Kirk Fletcher - Straight Outta Compton
After growing up playing gospel in the tough LA neighbourhood that spawned NWA and gangster rap, Kirk Fletcher is on a lifelong quest for self-expression…
Not many people would choose to move to Compton, the notorious south LA neighbourhood immortalised by NWA. But that’s just what guitarist Kirk Fletcher’s parents did when he was a child. “All of my family is from Pine Bluff, Arkansas, but I grew up in southern California, a little suburb of LA called Lakewood,” says Fletcher. “Then I moved to Compton with my family to start building a new church because my dad’s a pastor. That’s where I got started playing guitar.
“My dad sold the house in Lakewood and we moved to another house in Compton and he used that money to help build the church there. We already had a small church but he wanted to build a bigger church because he felt at that time we’re living in a bigger house and the Lord’s house is suffering in this small place. So he was really doing it for the right reasons.”
Fletcher spent more than three years with The Fabulous Thunderbirds and played on their 2005 album Painted On, sharing the guitar work with Nick Curran. He’d cut two albums under his own name by that point – I’m Here & I’m Gone in 1999 and Shades Of Blue in 2004 – but the time was fast approaching for Fletcher to assert his own identity as a solo artist and to bid farewell to Wilson for a second time. “When I started to find that I wanted to get into something different, I started letting some of those childhood influences come in, and I figured it was time to go because I’d rather leave and do something else than to stay there and try to let all of those [influences] through with the T-Birds. The music deserves better than me trying to play feedback and go crazy on the guitar,” he says.
It’s clear that Fletcher’s time as a Thunderbird is dear to his heart. Asked to pick out the highlights of that period, he replies. “Playing with Nick Curran, my good buddy that we lost a couple of years ago. Playing [Austin nightclub] Antone’s, opening for ZZ Top at the big Houston dome – those were some highlights. But I guess the main one is making a record with them, because that validates you. When you’ve made a record with a band, yeah, I was in there and I done that. Kim is great and I love him to death. He’s fantastic.”
Opening for ZZ Top in a giant stadium is a very different experience to sweating it out in a smoky bar. “I like playing in blues clubs more, personally, but the big dome is fun too because you just have to think bigger,” says Fletcher. “I can’t be as subtle – it’s more of a beat-it-over-your-head thing. I played with this Italian pop artist named Eros Ramazzotti and he said to me, ‘You have to be more bold, a little more dynamic, full-on, because the subtleties get lost in a big place.’ And I don’t like that! I like playing bigger venues and all, that’s fun in a way, but I like to have all of those nuances and subtleties, so for me, a sweaty club with a Fender Super Reverb is the way to go!”
The guitarist is nothing if not self-effacing on the subject of his earliest releases under his own name. “I’m Here & I’m Gone, that was 1999 and to be honest with you, that was a glorified business card to try to get gigs,” he says. “I wanted to do something to get on some festivals and maybe go to Europe and the whole nine yards. I didn’t think more than just to do a really traditional record. It’s my solo record but it was basically me playing with a lot of other people, even on my record. In a way yeah, it’s my solo record, but still it’s not really my solo record.”
He’s equally reticent about the follow-up, Shades Of Blue. “Once again, the same thing,” he says. “I thought it was a little better but it’s an evolving thing for a guitar player that didn’t sing at that time. All I could do was have a singer.” It was only on 2010’s My Turn that Fletcher finally decided to step up to the mic and sing. Surprisingly, despite a childhood spent surrounded by gospel music, he hadn’t sung before making that album, apart from “one or two times in the choir because somebody didn’t show up. I just wanted to be a guitar player and when I first started you could just be a guitar player in a band. Things change and I realised if I really wanted to follow my own vision, I’d better start singing, and it took a long time and it’s definitely a work in progress.
“I’m a late singer. [Producer] Mike Landau and a couple of my friends who helped me record that record were like: ‘Kirk, you’ve got to do it. You’ve got to try.’ They pushed me and pushed me and I finally said, ‘Okay, I’m going to try.’ It took me a year after that record to even do it consistently live because I was nervous and it felt strange.” Apart from the pressure, there’s the often painful process of getting used to hearing your own voice played back to you. “Oh God, it’s the worst! If you can get past that then I think you’ll be okay,” says Fletcher, who has simultaneously been figuring out what exactly it is he wants to sing about. “That’s the other thing that’s evolving as we speak actually. I basically started singing songs that I do now in my live gigs that somebody else sang on my records. It’s weird. Now I want to try to figure out what I want to sing, what I want to write and what I want to say, which is very scary, but at the same time it’s very fun and a new chapter.”