AUGUST 21, 2003
The Odd Man In
Kenna Breaks Free - and Earns a Nod from MTV
By Jamie Gadette

The RED Interview
Kenna does not want to fit in. His mission as a musician is to steer clear of any blueprint that may pigeonhole his sound. “I’m a sore thumb,” he says. “But all of the good things in life are found because they stick out.”

The Ethiopian-born, Virginia Beach-bred singer/songwriter has already accrued significant success by adhering to an original design. His debut effort, New Sacred Cow, boasts an eclectic array of inspiration including The Cars, Depeche Mode and U2. While the resulting blend of hip hop and ’80s synth pop stirs slight echoes of the latest electroclash movement, Kenna still manages to create music that defies categorization.

The man himself is difficult to pin down. He arrives at a Kingsbury Hall dressing room clothed in khakis, Pumas and a navel orange Devo T-shirt that is more suited for reveling in indie rockdom than for resurrecting early roads to electronica. In less than three hours, Kenna and his synthesizer-guitar wielding bandmates will be opening for Depeche Mode frontman Dave Gahan’s solo tour.

The opportunity to perform on the same stage with Gahan (who is a legend in his own right) attests to the newcomer’s rising credibility.

Kenna was originally discovered by Limp Bizkit’s crass frontman Fred Durst, a former rogue who drew parallels between his and the unknown artist’s desires to flip convention on its head. However, when Durst’s initial interest waned, Kenna was put on the backburner, prompting the newly signed performer to seek separate representation. Soon thereafter, Kenna hooked up with Chad Hugo who, along with partner Pharrell Williams, claims membership to both the Neptunes production team and hip-hop powerhouse N.E.R.D.

“Chad’s a genius–he’s a walking chord,” says Kenna. “He has this ability to take what you have and expound upon it in such a way that you would never imagine it [the chord] could have gone.”

Respect is apparently mutual between the two men. At this year’s Coachella music festival, N.E.R.D. called Kenna on stage to perform his single “Freetime,” a melodic rush ready-made for heavy dance-club rotation. Kenna admits that the experience was a bit surreal, lending an account of the experience which infers he did not belong. That sense of alienation surfaced during childhood, when the term “nerd” lacked neither punctuation nor prestige.

However, Kenna wears his “outsider” status with pride. In school, he was a self-proclaimed nerd who, despite receiving poor grades, was still grouped with his smarter, “dorky” friends (now all likely far more successful than those who chose to exclude them on the basis of their excessive intelligence). A scholarly atmosphere also permeated Kenna’s home, where the radio was routinely tuned to NPR. His parents were educators with traditional values and consequently encouraged their children to pursue practical careers. Yet Kenna was apparently not fated to be a doctor.

“I didn’t think I was going to be a musician,” Kenna says. “Sometimes I don’t feel like you have a choice…like the path is sort of set.”

Planned or not, creating art is something at which Kenna excels. Ever since he kicked his sister off the piano bench at age 15 to try his hand at the keys, melodies and lyrics have flowed with ease. And he is committed to subjecting that talent to intense inspections for quality control, ensuring that material does not deteriorate into the generic. New Sacred Cow, for example, is Kenna’s version of a timeless record—an album that exudes originality.

“I didn’t want it to reflect any one decade,” he says. “It is very much like I am as a person—I just am.” Pulling on not only his influences, but also those expressed by Hugo, Kenna constructed a collection of songs inventive enough to please critical listeners, but also equipped with a quality appealing to MTV devotees. The popular mainstream television station recently nominated the opening track, “Freetime,” for its Breakthrough Video Award. Coldplay, Floetry, Sum 41 and Queens of the Stone Age are also in contention.

A need to stay true to his art propels the effort to maintain a unique edge. After dealing with unsavory record industry politics, Kenna constantly struggles to prevent fresh perspective from colliding with the corrosive qualities of cynicism.
“The whole thing sucks, to be quite honest,” he says. “I just want to sit down and cut records.”
Kenna is particularly troubled by the lack of cohesion within the music industry. “It’s not that a critic is against you [or] a radio station that’s against you…it’s when your own world is causing those issues—that’s when it gets difficult.”
Fortunately, he has established a workable relationship with Colombia Records. The problems that do arise are minimal to the amount of freedom Kenna has to actualize upon vision, he says. With bureaucratic nonsense more or less at bay, the artist has more time to focus on his writing. He has already penned enough material for a follow-up album and is certain that it will blow away its predecessor. “I think the last record was much more ethereal and esoteric,” he says. “This one has a lot more definition.”

In the meantime, Kenna will be touring with Fischerspooner and working furiously to stand out among the rest.


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