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A Conversation with Kinetic's Joe Sheehan

"Inviting people to participate affects my music and what it could be."

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Joe Sheehan is the main creative force behind Kinetic, the local jazz-inflected R&B band, which recently released its first album, World of Wonder. He's joined in the group by vocalist Anqwenique Wingfield, guitarist Michael Borowski, bass player Jason Rafalak, percussionist P.J. Roduta and drummer Ryan Socrates. CP spoke with Sheehan, a pianist, composer and professor of music at Duquesne University.

Your band is a very eclectic group of talents; how did you go about establishing what instruments and musicians would be a part of the game?

It sort of evolved over time. I spent about six months studying West African music in Ghana, so that was the idea behind the music. My first thought was that I only wanted to write music with hand drums, because there's a lot of hand-drum music in Ghana. So the first time we played [two years ago], we had two percussionists — but I realized the sound wasn't quite right. So I just gradually pulled in people that I knew. I met Anqwenique, and as soon as I heard her, I felt like we had to get her involved. So, the band is comprised of musicians I met whom I felt fit the musical content and vibe.

Joe Sheehan on a visit to Ghana
  • Photo courtesy of Michael Baidoo
  • Joe Sheehan on a visit to Ghana

You write the main musical ideas for the group. When it comes to writing lyrics for Anqwenique to sing, do you write those as well?

Yes, I did write most of them. I wrote lyrics to five songs on the album. One of the songs' lyrics actually come from the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech by Martin Luther King Jr. It's the song "Proverb." The song's lyrics come from one line in Dr. King's speech. So I can't really get credit for that. That's [more] poetry than song lyrics. 

No, you do get credit for that — because you took it and made it something creative.

There are two more songs that [other] people wrote lyrics for. Track two on the album is entitled "Waiting for Giving," [and] was written by Geña Escoriaza; and the lyrics to track four, "My Everything," are written by Morgan Erina. Basically, the issue was that I was a classical musician for a while, and then I wanted to write music with words, but I had never done it. I wrote the song, then I realized that I don't know how to write words to music. So, I found two other people to do it for me. I soon realized I should try to write [lyrics], so I eventually wrote one song and then I just kept going. 

Your song "Show Me" incorporates a call-and-response section — what inspired that song and that particular device?

I don't know — sometimes it's hard to say where the songs come from. Usually I'm sitting at the piano and improvising and listening to what I play and trying to hear something that I like. The words from the song help me make the musical decisions that I make. That song in particular reminisces on several friends I made who really affected me while I was in West Africa. Anqwenique actually came up with the whole call-response idea, and that's common in a lot of music from the African diaspora. That's a really great way to get people involved.

So it's safe to say that West Africa has a lot of influence on your music. Was that just for this particular album or was it on your sound in general?

Yeah, it affected a lot of my musical thinking, because I went to school as a composer and I wrote concert or classically styled music. After being in school [for] 10 years, I felt like I had to get out of that world. I went to Ghana for six months, and ever since then it's influenced almost every piece that I have written. Also the approach to West African music-making is just more of a communal activity, and inviting people to participate affects my music and what it could be. My time in Ghana was a really important experience, and I've been fortunate to return a couple of times. I hope to keep going back to continue to listen to and study the music there.

What do you want an audience to pull from hearing and seeing Kinetic?

I think just getting a positive and exciting feel from the music is what's most important for me because we are exposed to so many negative images in the media. It's easy to get a perception that the world is all falling apart. I think that [perception] has existed in every era. There's always gloom and doom, but we forget that music can simply make you feel good, and at a basic level I'm cool with that. But, I also admire music that is more thoughtful and has a little more depth than a lot of commercial music. Much popular music is appealing, well made, and very clever, but I find the musical content to be lacking depth. By its nature, commercial music should appeal to the moment, but often it wears itself out quickly. So I hope that with Kinetic's music, the more you listen to it, the more it pulls you back in.

Where did the name Kinetic come from? I went to see you live and moved the whole time.

That's exactly why: because I was thinking of music that had energy and a propulsive spirit with a beat that might catch you. I chose "Kinetic" because it also implies dance, and a lot of the music I encountered in West Africa was linked to dance. Lots of traditional music in Ghana is not complete unless there is dancing, and music and dance are often inextricably linked. Usually if there is music there is dance, if there is music then somebody is singing.

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