Thornton captures the sound of failed loves
Indiana Queen is an alternative-country band based in Nashville and fronted by openly queer singer-songwriter Kevin Thornton. In the still-conservative world of Nashville country, that’s a lot of alternative, but Thornton and Indiana Queen are happy to continue to provide an artistic challenge to the prevailing norm with their second album, I Built a Fire.
Thornton is no newcomer to the Nashville music scene. Around 2000, Thornton moved to Nashville with band and presented himself as an out musician, enjoying moderate success, signing with an indie label and releasing an album. That success was stymied by the uncertainties of the industry more than anything else.
The band, Thornton said, “fell apart while on the rise. iTunes and [other internet outlets] took over and no one really knew what was going to happen.” In the industry restructuring, “we got swept away. In 2006 we didn't know what to do with the internet, and it really brought my career to halt.”
After a break from the Nashville music scene—including time spent on cruise ships, and then Los Angeles—Thornton returned to Nashville with new energy and formed Indiana Queen. Thornton remains unconcerned with the idea that Nashville might not be ready for his music, but he sees that a lot has changed since he first arrived in 2000. “I was told to play down the gay thing,” he said, “that it would hurt me. But I was always out, and I don't honestly feel like it has hurt me except maybe a couple of times.”
This time around, the internet wasn’t a hindrance but a boon for his band, providing them with an audience even in the absence of big label support. “A decade later,” he said, “I'm rediscovering my career through the internet. People are discovering my music there and that’s really where I focus all my attention—plugging into the web—because that's where it's at!”
Indiana Queen’s first album, This I Do Carry Unto the End, may not have been a mainstream chart-topper, but on the internet it found its audience and garnered worldwide attention, as outlets like the Huffington Post touted the music and drew attention the band’s story.
When Thornton released his music video for “This Is Me Trying” in 2015, Huffington wrote, “There are traces of Hank Williams. The pulse of ‘Jolene.’ Chord progressions that originated in the Baptist Hymnal. However, these influences meet at an unexpected crossroads with Antony and The Johnsons, Roxy Music and Tom Waits.”
Then, in June, Indiana Queen was honored to be one of the few locals to grace the Nashville Pride stage. “We were the first act of the day on that day,” Thornton recalled, “and the festival was just the day after the Supreme Court decision. Honestly, there was a part of me that realized there were a lot of people who weren't happy with what had just happened, and when I got up on stage there was a part of me that was afraid. But the rain cleared and the fear went away, and it was a great and wonderful experience.”
The attention Indiana Queen has received in the past year has helped bring early attention to the upcoming release of I Built a Fire, which spins the group’s country roots from an even more unusual perspective. “The album is country,” Thornton said, “but let’s be serious, there is nothing traditional about Indiana Queen.”
“This is the second album for this project,” Thornton said, “and this time I wanted to record in a different way—I actually bought a bunch of vintage recording equipment and set it up in my house.”
Thorton’s vintage Tascam 246 four track tape machine allowed him to work when and how he liked, and to capture sound of a completely different quality. “In a studio you are rushed, so I spent several weeks holed up in my living room downstairs recording. Because it’s a four track. It's sparse, and I'm happy with how it turned out.”
The character of the recording matches well with the new album’s subject matter. “It's a really simple album,” Thornton explained. “I hate to sound mystical, but when I write I feel like I channel the songs. I sit with some wine and reflect, and I just start singing and playing. A melody will come, and I’ll sing nonsense until a sentence comes to me, and I begin to build on that.”
What came of that process? “It's really a collection of memories about past loves that didn't work out,” Thornton said. “It's funny because I'm engaged to be married now, and I'm really happy. I had a fantastic last year, and you hear a lot of times that when artist get happy the music suffers but I think the opposite happened. I'm so happy that it caused me to look back on my life at times that weren't so happy, and it created this strange melancholy. I'm in my forties and love has never worked out before. I feel thankful, looking back at all these heartaches... It puts an interesting cast on the past heartbreaks to look back on them from here.”
Besides the subject matter and the recording style, this album brings a few new elements to Indiana Queen’s sound. “There is a lot more vocal harmony on this album,” Thornton explained. “The two guys I’m playing with are both great singers and that brings a bit of a Crosby Stills and Nash vibe. We also have a great musician, Samuel Damewood, playing fiddle, which definitely brings it even more into a folk country realm than before.”
“The world is changing really fast,” he added. “I went to Ty Herndon’s Concert for Love and Acceptance, and I realized that while some of us still get extra attention for doing ‘gay’ country, in a couple of years that won't be that novel.” But long after the novelty of LGBT people in country music has faded, the timeless, universal themes captured in I Built a Fire will compel audiences from all walks of life.
I Built a Fire will be released worldwide on February 16 2016, and is currently available for preview and pre-order on iTunes. A mature-audience music video of “I Don't Know What To Do,” a track on the album, is viewable on YouTube and Vimeo.