He Heard There Was a Star :: Gay Singer-Songwriter Roger Kuhn
Sorrow and Comedy
Kuhn’s songs can be sorrowful or romantic, but they are just as effective when he writes a comic song, such as "What’s Your Name," the first track on his previous CD, Proof, and a video on Logo a few years ago. "What’s Your Name" starts off sounding like the typical love-struck ode to a new significant other--until the narrator, pulling himself back from his swoon, realizes, "But perhaps I should start with something simple--like, what’s your name?" The romantic bubble is popped, but to the sound of sardonic, knowing laughter. In most of his songs, dramatic or comic, Kuhn isn’t simply tossing out facile rhymes and then dressing them up with a hook; he’s setting a scene, crating a mood, and telling a tale. But, EDGE wondered, isn’t writing an effective funny song a tough task?
"I get an idea about a story I want to tell, whether it’s my own story or an imaginary one I’m making up," Kuhn told EDGE, "and I don’t set out to write a song with a funny twist. It just kind of happens. The lyrics come to me, and sometimes I don’t realize until later, when someone starts laughing, and I say, ’Oh! I guess it is kind of humorous. I didn’t think about it that way.’
"But I’ve also challenged myself, as I’ve gotten older and a bit more mature, that my song writing has to take on a certain level as well," the musician continued. "Part of it has been learning the craft of songwriting; learning to trust my instincts a little bit more; learning that it’s okay to twist the story around to keep the listener guessing. I think it’s the same thing that I’ll do vocally, when all of a sudden I’ll flip off into a high note. It’s something to keep the audience entertained in another way. I’ve always been a performer, and the way to keep your audience entertained is either to deliver some drama, or to make them laugh a little bit."
Kuhn comes by his range and vocal control naturally. "I’ve never practiced it," he admitted. "I think it’s a quirk." Although, he reckoned, his habit of mimicking the girl bands he listened to on the farm probably had something to do with his present vocal ability. "I would sing with them on old cassette tapes, and I would go out into the fields and sing as loud as I could. I learned how to control my voice in their range, so that when I hit puberty I didn’t lose that ability to hit those notes; I just shifted it a little bit."
As for his ability to sustain vocal power even when singing in a near whisper, "I’m not a Broadway singer," Kuhn reflects. "I don’t belt it out. I mean, I can belt, but I prefer not to. I prefer to hold that back. I get chills more when I listen to a male singer who’s not belting, like Roy Orbison or Chris Isaak. These are men I started listening to only when people told me that I sounded like them. I listened to them, and I learned from them.
"I think the best artists are mimics," Kuhn added, "and we learn from other artists: ’Oh, listen to how he’s done that!’ Then I take that and I add my own influence into it as well. I couldn’t afford to take singing lessons, I dropped out of choir... so I listened to the best singers that I could--Barbra Streisand and Celine Dione, people who you might call classically well-behaved singers. They can hit the notes, they can hold the notes. My music teachers were those artists."
But all’s not chuckles on the new CD. Although there are light-hearted tracks like "Xmas Joys," in which the narrator warns a boyfriend who’s been bad that Santa’s going to leave him without treats and presents, or "The Saddest Day," in which a fan of the holiday season mourns the end of Christmas, there are also songs of brokenhearted people with no one to love, spoil, or scold for the holiday. It’s true that the holidays are a sad and lonely time of year for many people, but Christmas songs usually gloss that over.
Not so with "December," the CD’s opening track (co-written with James Erickson), which will bring a tear to the eye of anyone who doesn’t happen to be the Grinch. Or "Oh What A World," in which an unfortunate young man ends up dead on Christmas morning. "Until I met my husband, that’s what Christmas was for me," Kuhn told EDGE. "It wasn’t good. It wasn’t happy. It was hard, it was lonely, it was depressing. It’s just something I didn’t look forward to, and that had nothing to do with the commercialization of Christmas, because I always liked the presents.
"It was more just about that time, because even when I would spend it with my friends, the majority of them were in relationships," Kuhn continued, "so I’d go to the party but then I’d go home alone, and the only companion I had was my guitar. So I would often go home and sing sad love songs that I had written already.
"And then one day, I picked up my guitar and I wrote this song called ’Every year Around Xmas Time,’ because I was thinking about somebody--there was not real person I was thinking about," Kuhn hastily amended, "I was imagining as if this pain that I had, that was so real... I hadn’t had my heart broken, I was just lonely. But I imagined as if someone did it to me, because then it made sense, why I had these emotions.
"After I wrote that song I felt so much better. When I shared it with somebody else, they said, ’Wow--I’ve felt that way around Christmas, so sad, so lonely.’ It just so happened that the next song that I wrote wasn’t a sad song, it was a happier song. And then came another sad Christmas song, and then another happy one, and then another sad one.
"The sequencing on the record starts out very sad, with a song called ’December,’ but it ends with a song called ’I Heard There Was A Star,’ " noted Kuhn. "And December really is all about that lost love, that yearning for somebody at the holiday time. But then there’s a redemption in the record, in that final song; if you listen to it, the song sounds like, ’Jesus was born, and life is so good because we have him.’ But the song is actually about my husband, and about how he was born: ’Oh, hallelujah! Oh, precious sight!’ That’s what the song is about! I’m not a Christian, so I’m not going to write a Christian song. But I’ll let people believe it’s about Jesus.
"To borrow from a Christian phrase, he saved me," Kuhn continued. "He saved me from that lovely feeling I had at Christmas time, and now I’m never lonely at Christmas! It is utterly Christian [in the sense that the song is about being saved by love]. And if it weren’t for the birth of Jesus, we wouldn’t have ’Christ mass,’ and even though this is not a Christian record, you always borrow from what you’ve had in your life. I used to be a Catholic."
Insofar as the songs on his CDs will have a broad appeal, perhaps this artist still is catholic, in the sense of the word pertaining to the universal. After all, who doesn’t like a sad holiday crooner--or the snappy, funny Christmas ditty that comes along afterwards to console the listener?
Roger Kuhn’s new CD, Every Year Around Xmas Time, is available through the artist’s website and at Amazon.com.
Full disclosure: Roger Kuhn and Kilian Melloy both sing with the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus