Cameron Kinghorn: In the court of musical royalty

Cameron Kinghorn leads R&B group Nooky Jones on stage at the Dakota. Photo by Susan Schaefer

The economic impact of the creative arts in Minneapolis astonishes. Estimated at over $4.5 billion in sales, or eight times that of Minneapolis’ sports sector according to the 2015 Creative Vitality Index (CVI), an economic measure used by the city, it has earned our region a lofty place as a national creative mecca.

Behind such stunning statistics toil humans whose creativity and innovation fuel this so-called creative class, dubbed by author Richard Florida. Frequently laboring for the sheer love of their craft, many visual and performing artists, directors, inventors and innovators produce from an inner creative core more likely fueled by passion than personal gain. These makers are marked by an almost holy drive to create – and when their artistry and intent collide, it often yields something extraordinary in its wake.

Royal roots

Literature buffs are used to Victorian novelists attaching aptronyms (self-descriptive names) to their characters. But sometimes this happens in real life. Take the case of South Minneapolis resident and multi-talented musician Cameron Kinghorn. His appellation, King Horn, genuinely approximates his musical roots and ongoing ventures.

Music runs deep in Kinghorn’s veins. Playing piano since he was 5, he added trumpet in his sixth grade band as a bit of a teenage defiance to his mother’s wishes.

“My mom hoped I’d be a saxophone player, but in true teenage fashion I opted to play anything but,” he grins. Still, he became a master of his horn of choice — and notably, of his own golden pipes — his voice.

Kinghorn. Photo by Susan Schaefer
Kinghorn. Photo by Susan Schaefer

His was a musical family. “My mom and sister both have beautiful voices and I have been singing since I was a kid,” he relates. “My earliest memories are accompanying my mom to church choir rehearsal and occasionally sitting in.”

Kinghorn’s engagement in musical theater during middle school was transformative, offering him the thrill of performing in front of large audiences. “Because I suffer from some pretty severe performance anxiety,” he admits, this experience kindled his deep desire to perform.

When the University of Minnesota recently conferred a posthumous doctorate to Prince, Kinghorn was summoned to be a member of the treasured vocal tribute. You could say he is rightly a King in the Prince’s court. This wasn’t the first time he had been called upon to honor Prince.

In June 2017, when thousands of shocked fans gathered to mourn Prince’s untimely death and to celebrate his life, Kinghorn ascended the stage outside of Frist Avenue in what’s been termed “a jaw-dropping” moment when he sung Prince’s classic, “How Come U Don’t Call me Anymore?” hitting precisely the right tone and tenor with his falsetto voice, hushing the crowd into silent reverence, a feat he’s replicated during his yearly holiday show cameos with The New Standards at The State Theater.

From the halls of learning to center stage

The rise of his current venture, Nooky Jones, with his two hot horn-playing collaborators, trumpeter Adam Meckler and trombonist Scott Agster, bolsters the King of Horns mythos. A sound check at recent Nooky Jones gig at the Dakota showcased beyond measure the power of the horns to propel the band’s unique mixture of sounds and influences.

Along with Kinghorn as front man and vocalist, Meckler and Agster are Kevin Gastonguay on keyboards, Andrew Foreman on bass and Reid Kennedy on drums. I asked Kinghorn to describe the sound of a band that has been called soul, R&B, funky and jazzy.

“I always like to start with soul,” he declares. “My biggest influences come out of this genre — Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Aretha. My falsetto comes by way of D’Angelo and Bilal, which comes by way of Prince. And there are vibes from Erykah Badu.

“These artists make the listener feel good in all the right ways, and that’s the style we’re going for — smooth, playful, sexy and authentic.”

During the Nooky Jones first set at the Dakota this particular evening, jazz was a decisive undercurrent. My fellow audience members were riding all the grooves. Richard Doten, owner of LaDoten Custom Guitars, a local business, waxed nostalgic about Nooky Jones and Kinghorn in particular. “He takes me back to ’60s R&B,” he noted in his own resonant voice.

Sue and Don Houge, formerly of Excelsior and now jubilant downtown dwellers explain: “We saw Kinghorn perform at Orchestra Hall and the Target Center and here. Now we book tickets whenever he’s performing here.”

Across from us, Brandon Clayton, a tenor saxophonist in the top jazz band at the University of Minnesota, where he got to know Kinghorn, bathed our table in enthusiasm as he effused about Kinghorn’s talent and future, explaining that he tries to make as many gigs as possible.

Kinghorn’s appeal and multi-genre style reflect his solid, multi-faceted musical background.

“When I entered the music education program in college, much of my coursework revolved around classical music,” he explains. “But I fell in with some musicians through jazz band, and we formed a party band called The Tasty Tones that played soul, R&B and pop tunes at house parties.

“That’s when I really fell in love with being a front person. It was then I truly experienced the joy of being able to curate other people’s fun and the performance anxiety I’d been struggling with up until that point basically evaporated.”

It was at the U that Kinghorn and Meckler forged their bond.

“I met Adam while he was getting his masters and I was getting my bachelors. We were in trumpet studio and jazz band together, and I looked up to him as an incredible musician and composer,” Kinghorn explains.

Meckler invited Kinghorn to join his Adam Meckler Orchestra, a modern jazz big band that he leads and writes for. “Thankfully, I overcame my nerves and agreed to join. Shortly after a return from a gig in New Orleans, Meckler and drummer Reid Kennedy dreamed up an R&B and soul band and approached me at a rehearsal proclaiming: ‘I’m starting a band and you’re going to sing in it.’”

And that, as the cliché goes, is Nooky Jones history. The three began serious work on songwriting, and once they completed ample tunes they assembled the rest of the band.

Curating fun, cultivating domesticity

To behold Kinghorn whip up the passion of the dazzled damsels attests to his innate showmanship. Such remarkable and spellbinding talent portends a bright future. The Dakota audience was rocking and grooving and sighing and dancing, leaving no doubt that Kinghorn has just the right chops to “curate” an evening of pure musical abandon.

The pleasure of this raucous scene was a far cry from my first meeting with Kinghorn at a funeral of the grandfather of his longtime partner, Ella Masters, whose extended family has been my Minnesota family of choice for over 25 years. In private, Kinghorn indeed comes across as a shy and a gentle soul, an impression that’s never wavered over the past years as we’ve gathered at various family celebrations.

He met Masters at the U where both played in the jazz bands. Kinghorn relates a warm-hearted story of their early courtship: “While Ella’s version of events paints me as calm, cool and collected, I am actually fairly shy, so she made the first move, inviting me to a party at her house. We were hitting it off and when I found out that it was only a few minutes until her birthday, I got the party to sing her Happy Birthday. That was six years ago.”

Watching dozens of young women swoon at the Dakota, I wondered how a rising performing artist maintains a solid relationship.

“Being a performer is one facet of my identity, and it does garner a lot of attention, but there are other facets that are equally important to me,” Kinghorn admits. “Sharing those with Ella is a big part of what’s deepened our relationship. But of course it does still require checking in with each other regularly.”

Part of Kinghorn’s ability to balance life in the limelight alongside dedicated domesticity may stem from his unusual Minnesota upbringing. His family is devoutly Mormon, and he was highly involved in the church growing up. Eventually, he began questioning his faith and ultimately decided not to continue practicing.

The challenges of being an outsider are known to forge character, and Kinghorn’s youth was staunchly outside the mainstream. His mixed race, Mormon family stood apart in his childhood community of Circle Pines, Minnesota, which was overwhelmingly Caucasian and Christian.

“While we grew up in an area with a lot of privilege, obviously not all layers of privilege were available to us as a mixed-race family,” he reflects. “I think as a result my siblings and I have all developed our own ways of being vocal about the things that matter to us.”

His older sister Andrea is completing her doctorate studying family structures in urban communities at Northwestern University, and his younger brother Chris is in medical school at The Ohio State University. Kinghorn’s parents now live just outside San Diego, where his dad is a patent attorney who recently started working as a CEO and president of a medical device company, and his mom is happy going back to school to get her Bachelors.

“I’m fortunate that my family is supportive of the direction my life and career have taken,” he acknowledges.

Nooky Jones and beyond

A week after my front-and-center seat for Nooky Jones’ wildly successful sold-out concerts at the Dakota, I perched front row, center balcony at Minneapolis’ venerable Orchestra Hall, where Kinghorn plied his backup singing for Minnesota’s other musical royalty, “Queen” Dessa and her equally talented lady-in-waiting, Aby Wolf.

As one of Dessa’s and, separately, Aby Wolf’s anointed backup singers, along with multiple other guest gigs, Kinghorn must judiciously manage his time and musical commitments.

“I always jump at the opportunity to work with other artists, and I’ve been lucky to work with a lot of incredibly talented people. Throughout my career I’ve had to make a lot of tough decisions around where I’m going to commit my time. I’m still figuring out that balance to this day,” he confides. Inevitably, as his singular identity grows, he will need to become increasingly strategic.

Recently, he performed with Aby Wolf’s Champagne Confetti at the local art space Public Functionary and participated in a weeklong residency with that project in Duluth. He flew to San Francisco the last week of October to play trumpet with a band called Mild High Club with whom he got to perform at the celebrated Coachella gathering in California this year, “which was an incredible experience,” Kinghorn remarks.

Here at home, be sure to catch Kinghorn performing at the legendary The New Standards’ annual Holiday Show at the State Theater, Dec. 7 and 8. Nooky Jones is in the studio recording new music and will be putting on their yearly Soulful Soirée at Icehouse at the end of December.

Photo by Susan Schaefer
Photo by Susan Schaefer