In the opening track of his new album “Songs of Snark & Despair,” award-winning local musician Seth Kibel wonders how some of the icons of the left would feel today living in the Trump era.
“What would John Lennon sing, if he were alive tonight?/How much wood would Woody Guthrie need to kill off the alt-right?/What words of inspiration would Dr. King preach?/What lofty ideals would he share?
“All I can do is write words of snark and despair”
A woodwind specialist and leader of such area bands as The Alexandria Kleztet and The Natty Beaux, Kibel was inspired to pen the lyrics and music for “Songs of Snark & Despair” in the aftermath of President Donald J. Trump’s victory last November.
The album – which is a fusion of rock, jazz, swing, reggae, blues, klezmer, soul and even traditional Russian folk music – features some of the area’s leading vocalists and musicians. Recorded at Takoma Park’s Asparagus Media Studios and released on the Azalea City Recordings label, “Songs of Snark & Despair” weaves dark humor and progressive political commentary to explore today’s political and cultural wars.
“Most of all, I just want people to hear these songs,” Kibel said in a fund-raising video he produced months ago for Kickstarter. “I think people will smile … and hopefully it will enable them to get through the next 3½ years and mobilize them to a little positive action and reaction as well.”
A quarter of the funds raised for the album via Kickstarter — a little more than $1,300 — will benefit the American Civil Liberties Union.
Jmore recently spoke to Kibel, 43, who lives in Sudbrook Park with his wife, Sandy Alexander, and their two children, about the album and his views on the current political landscape.
Jmore: Your new CD’s cover is a cartoon of you pointing a bow and arrow at a dinosaur with President Trump’s head, a la David and Goliath, and he looks pretty angry. You obviously weren’t aiming for subtlety.
Kibel: [Laughs] Well, most of the credit for the cover goes to the political cartoonist KAL [Kevin Kallaugher]. He’s a great guy and I’m a huge fan of his work. We have mutual friends, so I reached out to him and sent some demos and he liked it.
I just wanted Donald Trump on the cover, even though I knew some people might be offended.
I wanted truth in advertising. People should know that this is an anti-Trump album, and I think KAL did a pretty good job.
How is this CD different than your previous albums?
It’s very different than anything I’ve ever done in the past. It’s a political album and a vocal album, and I’m not a vocalist and in the past was never really much of a lyricist. The songs just came pretty quickly and I’ve never had that before. Usually, my album projects are slow to germinate.
But you were, shall we say, inspired by Election Night 2016.
Yes. After the election, I was, like a lot of people, in a state of shock and trying to process it all. I happened to be in Virginia, so I went into an Office Depot and bought a scribble notebook and started jotting down ideas and phrases. It’s cheaper than therapy [laughs]. After a day or two, I realized I could piece together those phrases and ideas into songs. I had the whole album written by the time of the inauguration. It’s pretty incredible to me because a year ago right now, none of these songs even existed in the slightest form.
Do you consider yourself a political person?
I’ve always been a political junkie and a history buff. But I’ve never been involved in politics. This is the first time I’ve melded [politics] into my music in any significant way.
How did the album come together so quickly?
All of these musicians I’ve worked with and known for years. So when I told them about the project, they were very enthusiastic and into it. Most of the recording was done in February and March. I am kind of surprised how quickly it all came together.
Musically, would you call it a fusion?
I always like to say I’m musically promiscuous. I work in a lot of genres of music. I’ve told people that it’s nominally roots-rock, although that’s not totally accurate. It’s a multi-genre political album that lyrically is somewhat reminiscent of Randy Newman.
Your favorite song on the CD?
If I had to pick one, it would be “Unfriend.” With “Diversity” and “Unfriend,” I was trying to write lyrically about something broader in our culture.
Were you concerned about writing such a topical album, especially considering the fluidity of the political scene today?
Yes. I kept worrying that I would get an alert on my phone saying that Trump resigned and the whole album would be ruined [laughs]. I didn’t want events to overtake the album, and I was a little nervous that might happen. I’m actually surprised that some of the songs are even more relevant now than when I wrote them.
Does the album have a Jewish sensibility?
I think that’s in there a bit. I don’t know if snark is necessarily a Jewish sensibility, but I think it’s there. Certainly the music has a Jewish flavor, although in some songs it’s more subtle than in others.
Did you worry about approaching such a serious topic in a humorous manner?
It did concern me. I got more serious with songs like “White Guilt” and “Corner.” Look, I’m a guy who makes jokes at funerals. But I tried to watch it and keep [the humor] in check.
What would our commander-in-chief think of your CD?
One of the musicians on the album said to me, “If Trump hears this, you’re gonna get sued!” I said to him, “From your lips to God’s ears!” [laughs] I’ve never read anything anywhere that suggests that he even listens to music. He doesn’t seem invested in the artistic world.
My only concern is to think I might alienate some of my fan base with this. I think most of my fan base and audiences are sympathetic [politically], but I’ve already received some criticism from people. I’ve had a few people unfriend me. I regret that, but I don’t regret this project. For me, it was worth the risk. Like I said, it was therapy for me.
Do you hope to change minds?
I seriously doubt it. I hope it makes some people on the left smile a little bit and not be too despondent about things, but I don’t expect Trump supporters to have a change of heart. I’m honest enough with myself to know I’m preaching to the choir.
I just wanted to focus my energy and dark sense of humor on something that could be remotely positive.
How do you expect the album to be viewed in years to come?
I think there will be a subset of people who enjoy the historical references. Maybe to some extent this will offer a different historical viewpoint to music lovers about the times we’re living in.
So much of contemporary music is apolitical, and that’s a shame. Music should not always be political and social commentary, but we need some music that addresses the issues of the day. That’s what I tried to do here.
Release parties for “Songs of Snark & Despair” will be held on Nov. 7 at the Bethesda Blues & Jazz Supper Club, 7719 Wisconsin Ave. in Bethesda, and on Nov. 30 at the Creative Alliance, 3134 Eastern Ave. in Baltimore.
In addition, Kibel will be among the performers at a benefit concert for victims of the Texas hurricane on Sunday, Sept. 3, at 7 p.m. The concert will be held at the Corner Community Center, 5802 Roland Ave., in Baltimore.
For information, visit sethkibel.com.
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