Last spring I was a finalist at the Kerrville New Folk Contest. It was an amazing experience in many ways. Something that makes it really special is how I was welcome in the community of fellow and past finalists and winners. I made many new friends in those two days, and was exposed to extraordinary artists. One of them is Korby Lenker, who won Kerrville in 2012. Korby and I share a passion for short stories, and he has just published a great book of short stories, Medium Hero.
Korby is currently on a publishing tour to promote his book, and on Sunday January 10 at 2pm he will stop at Club Passim for a reading from the book. And this is a free event! He will play a couple of songs, read a bit from the book, and then I will join him on stage and interview him. We will talk about the book, songwriting, writing fiction, and who knows what else. I couldn’t wait, so I sent him a few question in advance. As you can tell, it will be a very interesting afternoon…
How would you define your music for someone who has not heard it?
Quirky folk pop with a lot of heart. Guy Clarkish. Lyle Lovetty. Weepies with some Violent Femmes edginess.
What made you decide to write a set of short stories to go with your new record?
I’ve been writing stories since the third grade. I’ve always done it. Writing stories is kind of an antidote for songwriting because its free in way songwriting isn’t. Stories don’t live and die within a structure like songs do. You don’t have to rhyme, you don’t have to come back to the chorus. You don’t even have to have a chorus. All you have to do is write in a way that holds the reader’s attention. Beyond that, anything goes. I’ve always been drawn to activities that have as few rules as possible.
How are the record and the book connected and/or unconnected?
When the stories for Medium Hero were being written I had no intention of making a book out of them. they were just stories I posted on Facebook. It was a long time — five or six years later — that I thought, “Huh. I have quite a few pieces here. Maybe I should pick a few of them and put them together and make a book and sell it at shows.” The whole purpose for these stories was to give me an outlet to take bigger risks than I would in a song. I’m not quite sure what I mean by that. I guess…I’ve been a professional songwriter for a long time. Until very recently, I was an amateur writer, and being an amateur is very freeing. No one expects you to be any good.
I love the story (and the title of your book) Medium Hero. Speaking of heroes, who are your heroes – both in the musical world and in the literary one?
That is a dark story! The title story of Medium Hero was the one I was most reticent to let my parents read. But I think it’s a funny title, which is why I named the book after it. I am like the quiet kid in the class who is always trying to think of something funny to say but most of the time just stays quiet.
I like original personalities. Tolstoy, Bill Watterson, Hemingway, Austen, Van Zandt, Dylan. I like the guitar player Bill Frisell and I like the Weepies a lot. Last year I mostly listened to James McMurtry, Joni Mitchell, Kendrick Lamar, Don Henley, Blake Mills. In Nashville I like Angel Snow and Robby Hecht, and Todd Snider made in my opinion the best folk album that’s ever been made, East Nashville Skyline.
Steinbeck is a master of the short story, but not so great with the long form. East of Eden is one of the most over rated books ever written. It’s trying so hard. I like things that don’t sound like they’re trying. Some authors you get the feeling like they are just writing with power. Nabokov is like that. His intellect was so sharp, so effortless and precocious. But then he kind of lacked heart. I kind of like artists who are oblivious to their own powers. Like Neil Young. He’s been at it for like 4 decades now, and there’s still this sense that he’s just kind of, making it up as he goes along.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said not to be too precious with your creations because “All life is an experiment.” I think people who live that way are the free-est, and make the largest, most interesting bodies of work. But dangers lurk everywhere, ha.
You’re a Kerrville New Folk contest winner. What has been the impact of that win on your musical career?
I really love Kerrville and I am always thinking about ways I can give back. Kerrville is a weird animal, and it’s very important. I’ve seen people cry after their first song circle because suddenly felt for the first time that they were among people who got them. You know? The world is a kind of a hard place for sensitive people. And songwriters are sensitive people. Kerrville is kind of one big hug for whoever wants one. You can laugh at that, but there are people I’ve met at Kerrville who I think of as being among the most precious people on earth…being a finalist there was like being injected into a community that I had been looking for all my life. I grew up in a part of the world where folk songs didn’t exist. The only music I knew as a kid were church hymns and the occasional John Denver song as sung by my dad. So being at Kerrville, you got people from all walks and stages of life who are there because they love songs. For their own sake. I hope Kerrville lives for five hundred years and keeps getting weirder. Long live the octagon.
Korby Lenker Short Bio