It was a triumphant night in Belfast for David Kitt. The room had fed off the music coming from the stage; the artists on stage had reciprocated. Kitt had come to the city with his new album, Yous, but the night had been shared between this latest addition to the David Kitt catalogue, and songs that have tracked the 18 years since his 2001 debut, Small Moments.
The sold-out show was in one of Belfast’s special places. Duncairn Arts Centre, the deconsecrated church in the north of the city that acts as a rabbit-hole into the arts for a community that bore the brunt of our recent history. It’s important that Duncairn lures the truly talented to perform here, just outside the flourishing downtown artsy quarters and established venues, to play in the heart of a community.
At one point Kitt pulled the crowd back nearly a musical decade with a vaguely hypnotic version of No Truth in Your Eyes from 2009’s The Nightsaver. By the end of the song, after a spontaneous repetition of the chorus from the floor, the crowd were on their feet, hollering and applauding, making it known. “This is good for morale,” Kitt had told us. We spent another minute or so working on his morale before we sat down.
Yous is Kitt’s evocative sixth studio album and comprises of songs “about kind of Irishness, or a certain kind of predicament that wasn’t really about me,” he explained over the phone a few days after the Belfast gig. Even the title has a certain ‘spoken in Ireland’ sense to it. The mood, the sound, is that of David Kitt, the singer-songwriter and musician, accompanied by electronic beats, and the vocals and violin of Margie Jean Lewis. Initially intended for a quiet, low-key release, these plans changed after a conversation Kitt had with his New Jackson label manager at All City Records. “I asked him for some help putting it out,” Kitt recalled. “I was saying it’s probably not an All City record because All City is more of a beats label. New Jackson suits it, but I never thought David Kitt would. He was like: ‘What are you talking about? I love this’ … So we said: ‘Let’s put this out on All City.’”
Released in March, Yous appeared nine years after its predecessor, The Nightsaver. The intervening years have seen Kitt working as a fulltime member of alt-rock/chamber pop outfit Tindersticks. He has been working as a producer, and he has taken on the musical persona of New Jackson in a thriving shift of direction towards house music and techno, extending the work to radio shows and DJ sets. Indeed one New Jackson album, From Night to Night, has already been nominated for Ireland’s Choice Music Prize.
“It’s more like a lottery in terms of the response and the level of attention that you get,” he continued as we mulled over the couple of decades that have made up David Kitt’s musical career; albeit a career in different guises, with different monikers, and collaborators. During this time Kitt has reached number one in the Irish charts, he has achieved double platinum sales in Ireland, and he has toured with the likes of Arab Strap, David Gray, and Television.
The nine-year break between albums was as practical as it was psychological. “The reality of music is that it is very very hard to make a living. I’m not under any illusions that way.” Eventually, Kitt found himself in the position that he was asking: “Right, this isn’t really working out – what the f*** am I going to do?”
It was at that point that Tindersticks approached him to join the band. “That was a real lifesaver in so many ways. Even just to have a bit of income, but also for my confidence I suppose.” Musically it was an important boost. “I think maybe out of that came the New Jackson stuff. There was something I just kind of got out of it, you know? Tindersticks are such true artists. Stuart Staples in particular is a very focused, no compromise artist. [He’s] consistent and really follows their true artistic path… and they’re a gang as well, which is really inspiring.”
Taking this time helped Kitt refocus. “I’m 42 and there’s not necessarily as much of an appetite for the next 42-year-old singer songwriter as there is for the next 25-year-old singer songwriter.” He was candid, matter of fact. “I guess these days it’s more that I’m definitely more focused on the actual career side of it, because it’s kind of now or never. When you’re younger maybe you just float, and you don’t quite know what you’re doing… but as you get older you probably get better at recognising those things, and surrounding yourself with the right people, and approaching your music for the right reasons.”
His time with Tindersticks has impacted on the direction he is now taking with his music. “That’s fed back into my own approach to my work, and New Jackson came out quite naturally… [going] back to doing something that I didn’t really have any expectations for. It was really quite a private thing… reconnecting with a certain part of my music experience from my late teens and early twenties.”
Reconnecting with what was inspiring him in his youth has paid dividends on various levels. A recent New Jackson gig in Limerick sold out hundreds of tickets in less than an hour. “Whereas at my last gig singing songs in Limerick [as David Kitt] I played to 30 people.” Looking at it from a purely business point of view it’s a no-brainer. “Maybe you’d be an idiot to keep chasing two different things when you could focus on one, and potentially actually build something that could, for the first time ever, actually make you a decent living and focus your creative energy.”
If only things were that clear cut though. “After the first two gigs of this tour I was like: ‘You know what? I’m not doing David Kitt stuff anymore. I’m just going to do New Jackson and I’m going to use up all my songs for that. What’s the point?’ Then you do something like [the gig in Duncairn] Belfast, and you think: ‘Oh, then there is a point.’”
However, the delineation between David Kitt and New Jackson is not prohibitive and songs can shift between his musical personas according to Kitt’s imagination. “There is no clear line between the two, it morphs and changes.” Indeed, there are two tracks on new album Yous that started out as New Jackson songs. Made it Mine for example, “that kind of evolved over two years of playing it live as a New Jackson song”. It was initially sung through a vocoder (speech synthesiser). “So, you couldn’t really hear the lyrics,” he recalled. “I kind of developed the lyrics on that as I was singing a stream of consciousness into the vocoder. Then the song slowly became apparent.
“The vocoder frees me up in terms of committing to words,” he explained. “[It] frees me up in terms of having to say anything at all. It could be gobbledygook, you know what I mean? And sometimes it is, but it’s gobbledygook that’s quite expressive… It means I can sing about stuff that I wouldn’t necessarily be wanting people to hear, which is interesting, and is kind of liberating… It’s more about the sound of the words and how the sound of your voice interacts with the actual vocoder itself. Using broad and slender vowel sounds, frequencies, and pulses.”
At Duncairn in Belfast, Kitt ended the show with a new track, Wave Of Peace, that had swept the room up in its wake as the song was blown from the stage. It’s a song that touches on the personal, as well as wider issues. “That’s going to be on the next record,” he told me. David Kitt or New Jackson? I ask. “I think it’s a David Kitt. It’s one of those classics when I think: ‘That’s a New Jackson song, or maybe it’s a David Kitt’.” However, there is a thread that runs through the songs that belong to David Kitt; a certain way that he writes them. “I repeat myself a lot. I talk about light, and nature, the seasons, morning and night. It’s a constant cyclical thing that crops up quite a lot.”
Wave Of Peace also has an added element to it that David Kitt would not necessarily shout about. “It has the same thing that The Taste of Without [from Yous] has, this micro-macro thing where I’m trying to document personal stuff, but it’s also talking about bigger stuff.
“It seems there is more war than ever, but it seems to be getting less coverage. You look at the top stories and everyone is just fixating on Kylie Jenner’s cellulite, or what Donald Trump had for dinner, or his next affair. We’re all guilty, I am as bad as the next person. I’m not one for political commentary, and if I do it I try to in a way that is subtle and leaves it for someone to make the song about something else if they want to. But I think Nina Simone was very clear in her idea that an artist has to reflect the times that they live in, and I do stand by that. You do have to let it creep into your work.”
However, the next David Kitt album, whenever that appears, is not the only work on his mind. “I’m always kind of planning the next thing… I’m always two steps ahead, and that definitely still is more true than ever.” That being said, “there is another project with Tim Wheeler from Ash and a friend of mine from New York… a more instrumental modular synth kind of project”. He also has an electronic project on the boil in collaboration with the talented Margie Jean Lewis, the classically trained violinist and jazz vocalist who features on Yous, tours with Kitt, and appeared on stage with him in Belfast.
“I’m not patting myself on the back,” he told me, “but it did feel like there were moments in that [Belfast] show, having played with bigger bands, that we were putting on a show that was world class, with just two people and a sound man.” I don’t think there is one person who was in the Duncairn that night who would disagree.
Feature on David Kitt by Cara Gibney. Photos by Stanislav Nikolov.