The social isolation that we have all been through has brought inspiration for a lot of artists. Peter Kleinhans is one of them and has turned the shared experience of the pandemic into his album I Was Alive Enough. Through the tracks of the album, he considers the fear of missing out, distrust of the media and the powerful joy many find in solitude. Narrative-driven and animated, the album tells the story of our time while touching on the things that have been overlooked. We sat down with Peter Kleinhans to talk about the album, the emotions of the tracks, influences and much more!
OSR: You started your journey in the music industry later in life, what prompted this change in direction?
Kleinhans: I was a creative writing and philosophy major as an undergraduate. I specialized in poetry, but I never felt I had a way to apply it to the world in a way that could even possibly affect things. I knew how to write, but had no experiences of the world to write about. I found academia very insular and only tangentially connected to the world, and in my own way, I rebelled by escaping to the world of horse racing that I had (for some reason I’ll never be able to articulate) gravitated towards since high school.
I made racing my life for the next thirty years. I took care of harness racehorses, trained them, drove them and announced in races at tracks across the country. Of course, I bet on them. Somehow I had also found time around the turn of the millennium to apply to law school, attend, graduate and pass the bar, but I still found my way back to the horses. I had a really great run with the horses from 2002-2010 and it’s hard to quit when you’re winning races! But by 2010, that world was changing, and so was I. I started to see horse racing as a bit of a dying sport.
After the events of 2008, I became obsessed with understanding the world: what really drives economies, geopolitical events, domestic policies, etc… I found out that there’s so much more out there than most people see and there’s so much more out there than I’ll ever see. I decided, it was actually pretty conscious, to channel what I was learning together with my forgotten writing skills into something new. I bought a guitar. I learned how to make music. It was exhilarating. “I can actually do this”. I think a lot of people who take up something new get this feeling and wow is it a great feeling! I still have a lot of other things I’d love to do, but I know that this is something I want to be doing, in some capacity, for the rest of my life.
OSR: You released your second album I Was Alive Enough at the end of last year, is there a theme or backstory to it?
Kleinhans: I think this album is definitely a little more mature than the first, but it’s been a gradual evolution. In the first, I was exploring some of my own emotions while trying to write songs about characters different enough from me that I really had to use my imagination. The same holds for the second, but I also wanted to extend it to actual stories and situations.
There’s one about a retired racehorse, one about a farmer in Madagascar, one about our corrupted financial system, one about someone trying to glean the truth from the hall of mirrors that the news has become. These are all real people or horses who are completely different from me, but within whom I try to find enough little fragments of connection in order to empathise and tell a believable story.
OSR: The lyrics of your songs tell the story of forgotten people, what is your creative process for this?
Kleinhans: I see it as a duty. I’ve had a lot of unearned luck in my life and I want to invest it in a way that I can be proud of. We’ve got a planet of eight billion people and we collectively spend our time talking about what maybe five hundred of them or so, right? Or maybe we sweep a whole block of people into one group and spend our time talking about that group as if everyone in it is the same.
What’s lost is the individual experiences that are happening there. That’s what I’m trying to get at. Every one of these experiences is unique and deserving of unique consideration, not some blanket statement. To me, the attempt to leap out of one’s self to imagine and understand the “other” is what it’s all about. Of course, I can’t entirely succeed, but as one of my favourite lines from a movie (“Before Sunrise”) puts it, whatever hope there is lies in the attempt. I’m attempting.
OSR: There are a lot of emotions packed into the tracks of the album, are these feelings you personally have felt?
Kleinhans: I don’t think I’ve experienced the things to the extreme that some of the characters have, but that’s just because I’ve been lucky to this point. I think emotions can be relative and we are a species with imagination. Clearly, the ability to imagine has big evolutionary benefits or we wouldn’t have it. So even though I haven’t claim to have felt exactly as the characters of the songs do, I really work to try to imagine those feelings, which hopefully is good enough to portray them reasonably well.
OSR: There is a hopeful feeling to the music, is this what you would like to people to feel while listening to the album?
Kleinhans: Yes and I’m so glad to hear this! I don’t think that the mood created by the music of a song always has to match with the mood of its lyrics. Sometimes there is a sublimity when the two match, but just as often I think that texture is added when they don’t reflect each other perfectly. For example, I probably have a little overdose of “melancholia” in my lyrics, that’s just me for some reason, but I know that I don’t want to listen to music that sounds melancholic all the time, and I doubt that very many people do. I’m always looking for sounds that are fun and surprising, catchy even. I figure if they sound good to me, then hopefully they’ll sound good to listeners as well.
OSR: What do you feel is the biggest influence on your music?
Kleinhans: I’ve been trying to answer this question for an hour and I’ve come up with nothing. So I guess I’ll be honest and say I don’t know.
OSR: If your music were a colour, what would it be and why?
Kleinhans: What a great question! I’ve done a number of these sorts of interviews and this is my favourite question I’ve read so far! My personal colours have always been a crisp green and white, those are still my racehorse-driving colours. But the music to me is probably more, blue. I have a song I’m very partial to on my first album called ‘Sky Blue’ (if you want melancholy, there you go), and it’s about ageing, the limitations of the body and the limitlessness of the imagination. We know the limitations are there but we can sometimes lose ourselves in a beauty that seems, at least for a moment, limitless. I’d love to be able to inspire some of that feeling on occasion. So that’s what I’ll go with Sky Blue.
OSR: How do you feel this album compares to your last?
Kleinhans: I think it’s more mature and nuanced, as I’d hope it would be. I’m quite happy with it. It’s hard to judge your own work, but I shamelessly listen to my own albums embarrassingly often, and on the first one I found I usually would jump over two or three songs, whereas, on this one, I might only jump over one. So I’ll take that as I vote that I like the second album more than the first. But the third one that I’m working on, that one’s going to be better than either of these, I believe!
OSR: If you could perform this album anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?
Kleinhans: It’s probably a cop-out to say, but I’d perform it right where I’ve been performing my music from the beginning, The Bitter End here in New York. Aside from a gala gig that I did for the tremendous organization Urban Upbound, every live show I’ve done has been at The Bitter End. I’ve got a small but really devoted group of fans and they love congregating at TBE for these shows.
Obviously, the whole idea of “congregating”, as a thing, has been brought into question by the pandemic and no one knows when or if it will reset, but I know that they’re planning on reopening at about 50% capacity over the summer. I can’t wait and have been preparing in various ways, like making sure everyone in the band is vaccinated so that the audience can feel comfortable. There are times where you want to explore the world, but right now for me, I’m more excited about just feeling back at home in my hometown of New York City.
OSR: What else can we expect from you in this year?
Kleinhans: As I mentioned before, I’m working with Tony Conniff again on a third album. This time, I’m having a lot of fun and I’m really just going for songs that feel great to listen to and that hopefully get stuck in the listener’s head, in a good way. There’s a little more play and edge, maybe a touch more anger and a touch less melancholy than in the first two albums. I’m hoping to have this out by the end of the year, which would be a major improvement in speed, we’ll see if it gets done! I’ve got what I think is my most raw and exciting song so far, called ‘Dopamine’. Which I think is going to be the name of the album since it’s just one chemical but wow does it drive almost all of us!