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Birds Of Tokyo’s Ian Kenny: “I Was Concerned About How Much I Was Going To Expose Myself”

Break-up albums occupy a distinct place in the pantheon of rock music. Entries from the likes of Bob Dylan, Fleetwood Mac, Joni Mitchell and Beck rank among these artists’ finest releases. But you’d hardly call break-up albums a rite of passage – no one wants to write about the disintegration of an identity-sustaining relationship.

This gives break-up records a unique kind of urgency, as the act of songwriting is driven more by cathartic necessity than commercial ambition. This was certainly the case for Birds of Tokyo’s Ian Kenny, who charts the breakdown of his marriage on the band’s new album Human Design.

“It was 13 years ago,” sings Kenny on the record’s opening track ‘The Greatest Mistakes’. From here, he interrogates the series of events that led to the acute personal suffering of the present. He adopts a stance of defiance, only to have it shattered by rumination on the infidelity that tore his life apart. But after trawling through the depths of loneliness and despair, Kenny – and the rest of the Birds of Tokyo gang – emerge strengthened and reanimated.

Music Feeds spoke to Kenny about documenting his break-up on Human Design, making it out the other side and building a community around these songs.

Music Feeds: Human Design is the most personal record you’ve written. Did the songs take shape as you were going through the different stages of your personal journey?

Ian Kenny: That’s exactly how it happened. It started at the beginning with things coming undone and having some song ideas related to that, which basically engaged the band to write again, not knowing where it was leading, not knowing how many songs we were going to get – we had no idea at that point this was going to be a record. Basically it came song-by-song as the three years of my life and the band’s life just unfolded.

MF: There was a slow build-up to the record with four singles coming out over an 18-month period, beginning with ‘Unbreakable’. Was it therapeutically beneficial to chart the progress of your personal journey in public?

IK: Yeah. Once I realised that it was reaching the community and I think ultimately helping people within that community who were either fans of what we do or who were connecting with what was happening in those songs, that was a pretty sweet moment. Up until that point I was super concerned about how much I was going to expose myself on a personal level while writing these songs. I was a bit shit-scared, to be honest.

It took me a long time to be ok with what I had written. I had re-written the lyrics so many times because I didn’t want to say what needed to be said, I didn’t know how to, I didn’t have the balls to. Ultimately what you’re hearing on the record is me giving in and just telling it like it is. And now it’s quite healing and thankfully we have the songs that we needed. Any other way they wouldn’t have worked.

MF: The decision to give in and tell it like it is, was that because applying any sort of filter just didn’t feel right?

IK: I was writing around the subject. I was throwing all sorts of cotton wool at it and calling it something else and making it a bit of “whatever” sort of thing. It’s like, nah, that’s not going to work. That’s not going to make these songs what I needed. I just needed to get it out of my heart and my head so I could accept the terms that life had thrown and then move on. It just had to be that way and the band were great with that – they were so supportive just to get that side of things right.

MF: Was your relationship with songwriting vastly different than on past projects?

IK: Only because I’d lifted the veil so much on the subject matter and on my personal stake in things. I think that felt quite different and it felt like a very different space to write in and to run in musically. But ultimately, once you get your teeth into the songs and you realise this is working, it’s feeling good, at the same time it feels prickly as hell and feels wrong, but overall you know you’re onto a good thing.

At that point, people were reacting to this and feeling connected. You just start to feel like, “fuck it, I’m not alone here.” Then you hope that whatever you’re going to say in these songs is going to be healing for them. That was where I started to feel, “you know what, I think we’re writing something that means something to people. Let’s take this thing as far as we can and hope that it has an affect for the better on listeners.”

MF: The arrangements on Human Design are a considerable shift from the darker, heavier rock sound of Brace. There’s lots of acoustic instrumentation and a tendency towards uplifting, anthemic melodies. You also added choir vocals and string parts. How premeditated was the sound of the record?

IK: Those decisions for strings, gospel parts, choice of instrumentation and arrangement, they came song by song. I think that’s pretty prominent across the record. If you compare things like ‘Design’ over ‘Never Going Back’, the closer, they’re worlds apart. I don’t think there was any grand design for that line of thinking.

I can say with the string stuff, once we chose to write string parts for the first few songs, we thought, “oh you know what, that’s actually feeling like a really beautiful addition to what we’re trying to say. It could be a really cool thread.” But anything outside that it was just song by song.

MF: ‘Unbreakable’ and ‘The Greatest Mistakes’ both look at how, once you’ve made it through a challenging experience, you’ll be an improved and stronger person. Were you aware of trying to write this story in a way that’d allow you come out on top?

IK: It’s definitely part of the psyche when you’re going through something that you don’t think you’re going to make it through, or if you don’t have the answers, the only way to really get through it is to talk it up like you can do it; you will do it. You basically have to tell yourself, “look, you will get through it, you’ll become bigger than this.” You don’t always feel it at the time – it can be nothing but hope when you’re writing these things.

MF: Did writing about your break-up help to actualise the place you’ve now ended up in?

IK: 100%. And you only really can use that feeling or know that it’s there when the song becomes tangible when it feels the way it’s supposed to be. Only then are you like, “all right, that’s got a bit of power.”

‘Human Design’ is out now. Stream or purchase here. In January and February 2021, Birds Of Tokyo will perform a string of very shows with Australia’s leading Orchestras. Dates below.

Birds Of Tokyo Symphonic Tour 2021
Brisbane Fan Pre-sale is live today via Birdsoftokyo.com – (10am Local Time)
General Public On Sale – Friday May 1st (10am Local Time)

West Australian Symphony Orchestra

Thursday, 14th January
Perth Concert Hall
Tickets: Official Website

Friday, 15th January
Perth Concert Hall
Tickets: Official Website

Saturday, 16th January
Perth Concert Hall
Tickets: Official Website

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Friday, 22nd January
Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall
Tickets: Official Website

Saturday, 23rd January
Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall
Tickets: Official Website

Sydney Symphony Orchestra

Thursday, 4th February
Sydney Town Hall
Tickets: Official Website

Friday, 5th February
Sydney Town Hall
Tickets: Official Website

Saturday, 6th February
Sydney Coliseum Theatre, West HQ
Tickets: Official Website

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Friday, 12th February
QPAC Concert Hall, Brisbane
Tickets: Official Website

Saturday, 13th February
QPAC Concert Hall, Brisbane
Tickets: Official Website

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