The first time I saw Korby Lenker was at Bumbershoot. I had moved to Seattle from Des Moines about four years prior, and in many ways was still trying to figure out where I fit in a city much larger and much cooler than I was used to. Coincidentally, Lenker had recently done the same, moving to the Emerald City from Idaho by way of Bellingham, WA, where he had fronted a hugely popular local act called the Barbed Wire Cutters, but had become too big a fish for B-Ham's small pond. By the time I saw Lenker perform at Bumbershoot, he was fresh off releasing his album “King of Hearts,” which had been recorded with Bellingham musicians and was getting plenty of love on Seattle's KEXP.
“I had made two (albums) before that one,” Lenker said during a phone interview from Nashville, where he currently makes his home. “I made an acoustic record maybe two years prior to “King of Hearts,” and that enabled me to tour Europe. Then I made a kind of bluegrass gospel album.”
“I had all these bluegrass pickers that I knew in the Northwest, and I wanted to be able to make an album and not be limited to the guys in the Barbed Wire Cutters.”
“King of Hearts” did ok, but life in Seattle never seemed to catch on for Lenker the way his previous home had. There's a specific vibe to that city and, unlike much larger places like Chicago or New York, it's pretty hard to just do your own thing, if it doesn't match that vibe.
“I don't think that Seattle got me,” he concurred. “I was really kind of a Bellingham guy, which was more acoustic roots-driven. Which was opposed to Seattle, where at the time Modest Mouse was really hitting hard. And that's not who I am.”
“What really prompted the move from Seattle,” he continued, “was that I really wanted to tour constantly, and that's really hard to do when you're based in the corner of the country.”
And so, in 2007, Lenker packed up and moved across the continent, to Nashville.
“There were a couple of people who really helped make the landing as soft as possible. I had a guy rent me an apartment, sight unseen. It was a great fit.”
But if the city itself wound up feeling right personally, creatively, Nashville provided Lenker with a wakeup call. His music was not welcomed with the open arms that Bellingham had provided, money got tight, and Lenker found himself in the position of having to take a day job to keep the lights on.
For the next couple of years, Korby Lenker: Musician would be mostly known as Korby Lenker: Valet. He parked cars at a couple different hotels, playing gigs on the side, but having trouble navigating the unfamiliar waters of not being appreciated right out of the gate.
But talent and persistence are difficult bedfellows to keep down, and by 2011 things finally clicked, and Lenker was able to get back to what he loved full time.
“It was the best thing that ever happened to me, having to work a straight job, and starting over,” he admits. “I had kind of taken it for granted that I was going to be able to always play music for a living. And when it was made plain as day that I was not going to be able to do that, it made me realize that I don't have any real marketable skills.”
“I know how to play music, and that's it,” he continued. “(Parking cars) was menial, and nobody really cared, but it gave me a lot of freedom to kind of explore myself and see what was next.”
The time as a working stiff gave Lenker a new appreciation for the life of a musician but, more importantly it gave him a greater understanding of who he was, and how that fit into the greater scheme of things.
“When I was in it and just working during the day, it was clear that I had this strong conviction that I'm an artist,” he said. “This is what I do. It doesn't matter if I have to have another job to stay alive, this is how I interpret my world. So I got pretty good at video work, I started writing some short stories. I expanded my skill set to better suit the DIY approach that I'd always had.”
Now, it feels as though all of that; all the moves and day jobs and building of skills and growth as a person—all of it has culminated in Lenker's latest album, “Thousand Springs.” Recorded in seven states and employing the talents of nearly 30 musicians from around the country, "Thousand Springs” is the most fully realized version of Lenker we have seen to date.
“There's an ethos in Nashville that's a little pretentious,” he said. “There's always this push to cash in on something, and I just don't adhere to that. I couldn't even have made this album two years ago.”
“This record, for me, was a desire to make something really personal,” he explained. “I don't know how to chase trends. I have no idea what's going on in contemporary culture. Anytime I'm strategic about something I'm doing, it ends up being stupid. It's not believable. My music isn't a thing that I do for four hours in the evening. It's who I am. And I wanted to do something that reflected that.”
In that vein, Lenker went back to his roots, taking his recording equipment on the road, and recording songs from places he grew up in, towns he knew, and spaces that carried personal significance. He crowdfunded $20,000 off Kickstarter, and headed home to Idaho. There, in places like Twin Falls and Snake River Canyon, Lenker laid down the musical framework for every song, finding its soul. Once accomplished, it was back on the road, to places like Austin, Boston and back to Nashville, recording with musicians who added their voices to Lenker's vision, helping to give breath and vision to the skeletons Lenker had built. The result is heartfelt, deeply meaningful, and at times breath taking.
But for Lenker, “Thousand Springs” was the next step in life, rather than a culmination of anything. While the process of creating it may have been symbolic and at times even cathartic, Lenker has never been one to dwell or rest for too long. He's got too much to say.
“I just don't look back,” he said. “I'm doing promo for 'Thousand Springs' now, but I'm already four songs into the next album.”