Music : A way to work, play and stay on-Island
There are many shared reasons why Islanders battle the storms, summer housing shuffle, winter unemployment, and prices in order to remain part of the unique year-round Vineyard community. Those reasons are regularly being expressed by Island artists through their creative offerings in paint, photographs, music, and the written word.
But just as others do, artists have to reconcile Vineyard prices with Vineyard paychecks. Not easy. Managing to sustain a livelihood in any profession on the Island is a tricky proposition, but when your livelihood is that of a performing musician - difficult even in urban centers - it is especially challenging.
Kevin Keady, a Vineyard musician and songwriter, has lived many places, met many people, and experienced the realities of the music industry both on and off the Island. But the Vineyard is his home, and he has learned how to exist and create here.
Mr. Keady's definition of success is part of the answer. He explains it in his lyrics to, "Working Class Stiff." He sings: "It makes no difference what games you win if you can't live happily in your own skin."
Mr. Keady says it's all about where you're at physically and mentally. "It's finding the right situation, ideally in some sort of learning environment," he says,
Mr. Keady was able to find his "right situation" at Pimpneymouse Farm on Chappaquiddick, where he works as a farmer for housing and pay. He considers this living/working situation integral to not only his year-round survival, but to maintaining a constant learning environment that keeps his mind alive and his song lyrics coming.
He explains, "At the farm the whole lifestyle is based on this idea of survival, and on being close to the earth. You maintain a certain perspective even with the limited accommodations. You can marvel at things like running hot water or other kinds of things you might take for granted." What to many might seem meager living conditions, is for Mr. Keady the comforts of home. "If I had to leave this farm, I'd probably leave the Island," he says.
Home is a rustic camp-like cottage with only a wood stove for heat, an outdoor shower, an outhouse, and the limitations of the Chappy ferry. No cable.
But still, the first impression is one of charm. Mr. Keady's greeting exudes warmth. He leads his visitor through the rustic front door and into a sort of seasonal sunroom surrounded by windows. The small main area leads to a smaller bedroom. But size is compensated by charm. The little cabin, clean and bright, seems to want for nothing. There is a vintage wooden kitchen table, and an upright piano that has been painted yellow. What could feel cramped feels inviting instead.
But even with his positive outlook, Mr. Keady admits he becomes frustrated at times by the challenges that musicians face on the Vineyard. While the seasonal crowds bring a promise of work, they also bring limitations.
"Musicians don't come first when it comes to the night scene or bar scene here," he says. "Who is bartending can be more significant to people than who is playing on any given night. A lot of times there's barely enough room to set up because space is first granted to drink-buying patrons. It's a sad state when alcohol sales beat musical draw, but that's what happens in the frenzy of summertime, and the music scene suffers for it. I definitely think this is a rough place for musicians."
He continues, "You really have to be singing original songs if you're going to take it past the wedding or bar band bubble. Since the days of The Wintertide (the former coffeehouse at Five Corners in Vineyard Haven), it has become harder and harder to find a proper stage."
One place that Mr. Keady has found to be a supportive backdrop is at the West Tisbury Farmer's Market during the summer months, where he plays weekly with his band, The Cattle Drivers. Mixing original tunes into their sets, they enjoy both the broad exposure and appeal.
"It's such a great little vibe happening there," says Mr. Keady. "The band earns healthy tips, and often scores paying gigs simply because the wide scope of people stop to have a listen. The thing I'm most proud of with my music is that it appeals to wide audiences, different age groups, and it's accessible in different settings. One thing I've learned along the way is not to get trapped in labels. Finding a way to merge genres while keeping your voice and passion intact is the key to success."
Mr. Keady, in his deep voice, sings of his life experiences. "I've tried writing songs based on other peoples perspectives, but it never really works out as well," admits the musician. "I think it was Mark Twain who wrote, 'If I knew more about something other than myself I'd write about that.'"
Mr. Keady's three albums (a fourth, "That I might Sleep Tonight," will be released in August), showcase songs based on his down-to-earth, personal issues, each with its own edge of humor.
"I think a lot about humor and the willingness to use it," he says. "Humor is a survival mechanism. If you're going to say anything that could be subject to interpretation in your songs, humor can bring you a long ways towards broader appeal. And if you can't find a lot of humor living out here on Chappy, you're going to have a tough winter."
He recalls influences of other people on his lyrics, such as his friend Allen Ginsberg who advised him to, "Write what tricks you."
As much as Mr. Keady values the opinions and philosophies of others, he remains true to his own beliefs. He advises aspiring musicians: "I think a big thing is that you have to not be afraid, and not need everybody to like you. Just write for yourself first. Don't worry about expressing your opinions because you've got to have an opinion for people to get behind you, otherwise it will just be benign stuff that will be entertaining but nothing more."
He quotes from Robert Frost's poem, "Two Tramps in Mud Time:" "'My object in living is to unite my avocation and my vocation as my two eyes make one in sight.'" Mr. Keady continues, "So that's the ultimate; Combining those things, doing the work you love to do and surviving on it, that's a special thing." And despite the struggle, he adds, "I love where I'm at right now."
Kevin Keady will appear Saturday, June 7, 10 am-12 noon at the Farmers Market in West Tisbury, and 8:30 pm at Che's Lounge in Vineyard Haven.
CK Wolfson contributed to this piece.
Gimili Glavin is a freelance writer living in Chilmark.