THE VOICE OF THE JOURNEY
What if we told it exactly the way it was?
BY PHILIP MOORE
A rather quick maneuver is required to get onto Galbraith Drive. The turn is a sharp turn, the kind that makes you feel as if you are being fooled and will soon return to the road from which you came, driving round and round until the houses seem all too familiar and you realize you’re completely lost. It is actually quite easy to miss the turn all together which is precisely what I did. The tease of pulling into a stranger’s driveway just enough to pull back out and head the other way again. I knew it was coming this time and made the turn with grace.
Nine houses down on the left my tired red ford found shade from the evening sun under a treenear the driveway and my worn out sneakers crunched gravel as I made my way to the door.
A humble little home, it sat quietly beneath the dim golden glow of day’s last light and the crisp cool air of the coming darkness. I knocked three times and paused. “Come on in here!” was the muffled reply and I showed myself into the living room. I was immediately greeted by the stares of many wild animals mounted to the walls. Well, their heads at least. I found my way into the kitchen where I was embraced with a warm welcoming hug. He always greets me this way.
Corey Kilgannon is precisely what happens when the shores of Jacksonville, Florida meet the hills of Nashville, Tennessee. A quick look at his long brown hair, soft untucked plaid shirt, dark jeans, and well worn boots and you might guess Corey sings songs for a living. You would be right.
Born in New York to his parents Bill and Gail and raised on the beaches of Jacksonville, Florida, Corey’s life has always been about the journey. He grew up barefoot, surfing in the mornings and long boarding in the afternoons. He has two siblings, Bill, who Corey call’s Billy, and his younger sister Shayla. They fought with each other growing up, as many siblings do, but have grown close in recent years. Shayla has even become inspiration for a series of songs Corey has written to her, one on each of her past four birthdays. The ocean, his family, and the movement of the world around him each fuel the words that weave their way into his songs.
Music is a journeyall of its own that started early for Corey. “I got a guitar when I was 8 and loved it. Piano shortly after. Just started kinda takin' lessons and teaching myself. It’s crazy, I guess that’s been almost 15 years ago now.”
The wooden chair shifted a little bit as I sat my weight into it. I placed the half bottle of Jameson Whiskey and the briar pipe I had been carrying on the kitchen table and pulled the keys out of my pocket, tossing them with the others to keep them from poking my thigh as I sat there.
“Make yourself at home, man. Dinner is almost ready.” Dinner was a college classic: a big bowl of warm spaghetti with a spoonful of a simple red sauce to top it off. He handed me a bowl and I thanked him as the warm steam rose to meet my face. He found a seat across the table from me as we continued talking.
“My music started simply from being fascinated playing my guitar in my bedroom, you know. Ten years ago I was learning Mayday Parade covers and sending them to girls I was trying to date, which never worked out,” he grinned, “and now it has evolved into songwriting as a medium to process thoughts and share those thoughts with other people.” And Corey’s thoughts aren’t usually the easiest of thoughts to think.
Corey has made a name for himself by singing woeful ballads with lyrics that cut right to the heart of some of life’s most dauntingly dark corners. Listeners at his shows are pulled in by his welcoming vocals and melodies and are not immune to shedding a tear or two as Corey opens up his poetic soul.
“How’s that Michelob treating you?” Corey asked me. He had been kind enough to offer me the last beer he had. “Bud light is disgusting. Natty Ice, though, I’ve had them once. My mom got some when I was home visiting one time. She didn’t know what they were. Ice cold Natty Ice and I couldn’t even drink it. And I have low standards for beer, it’s just that bad. So If you’re reading this interview, natty ice people, you can go ef yourselves.” He let out a laugh and waved his hand as if to excuse himself for telling that story.
As we finished the last bits of our second helping of spaghetti, it was decided that we should journey outdoors. The temperature had fallen a bit requiring me to borrow a jacket and the night air was comfortably thick. “Now the real fun begins,” I was informed as Corey brought out two small whiskey glasses, a wooden box of pipes and tobacco, and a plainly-crafted wooden chess board.
He carefully placed each little wooden game piece in its proper place as I began packing tobacco down into the bowl of my pipe. First a king, then a bishop, a couple of pawns, a knight, the queen, a few more pawns, until each piece was perched in its proper square, poised for conquest.
He paused for a moment, surveyed the array of figures, reached out his hand, lifted his middle pawn forward through the air, and rested it two spaces closer to mine. The game had begun and the conversation continued.
I asked him what he thought the purpose of music was. “Woof,” he muttered as he often did when a tough question presented itself. He paused for a moment, then continued.
“There are so many tacky, cheesy answers you could give but they are all grounded in some pretty awesome truth. One of the most fascinating things about it is that it is completely intangible. There’s a lot of mathematics and science around sound but ultimately listening to someone on stage and being in that moment isn’t really a product or formula. It’s an experience, yet we buy it, we partake in it. It’s such a shared experience among humans. The mystery that it exists and that we organize sound and time into something pleasing that brings all different kinds of people together is just really fascinating.”
Plato once wrote, “Music and rhythm find their way into the secret places of the soul.” Many lovers of music claim that songs, rhythms, and melodies have the unique power of finding their way into the depths of who we are as human beings, places nothing else can reach.
“To write a song in my bedroom about something I felt” Corey explained, “and then however many months or years later, have it become the cause for people coming together to be in one place and experience a moment. That’s so cool.
“Society is organized around music,” he continued. “It’s so important and you can see that by how we let it into our lives. You might bring an artist along on a road trip or even in the shower with you. We let it where we won’t let anyone else. There’s a vulnerability we achieve in music that we don’t get in any other setting. It’s just humanizing.” He thought for a moment. “Except electronic music, that shit’s not humanizing.” He laughed. “Well maybe for some people. Just not my thing. But even still, I could find inspiration in how it’s put together and how an artist approached its creation, so I guess that’s something.” He laughed again and traced an “L” shape on the board with his knight.
Through the years Corey has written more songs than he can even remember. He has currently released two records both boasting five songs each that dive into the depths of his own doubts and questions about the world around him. “Personally, It’s a healing thing,” he admitted. “I’ll write a song and not realize I feel the way I did until it’s all out there on a page. There’s something therapeutic for me in the way I experience and share music. It’s psychological. I do it because it keeps me out of the therapist’s office.”
His debut 2014 release, The Hollow, is a record that focuses on the theme of family, relationships, and the struggles that arise in sharing those bonds with other people. It was released in the midst of Corey’s parents’ separation and the tension surrounding those moments. This tension shines directly through the lyrics he writes in these songs and opens up a conversation about the struggles of troubled relationships. Songs like “Mama’s Tears” and “23 Years” chronicle the specific questions that arise for a teenage boy who has to watch his family fall apart.
“The story is specific and personal,” Corey said of “23 Years”. “It’s the story of my parents. I don’t know how people relate because this is super specifically what happened to me but I guess general enough for other people to apply their own experiences. It was never supposed to be an angry song. Divorce is just so common and kids don’t realize how big and hard it is while their young until it happens to them. The natural first response is questions and not understanding. The song is ‘Why?’, not ‘Screw you’. Along the way you get the answers and they are hard. It’s hard to see your parents, who you regard with such high esteem, have such deep problems and neglected issues.”
He sat back for a moment puffing thoughtfully on his pipe and I slid my queen out from behind a pawn. “Oh so you’re a queen guy,” he jeered with a grin. “I wouldn’t have guessed that at all. This changes everything.”
Lindsey Sweat, blonde hair and the kind of smile that makes everyone a friend, also moved to Nashville from Jacksonville, Florida to pursue her songwriting career, signing a publishing deal with Provident Music Group shortly thereafter. When she’s not busy writing a radio hit or dancing to Beyoncé with her roommates, she occasionally joins Corey on stage, adding elegant harmonies to his woeful hymns. She laughed recalling her first encounter with Corey.
“I met Corey first my sophomore year of high school when we sang together in chorale, but I really got to know him in AP Environmental Science. My friend Chelsey and I made fun of his romantic relationship at the time, and manipulated him for answers to the homework we didn't do. All in good fun, I think.” She paused with a smirk. “It was all laughs.”
I asked Lindsey to tell me about Corey’s interaction with music. “Corey sits down, hangs out, and writes music that believes in. No bullshit. He believes music should be raw and transparent in a poetic way, because why do anything else? He writes what he believes. He also just wants to have fun. When performing, he does his best, hangs out with humans, and has fun. He is very grateful to play songs for a living.”
It was a rainy night, touched by the cool breath of early autumn when I ventured to The High Watt to catch Corey and Lindsey sing together. The room filled with shadowed faces and quickly felt like a crowded living room get-together. I ordered a drink at the bar and soon enough, Corey and Lindsey took the stage surrounded by a band complete with a guitar, drums, a bass, a cello, and a violin. Corey offered a quick hello and the band began to play.
My girlfriend, Grace Pearson, a true Texas beauty with an endlessly gentle soul, has enjoyed Corey’s music since the day she first heard it. “I can’t come to one of his concerts without crying,” she whispered to me as we stood near the stage watching him perform the title track of his newest release, Hospital Hymns.
“He’s just so honest in the kind of way that makes it easy to find yourself lost in the heavy emotions of his songs. The stories and the struggles all seem so real every time he sings them.” She stood quietly still as the song came to a close and everyone hummed the chorus melody as one large choir.
Corey graciously complemented the voices of the crowd as he brushed the hair out of his face which he had done numerous times throughout the night. He jokingly offered to let someone meet him in the back with scissors after the show and cut it all off. Leaning over to me, Grace laughed saying she would gladly help him cut his crazy hair.
Lindsey later described to me what it was like to sing along to Corey’s songs. “When listening to Corey's music, a group of people is brought together, sharing the feeling of pain, hurt, and melancholy that life brings upon the human soul, while finding the hope within it all. While some may see Corey's music as negative, I see Corey's music as positive; drawing humans to face the reality of their humanity, while seeking truth and hope within. The bittersweet condition of the human heart.”
The song, “Hospital Hymns”, is one that has connected to many of Corey’s fans. “I wrote that song in a time of asking myself, ‘What the hell is going on?’. So many bad things hit at once in my life. My longtime family dog died all of a sudden, Ryan’s sister was fighting leukemia and my dad was facing cancer as well. I used to call that song the ‘Fuck Cancer’ song.” He half-smiled.
“In times like that, it’s my tendency to jumble situations together in my head. If I’m upset about one thing it bleeds into another. The verses in the song don’t tell a consistent story. If you try to read through those verses and piece them into one story, hopefully you can’t do it. If you can you’re just shooting shit out of your fingers — wait that’s not an expression.” His face looked briefly confused. “Blowing smoke, yeah, I was looking for blowing smoke and like pulling stuff out of your ass and ended up combining all of those things into a new expression that is ‘shooting shit out of your fingers’.” We both laughed hard. “That’s gonna be my next album,” he said, trying to steal back his breath from the laughter.
“Anyways,” he took a sip of whiskey, attacked my bishop with his rook, and continued, “The point is that there is never a hopeful resolve in the lyrics. I find hope in the humming along. Where people join into that moment. Sometimes it gets lost which is sad but the coolest moments are when I can tell everyone is humming. It’s transcendent because we’ve all gotten to go to somewhere special. That’s the point, because even if life doesn’t all make sense, it doesn’t make sense for all of us together and we just get to hum a few notes, united in one spirit.” He looked up at the sky where stars fought their way around clouds in the stillness of the night.
“I woke up in the middle of the night once with the idea of that melody,” he continued about “Hospital Hymns”, “and then got up the next morning and wrote it all down. Ninety-eight percent of that song was written in an hour and half. I lived the moments, felt them, then there they were on the page.
“That’s apparently how R. Kelly wrote I believe I can fly. He woke up in the middle of the night and wrote it in an hour. I’m certainly not comparing myself to R. Kelly, but if you wanted to draw that conclusion, I mean I wouldn’t mind. I could be the next R. Kelly.”
The night grew older as we continued to discuss Corey’s musical influences. Aside from R. Kelly, he enjoys quite an eclectic array of styles. From the classics, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, to the Avett Brothers and even rap music like Kendrick Lamar, listening to different styles of music is one way that Corey stimulates his creativity.
“I’ve been really into this spoken word guy this week named Levi the Poet,” Corey shared. “I was, no kidding, sitting in the corner of my room, just emotionally wrecked by this guy’s record. It was great.” There are few places that Corey can’t find inspiration.
The song, “Corporate Eyes,” was inspired by Corey’s days working as a pedicab driver in downtown Nashville. Each of the verses in the song stems from conversations he would overhear as he biked tourists and locals from one bar to the next. Listening to two business men talk about their night at a strip club prompted lyrics such as “nineteen, paying for college by showing your body to me.” But Corey begins to relate as he writes, “but really, I’m no different. I pay my bills under neon lights.”
“The whole song was written at a time when I felt like I had to sell myself in this weird way,” Corey explained to me. “People always say at shows that I’m so honest in my songwriting and so transparent and authentic. I try to portray ideas in a way that’s real but I get to hide behind the mask of a poem. But here are the honest people, they are stripping. They are desperate, unhappy, and they need money so they’ll do that and they are honest about it. But when I have an idea I spend months thinking about it and figuring out just the right way to share it.
“By the end of the song, I’m just saying that no one is truly authentic all the time. I have plenty of things I’m hiding. We all do. Unifying us all is that struggle. The human struggle is truly letting ourselves be known by one another and I’m tired of that being a struggle.”
We found ourselves nearing the early hours of the morning and I decided it was about time that I made my exit. Our good conversation had distracted us and we had not even made it halfway through the chess match. “Oh well,” Corey said as he tipped his king over on the board as a sign of surrender. “It’s all about the journey anyways, right?”
I gathered my things, and bid Corey a farewellashe challenged me to return for a more focused game of chess sometime, when he was sure to beat me.
As I rumbled away in my beat-up old ford I couldn’t stop thinking of the human struggle and what it would look like if we truly allowed ourselves to be known by one another.
For Corey, it looks like a simple guitar and a untamed melody. He ventures through life embracing the journey and the deep struggles that accompany it. He doesn’t shy away from putting these struggles down in words on a page. These words that he sings then harness the unique power they have to bring people together and as I pulled into my own driveway that night, I thought of that moment, standing amidst the crowd at Corey’s show, humming along to the chorus of “Hospital Hymns”, when for a moment, just for a brief moment, there was a whole roomful of people united in the voice of the journey.