It was 1999 in the Chicago suburb of Champaign, Il, when Steve Holmes, Steve Lamos, and Mike Kinsella, collectively known as American Football, set out to record their debut album with Polyvinyl Records.
It would be the only full-length album the trio made together, but the self-titled LP with songs like “Never Meant” would become staples in the underground Chicago scene. Out of the American Football ashes Kinsella created a solo project – Owen — that has forged its own place in the windy city’s indie hall of fame.
Some have gone so far as to credit Owen as being “The Inventor of the Chicago Indie Scene”, but when Kinsella talked to Blast he said the accolade was far from the truth. In fact, he suggested “The Passenger of Chicago Public Transportation” or “The Consumer of Chicago Style Pizza” are more appropriate titles.
“There was already a thriving indie scene in Chicago, and it’s surrounding suburbs, way before I knew what ‘indie’ or ‘math rock’ was. I spent my youth going to see all these bands and trying to learn their songs.” Kinsella said, and countered that the Chicago scene made a huge impression on him rather than the other way around.
“It had a huge influence on me: musically, socially, morally, in my formative years and I definitely felt connected to it then,” he said.
After American Football disbanded, Kinsella went solo. Owen became less about musical experimentation but more about an artist finding and creating his own sound.
Still signed to Polyvinyl Records, Kinsella took the money designated to record his first album to create a home studio. Kinsella recorded all the instrumentation in the comfort of his living room and the outcome was “Owen” (2001).
While it created some buzz, it was the second album, “No Good For No One,” released the following year that secured Owen a spot in the souls of the broken hearted everywhere. Once again, Kinsella took the money arranged from his label and used it to expand his home studio and recorded the entire album there.
Lines like “You’ve got everything you came for/Warm arms, a warm bed to fall into/when you can’t get what you did out of your head” (“Nobody’s Nothing”) are propelled by Kinsella’s heartfelt voice over intricate acoustic guitar melodies. From the first album to the second, Kinsella expounded upon his lyrical technique, using each track to tell a story.
“The lyrics usually come out one slow line at a time, and after I have a few strung together that I like I figure out what the song is about. It can be as vague as ‘a night out at a bar with friends’ or as specific as ‘feeling guilty about not wanting to shake the homeless man’s hand because he smelled.’ Once the idea is formed, then I fill in the rest of the lines, trying to keep them as concise as possible while still saying what I want to say,” Kinsella explained.
Kinsella said he doesn’t start making a record with a specific theme in mind, but his albums tend to have a similar tone dependant on what he is doing or where he is in his life when he is working on the album.
Assisting with Kinsella’s own lyrical potency is his tendency to draw on literary figures. “No Good For No One Now” is decorated with references to everyone from Raymond Carver to Oscar Wilde and Ernest Hemingway.
“Usually I’m attracted to a specific line in a story and create my own context for it. Sometimes then the actual line works its way into the song and sometimes the song exists as a reference to the sentence or book. I find myself returning to Gabriel Garcia Marquez [author of “Love in the Time of Cholera”] for inspiration. I’m a sucker for love stories and everything he writes seems to gravitate around the concept of Love,” Kinsella said.
Lyrically, Kinsella has progressively moved away from the tales of heartbreak. From “No Good for No One Now” to “I Do Perceive” (2004) to “At Home With Owen” (2006) the content becomes less about the one that got away and more of the stories of someone slowly finding their way into their own skin. Songs like “Use Your Words” and “Windows and Doorways” breathe more like messages of moving on rather than being entrenched in heartbreak.
“It’s a result of me being more comfortable with myself than I was however many years ago ‘No Good’ came out. At that time I had recently figured out how to make myself happy but I was still feeling really guilty about it, so I was always sort of conflicted. Nowadays I think I communicate better, which makes my happiness less qualified,” said Kinsella about the change.
“At Home With Owen” also became the first album where Kinsella left his mother’s house to record anything. He split the recording of the album in half, opting to do part of it still in his living room and the other in a professional studio, which allowed him more options. In the end, “At Home” has a much more filled out sound than the previous Owen records. The use of more guitar and bass gives the album more of a full band feeling, but Kinsella says he’s happy with the final outcome.
“I’m definitely more comfortable recording at home for a number of reasons – I can do as many takes as I want without feeling like I’m wasting someone else’s time. I’m generally uncomfortable singing in front of anyone else. I can not put pants on that day if I don’t want to. I can take breaks if I get frustrated without feeling like I’m wasting money. That said, the final product that comes out of a studio makes me happier than the one that comes out of my house.” Kinsella said.
Two years since his last release, the world does not have much longer to wait to see where Kinsella ends up with the next Owen LP. Recording is slated to be complete by March with a tentative summer or early fall release date, Kinsella said. While fans can be sure to expect the same signature Owen lyrical honest intensity, some new influences in Kinsella’s life may provide view to yet another new Owen dimension.
“My wife and I are having a baby in late March and while I’m sure the birth of my daughter will inspire me in countless ways,” Kinsella said. “I can’t say for sure that’ll it’ll inspire me to continue to be a ‘starving artist’.”
Megan, this is an awesome piece. Thanks for writing it.