INTERVIEW: Kenneth Whalum Explores a “Broken Land”

Kenneth Whalum


After playing sideman and sax man, Kenneth Whalum’s  latest role is frontman. His latest album, Broken Land, showcases his metamorphosis from arranger and jazz musician to full-featured R&B/soul star. In advance of his appearance at D.C.’s Blind Whino SW Arts Club on Saturday, September 30th, The Couch Sessions caught up with Kenneth to talk about his work with some heavy-hitters and find out what makes his new album so very relevant.

Your latest project, Broken Land, is packed with emotional lyrics that seem to speak to real-life experiences. Which song on the album do you feel best represents you right now, and why?

I can’t say any song represents me right now. Because at the time of writing each I was recounting or experiencing something specific to the moment. It has always been important to me to be honest in my art. So they all mean something special right now.

Since your previous album (2015’s Through Hell & High Water), how specifically have you grown or progressed? And where might we hear those changes on Broken Land?

I’ve just become more aware of makes me happy in particular. Things that mattered to me at that time, don’t matter anymore. Or they don’t matter as much. I really put a premium on enjoying each moment.

Put us in the room with you when you and Big K.R.I.T. created (the police brutality-themed) “Might Not Be Ok”. What was that like?

KRIT and I are great friends. Brothers. We were having a brother to brother conversation sharing and expounding on our frustration with the events that plague people that look like us. He wanted to make a statement and so did I. We didn’t want to be pseudo-inspirational. So we told the truth. It might not be ok.

“Might Not Be Ok” acknowledges the hopelessness that people around the country are feeling when witnessing this vicious cycle of killings and acquittals. As a culture and a society, is there a way forward? Where does it begin?

There is a way forward. But it’s a way that takes a lot more than tweeting and talking.

You’ve got an incredible résumé, collaborating with the likes of D’Angelo, Jay-Z, and John Legend. What do you feel you offer that attracts such artists to working with you?

I can’t really say. I’ve always tried to be myself and followed certain laws that I have in place for myself. Simple things like being on time and being honorable are a couple of examples.

Tell us about doing those shows with Frank Ocean. How did you mesh onstage and offstage?

Frank is cool. I feel that we have a lot in common in the way that we interact with people. He’s a genius and one of my favorite artists for sure.

When writing more R&B/pop-oriented material, how do you feel your jazz background influences you?

I studied and am aware of what I don’t like. That’s all I can say. I try to have integrity in every aspect of the music. Of the statement. There’s no shortcuts with me. I want the most pure, painful, and powerful statement to be made. You can’t make that kind of statement with shortcuts.

Which instrument do you write on most frequently and why?

I write at the piano. Because I can see better.

You often cite Radiohead as an influence and you’ve even covered them. What’s your favorite song by them and why?

Probably “House of Cards“. The way the guitar sets the tempo and mood with Thom’s vocals. Doesn’t get much better.

Who out there inspires you vocally?

Frank. Thom Yorke. D’Angelo.

Who are you really excited about listening to right now?

My friend St. Vincent.

Are you currently writing new material? What can we expect from your next project?

I am working on new material. You can expect me to take Broken Land up a notch. I’m excited about how I feel and what I’ve been through.