“…top-notch in every respect - the writing, playing, singing, recording - everything.”
– Performing Songwriter, 2006
“Would you rather do a job you hate for a million dollars a year, or one you are truly passionate about for ten grand?”
One might hear that hypothetical question at a cocktail party, but few ever have to make that choice in real life. Charlottesville based singer/songwriter Brian Kingston found himself faced with that very decision in September 2001.
An up-and-coming young investment banker at a high profile Wall Street firm, Brian was only a few years away from making some serious money. The little free time he had, however, wasn’t spent watching the financial markets, but indulging his true passion of writing and performing music. And Brian’s music was starting to garner attention.
“I started playing open mic nights around San Francisco, where I was living at the time, and New York City, where I would regularly travel for business,” says Brian. “People would approach me and say that they loved the lyrics to my songs, that I reminded them of Billy Joel, and that I should quit my day job.” He laughs, adding, “Who was I to argue?”
Barely missing doomed United Flight 93 from New York to San Francisco on the morning of 9/11 helped bring clarity to his choice of career. Brian stayed up late to see a show at the Knitting Factory the night before, and his decision to sleep in rather than rush back to the office on the West Coast got him thinking his life’s purpose. One year later, Brian sold everything but his guitar and keyboard, and traded his apartment in San Francisco for a friend’s couch on Long Island. He also traded in a high-powered career for the one he feels he was destined to have.
“I realized that if it all ended tomorrow, I would rather leave this earth trying to make music than trying to make money,” he says.
Brian spent the next eighteen months honing his live show at bars and open mics on the east coast, as well as writing and recording. In 2005, he released his debut album, Songwriters Are Cowards, recorded with the outstanding rhythm section of Stewart Myers and Brian Jones (Jason Mraz, Rachael Yamagata, Liz Phair), guitarist/producer/ vocalist Doug Derryberry (Bruce Hornsby, John Mayer, Ben Folds Five) and producer/writer Chris Keup (Jason Mraz).
The lyrically driven pop/rock album is split evenly between piano and guitar tracks, and pays homage to Kingston’s many loves lost (or, more accurately, never gained). Songwriters Are Cowards has earned Brian a wide range of comparisons, from Ben Folds and David Gray to John Mayer and Jason Mraz.
The album has received significant attention and airplay from college radio, and Brian has been touring full-time since its release. In fact, Kingston found himself back at the Knitting Factory this past September 10, this time as the performer, four years to the day after music inadvertently saved his life.
“I see some of my old banking colleagues in the audience,” he says. “And I know they’ve gone on to make millions and buy summer homes in the Hamptons, while I’m out borrowing money to record my next album. But you know, somehow I still feel like I made the better deal.”
- Songwriters Are Cowards is being spun on over 70 college radio stations in the Northeast
- Kingston was recently featured on the Reality TV show “The Great Adventure”
- Kingston's song, "Sons And Lovers," has appeared on MTV
- Showcased at the Delaware Music Conference in 2005
Current Hometown: Charlottesville, VA
Past Hometowns: Ithaca, NY; New York, NY; San Francisco, CA; Stamford, CT.
Primary Instruments (in order of proficiency): Piano/Keyboards, Vocals, Guitar, Saxophone, Woodblock
Favorite Color: Blue
Astrological Sign: Virgo
Strangest Place to Spend New Year's Eve: An overturned and flooded Land Rover, sinking slowly into a mud hole on the African plains
Distinguishing Mark: Scar on right hand
Brian Kingston: Piano, Guitar & vocals
- solo and/or with 4-piece backing band -
Drums, Bass, Lead Guitar, Keyboards
Songwriters Are Cowards (LP)
2004 - Blue Bleep Records
Tracks 1, 3, 4 and 6 have all received significant radio airplay as well as online radio airplay
Making Your Own Path
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The first week of November I attended my second TAXI Road Rally music conference in L.A. The Road Ra...The first week of November I attended my second TAXI Road Rally music conference in L.A. The Road Rally is an annual event that's free to every TAXI member, and involves lots of up-close-and-personal contact with music industry professionals. I was quite impressed with my first Road Rally last year, and was excited to be much more involved this time around. I participated in several one-on-one mentoring sessions with TAXI members and taught a "Driver's Ed" seminar on Using Your Home Studio for Profit. I also participated in a D.I.Y. panel discussion hosted by Performing Songwriter's own Lydia Hutchinson. The discussion centered around ways to make your own unique path to a career in the music industry.
One of the panel's recurring themes was that independent musicians, songwriters, producers, engineers and other aspiring industry professionals have more means at their disposal than ever before, while at the same time, the resources and tactics used by the majors are becoming less and less effective. (As an aside, I recently came across an interesting book on the subject titled I Don't Need a Record Deal! by Daylee Deanna Schwartz. Check it out if you're looking for some inspiration from someone who has proven that it can be done.)
On the TAXI panel, one of the examples I cited for using technology to help you define your own path and make you stand out from the crowd came from a unique experience I'd had at the Road Rally the evening before. The Mentors' Cocktail Hour is a part of the event that lets conference attendees mingle with the mentors in an informal setting. As I finished talking with a table of TAXI members, a gentleman walked up to me and asked if I would be willing to listen to his music and provide some feedback. Since I had learned at the previous year's Road Rally that the average level of musical quality among TAXI members is exceptionally high compared to most other music conferences, I said I'd be glad to listen to his demo. He handed me a tiny, keychain-sized Nomad USB MP3 player from Creative (the same company that brings us those excellent E-mu Digital Audio Systems by the way) and a set of ear buds and said, "I'm Brian Kingston and here's my demo." At first, I didn't exactly understand what he was giving to me, and then he explained, "I have four songs on the Nomad for you to listen to. I've already put instructions on how to use the player and my contact info on it. It's yours to keep." I was immediately intrigued because no one had ever presented their music to me this way.
Brian Kingston's idea turned out to be quite effective. I had a stack of about 20 CDs that other people had handed me to listen to that day, but I found myself plugging the ear buds into the Nomad and listening to Brian's demo while walking back to my hotel room. I'd like to make several points about Brian's approach and why it worked so well:
1) Brian immediately stood out because he did something totally different from everyone else. I'll forever remember him as "the MP3 player guy."
2) Brian made it as easy as possible for me to listen to his music. His "demo package" was completely self-contained, right down to the ear buds. I didn't have to find a CD player or anything else - I could listen to his music on the spot, or anywhere.
3) Brian didn't waste the MP3 player by sending or giving it to someone at random. He asked me first if I would listen to his music and give him a response.
4) Brian used new technology in a way that benefited his musical career. He thought outside the box and did something cutting-edge with the new resources available to him.
5) I found out later that Brian didn't have to spend a lot of money to be unique. He told me that he scours the internet and buys refurbished Nomad players in bulk, so he only ends up spending five or six dollars apiece on them. That's not much more than the cost of a CD with a label and case and a nice-looking press kit.
6) Most importantly, Brian Kingston had the goods to back up his bold approach. His music was top-notch in every respect - the writing, playing, singing, recording - everything. Besides just thinking creatively, he knew his music had reached a level of quality where it would impress the listener and get him positive results in furthering his music career. He didn't waste a precious opportunity by presenting music that wasn't ready yet. And here I am writing an article about him in an international music magazine with more than 100,000 readers. Looks like his approach got the job done!
I've listened to Brian's music on his Nomad player on many occasions since the TAXI Road Rally - partly because I still find his approach intriguing, but mostly because I really like his music. But if he hadn't presented his music in a fresh and unique way, I might never have noticed it at all. In fact, I'm still working my way through the 50-some CDs I received from other people at the Road Rally. Brian's music made it to the top of the pile and got the first listen because his approach made him stand out from the crowd.
This is just one example of using today's new resources to determine your own path and get ahead in the music industry. The Internet alone offers us hundreds - if not thousands - of new outlets for getting our music out there. Follow Brian Kingston's lead: Make sure you've got the goods and think creatively; you'll find yourself moving ahead of the pack, too.
Copyright 2006 Performing Songwriter Enterprises, LLC
From the financial district to the Acoustic Cafe
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"I kind of took the zigzag approach through life, struggling between the two halves of my brain - th..."I kind of took the zigzag approach through life, struggling between the two halves of my brain - the business side and the creative side," says singer/songwriter Brian Kingston, and what's pretty amazing about him isn't this rather ordinary internal conflict - it's which side eventually won out.
Out of college, Kingston had earned himself a solid career with one of Wall Street's most imposing firms - the towering financial giant J.P. Morgan.
But though scores of business school grads probably would have gladly given up a limb or two to claim his spot on the corporate ladder, Kingston dreamed of a much more humble pursuit; singing and playing guitar.
And, it was a tragic happening in the real world that solidified his course.
"A couple things happened for me, I had a pretty thought-provoking experience around September 11," he remembers, "Where I basically went out to see some music with a friend and didn't change to the earlier flight I was supposed to go on, which ended up being one of the flights that crashed that day ... and I was working at that time at the World Financial Center right across from the World Trade, so I was down there that morning when everything happened."
Kingston's proximity to the events of 9/11 weighed heavily on him, but also inspired some serious self-reflection.
"After that," he says, "I just felt like, 'what am I doing, this is not where I want to be - I want to be creating, I want to be making music'.
"That launched a two-year struggle, of do I stay do I go? I knew if I stayed 10 or more years I'd make enough money to retire and go play music as a hobby, so it was a choice between music as a fun thing or something to do full time and take a risk on. It took me two years to really decide that I was going to go for it."
As expected, Kingston's decision to pull up roots in the lucrative world of large-scale banking and make a go at the male folk-rock singer/songwriter game wasn't immediately looked on with great admiration.
"My colleagues were completely surprised," he says, "In an industry where people are always trying to move ahead, it's a shock when someone says, 'that's it, I give up'."
But those who knew him best knew that picking up the guitar was the right thing for Kingston to do. "My friends, my family - everybody knew I wouldn't be happy if I didn't do this," he says, "I was never gonna be satisfied if I didn't take a good swing at the bat of playing music for a living."
Risky though the proposition was, Kingston didn't put on the musician hat without some prior knowledge - he'd already played with a band in Virginia ("we had limited success but ran out of money," he says), and made numerous contacts in the state's music scene during a stint with a company affiliated with the Dave Matthews Band.
His connections helped him recruit some first-class talent to help play and record the material that would become his debut album, including bassist Stewart Myers and drummer Brian Jones (who played on Jason Mraz's debut), and guitarist and Ben Folds Five/John Mayer collaborator Doug Derryberry.
The resulting 11-song collection, entitled Songwriters are Cowards, is a warm, witty, strongly crafted album full of pop hooks and lyrics about loves lost and never had in the first place - it's an effort that's clearly and proudly in the classic singer/songwriter tradition.
"I was totally influenced by Billy Joel and Tom Petty and Springsteen and Elton John, Jackson Browne, James Taylor," Kingston says, "I grew up on the classics and it sort of oozes out of my pores at this point, something subconscious harks back to those artists as I write."
The ghosts of all those artists find their way onto Songwriters are Cowards, on tracks like the lovelorn, acoustic-heavy opener Turn It On, the gorgeous, bluesy piano-driven ballad Restless One, and the upbeat, Taylor-esque Perfect Beast.
Kingston's vocals are the most constant element of the fairly eclectic record, unforced and unpretentious, soft but confidently delivered in a style that's befitting of his influences. Lyrically, he's got the same kind of instant appeal, because the vast majority of songs on the album deal with the ever-so-relatable topic of young love and its many foibles.
"I've had a devil of a time having good relationships, keeping relationships together," he says, "I can't seem to understand anything about women, and I think that's a pretty classic theme for songwriting."
True enough, but it's all too easy to get whiny or misogynistic when dealing with that kind of subject matter - instead, Kingston's lyrics very likably walk the line between genuine loneliness and humorous self-deprecation, between the hopeful and the charmingly hopeless.
His song SWM25, a sardonic lament about unsuccessfully looking for love, is chock full of choice lines - of a vacuous woman at a bar, he imagines "making love to her is like watching paint dry" while hilariously confusing his age-old nuggets of wisdom ("My grandma used to say / There's plenty of fish in a rainy day").
And, of course, Kingston assures listeners - and, more importantly, fellow musicians - that the sentiments of the album's name and title track are directed inwardly as well.
He laughs, "It's definitely funny, because I play that song live and I have people come up to me very angry sometimes - they're like, 'what are you saying?'
"I wrote that song when I was driving down Highway 101 in San Francisco coming back from work after like an 18-hour day. I was just feeling really ineffectual, listening to music, thinking about music, and just feeling like I wasn't accomplishing what I wanted to ... and there was also a girl involved," he says. "I said, 'I'm probably going to go home and sit and write about this' - instead of actually doing anything about it - and that's exactly what I did."
There's nothing ineffectual or cowardly about baring your soul on record, however - in fact, writing a record as honest and relatable as Songwriters are Cowards is move almost as gutsy as, well, giving up a job on Wall Street to risk a music career.
Certainly, there are rewards for taking those kind of chances, though, as Kingston realizes in discussing his
favorite track on the disc, Sons and Lovers. "That's probably the one that resonates most with people," he says of the song, about the difficult but very common predicament of loving someone who "just wants to be friends."
"I've seen people singing along to the words at my show and had people e-mail me saying, 'I know exactly what you mean,'" he says, "I've carried that song with me for a long time, and people just really seem to get it."
And is there any more valuable thing in the world than understanding?
Typical original set consists of 15-20 original songs (1 to 2 hours). Longer sets (3 hour engagements) consist of 15-20 original songs and 15-20 cover songs. Covers include Coldplay (The Scientist, Clocks), Dave Matthews (Grey Street, #41), Beatles (Hide Your Love, etc...), Crowded House (Fall At Your Feet), CSN (Southern Cross), Ben Folds (Philosophy, Alice Childress), Aqualung (Brighter Than Sunshine), Travis (Sing), James (Laid), and many more (if you want to hear it, I'll learn it)...
There are no upcoming dates at this time.