Catching Up With Kenneth DeShields II
I recently got a chance to catch up with the phenomenal gospel artist Kenneth DeShields II. I first heard about Kenny on GospelPundit and after playing the tracks on his website for a several days straight, I had to ask him a few questions about his music. I’d describe his musical style as a nice blend of his traditional Southern roots (he’s a native of Mississippi and also attended Tuskegee University) and his appreciation for neo-soul music. His lyrics display the same love for God and willingness to help others that I noticed during our conversation. Kenny is currently in St. Louis and he shared a little about the music scene there, his musical background and his upcoming album.
Mimi Soul: Ok, so I have to tell you that I’ve been playing the four tracks on your website for anyone who will listen and everyone has been very impressed.
Kenny: Thanks, I really appreciate that.
Mimi Soul: What are some of your early music memories?
Kenny: My mom actually started teaching me piano lessons around age 7 and at that age I was like “I wanna go outside and play. I don’t wanna do this stuff.” So, about 3 or 4 years later she found a really good teacher right out of graduate school that was really young and energetic and it was just like an instant teacher/student connection. I knew music was in me all along because when I was little I used to watch music videos and I was like, “I wanna do that one day.” So I started at the piano and I heard these melodies and stuff and I would pick everything up. The next thing I knew, I started to get really good at it. So, I found music and music kinda found me, if that makes sense. And it really opened up a world of expression for me. Music, for some reason, is a way to sometimes express what you can’t verbally say.
So, I started with instrumental music and singing in the church choir. When I got to high school, I did choir and I learned how to play the French horn in the course of maybe a summer and a semester. And by the end of my junior year, I ended up being the French horn section leader. I think that has helped to cultivate where I am now with my music because I’m able to see it from both the instrumental and the vocal side. And now I’m really working on bridging the gap between the two because there’s just so much to appreciate from both sides of it.
Mimi Soul: Definitely. Are you doing any of the instrumentation on the songs you’ve already released?
Kenny: I am. Actually, that’s me playing at the beginning of the song Keeps on Making a Way, which kinda has this old school rag time piano feel. I’m playing keys on Gotta Be Me too. I actually wrote and arranged all of the music and the lyrics for those songs and the rest of the album will have some more songs by me on it.
Mimi Soul: I’m guessing that God is obviously your main musical influence, but what would you say are some of your other influences?
Kenny: God really shows himself through the people that He puts around us. My parents are two major influences in my life because they were the ones that took me to piano lessons and band practice and stuff like that and they’re music people themselves. So, it really did start at home. Everybody in our family sings, plays instruments or preaches. I would definitely say my piano teacher and my band director from high school. And, Eric Roberson and PJ Morton are two of my strongest musical influences.
Mimi Soul: What’s the St. Louis music scene like? Are a lot of people there interested in gospel and neo-soul music?
Kenny: I’ve been in St. Louis for 5 years and I really see this renaissance revival taking place here among artists and those who are into the music that we’re presenting. For years St. Louis was kinda like the overlooked child of music but when I got here, everywhere you went; from somebody’s barber shop to a storefront church, you would find just these amazing gifts and talents and I’m like “Why are these people not nationally known?” There is a new breed of artists, musicians, writers and poets that are really coming forward. They’re kinda coming from a different angle and the freshness of it has just been really cool.
Some of the artists on the gospel side are J.R., Meaghan Williams and a group of three young ladies called God’s Chosen. On the neo-soul/alternative side are Teresa Jenee and WildMann. Those are the people that are kinda really standing out in my head right now. I know success is not a one-man show and it takes more than one person to cause a movement. My heart has always been to create a platform for other people that are really trying to move forward with their dreams and stuff.
Mimi Soul: I have to ask you about 2 of the songs on your website. First, I’m hooked on I Thank You Lord. How did that track come together?
Kenny: Oh my God! (laughing) I’m laughing because I remember it so clearly. I was driving down the road and I had kinda gotten to a place where I was like “God, you have really brought me through some stuff. I’ve gone through depression, bad relationships and jobs not really working out the way that I thought they were going to.” And it kinda was a slump situation. I could’ve just stayed stuck and complained about a lot of stuff and then it flipped on me. We have to start taking ownership of a lot of stuff we do ourselves. So, I turned it around and I was like “Ok, I haven’t done all that I should. I haven’t done all that I could. I haven’t done all that I would. But, I thank you Lord for keeping me.” The melody just kinda came out to me. Literally, I was driving in my car singing and I immediately drove straight to the Guitar Center. I got on one of the keyboards and a guy by the name of Marty West who played keyboards for me (look out for him too) was there. So, I started playing it for him and I literally came up with the song in like an hour and a half.
Mimi Soul: Wow. Well, that’s how you know it was a message that you had to get out there.
Kenny: It had to get out there. Wherever you are in your life, wherever you’ve been in life, you still can say “God, you’ve kept me through the good and bad times. You’ve really been constant in my life.” When I started expressing stuff, people were able to say “Kenny, I’ve been there.” or “I’m there now.” And that’s why I think God gives us these gifts and talents because it’s not for us. It really is for somebody else and what we think is our worst point is really the actual breakthrough for somebody else. So, that’s where it kinda came from.
Mimi Soul: Your song Keeps on Making a Way reminds me of traditional gospel music. Did you go back to your early experiences when you were writing that one?
Kenny: Actually, that was one of the first songs that I wrote when I said I was gonna do an album. That song is almost 4 years old now. One of my best friends came up with the melody line of it and once again we were at a music store. I need a music endorsement or something because I come up with stuff at music stores. (laughing)
That song is a tribute to my roots in Mississippi and Alabama and that whole traditional sound. But, then I kinda put the whole neo-soul spin to it. I think that one has gone over well because it has been able to bridge the gap between the traditional side and the more contemporary side. So that’s just a feel-good song and it’s actually my parents’ favorite.
Mimi Soul: How would you describe some of your experiences as an independent artist?
Kenny: I actually didn’t think I’d be good enough to do this at one particular point in time. And when I compared myself to my peers and a lot of other people that I thought were making really great music, it took me a while to get used to my own voice. For a while, I couldn’t listen to myself sing or watch videos of it. I was just too critical of it. And, I didn’t know if people would like it. So, the idea of ever getting signed or ever doing this as a career and pursuing it as a passion was just something I really put on the back burner for years.
But, I was doing this thing I have at home called “Tonight at Kenny’s”. Basically, I would actually have a full concert in my own house for God. I would write out a set list and I would set my house up like a coffeehouse with candles and incense and stuff. And I did that for about 2 years. One of my really good friends knew about it and she was like “Kenny, people need to see this. I think people would really appreciate it.” and I was like “I don’t know.” But she kept mentioning it and in April 2008 I had my first “Tonight at Kenny’s” concert.
Mimi Soul: Wow, so how often did you do the concerts by yourself?
Kenny: It was kinda sporadic. Sometimes it would be once a week. Sometimes it would be once a month or so.
Mimi Soul: So, you really did that for 2 years before you decided to share with others?
Kenny: Yeah (laughing)
Mimi Soul: If I had known you back then, I would’ve said “Kenny, the people need you!” (laughing)
Kenny: Exactly. That’s why it really helps to have real people that believe in you and see things from a place that you can’t see sometimes. I have some really supportive friends in my life that have pushed me and encouraged me to keep pressing on. So, I did the concert and it went over so well that there were people who were mad at me for not inviting them.
I was new to recording so I went to the library and started reading every book in the music section about music business and entertainment law. I chose to go the indie route because my degree is in marketing. It’s one thing to work for somebody else but it’s another thing to sow into what you’ve got to do. So, this has been a life lesson that I had to apply myself. Now, iTunes, Youtube, Twitter and Facebook are up so it has been more conducive for me to do it from the independent route as opposed to going the national label route.
Mimi Soul: What overall effect do you want people to have when they listen to your songs?
Kenny: I know that I have the gift of encouragement and it’s just in me to see dreams that people have and be able to inspire them. I know that’s a gift from God for real. So, I want you to hear that in my voice. I want you to hear it in the music.
Mimi Soul: I always like to ask artists a fun question. So, let’s say you could plan your dream concert. Who would you choose to perform on stage with you?
Kenny: Woo hoo! Let’s see. Do I have a limit on the number of people? (laughing)
Mimi Soul: (laughing)
Kenny: Ok, in some capacity, I would have to have these people: Eric Roberson, Fred Hammond, Kirk Whalum and Lalah Hathaway. I’ll stop there because I could go on and on.
Mimi Soul: Could you tell us a little about your upcoming album?
Kenny: Yes, I am working on my full project and the title will be Mosaic. I’ve been looking for some other producers and songwriters. I worked with some really great people here but I think now is a time to connect with some really good songwriters and producers from different areas. So, if you know of anyone or if any of your readers can suggest anybody that they think would be a good fit, let me know because Mosaic is ready to come out for real.
Thanks for sharing with us Kenny! I’ll definitely let you all know when Mosaic is released. In the meantime, be sure to check out the tracks on his website. I’m certain that you’ll be just as impressed as I am with his work.