watching them on Netflix, and I honestly don’t know if they have in-between music any more.
But True Blood was the show that absolutely opened my eyes to the fact that, “Wow, there is a music supervisor [that digs me].” And that person? He’s still in Los Angeles. He used three of my songs over seven years, seven seasons he used three of my songs. It’s the thing that I didn’t realize when I started. I thought, “Oh, this will be something here and there.” But it’s grown to the point now that every quarter, Kat, royalties creep up a little. It’s a cumulative business. Because a lot of the shows that we’re talking about are going to be in syndication a long time. They’re playing them somewhere.
Some of the TV shows that cut checks for Kelly this year included:
• Blue Bloods, which sampled “Drown in Alcohol”
• Cold Case, “Crazy Girl”
• True Blood, “Fly on the Wall,” “Wild Love,” “Can’t Go There”
• Sons of Anarchy, “Tell Me (You’re the One)”
• Justified, “Crazy Girl,” “Not in Iowa”
• Chicago Fire, “Yonder”
• #BikerLive, “Yonder,” “Not in Iowa,” “Waterloo”
• Make It Or Break It, “Too Late”
• The Young & the Restless, “Tell Me (You’re the One),” “Too Late”
• Wife Swap UK, “I Suppose”
• Pretty Wild, “I Adore,” “Hayseed Girl,” “Too Late”
• Life’s Funniest Moments, “Crazy Girl”
• Jerseylicious, “Too Late.”
Films include the to-be-released Katie Holmes-directed film All We Had, which used “Just Shoot Me”; April Moon, “Quiet Tonight”; and Sex and the USA, “Brand New Bag.”
NUVO: Did you celebrate when they hit 100 episode mark, qualifying for syndication?
KP: Yeah! But then I also know that I will get songs on Chicago Fire, which is an NBC show that may or may not be on any more. For those, you get paid a licensing fee, so there’s an immediate paycheck you get just for the usage [a sync fee]. But the real way you make a living is that you’ve gotta have a lot of songs, and over time, and those mechanical royalties, they add up.
NUVO: It seems like TV placement, which has been a second act for your career, hit a sweet spot in the mid-2000s, where a lot of shows were focused more on soundtracking. Especially a lot of teen shows and soapy shows with pop music, then roots music in these darker shows, the one-hour prestige dramas especially. Then we’ve seen T Bone Burnett, who supervises the music of True Detective and create this super conscientious soundtracking.
NOTE: Music publisher Bob Mair on the appeal of roots music: “There are times when it seems that there are a handful of productions that are created with that very rootsy, earthy, Americana vibe, sometimes set in the South or in Middle America and they need a very organic music to help set the tone. Those are the times that Kelly’s material does really well. Shows like True Blood, Justified, Longmire, etc. have all benefitted from Kelly’s songs. Due to the heartfelt honesty in Kelly’s music, Kelly’s ballads are also fantastic for a number of montage scenes.”
KP: I got to play shows with those folks, The Handsome Family. It totally changed their career. We had the same booking agent in Europe. It totally changed their career.
NOTE: The opening theme to True Detective Season One was “Far From Any Road” by The Handsome Family.
NUVO: The music industry, crucially, needs to deal with the money question. How can musicians actually make money? Is this something that will continue to grow? Is it all up in the air? As a participant in the cycle, what do you foresee as the future of this for musicians? And how can people get into it if they’re interested?
KP: First part: I’m hopeful based on my most recent changes that I’m making, that there is still going to be demand for original music that can be placed and actually made profitable to songwriters. Even in 2009 when I started, it was competitive and is even more competitive now. It was one of those last little bastions where a songwriter or an independent musician that owned the publishing rights could get into a deal where they actually could get paid for their songs. I know that it’s getting even more competitive and these music supervisors for television shows and film have restraints on them, have their own budgets, and they’re always trying to get better deals for music. Technology went after the music industry first. It was the first industry that kind of got devalued. The song and the music got devalued pretty quick.
NOTE: Kelly’s four rules of music publishing, blogged this month at kellypardekooper.com.
1. It’s a numbers game:
I have a lot of songs in my seven-album catalog, so my overall chances for TV/film use are greater. Music publishers are going to be more interested in larger catalogs of songs.
2. It’s a big old world:
As my songs are being used in America, they will eventually be used (paid) internationally too.
3. Syndication is king:
Songs in popular shows that are syndicated will play forever. And probably pay forever. (True Blood, Sons of Anarchy etc.)
4. Keep writing/recording:
Seems obvious, but keeping your head down and working your craft can never really stop. Always new things to learn/try.
I do worry that the trend of devaluing original music and song could continue. I hate to be a pessimist about it, because I do worry about young songwriters. I worry about the young bands that now can really only get in the van and go try and sell it night to night and tour. I think all bands have to start out that way, too. But to have a lasting career, you know, you’ll see the fights in the media sometimes even with established musicians who are shocked at how little they get paid now relative to what they used to get paid. I get both sides.
I’m always going to be curious about how people will consume music. [Some people] have no bones about going onto Youtube, running it through a computer program that strips the audio, dropping it into an iPad, and nobody gets paid. They get the music, YouTube gets the ad click. Everyone gets a good deal on that except the people who created the content.
I try really hard not to get cynical and be like, “Well, why should I even create? Why should I do this?” I still love to do it, so I’m going to do it. I still get paid a bit. I’ve had to say this in a lot of interviews, which I hate to say, because I’m a Midwesterner, and I love Iowa, I love the Midwest, I love Indiana. But there is no doubt that had I not moved to Los Angeles and gone to an ASCAP songwriting workshop where I was playing, had I not met the publisher out there, this never would have happened. And there’s still something to be said for the music cities in America, because I think they still select and weed out who is hungry enough to go out and do that. Had I not followed Karen’s medical career out there, this wouldn’t have happened, because it wasn’t at the top of my radar.
NOTE: When I ask Bob Mair what changes in the music publishing world he’s looking forward to, it’s all about the money question for him, too. “What I’m really looking forward to, in the music business, is a more equitable royalty rate paid to music publishers and that publishers aren’t tied to royalty rates that were set by our Federal government more than 60 years ago. The record companies aren’t tied to those mandates and because of that they’re making exponentially better royalty rates in terms of the streaming music services than the publishers. ASCAP and BMI (the performing rights societies) are both spending a fortune, fighting on behalf of the writers and the publishers.”
It’s been a really blessed second wind for me, because folks that love True Blood, they found me. They bought Milk in Sunshine. And they were people that never would have found me had they not crazily tracked down the soundtracks to these things. If you look at my iTunes and at my popular songs, they’re not tracks that I ever would have picked as singles off albums. They’re absolutely 1-10 the songs from TV. That’s attributed really to the work of my publisher and the TV industry, because I didn’t do anything —
NOTE: Music supervisor Gary Calamar comments, “It’s great that fans can easily find out information on music and track down artists that they see on their favorite TV shows.”
NUVO: Well, you made the song.
KP: Well some of it was 10 years ago! It almost feels like I’m finally getting paid for all the small town Iowa stuff. It’s come full circle. But I know that doesn’t happen for a lot of folks. They spend a lot of their life toiling at it, and slamming up against it. I learned a lot in my year in Nashville, too, in publishing. … I knew in Nashville in six months that I wasn’t going to be able to write Top 40 country music. I’m a songwriter, but this isn’t going to happen. I had one song held, which in that jargon down there means that they hold your publishing rights to see if they want it. And it was Tim McGraw’s agency, actually, and they ended up passing on it. Those are still the moments that I don’t regret taking those chances. This has been a better fit for me. Had a major country star taken one of my songs and put it on an album, that would have put me on a different track. Down there, it’s all about co-songwriters, and you work your way up as a songwriter, but you can make a living doing it if you have big artists that cut your stuff. I wasn’t really good working in that format.
I do worry about the young songwriters, though. I get that people are going to want to do this always. Gillian Welch has that great song “Everything Is Free” that I keep coming back to sometimes. I know it. The industry knows it. Everybody knows it. The younger generation knows it. If there’s content that you’ve ever heard, you can go and get it for free, though.
NOTE: Sample lyrics to Welch's song: “I can get a tip jar / Gas up the car / Try to make a little change / Down at the bar / Or I can get a straight job / I’ve done it before / Never minded working hard / It’s who I’m working for”
NUVO: Let’s talk about your third act.
KP: I will continue to record more music. My publisher would like to use my voice a little more on other work, which is part of the plan, too. And I’m going to hire some Indy studios and some Indy musicians to try and create some new original music here. Not necessarily for TV or any specific goal, other than I’m definitely going to pay for it, so my music publisher is going to be able to listen to it and see if it’s something he’d like to use. But it’s a great freedom to do whatever I’d like to do in Indy.
Kelly and I met again two months later to catch up on the full-time songwriting gig. Here’s how it’s going:
“It’s a new scene for me, and I only play about every quarter, maybe a handful of shows here in Indianapolis. Like a lot of things, Dave Brown at the Melody Inn had been key to [finding this lineup]. … Mark [Cutsinger, Kelly’s new drummer] clearly is more than just a punk rock drummer. Like Thom [Woodard, new guitarist] you can see that he’s a really flexible player. It’s fun. It seems like the place-in-life guys are where I’m at in some ways. We’ve played enough that we can take a few rehearsals and have a set pretty ready to go within killing a ll the fun, live, little nervous spontaneity that you want to be able to have happen.
“Now, it’s easy for me to carve out time to work on songs. I do that every day now. It’s even, I found most recently in Los Angeles, it’s much easier for me to go just be a vocalist, too. … [In Los Angeles] what we’re trying to set up right now is the right group that we can [record with]. The scenario with the music publisher is that we’re trying to figure out how to make the cost make sense.
NOTE: Drummer Winegardner says: “Kelly has such a great approach to recording. Not sure if Kelly sees it this way or not but I always feel there is the first time a band plays a song the “right” way that has a special one-time energy of discovery. After that time, you are basically trying to recreate that original moment. Too many bands rehearse endless hours trying to recapture the original version on tape. Kelly seems to strive to catch that original moment on tape. It has a certain energy that can’t be recreated. If the moment isn’t right and we’re not capturing a good take of the song, Kelly is comfortable to move along to something that is working. He doesn’t try to force a song to happen.”
“I’m trying to keep my songs that I’m writing here in Indiana. In other words, with a little more rehearsal, this local group, these guys that are pretty experienced, in my ideal world, I’m going to take the songs that I’m working on, my songs, I would have them help me record it in an Indiana studio. … What I do in Los Angeles isn’t something that I think would ever end up being on a Kelly Pardekooper album, or on something that I would release. … My publisher would like to hand-pick certain instrumentalists that he can bring out to record and my strength in that scenario is as a pure singer.
“This next thing will be 100 percent Indiana. It will be Indiana guys, an Indiana studio. I have none of the same touchstones that I’ve had up to this point, and it’s good. The roots I’m putting down now are here. … This new incarnation of guys is pretty experienced, which is helpful. I don’t writer super-complex prog rock, so my music is usually picked up pretty easy. But it will be very Indiana.”
NOTE: Bassist Steve Pruden is the third member of Kelly’s new band (and also played with him in a previous Indiana incarnation Distal Down). He says, “Kelly’s songs are constructed well so listeners can relate and by the second chorus they’ve got the song down. The songs also provide room for the instrumentalists to add color here and there — I’m excited to see how this new band interprets his existing catalog and what we can bring together on new material to future recording sessions or gigs with Kelly.”