International talent finds foothold on Martha’s Vineyard

—Paulo Chaves

Fifteen years ago, Mike Kerr moved to Martha’s Vineyard with a vision so singular and earnest that it’s a wonder his life rights haven’t yet been optioned for a feature-length film. Born in Mantenópolis, a small farming village near Brazil’s southeastern coast, Mr. Kerr began to play acoustic guitar for his church at 9 years old, but insists that his love for the instrument predated even that young age. In a household filled with music and singing, Mr. Kerr fell in love with the guitar, and it became the focus of his life.

“I always wanted an electric guitar,” he said, “but I could never afford one.” The young Mr. Kerr was eager to master his instrument, but had difficulty finding an instructor in the town. “I always loved music, but it was hard to find someone to teach me,” Mr. Kerr said. So he set his sights on the United States. “That was the goal back then: Go to the U.S., work, buy a guitar, and pay for lessons.” At 16, Kerr joined his father, who was working on Martha’s Vineyard, and it wasn’t long before he bought a guitar and began taking lessons in Boston, from Berklee guitar professor Joe Stump. Now a remarkable player with an unshakable foundation in multiple genres, Mr. Kerr is gaining the recognition he deserves with a brand new project, FirstBourne.

FirstBourne is an arena-rock/power-metal band which Mr. Kerr founded along with bassist Ven Thangaraj and Berklee-trained vocalist Adrienne Cowan. The trio had long been familiar with one another through local music scenes when mutual admiration and overlapping styles led them to join forces with drummer Chris Dovas and guitarist Jimmy Oliveira. On Nov. 11, the Boston-based band will embark on a tour of Asia sponsored by Chaser Records and musical gear giant Joyo Technology. The performances in China are just a segment of the international shows FirstBourne has slated in support of their debut album, “Riot.” In January 2017, the band will set out on a tour of the West Coast, returning to the Cape for a performance at the 2017 International Portuguese Music Awards in New Bedford on April 22.

When asked about FirstBourne’s approach to live performance, Mr. Kerr insists that the group’s efforts are rooted, first and foremost, in the relationship between the bandmates. “We’re all very good friends, and that comes first,” he said. The connection between artists shows in their work, and fans aren’t the only ones taking note. Earlier this year, Mr. Kerr took home the prize for “Best Rock Performance” at the International Portuguese Music Awards for his 2015 sophomore solo effort, “The Truth of the Lion.” The album was recorded with longtime bandmate and FirstBourne bassist Ven Thangaraj, alongside the band’s chief lyricist and vocalist, Adrienne Cowan.

“The Truth of the Lion” gained praise as a signifier of Mr. Kerr’s musical maturation. “As I get older and more experienced, the less I desire to play busy lines with lots of notes,” Mr. Kerr said. “Today every note, every bend, every breath I take becomes important to me as I transfer my emotion to the listener.”

FirstBourne’s debut, “Riot,” which was released in September, was recorded over a four-day stretch with producer and guitar player Jimmy Oliveira of Sony Brazil. It encapsulates the band’s spirit and message with ecstatic precision. “Riot” is an expansive and fast-paced effort with sophisticated thematic imagery and the sort of vaulting drama that befits its genre. The album’s title track sets the tone for the ambitious project with a joyful, rock ’n’ roll invitation to an underground revolution. On the first pass, the listener meets a seemingly commercial undertaking with melodies and voicings that almost salute more mainstream predecessors like Paramore or My Chemical Romance. A second listen reveals a much more nuanced and macabre project than the jaunting instrumentation and leaping vocals suggest. The interplay of Mr. Kerr’s wholly improvised guitar solos with Cowan’s deceptively poetic lyrics leaves the listener with more questions than answers. This sort of shapeshifting serves both the audience and the artist as FirstBorne proves itself a dynamic group with vast potential for expansion.

For Mr. Kerr, FirstBourne’s music draws its power from the impulse band members have to share their creative efforts. But make no mistake, this stuff rocks. “We try not to get away from the main purpose, which is to connect to the audience on an emotional level,” Mr. Kerr said. “Whether its lyrics or melody, we always want to play something that will make people feel.”

The band has garnered nearly 4,000 likes on its Facebook page in just six months, so it seems that audience members and listeners the world over are certainly feeling something. On the topic of the commercial success and mainstream exposure required to fill an arena, Mr. Kerr is delightfully concise: “We’re going to die trying, and it’s going to be a fun journey.”

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