Dozens of rock stars have graced the basement recording studio of Kevin Bowe, a Linden Hills songwriter who recently put out his first solo album in nearly a decade.
Musicians like Paul Westerberg plug in amplifiers next to the laundry room and record songs.
“People always talk about the old days, but this is something much better about the new days. I can have a fully-functioning recording studio in my house for one-tenth as much money,” Bowe said. “It’s completely soundproof, and at 3 in the morning, my neighbor dude will never know.”
Bowe has written songs for artists like Jonny Lang, Etta James and Kenny Wayne Shepherd. So he had the luxury of calling in a few favors for his own record, called “Natchez Trace.” Guest performers include Wilco’s Nels Cline, Bob Dylan’s violinist Scarlet Rivera, and The Replacement’s Westerberg. (Westerberg lives nearby, and once snuck into Bowe’s backyard, wearing a fedora, to drop off a guitar gift. Bowe, in turn, has left recording equipment on Westerberg’s doorstep to encourage him to record new music.)
“This record is purely selfish,” Bowe said. “I just needed to carve out one thing for myself, because so much of the time I’m trying to please other people.”
Bowe said he has an addictive personality that keeps him busy. He has toured with The Replacements on guitar, and recently spent a day in Uptown’s Flowers Studio recording a few tracks to support the band’s original ailing guitarist. He teaches part-time at the Institute of Production & Recording. He plays in his own band, the Okemah Prophets, and he backs rock n’ roll artist Freedy Johnston, as well as Alison Scott, a soulful singer based at the Dakota Jazz Club. ESPN calls him every year to write a batch of instrumental songs.
When inspiration strikes
Ironically, Bowe’s hectic schedule leaves him little time to write music. He keeps a basement drawer stuffed full of post-its and notebook paper scrawled with song ideas. He also keeps a shredder nearby, in case he pulls out an idea so embarrassing it must be quickly destroyed.
“I have a kill ‘em all, count ‘em later attitude towards writing,” he said. “Whenever I have an idea I write it down and throw it in here, no matter what. … You can’t judge them right when they come out, otherwise nothing will ever come out.”
He pulled out one idea at random during this reporter’s visit:
“I don’t think it’s a title, but it’s a line, and it says, ‘You’re just a 5 o’clock shadow of your former self,’” he said. “Man, I’ve got to carve out some time to write. There are probably a thousand ideas in this drawer, and one-tenth of them are good like this.”
When it comes to songwriting, Bowe handles whatever an artist doesn’t want to do. He writes lyrics, or writes music, or engineers the track, or develops an idea.
“When I wrote my first song with him, I had never written with anyone else before,” said Alison Scott, explaining that she was nervous at first. “One of us brings an idea, and we sit in a room and hammer it all out. … When you work with somebody long enough, you can tell them they are a complete moron, or that’s a horrible idea.”
Bowe wrote the Top 5 single “Breakin’ Me” with Jonny Lang. Lang arrived with a piece of music, and Bowe wrote the lyrics based on Lang’s recent painful experience.
“He was 16 or 17, and he was feeling horrible because he had a little girlfriend, and he had apparently kissed another girl,” Bowe said. “He was tortured about it.”
Lang’s manager also managed Lynyrd Skynyrd for a time, and Bowe was surprised to get a request one day to write songs with the band. They flew him out to Florida, spent two days songwriting, and the band recorded one of them.
“Look at me. I’m an aging, Jewish punk rocker. I am the least likely person to go write songs with Lynyrd Skynyrd,” Bowe said. “But that’s the great thing about being a songwriter. You can be such a chameleon and get into such strange rooms like that.”
Bowe’s biggest songwriting achievement might be the four songs he contributed to Etta James’ Grammy-winning album, “Let’s Roll.” He said he always enjoyed laughing with her backstage at shows.
“That’s the best thing about this job — I think if you talk to anybody who’s been in music for a long time — is the stories,” Bowe said.
Bowe didn’t set out to become a songwriter. He started out playing in his own band, hoping to make it big, during the Minneapolis punk rock scene of the ‘80s. Bowe said he isn’t prone to nostalgia, but he fondly remembers using his student loans to buy a Les Paul and a motorcycle, with enough money left over to attend school while working part-time. Local acts Hüsker Dü and The Replacements were equivalent to the Beatles and the Stones in the American punk rock scene, he said. Minneapolis felt like the center of the musical universe — tickets to see Prince were $3, and you could even find street parking.
David Z, the producer behind Prince, saw Bowe perform and asked for a cassette tape.
“He took one of my songs and put it on Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s first album, and it went platinum,” Bowe said. “That was when I quit my day job.”
Bowe had worked a string of jobs like construction and waiting tables. But he didn’t seem to be particularly proficient at any of them.
“I’d been fired from so many places,” he said. “I’m so lucky that I finally found something I’m good at.”
David Z wasn’t the only one who appreciated Bowe’s work — his wife, Ruth Whitney Bowe, co-founded the Fine Line Music Café. Bowe played on the venue’s inaugural night.
Ruth said they met at the club, and a month later, he finally asked her out.
“He always says, ‘I picked her up at a bar,’” she said.
Ruth works in real estate, and she has some impressive music credits of her own. Prince appreciated her work at the Fine Line, and asked her to build him the Glam Slam nightclub (currently the Downtown site of Epic).
Today, Ruth and Kevin are working to open a venue called “The Lost Chord,” which would function as a school by day and occasional music venue by night. They have considered Southwest locations like the Suburban World Theatre and Lyndale Theater, and are currently focusing their site search in Northeast Minneapolis.
Ruth said she is proud of her husband’s album.
“I’ve been telling him for the past five years that he needs to get this album out, it’s so great,” she said. “It’s gotten better and better over the years. The people coming through town have really made it special.”
While the album was being mixed, Westerberg, one of the album’s contributors, lounged on the basement couch and listed to the record, start-to-finish.
“I’m sitting here, just waiting — because there is someone’s opinion I will listen to — and he said, ‘Look at this, actual goose bumps. Play it again,’” Bowe said.
Bowe has looked at real estate in Los Angeles and Nashville, places that would move him closer to the action in the music industry. But he decided to stay in Minneapolis. He couldn’t even afford to live in Compton, he said, and Nashville was affordable but not quite grounded.
“I felt like I was always going to be pulling up to a stoplight and looking over to my right, and there’s a guy in a Hummer, who’s doing way better than me,” he said. “I don’t want to spend my life trying to write country songs to get on the radio. That would be fun, but it would feel like living next to a tornado, you’d just get sucked into that vortex. Whereas in Minneapolis, I think people can be more themselves.”
Bowe usually performs in support of other artists, but he has a few gigs of his own on the calendar. One is a “Rock the Cause” Halloween gig Nov. 3 at a Cedar Lake mansion. Another is a Cities 97-sponsored event at the Crooked Pint Ale House on Nov. 16.
Bowe considers himself lucky that he hasn’t worked a day job in 20 years.
“It took a lot of work and commitment and crazy stubbornness. Most people would have and should have given up,” he said. “I think for most people, even in the music business, music is like a room they walk through on their way to what their life is really going to be. For me, I walked into the music room and stayed there for the whole rest of my life.”
To hear songs from the new album, visit kevinbowe.com.