On Sunday, Feb. 10, music royalty, including Barbara Streisand and Tony Bennett, along with contemporary hit-makers like Post Malone and Childish Gambino, will gather at the Staples Center in Los Angeles for the 61st Grammy Awards Ceremony to find out if they’ve won one of the music industry’s highest awards. Seated among them will be Jeremy Kittel, a Saline High School graduate, The Saline Fiddlers Philharmonic alumnus and two-time Grammy nominee who has been recognized for his original composition “Chrysalis,” a featured track on his new Kittel & Company release “Whorls.”
The night before the Grammys, Kittel will be the guest artist at The Saline Fiddlers’ 25th Anniversary Hometown Show. Jim Cain of Acoustic Routes Concerts caught up with Kittel for a wide-ranging conversation about the Grammys, his new music and his experience growing up playing music in Saline.
First of all, congratulations on the Grammy nomination. Thank you so much.
When did you first learn that Chrysalis was nominated? I was in Northern Michigan. We were on tour, and I got a text from a friend saying, ‘Hey man, congrats.’ I knew that the nominees were being announced that morning. I thought, could it be? They don’t actually tell you first.
Thank heavens for technology. Indeed.
Who was the first person you called? I called my mother, who was the prime mover and shaker for getting us all hooked on music and everything, my siblings and me.
That’s fantastic. Take us through the origin of the song. Did it start with a riff? It did. I was trying to get out of my head and into more intuitive music making and composition. Instead of starting with an idea, like, ‘Oh, I could do a fiddle tune in this key,’ I was trying to hear what you hear deep within your psyche or your consciousness, within yourself, and trying to listen to those voices. There was this riff – that’s the perfect word for it. It took a while to figure out what I was hearing and get it out, and to make a real demo with it. That’s how the tune started, and it developed from there.
When I saw that Whorls debuted at number one on the Billboard Bluegrass Charts, it made me think of the phrase ‘Hillbilly Jazz’ that Vassar Clements coined when he started to get more progressive with traditional music. When I think of your record, I don't know about hillbilly, but there’s a strong jazz influence. I’ve been really inspired by the new acoustic movement. You’ve got the folk influence, the classical influence and the jazz influence all coming together in this acoustic meld of styles. That’s the general drift I wanted to go in with that record.
Let me ask you about a couple of songs on the record. One that stands out to me is ‘At Home in the World,’ which you wrote about Daniel Pearl (the Wall Street Journal reporter who was kidnapped and slain by terrorists in Pakistan in 2002). What is your connection to him. Daniel Pearl was a fiddle player and he would bring his violin around the world with him on assignments, and he would join a musical group if he could, if he was there long enough. Friends of his talk about this musical side that allowed him not only to enjoy himself making music, but also connect with people, different communities and different cultures around the world. There is a violin maker named Jonathan Cooper from Portland, Maine, who made a violin for Daniel Pearl after he passed called the Daniel Pearl Memorial Violin. I was very fortunate to be the first recipient of the violin for a year and I have wanted to write a tune in his honor ever since.
That must have touched his family. Every now and then, we’ll meet some friends of Daniel’s or find a connection on the road. You really get a sense that he was a wonderful person. His parents founded the Daniel Pearl Foundation and there are the Daniel Pearl World Music Days in October – people dedicate performances around the world to talk about the importance of cross-cultural communication. It is a wonderful, energetic transformation for people to be honoring his life in those ways.
You were in the Boychoir of Ann Arbor. But ‘Waltz’ and ‘Nethermead’ mark the first time you’ve sung on a record. Were you just waiting for the right songs? I had these melodies and I wanted to bring them to life. They are both are based on these wistful, softly sung melodies, and I wanted to finish them into songs. I’ve always loved singing, and it’s wonderful to dive into that side of things. I’d love to work more with songwriters too. I’m a fan of all sorts of music, like most of us, and it’s great to take some steps in that direction.
Another thing that struck me about your record, it’s so layered and nuanced, with all the quiet notes and spaces in between. Do you feel most at home musically in the studio, or in a concert hall, or on a festival stage? That’s a great question. They are all just different ways of people coming together. The festival vibe can be great because it’s this temporary village where people come together to enjoy music and be with each other and be with nature. You also find listening audiences where you can have a lot of nuance. In a hall, if it sounds really beautiful and you’ve got a great crew, you can really dial it in. You have more flexibility, more time to really work on your sound and make that whole experience more enjoyable in a different kind of way.
Does live performance play a big part in the composition process for you? Live performance can really help in the development of the music. You can internalize the music much more than a rehearsal. You’re playing it with people, for people and the stakes are different than rehearsal. I know a number of bands who plan it that way, where they’ll make sure they do some touring before they go into the studio and record, even though it’s backwards from the standard where you go and tour your record after you record it.
It sounds like a great workout – you keep learning about the song. Totally, and then you get to go back and do some more work on it, arranging and structural work.
Was there a particular show or tour when you were younger where you made the decision to pursue music full-time? There was always a gentle leaning – a strong leaning, but gradual – into music, and I never really leaned away from it.
With respect to the music program in Saline and the Saline Fiddlers, how influential were they in your development? It was really influential. The community of the Fiddlers, the Fiddle Clubs, and (retired Orchestra Director) Bob Phillips and the classes. Having those experiences – improvising, learning by ear and having the chance to solo in front of audiences – it was an indispensable part of me leaning into music and I’m very grateful for it.
It’s traditional for the Fiddlers to perform a tune with their guest artist at their Hometown concert. Do you have anything you can share with us or do you want to keep it a secret until the day of the show? We are cooking up something together. They’re actually learning my fiddle hit – if a ‘fiddle hit’ is even a thing. It’s called ‘The Boxing Reels’ and it’s track two on Whorls.
Last question, and this is where we're going to rely on your professional experience. The Fiddlers are going to be performing at the Michigan Theater, opening for Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder on May 25. Oh, awesome.
Beyond tuning, do you have any advice you want to share with them? I would just say the more you put into something, the more you get out of it, so make it a personal milestone. That’s what I love about things like that. It’s just like, ‘Wow, this is a really cool opportunity. Let’s go for it. Let’s do something special. Let’s play our best. Let’s play better than we’ve ever played and challenge ourselves.’ It’s an awesome opportunity. I love that process. As they say, life is a process and music – whether it’s playing or just developing your own instrumental capabilities, whether it’s your writing, whether it’s recording – it’s all a process of learning. Yeah, go for it!