Korby Lenker: Singer, songwriter & total book nerd
Singer-songwriter Korby Lenker just published his first book. The new author describes Medium Hero as a “quirky collection of 27 short stories inspired by his life as a traveling musician with a cat and finding beauty in everyday life.” A mortician’s son from rural Idaho, Korby also just launched a new Kickstarter campaign for his new album and raised some $20,000 to cover recording expenses. He plans to record the album sometime in 2016. We spoke to him via phone from his Nashville.
Talk about how the idea for Medium Hero first came to you.
I play music for a living and have done that for 15 years or so. I self-published a version of that book a year-and-a-half ago. I’m a total book nerd is the truth. I’ve written a lot of short stories over the years. I never pursued it because I had my hands full with music. You can only get somewhat knowledgeable about one industry at a time. I had about 60 stories. I wanted to make a little book to sell at the shows. I picked the best 20 or so and self-published the book and sold it at the shows. I didn’t do anything. I didn’t pursue an agent. It was very surprising when it got into the hands of the acquisitions manager at Turner. I got an email out of the blue that said they loved the book and wanted to talk more about it.
You’ve said one recurring theme is things being beautiful to themselves. Give some examples of that.
I guess that’s something I noticed in hindsight. I noticed the stories were about that and realized that’s how I tend to see the world. Part of it is just that I’m a person who’s really bad at arguing. I often see both perspectives of any given argument. Reading makes you reflective. I spent time looking into my own prejudices. It’s just things that are different from you or that you’re afraid from for some reason. I spent a lot of time as a practicing Buddhist and did some Zen retreats. A lot of that is about letting things go.
You also say you’re a “little bit ridiculous.”
Yeah. I have been playing music for a long time. The industry is a social industry and it’s been a weird fit for me, since I’m kind of uncomfortable around people. I can make small talk about two minutes and then I don’t know what to say anymore. I’ve always been kind of an optimist. Over the years, I’ve conditioned myself to fit in more. But I’m more comfortable by myself. That’s what I love about books. You’re free to do whatever you want. You can be ridiculous and talk about things that would make people uncomfortable if they were sitting in a room with you. But because it’s a book, it’s a permissive environment. It’s been a better fit for me.
Talk about your childhood.
My dad’s a mortician and my mom was a school teacher. She’s retired, but he still works. I grew up in a conservative Evangelical Christian home. My grandfather was a preacher in a small logging town in Oregon. My brother is a pastor. It’s in my family. I missed the boat on the church thing. I’ve often felt like I’m in the meaning business. The music and stories are a way of getting at that. It’s in my personality to wonder what the hell is going on and why we are here and what we are supposed to do. A lot of what I sing about and write about is in that vein. That’s a product of growing up in the family I grew up in. My father isn’t really a philosopher. [He’s more of] a “serious liver.” I don’t think that’s an actual phrase. He just took things seriously and wanted to do the right thing. Now I’m a totally slacker and I drink too much.
How’d you gravitate to music?
It was weird. My parents were of that generation that arbitrarily assigned me the piano and my brother the violin. We had to take lessons every week and practice every day. I liked it. When I was young, I had external validation. I remember being in the third grade the girl I had a crush on but couldn’t talk to wanted to stand next to me for the class song that we had to sing together for the school variety show. I thought there was something to it. I was serious about it all the way through school. I was in band in Idaho that was a New Wave alternative cover band. We gigged all the time and made money and put our money back into the band. I learned a lot about the nuts and bolts of having a band. When I went to college, I got really into bluegrass and started this bluegrass band. A month after our first show, the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack dropped. All of a sudden, bluegrass was it and everyone wanted to hear bluegrass. I was in Washington at the time. We were the only young kids doing it so it was a timing thing. The records were shit but the live show was pretty good. That happened right as I graduated from college. For about five years I ran that band. I had finagled my way into $200 a month rent and I had this band that I made $800 a month from. In my twenties I just hung out and played guitar a lot and wrote songs and read all the classics.
And how’d you end up in Nashville?
I was in Bellingham, which is in the northwest corner of Washington. It’s 90 miles north of Seattle. I moved to Seattle and we made this record. It did pretty well. It had support in radio there. That one year, I opened for Keith Urban and Ray LaMontagne and Nickle Creek. I played the Sasquatch festival, which is the Bonnaroo of the Northwest. That passed and I didn’t get a deal and was faced with the prospect of settling down with the Seattle community or going to the “Big Show.” I had showcased at different conferences. It made it easy to move. In hindsight, I can’t believe I did it. It was a learning experience.
In a city filled with singers and songwriters, what have you done to stand out?
The first three years I was here, I dropped out of music as far as touring goes. I got my ass handed to me. It was the best thing that could have happened. Up that point, I always played music. There were always enough people that cared. I came to Nashville and quickly, nobody gave a shit. I was about 30 years old and I had no real skills. It was definitely a weird moment. I got a job valet parking cars and that’s what I did for three years. Half of the stories were written at the time. It’s a “must-be-present-to-win” kind of town. There are five or six cliques in Nashville. I never had any shortage of chutzpa. I never fit anywhere that perfectly. I’m very much an active touring singer and songwriter and now I have a book but that’s not a pass code into the singer-songwriter/author club. But that’s cool too. In the long run, I think it will be an asset.
Talk about the new album.
I did a Kickstarter and raised about 20 grand. I’m in the process of finishing the songwriting. I have my hands full with this book thing. The book tour starts January 8 and then two of my friends jump in the band with me and we do another three-week tour. South by Southwest is in March. I won’t start recording this until April, just because I don’t have any time, which is annoying because all I really want to do is to stay home and write a novel. But all things in time. The songs have been written in the last two years as I’ve been steadily chipping away at it.
Does your songwriting influence the way you write stories?
When I’m writing a song it’s like holding onto a firehose in a way. You’re trying to point it in a certain direction but it’s going to go somewhere else. It’s a clearly delineated form. Most of my songs are verse, chorus, bridge-ish and I don’t veer too far from that. There’s a lot of craftsmanship in the songs. That’s what I like about prose. It’s so much more free, in a way. There’s no restriction on length or format or word count. That’s a large part of the appeal for me. It’s an outlet where I can get a bigger idea down on paper. Those two things haven’t lined up. I’ve never felt compelled to write a story from a song or vice versa. It’s not to say I won’t do it. It’s an interesting thing.
Upcoming 2016 Booksignings & Performances
Jan. 8, 6:30pm
Jan. 9, 6:30pm
Jan. 10, 2pm
Jan. 11, 6:30pm
Jan. 13, 7pm
Jan. 14, 7pm
Jan. 19, 7pm
Jan. 20, 7pm
Jan. 21, 7pm
Jan. 25, 7pm
Jan. 27, 7pm
Jan. 28, 6:30pm
Jan. 29, 7pm
One More Page Books – Arlington VA
McIntyre’s Books – Pittsboro, NC
Club Passim – Cambridge, MA
The Doylestown Bookshop – Doylestown, PA
Loganberry Books – Shaker Heights, Ohio
Talking Leaves Books – Buffalo, NY
King’s English Bookshop – Salt Lake City, UT
Iconoclast Books – Ketchum, ID
Rediscovered Books – Boise ID
Fact and Fiction Bookstore – Missoula, MT
Auntie’s Bookstore – Spokane, WA
Chuckanut Radio Hour: Whatcom Community College – Bellingham, WA
Elliott Bay Book Company – Seattle WA