While Pittsburgh native Kevin Garrett’s discography boils down to a handful of singles and just two EPs–the newly released False Hope and 2015’s Mellow Drama– his compelling blend of soul, R&B, and electronic melodies ensure that he’s here to stay.
Now residing in Brooklyn, the 25-year-old has built an impressive resume as an opener for numerous big name artists: James Vincent McMorrow, X Ambassadors, Alessia Cara, and Oh Wonder, to name a few. Garrett infuses swooning piano and ambient electronic production with old soul and R&B vocals to captivate his rapidly growing audience.
With a Grammy nominated collaboration with Beyoncé under his belt, and cosigns from Katy Perry and Sam Smith, Garrett smashes into 2017 on his practically sold out False Hope headline tour. We chatted with the multi-instrumentalist backstage at his show at the Troubadour in Los Angeles.
OTW: You’re on tour right now for your False Hope EP. How’s it going so far?
Kevin: So far, so good. This is my first real headline tour so it’s a learning experience for me. I’ve been very involved in every aspect of it. I’m super down with the opener A R I Z O N A. When we were prepping for tour, I got a small list [of potential openers] and checked A R I Z O N A out because I heard good things about them. They’re killing it on the internet, so it’s cool to put them on their first tour. Fun fact: in the actual state of Arizona, our date in Scottsdale sold out. We’ve sold out 17 or 18 of the 20 dates.
OTW: How did you meet the rest of your band?
Kevin: I’ve been working with Sean [Mullins] who plays drums since the beginning of my music career. Brett [Williams], who plays keys, is a new addition to the group. We went to high school together. And Jesse [Bielenberg], who started touring with us when we opened for the X Ambassadors a little over a year ago. It feels really good, like I’m right at home on every stage.
OTW: Was the writing process for the False Hope EP similar to writing the Mellow Drama EP? What was your goal with False Hope?
Kevin: In terms of writing, it was very similar, but on the production end, this one was much more self-contained. I did a little bit of remote work with some producers in London, but other than that it was all kind of done in my bedroom; I’d wake up in the morning and just make music. I’m very proud of being able to create the entire thing.
OTW: I’ve heard that on past tours, you’ve sat at the merchandise table after your set and sold your own merch. How did that evolve?
Kevin: Well first of all, I had to, because I toured completely on my own. It was me driving across the country, in the middle of the night, through the mountains and going to every venue, dealing with everybody myself. At the same time, it was a smart business strategy because more people would come back to say hi and maybe buy some stuff if I was there. So there was a double reason to why I was doing it. But mostly because I just didn’t have anyone else at the time.
OTW: Let’s switch gears to Grammy night. What an incredible honor to attend as a nominee for your part in co-writing “Pray You Catch Me,” the first track on Beyoncé’s Lemonade. Any special moments from the evening that you remember?
Kevin: I tweeted about Beyoncé’s performance, which was hilarious because it wasn’t a loud scream that I heard, not like you could hear it on TV or anything, but it was just someone in my section screaming, “Not the babies!” when she leaned back in her chair. The tweet went kind of viral for a second. But overall, the Grammy’s were incredible. I’ve never been to them before, so it was cool to go as a nominee. It was motivational; hopefully I’ll come back for my own music soon.
OTW: What’s unique about working with Beyoncé versus working with other artists?
Kevin: She has an incredible ear for what is artistic. I think it’s showcased in the people she chooses to work with. Everyone around her is on the same page.
OTW: Did you get the chance to meet her?
Kevin: The first time I met her it was at a holiday party. On this tour, I’ve started telling this story more because everyone’s asking, but basically she already knew who I was when someone introduced me to her.
OTW: She already knew your name?
Kevin: Yeah! She was like, “Oh, Kevin! It’s nice to meet you.” This was shortly after I found out we might be working together, so she added, “I love the song, you’re super talented!” And in my head, I was like, “Thank you!” But it didn’t come out that way. I just kind of stammered, “Oh, you as well,” which made no sense.
She’s super down to earth, and it was cool to see someone that far up as just an honest music fan. I’ve noticed the same thing with people like Katy Perry and Sam Smith; some of these people in the industry who you would think are over conditioned, or expect them to be almost robotic–once you get to know them, they’re super genuine about everything. It’s inspiring and motivating in some sense because I want to get that far up one day and don’t want to lose any of my vibe.
OTW: Speaking of powerful women like Beyoncé, Ones To Watch is interested in your experiences with Alessia Cara. Did your friendship start when you opened for her last year?
Kevin: We actually met on Twitter. We were fans of each other, and she sent me a message while I was on tour with X Ambassadors asking for me to open for her, and I jumped at the chance. This was before her single “Here” hit the radio at #1, and it was just as “Wild Things” was rolling out, so it was a cool moment as her first headline tour. I’m honored to be a part of that because obviously the rest of the year really took off for her, and amazing things happened. She’s incredible.
OTW: I saw that you and Alessia covered Oh Wonder’s song, “Livewire.” How did that come about?
Kevin: We were just on tour and both listening to Oh Wonder at the time. I spoke to her at one of the shows and she was like, “Do you want to do a cover?” and I was like, “Yup, 100%.” It was perfect, we got to Phoenix, Arizona and there was a little piano in the corner of the restaurant part of the venue so we hammered it out. Hopefully she can I do more stuff together, I’m a huge fan.
OTW: Let’s talk about your upcoming tour with Mumford &
Sons as their opener. Congratulations!
Kevin: Yeah, that’s a really cool one for me. It’s three dates, and I’m super honored. I’ve gotten to know a couple of the guys from the group and they’ve been super supportive. There’s a date at the KeyBank Pavilion in my hometown in Pittsburgh that I grew up going to shows at. So I’m definitely going to have a little emotional moment talking about sitting on the lawn there.
OTW: What’s different about performing as the main act versus as the supporting act? Are you generating a different kind of energy?
Kevin: The energy [at a show where I’m the main act] kind of turns itself on, because people are excited to see me, which is still strange. I don’t sell merch anymore, but sometimes I’ll come back for pictures to speed things along. The one thing I’ve learned is that when you play last, there’s a lot less time at the end to engage with fans. When I was opening a lot, I’d be at the table for two hours. I like headlining, but I also like opening. There’s a lot less pressure as an opener. It’s two different worlds that I’m continually learning.
OTW: What about playing a festival versus a smaller venue? Do you prepare for a festival–like Bunbury or Firefly, two you have coming up in 2017–any differently than for a smaller setting?
Kevin: Nothing is going to beat an intimate show. Even if there’s 100,000 people at a festival to see you, and they’re all screaming your lyrics, nothing is going to beat even a silent room where you can hear a pin drop in the back, and they’re just listening to you share some shit. So I would love to come back to a venue like this maybe later this year and do a solo tour, even with just my guitar. I love getting as close to everyone as I can. But on the other side of the coin, festivals are cool because it’s always a different audience, and half the people might not know who you are. They’re very measured out and rarely ever run off schedule, so you know exactly what you’re doing. I think both are beneficial.
OTW: Now that we’ve talked about who you’re involved with in the present, what about your old school influences? I’ve heard that you’re into Sam Cooke, Willie Nelson, and Billie Holiday, to name a few. Who got you into them?
Kevin: I kind of stumbled on it myself. I was raised on classic rock and classical music because I played violin at a very young age. Once I was old enough to buy my own music, I got into Ray Charles and Sam Cooke. Specifically with Sam Cooke, I knew about him before this, but Taylor Hicks’ American Idol audition was when I discovered his song “Change Is Gonna Come,” which was a breakthrough moment for me. Then I got into Otis Redding; I got into a lot of jazz piano players and jazz singers, like Nat Cole.
OTW: Do they still influence your music today?
Kevin: Yes, vocally Sam Cooke is always going to be something I look back to because he did the same run on every song, but he did it perfectly and differently every time. So that’s something that I really respect. Knowing what your trick is, and knowing how to look at it from every angle and doing it differently every night.
OTW: Any dream collaborations to knock off your bucket list?
Kevin: I’d really like to work with Alessia Cara, and Ed Sheeran would be cool, just to hang out with him. I like hip hop, so I’d love to work with someone like Childish Gambino, especially with what he’s up to now. Also Anderson .Paak is a legend to me, specifically his Breezy Lovejoy days. Frank Ocean would also be really cool. Mentioning these guys, I’m kind of moving into my own sound, but I think that’s the whole reason I want to work with them. I see similarities and I’m inspired by their work. Also, Tori Kelly–I just want to listen to her sing in a room. I’d love to collaborate with a whole bunch of people. If someone calls then I’d probably do it.
OTW: Who are three artists on your “Ones To Watch” list?
Kevin: I love and hate this question because I always want to put myself on this list. But there’s a kid from El Paso, Texas named Khalid, and he’s about to blow up. Nick Hakim is putting out new music and he’s amazing. He’s got a very alt-R&B vibe, but it’s smart the way he does it. And there are a few UK acts that I really like, specifically a girl named Raye. She has this raspy sort of style about her. And then Sonder is another group to look out for. They’re some friends of mine from the Soulection crew.