The back half of the 2010s brought many admirable attempts to serenade the impending apocalypse: Father John Misty’s Pure Comedy; Weyes Blood’s Titanic Rising; and Richard Dawson’s X are just a few records that tapped into a unique kind of beauty while trying to capture the increasing despair of modern society. Considering America’s ongoing political divide and the integration of internet culture into our daily lives, these kinds of records figure to continue manifesting into the universe, each offering its own two cents on the world we are shaping.
In this niche of observational songwriters exists Kellen of Troy, the musical moniker for Kellen Wenrich, a singer and multi-instrumentalist from Pennsylvania who first came up in the world of progressive bluegrass, before bringing his roots-oriented background to Nashville this past decade. Now gearing up to release his second full-length album, Kellen is prepared to share his own take on the world around him and the people within it.
“It’s all about being a fledgling musician. Some of it was seeing the funny sides of that culture, dealing with ego and narcissism, and all these things I think are sort of inherent to being a musician,” he says about the record. “I didn’t really write specifically about Nashville, but more so the ‘hip’ gentrification that’s going on throughout cities everywhere.”
His new album, Vanity Project, officially out March 13, bridges together a wide variety of impressions and influences. On one hand, it’s a verbose undertaking laden with existential irony and self-deprecating lyrics. At the same time, it’s an undeniably infectious record, complete with a steady stream of glossy melodies and uplifting string sections. Throughout the album, Kellen’s wry commentary collides with his unabashed obsession with lush and eccentric pop arrangements. The end result is a record full of wildly entertaining songs and hooks that will be bottled up in your brain for the foreseeable future.
On the album opener “Some Tune We All Already Know,” Kellen crafts an infinitely danceable ditty, an instant highlight for its emphatic strings, pulsing percussion, and comically catchy chorus. Not only is the track the perfect musical introduction to the rich sound of Vanity Project, but it also provides a solid helping of the self-conscious vignettes Kellen serves up in each tune. “Don’t You Know Who I Think I Am” adopts a stance of playful irony while veering into swooning folk-rock, rattling off one self-indulging lyric after another: “The most important part of my job is being sure that I’m being seen / And if I’m gonna end up at the bar, I might as well have a couple drinks / I never stay to see the house lights unless I’m backstage partying.”
One of the album’s most amusing and profound narratives comes on “Heaven Online,” another elegantly-composed piece of folk-pop satire that depicts earth’s future invaders being disappointed by the lousiness of humans and the world they live in. It’s an entertaining albeit depressing portrait of the toxic internet-related habits being ingrained into millions of people as a result of social media and the digital age. Elsewhere, the punchy “Money Talks” and the retro-flavored romantic crooning on “Everyone Loves You When Your Dead” poke fun at financial privilege and posthumous forgiveness, all while maintaining the album’s melodic integrity.
Vanity Project is an exemplary achievement in songcraft, musical direction, and conceptual writing. Within each beautiful composition, Kellen’s vibrant wit paired with his penchant for nailing the perfect tune solidifies his brand of theatrical cynicism as more than worthwhile.
Riffs & Rhymes Editor Roberto Johnson spoke with Kellen of Troy about his new album, internet culture, the line between art and entertainment and more. Check out their conversation below.
I’m aware you have a strong background in roots music. I’d love to hear more about your upbringing and how you got to Nashville.
Kellen: I grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania going to bluegrass contests. I started playing violin when I was 5. My childhood was a lot of listening to progressive bluegrass and stuff like that, then eventually getting into gypsy swing and b-bop as a kid. I came to Nashville to go to music school and have not left since.
Your last full-length record came out in 2018. Can you tell me about the inception of Vanity Project – where the idea started and what it was like working on the record?
Kellen: My first record was all about people and relationships. This one is about people too I guess, but I was tired of writing love songs, which is pretty much what the whole first album is about. I remember thinking if Posthumous Release was a breakup record with people, then this would be a breakup record with music. “Some Tune We All Already Know” was the first song I wrote for this one. I kept exploring these social and cultural observations and ended up with 11 songs about it.
Writing witty songs that are keen on social commentary is not new for you. Your last record had notable tracks about dead-end jobs and infidelity. Conceptually, what were some of the driving forces in your writing this time around?
Kellen: It’s all about being a fledgling musician, what comes with that, and being around other fledgling musicians. Some of it was seeing the funny sides of that culture, dealing with ego and narcissism, and all these things I think are sort of inherent to being a musician. Just going down that rabbit hole of being on the road with different folks, the culture around town, and Nashville. I didn’t really write specifically about Nashville, but more so the “hip” gentrification that’s going on throughout cities everywhere. You know, everybody moved out to the ’burbs and is coming back to cities now. It’s all sort of observational humor, I suppose.
This album explores different sounds, but deep down, it’s a true-blue pop record. What kind of pop music stuck with you the most early on as you were learning to love and play music?
Kellen: I was around 10 years old when – you remember that Beatles compilation Beatles 1? I remember listening to that on repeat on an eight-hour car drive somewhere. It was like seeing a new color for the first time. Simon & Garfunkel, Nirvana, a lot of that lush retro ’60s and ’70s stuff. It’s a sound I really just can’t get over and try my darndest to replicate. I do my own fan-fiction version of it.
Your first single off the LP, “Some Tune We All Already Know,” is a really appropriate entry point for the album, both thematically and musically. Can you tell me about the making of that song specifically?
Kellen: That song started as a cool guitar riff I had, the one that comes in at the beginning, like da da da-dun. I probably had that in my back pocket for, gosh, six months or something. If you have something you really dig, sometimes it’s almost more intimidating to try and finish the thing. I think I was sort of scared to get into that one for a while, but finally, I just decided, ‘I gotta make something of this.’ So I started writing it, and once I got over that, it came pretty quick, in a day or so. I’ve always been reserved about putting strings on my music but going into this one, I said screw it, ‘I can write cool string parts.’ By the time we got done with the song, that riff that intimidated me, I couldn’t have cared less about. It seems like in the indie world, the hip thing to do is to bury the banger. You know, track seven or 10 on the record to make people get to it. But in the pop world, nope! Just come out swinging. That’s what I like to do.
A lot of these songs are cynical and self-deprecating but the tunes and sound of the record are so infectious. Was there any emotional recoil in writing these songs?
Kellen: I would say the songs are the emotional recoil. Whatever feelings those are. It’s not like in writing a song, I discern something about myself or existential dread or anything. That was all there. The songs came as the side effect of that.
A big part of being an artist is promoting yourself, especially on social media. In your experience, to what extent does internet culture impact the creative process?
Kellen: Well, you get “Heaven Online” out of it. Man, I hate the internet. Obviously, the access to free information is great for mankind, but the social media side of it is a terrible thing that I’m also very addicted to. Not as a participant, but as an observer. I don’t think it does anything for creativity. I think it creates a culture of judgment and jealousy. I don’t think it does good things for the creative process at all. Talking about reviewers and gatekeepers in the music industry saying, ‘I will not review something unless the artist has at least X amount of followers,’ you know what I mean? That’s such a disservice and so lazy of people. To use that as a metric of art is just asinine to me. I understand it logistically, but it doesn’t mean it’s a good culture we’re cultivating.
The fact that we don’t know the long term effects of constantly being on social media is a little scary. How are you able to separate the real world and the digital world while still remaining present in both?
Kellen: That assumes that I’m able to do that (laughs). Yeah, I don’t know. The whole thesis of “Heaven Online” is that the digital world is not the real world. Everybody tries to out-woke one another on the internet. The internet is not representative of what life is, at least not on social media. I don’t know if that answers your question. It’s such an integral part of our lives these days, it’s obviously a large encompassing topic.
There’s a Father John Misty interview with Rolling Stone where he says, “There’s a difference between art and entertainment. Entertainment is about forgetting about your life and art is about remembering your life.” The songs on Vanity Project are contemplative, at times pessimistic, and simultaneously fun. Is there a line between art and entertainment for you? Or can those two things coexist?
Kellen: I think there is a line. I think the modernization of music hasn’t done anything good for it. Bach wrote for the church, you know? People used to be commissioned by lords, knights, and princes, and up until Beethoven, that’s how most of our famous composers made money. I think putting a price tag on music has definitely tipped the scale more towards entertainment than art. I don’t know that what I do is art. I don’t know that writing pop songs is an art form. I’m sure that’s not a popular idea with songwriters, but I definitely think what I try to do is artful entertainment.
I’m sure you’re planning on taking this album on the road. How are you envisioning the record coming to life in the live setting?
Kellen: I try really hard to be my own filter in terms of the songwriting, meaning I try to make sure anything that goes onto a record can be done live. A good song can be played with just a guitar and a vocal, or just a piano and a vocal. I try to chase that down with everything I put out. I think I’m there with this one, which is great. Also, just letting the players and band members do the best with what they can as opposed to trying to be too sacred with anything, like ‘this is the way it’s on the record so this is the way it has to be when we play it out.’ Just letting the song live in the space in which it’s being performed.
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Listen to “Vanity Project,” ahead of its official release, below.