From the dark, perpetually rain-slicked streets of Cleveland, Ohio comes a new sound, one inspired as much by film noir, pulp fiction, and the gritty textures of their post-industrial hometown as the myriad musical influences that flow through their songs, the sound of Kiss Me Deadly.
Their debut album, ‘What You Do In The Dark,’ stands as the culmination of the years of battling to rise through the miasmic Cleveland music scene by singer-songwriter-guitarist-mandolinist- glockenspieler-mistress of the electric bouzouki –notorious femme fatale, Jen Poland. Raised in a musical family surrounded by guitars, fiddles and banjos, Jen began her musical career in the coffee houses around Kent State University.
After decisively rejecting her folk heritage, she formed the band Poland Invasion, which became a fixture of the Cleveland underground with their electro-mandolin fueled rock sound. The band included Evan Lieberman who had moved to Cleveland from Atlanta by way of Los Angeles to run the newly formed Film Program at Cleveland State University. An AFI-trained screenwriter as well as an award winning director and cinematographer, all Evan really wanted to do was play bass as he had done for popular Athens, Georgia ska-rockers, The Little Tigers, gender-bending L.A. noise band, Glue, and Blues legend Blind Joe Hill.
After going through other band members at a fairly rapid clip, they came upon Madelyn Hayes, a drummer with a powerful, soulful voice like a post hip-hop Aretha Franklin. The sound they had been looking for was finally realized, and it is this sound that can be heard on ‘What You Do In The Dark.’ Smart, tuneful songwriting with lyrics that are equally heartfelt and passionate whether Jen and Madelyn are singing about the karmic retribution due those who have done them wrong (Ladykillers, Agent, Crawl), the inspiring characters who surround them (Fire, P$, Sherry Don’t Hide the Rum), or the social issues that concern them (Drone, Shallow Focus).
‘What You Do In The Dark’ is a movie for the ears. It is about the strange place we find ourselves in 2015 – a place of surveillance and paranoia, of double-dealing and backstabbing competition, a place where despair and alienation make it so hard to find love and connection and where music may be our best hope for deliverance. A place called Cleveland. A band called Kiss Me Deadly. Produced by the band along with Chris Keffer, the 10-song treatise (plus two bonus tracks) is an exploration of groove-infused film noir pop. Imagine mellifluous muscle lassoing a jangly wave of moody surfer rock and you’re on your way to the precipice of visceral melodies that keep you company as they kiss you deadly.
Hot on the heels of releasing their debut album, the band has announced a two-week fifteen city North American tour from June 27 – July 11. Kicking off in Cleveland, with a daytime appearance at the Waterloo Arts Fest, the tour then heads to the East coast (Pittsburgh, DC, Baltimore, Philly, NYC, Boston, Providence, Burlington) before a trio of Canadian dates (Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto) and a final leg in Detroit, Ann Arbor and Toledo.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Jen Poland to discuss her musical roots and influences, the formation of Kiss Me Deadly, the players involved, what went into bringing their debut album, ‘What You Do In The Dark,’ to life and much more!
I wanted to start by going back to your early years. What are your first memories of music?
Strangely enough, my first memories are of music. I grew up in a musical family where my late Uncle Bill traveled the country playing in bluegrass bands and would always stop by to play with my mom and dad. He would play the guitar, fiddle, or banjo with my mom on guitar and my father on harmonica and they would sing in harmony. I spottily remember these visits as I was ages 1-4. Eventually, by the time I was in 4th grade, my Uncle Bill settled down and would come by every Wednesday and play with my parents. My parents would send my sister and I to bed but we would always sneak out of our rooms and hang out in the hallway behind the clothes hamper to listen to the music. Being that my mother already had her own vintage D18 Martin guitar, when my uncle passed, I inherited his 1969 D18 acoustic Martin guitar and most of the songs that I have written are originally crafted using that instrument.
Was there a particular moment where you knew a career in music was something you had to pursue?
This question made me think quite a bit. I have always had a drive and passion for playing music, even to the point where, when I formed a music group at Kent in my undergrad, I had to be reminded that not everyone operates with such a drive to play. I then dated a guy for a few years and tried to play with a group of his chauvinist friends. If somehow I was able to even jam with them, every time I would try to take a solo on guitar, they would cut me off. “Cutting heads” they called it, and if you couldn’t cut a head, you couldn’t get a solo. That’s when I decided to learn how to play mandolin. I came back to the group and took my solos as the higher pitch instrument would “cut” through the guitar solos. Plus the sight of the “baby guitar” as the girlfriends of these guys would call it, stirred up enough interest from people watching, they had to let me have a go.
I tried to get my boyfriend at the time to play in public with me at an open mic. He would do no such thing. Finally I convinced him to go to an open mic an hour’s drive away where none of his friends could see him in public playing with me. When I finally ditched this sexist boyfriend just a short time later, and was sleeping on friends couches, the only place I knew to go to was back out an hour’s drive to Rider’s Inn. As a solo performer I was a nervous, panic attack mess and had to start somewhere familiar. I would hyperventilate in the bathroom every time I went there, struggle through a set, and torturously battle with my social anxiety in hopes of making connections. I somehow overcame this challenge and realized that I am a musician who NEEDS to perform and I will tackle all odds to do it. It was actually quite liberating to learn that about myself and accept that quality as both a blessing and a curse.
Who were the artists or mentors who had a big impact on you as a performer?
Jim Snively was and is the open mic host at Rider’s Inn, the first place I started playing in the Cleveland area. His open mic has been a launching pad for many local Cleveland musicians, and I am proud to be one of them. He took a liking to me, though I was quite rough around the edges then, and even asked the groups that were already formed at the open mic to welcome and accept me. Eventually a group of four singer songwriters did form with Ben Barr as the front man. This group was called the Ben Barrs.
Ben Barr saw me jam with him at the open mic on my mandolin and decided to try me out as a rock mandolinist in his band. Here I learned about PA systems, amplifiers, and pedal boards. I learned how to electrify my sound and how to book shows. These lessons were significant to take me from an aspiring acoustic open mic player to an electrified member of a band with the essential skills of booking shows, making promotional fliers, and working social media. What I learned from my time in the Ben Barrs gave me the skills I needed to start my own band.
How did did Kiss Me Deadly originally form?
Kiss Me Deadly originally formed after the Ben Barrs broke up, and I was horribly heart broken. In addition to the breakup of the band, I was told to find a different group of musicians to play with other than the Painsville/Rider’s Inn crew, which was quite large and the only set of musical connections that I had developed. Devastated, I played my guitar incessantly, so much so that my fingers bled, wrote cathartic songs, and began my search for people to start my own band.
This search proved to be harder than I thought. The only people I was finding who had interest were boys who didn’t seem to take me seriously. Most of them would come to my house for an “Audition” and think it was a date in disguise. Sometimes they wouldn’t even bring their instruments! There were several occurrences in which these boys would wait until the others had left the practice space and then perform the “helicopter,” a charming move in which the male pulls out his genitalia and swings it in a rapid circular motion. It must be a musician thing I guess. Eventually I found 3 boys who, even though I had to lay down some serious “no farting in small enclosed spaces” rules, seemed to take me and my songs seriously.
What can you tell us about what went into crafting the band’s unique vibe and sound?
The sound of the band is a combination of my songwriting style and rocker voice, Madelyn’s soulful voice and musically crafted drum beats, and Evan’s funky/groovy bass. The songs in the writing format are forged out of a raw emotion that is usually dark in nature but is transformed into something upbeat/poppy/funky to listen to, leaving the heavy parts as an undertone to add a vein of mood and mystery. Some songs delve more into the haunting aspect of these emotions and concepts, while others funk it up, pop it up, or punk it up. The constantly harmonizing female vocals bring a vibe of soothing melodious sounds as the band rages behind the vocals, pumping up the energy, and keeping it rocking. In the end, the sound is a juxtaposition of serious content with upbeat music, and enchanting vocals with driving instrumentation.
How has the band evolved since its formation?
The band has had several incarnations before we found the right formula. Out of all the people who spent some time playing with the band only Evan was an accomplished musician. Most of the people who started playing with me were novices, some never even playing before. I had a habit of finding green people and training them. Some of these people learned from me and went off to start their own bands, and some of these people really weren’t musicians to begin with. As soon as the band found Madelyn though, our line-up became solid and the evolution of the sound really began. With Madelyn’s awesome voice, I could write more complex vocal parts and she could find interesting harmonies. Additionally, she writes drum parts like a creative musician, not like a little boy throwing a temper tantrum, which unfortunately describes several (meaning all) of our previous drummers. In this formation, each song we write takes on its own personality and our music evolves with every practice.
For those who may just be discovering the band, how would you describe your sound and what you do musically?
We are a 3 piece indie pop rock group with a soulful and funky flavor. We are made up of guitar/mandolin, drums, and bass, focusing on strong female co-lead and harmonizing vocals with an uplifting groove. I write songs from experiences and emotions that I feel that I can’t describe in other ways.
What can you tell us about the players and what each brings to the table?
Madelyn Hayes brings a soulful voice and musically crafted drum beats, while Evan Lieberman brings a cross between the sophistication of music theory and the raw energy of 1970 Atlanta punk. I add my symphonic cries of poetic songwriting to make the complete package of Kiss Me Deadly.
You just released your debut album, ‘What You Do In The Dark.’ Did you have any particular goals or expectations for this album going into this record?
Going into this record, we had no idea that we would get picked up by Todd Kwait and signed to Kingswood Records who have given us to much support. Things have really changed from when we began making this record, to now how we plan to work this record. Now that we have the support of Kingswood Records, it motivates us to get the record out there and see what happens.
What can you tell us about your songwriting process?
I have written in many ways, from pure raw emotion to careful conceptualized orchestration. ‘What You Do In The Dark’ was written as I played and cried and strummed real hard trying to let my emotions out and what came out was the song that is now the title track of our CD. “Stalemate” was written as I played around with a delay pedal and wrote the guitar riff. An old guitarist Joey Nix wrote the guitar riff to “Agent” and I wrote the lyrics on a clipboard as I paced my classroom one day administering practice standardized tests. “P$” was written for my Thesis Advisor, who was a Doctor of Video Games, and passed away while I was under his tutelage. I wrote the chorus after a quote that he has said as he crippled a young boy in “Guitar Hero.” I wrote the bridge of the song to thematically represent his life in Mario Brothers sound effects played on analog instruments. Mostly I use my guitar to write songs except for “Shallow Focus” which I used Glockenspiel but mostly I play an instrument and come up with the words and melody together. Madelyn writes lyrics and a melody and then brings her songs to the rest of us to play music.
You worked along from Chris Keffer on this release. What did he bring the table form the project and what did you take away from your time working together?
Chris Keffer was amazing to work with. He brought all kinds of great ideas to the project- anywhere from knowing what microphone to get the best sound for Madelyn’s and my voices to creatively using the strum of piano strings to make a transition smoother in a song. We all worked creatively as a group and he would not only entertain all ideas that any of us had, even if some people had doubt, he would make it happen so we could test what he calls “proof of concept.” He has made over 900 records with musicians, I keep trying to say our record was his one thousandth, and his expertise both as a technician and an artist was inspiring, infectious, and elevating.
I took a great deal away from our time working with Chris. I found that I really enjoy writing in the studio! I had some concepts for Drone and some basic ideas I wanted to add to the ambiance of Drone to make it spooky and robotic. I am a very thematic writer and I wanted to create a soundscape that told a story in the music. I wanted a drone radio voice, the sound of bees, an old west gun trumpet sound, and the sound of marching boots. Even though no one else could hear what I had going on inside my head, Chris made it happen and to everyone’s surprise, he mixed up a great haunting soundscape that helps tell the story of Drone.
Which songs from the album resonate with you the most at the moment?
I always like “Lady Killers,” which is essentially about cutting leeches and lames out of your life. To make sure the people who are around you are supportive and caring. I always like singing “It’s good not to see you, It’s good not to be you, I never did need you, and now I have freed you, and it’s good. It’s so good.” It’s also a reminder that life has become better with the removal of the negative people. I also really like “Sherry Hides the Rum” just because it’s a true story and I think it’s funny. The names have not been changed for protection, so if that song ever gets significant radio play, and Sherry or company ever hear it, I may get some lawyers trying to call me up.
As a songwriter, where do you find yourself looking for inspiration these days?
I find inspiration in social issues and personal issues. I often sing walking down the streets of downtown Cleveland walking to and from work. I sing about how I can’t become friends with some of the Muslim women who live in my apartment building because I can not recognize them by their face. I sing about people I think are sexy, I sing about people who are incredibly stupid, I sing about deception and lies and heartbreak, I sing about sexism, being an underdog, and goofy stuff that I feel in moment. I always hear stories about songwriters who claim that the songs they write are not close to their heart.
Did you learn any valuable lessons for your time in this project that you will take with you to future projects?
I don’t think we are done learning about this project yet. The recording part might be over but the project is now being publicised and we are touring around to push it. Also, we have another part of this project that will not be finished until the end of this summer which is the What You Do In The Dark silent neo film noir that will play along with the songs on the CD. I will say however, I am learning patience. I am a “Let’s get ‘er done right now god damn it” kind of person and I have tempered to let some things grow organically. That isn’t to say that I no longer stoke the fire to get things going, I have just learned to be nicer doing it sometimes, if I have time.
You are about to hit the road in support of the album. What goes into preparing for a tour?
• Look at the map and decide where you wanna go
• Write to the venues in each town and get booked
• Write to bands in the towns to book the shows after you land the venue
• Find a documentarian to travel with us and film our tour
• Buy a band van, complete maintenance to get it road ready, and name it
• Book hotels
• Promote each show in each town
• Go shopping for extra strings, cords, dollies, cases, and other gear related materials
• Hair cuts
• Clothes shopping and new contacts
• Cash for tolls
• Make/bring great merch display
• Quarters for the laundromat
• Bring extracurricular supplies
• Practice practice practice
What can we expect from your live performance?
What you can expect from our performances is we won’t leave an ounce of energy on the stage. Chris Keffer wrote us this piece of advice recently while wishing us well on our tour.
As a musician, what musical ground are you still very interesting in exploring?
I am interested in making soundscapes and musical arrangements that tell a story almost completely with the sound. Every sound has a meaning and tells a story and I love to put narrative elements on the movement of a song that matches the lyrical content and general musical vibe. Also, recently I have been listening to a lot of 80s-90s hip hop and we have been watching rap contests with our friend Herb-Funky. We are thinking about doing a song with a feature spot of Hip Hop and maybe some harmonizing raps.
How do you feel you have most evolved as an artist since first starting out?
My skills have hopefully improved as I have been playing around the Cleveland scene these last few years. I hope that my songwriting continues to evolve and change as I continue to write songs and hopefully make future records. I suppose I started out probably like many singer songwriters; sitting in my house crying tears on my acoustic guitar and sobbing at some heartfelt pain I was dealing with in the moment and now I am able to lead a band, make a record, and go on tour. There’s lots of stuff that happens in between crying in your living room and hitting the road with a record. I think where I feel I have evolved the most is the non musical things that come along with being a musician these days. Learning how to book shows, publicise and promote, establish a look on stage, set up an entire stage, run sound, troubleshoot electrical/sound problems, technical aspects of amps and speakers and gear, building confidence to talk to audiences, work social media, make music videos, make musical connections, and support the local music community in any way we can have been the real places of learning and evolution. I still sometimes cry on my guitar when I write though, so I guess its really about adding to the skill set and evolving into a more industry knowledgeable musician.
What is the best piece of advice you can pass along to someone who wants to pursue a career in music? Is there a lesson we can learn from your journey so far?
Hard work, persistence, and luck. Practice a couple times a week, get out there and play, connect with the community, make connections, record your music and hope that your hard work will put you in a position to get lucky. Meeting Todd Kwait from Kingswood Records was a strange circumstance of luck that has afforded Kiss Me Deadly the ability to record our first record and tour. We had been playing together for a few years and had cut a single, and Todd liked the single. Work hard and get yourself out there for luck to find you.
Any other thoughts before we go our separate ways?
KISS ME DEADLY TOUR DATES
6/27 – Cleveland, OH @ Waterloo Arts Fest
6/27 – Akron, OH @ Highland Tavern (10pm)
6/28 – Pittsburgh, PA @ Smiling Moose
6/29 – Washington D.C. @ Treehouse Lounge
7/01 – Philadelphia, PA @ The Grape Room
7/02 – New York, NY @ Pianos
7/03 – Providence, RI @ Firehouse 13
7/04 – Boston, MA @ The Midway
7/05 – Burlington, VT @ Monkey House
7/06 – Montreal, CAN @ Bar Pub-St Denis
7/07 – Ottawa, CAN @ Pressed Cafe
7/08 – Toronto, CAN @ The Smiling Buddah
7/09 – Detroit, MI @ Smalls
7/10 – Toledo, OH @ House Concert
7/11 – Cleveland, OH @ Becky’s Bar
Kiss Me Deadly – What You Do In the Dark