Kenny Shields has been a musical mainstay since Streetheart first hit the Canadian scene in 1976. His distinct vocal timbre and intense power defined the band’s sound and helped them achieve a number of platinum and gold albums, collect numerous awards (including a Music Express People’s Choice Award), and build a hardy and dedicated fan base. Resilient to many personnel changes, the band continued to work constantly and record new music.
But in 1984, after incessantly hitting their heads against that impregnable wall of the US market, Streetheart disbanded, only to be resurrected in 2003 after being inducted in the Western Canadian Hall of Fame. With a renewed vigour and focus on the material at hand, Kenny Shields and Streetheart returned to what they do best—performing, and they haven’t stopped.
Music Express caught up with Kenny Shields in the unlikely location of a hotel stairwell for open-ended conversation about what he’s been up to and plans for the future. The grey block walls provided a nice ambient echo chamber which was often filled with laughter. Here’s some of that conversation.
MUSIC EXPRESS: Tell us about the new record you’ve been working on.
KENNY SHIELDS: Okay, all right. Well, first of all…what record? (laughs) I started thinking about recording quite some time ago, 10 years ago—almost 10 years ago. It was when Jeff (Neill) returned from Australia and he joined us, The Kenny Shields Band. He asked one day would I consider recording again. You know what? I had thought about it, but I had never, ever, ever approached it. Probably if it hadn’t have been for him, I would never have had the ability to do it.
Deerfoot Casino; Calgary, September 29th 2012
Photography by: Charles Hope
So we started the idea and took it from there. Basically it’s songs that I’ve either sang or always wanted to record and sing. It’s all covers except for one. It’s been a process over the last few years and it’s time to bring it home now, ‘cause I can procrastinate with the best of them. I can also believe that perfection is the only way to go therefore you can never really complete it—you never really get it done–cause I can change it, say this is better. And that went on for quite a few years. People were very patient with me. And now I just feel it’s time. So it is going to happen this year, by the end of this year, hopefully late October. Yeah, the album has been finished and re-written and re-written, and re-written again, and I guess… I’m going back into the studio next week, just a kind of finalizing process, just to listen to the stuff and say, there are things left undone that I always wanted to get, but either I didn’t have the time, or didn’t have the cash, or whatever, you know. And now I’m just going to finish that up. It will take about five days.
ME: You’re putting it out yourself?
KENNY SHIELDS: Yeah, there’s no record company money, or record company push. This is completely independent; fly by the seat of your pants. (laughs)
ME: When you talk about going back to the studio, are you talking about a traditional studio, or a home-based studio?
KENNY SHIELDS: Actually, I have a guy in Saskatoon who I met in July—he’s pretty amazing. He’s full Pro Tools. Not that I go for that auditory…I don’t believe in that. I don’t want to go that way at all, but some of the stuff we’ve got mixed is six years old, and I just want to upgrade it with this guy. New functions and new sounds, right?
[quote]I won’t play that game. People are used to listening to the song on the radio, and you drop that key one or two–and they go ‘What’s different? What’s wrong with that? It didn’t sound all that good.’ And I hear that in other guys.[/quote]I also included a guy, his name is Kevin Churko; he’s kind of an understudy of Mutt Lange. He’s from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. He’s a fan and has a studio in Las Vegas so I sent him a few tracks. Well, first of all I had to get permission and ask him, but he was very compatible. He said, ‘yeah, love to do it’. So he’s turned it into a big, big professional sound. So it changed the perspective on what I was doing. ‘Cause I was just going to do this little record, this little thing, and just be little me, and I sat with that for years. And that needed to change…I needed to open this up. I’m really glad I did.
ME: That leads into another question: what motivates you these days? You’ve been in this business for a long time, how do you get motivated? How do you get excited? How do you get excited creatively? You’re doing cover songs…
KENNY SHIELDS: Yeah well, they’re my interpretations. I interpret a song and by the time I’m finished with it, I think it’s kind of…
ME: Your song.
KENNY SHIELDS: Yeah. Like for example “One Tin Solder” or “Under My Thumb” “Here Comes the Night”…
KENNY SHIELDS: Yeah, “Angie”. That’s on the record by the way. Kevin has mastered that, or remixed that–boy it sounds good. Real big! So, what motivates me? I guess it’s still the old love for the music. I work with a great bunch of players. I don’t ask much for much. All of the people who work with me or around me are very dedicated, and they show up ready to play. And they’re good people and they’re well rounded, and they’re great musicians. And I have a sound guy who’s travelled with me for, like 30 years–he’s my road manager Pete.
So the guys keep me collectively in touch with what the hell I’m doing. And I really enjoy playing with them. And we have a great fan base. And it shows up in some of the darnest places. So, it’s an easy motivation. I think it’ll be more exciting when I get this record out. It might even get radio work, radio play. And yea, open up the markets again. I waited a long time. What happened is the longevity of the music, of the Streetheart songs is still there in most classic rock formats. And they play all our songs. And that just says it, I know it’s Canadian content, but damn it some of it’s good and some of it’s not good, but that stuff stands the test of time.
So all in all, it’s been a long, long, long 40 years. (hearty laugh) I guess I love…I’ve had some hard times, but who hasn’t right? Some very difficult times and some almost giving up times, but you know I keep coming back to try a little more.
ME: But obviously you’re getting something out of it.
KENNY SHIELDS: Yeah, yeah.
ME: Are you planning on writing new stuff?
KENNY SHIELDS: No, I’m not. I’m exhausted from that. You know our fans have already done the processing 35 years ago. They know “Action”. They know “Hollywood”. And that’s what they want. And I can deliver that. As far as making a new record of new material, I don’t think it would work. It’s just not that kind of market anymore. You don’t sell albums as you sell…it’s changed so much…it’s changed so much.
ME: You don’t have any ideas that you just have to get out?
KENNY SHIELDS: No, no I don’t. My desire is what I can do in the cover world. And I feel like I can change that and feel more close to that than creating something brand new. A new album? I’m not there–I’m not there. And I’m not up for what they want. If I was Bryan Adams, I’d say, of course I’m going to make a new record. You know? But I’m not up for that.
I’m perfectly comfortable with what I’m doing, very comfortable. But it’s not so much that I’m safe, it’s just that I’m nursing a record–it’s something that I want to do. And I think no matter what is being said about that, if I get thrown in the garbage, it’s alright.
ME: Well, I’ll buy one, no two, maybe three…
KENNY SHIELDS: Fine. (laughs)
ME: One more question. You’ve been singing for so many years, is there anything you do for your voice? Before performing?
KENNY SHIELDS: Yes. Many years ago I decided to make some changes in my lifestyle. That doesn’t mean to say I’m a complete success in what I do, but I can tell you this, that by stopping late night parties, drinking, coking, smoking, blah, blah, blah, blah. That was my intension because I wanted to be singing at the age I am now. And I wanted to be able to hit the notes, because if I can’t hit the notes and I start lowering the keys…I’m done. I won’t play that game. People are used to listening to the song on the radio, and you drop that key one or two–and they go ‘What’s different? What’s wrong with that? It didn’t sound all that good.’ And I hear that in other guys.
So what I do is I steam, a certain Chinese cough syrup that I use for my throat, it just kind of activates…I can fell it cleansing and some of the sore spots–it heals. And I sip on that. I got turned onto that about 30 years ago, by a Chinese friend of mine. I couldn’t talk for two days because I was doing six night a week and on a Tuesday night, I didn’t have a voice and he said, ‘I’ve got something for that’, so he went and got me this syrup and I’ve used it ever since. (laughs) So that’s it.
ME: So you take care of yourself?
KENNY SHIELDS: I mean, come on, if I still smoked I wouldn’t be doing this at all. I’d sound like a wretched old man. And my keys would be dropped by too many notes.
ME: And that perfectionist in you wants that original note, that original key.
KENNY SHIELDS: Yea, that’s the challenge every night. You can’t change that key. It doesn’t work psychologically for me at all. And I know it doesn’t sound right to listen to.
ME: It would be a different song.
KENNY SHIELDS: Yes, it would be a whole different–it would be an act. It would be something that they’d go, ‘Well, he must be in it for…not in it for the love anymore.’
ME: For the women?
KENNY SHIELDS: (laughs) I’ll tell you what, if you think a 63 year old has sex appeal, give your head a shake. Yea, I’m definitely dysfunctional that way. (deep laughter) Thank you guys.
ME: And thank you very much.
KENNY SHIELDS: I’m glad we could do this and say hello again. And yea, the album’s going to be called “Letting Go” because there’ll come a time when I have to, you know, let go.
ME: That’s a long way off.
KENNY SHIELDS: Well, we’ll see.
Photography by: Charles Hope