These days, New York has a love affair with the synthesizer. You would think it was 1970 all over again. In this sea of dance pop, MIDI, and vodocorders, I’m putting my bet on the Wurlitzer making a comeback with the help of one Kelly Rae Kerwin and her band Private Income. There’s something about their building tempos and her driving vocals that conjure up images of both impending doom and dizzying lightness. Formerly of Zero Spanish, Kerwin has been a local fixture of Brooklyn’s music scene and I always make a point to catch her shows. After recently opening for their buddies, the Fiery Furnaces, Private Income is promoting their first full-length album The Front Room, featuring band mates, Deron Pulley on bass and guitar, and their new drummer, Pete Sustarsic. I recently attended their record release party at the new Knitting Factory to play catch up with my friend and personal style muse, Kelly Rae.
Laura S: So I know you’ve always been in bands and played music, what are some of the other odd jobs you’ve had to make ends meet?
Kelly Rae Kerwin: Well, I’m a bartender and I work a lot. I work at two bars in the East Village, Niagara and Bowery Electric. I get my ass kicked. It’s really hard, but it funds everything for my band and everything that I do.
LS: Have any particular horror stories?
KK: Oh a million, I’ve been doing it for over 10 years. But it comes natural to me, it’s a social job, and I can’t ever imagine being stuck at a desk. That’s just not me. And you get to dress up and stuff, just like with having a band.
LS: You’ve been in a lot of bands and doing different projects, do you have any stand-out moments from being on the road? Because touring is such a unique experience not many people get to do.
KK: I went on tour with one of my old bands, it was called Diamond. It was me, and Freddy Moss who was my boyfriend and Chris Leo, Ted Leo’s[ of Ted Leo and the Pharmacists] brother, and it was the most fun I’ve ever had. Me and Freddy were like two little pirates, murdering each town that we came to. Touring is really fun and that was the first time I’d ever done it. It’s exciting and there’s always so much drama. At that point I didn’t really have an ego but I was on the verge of one. My ego was blossoming!
LS: Have any tips for saving money of the road?
KK: Ha no, I’m really bad at saving money that’s why I work so much. If I want something I get it, it’s just how I am.
LS: So you have any favorite dive bars in New York?
KK: I used to go to the Pourhouse which is now Legion, that was a great dive bar back in the day. I love the Levee, I end up there a lot.
LS: What’s your favorite cheap place to eat in New York?
KK: It used to be Planet Thailand, back when it was on Bedford Ave and was really small with just a noodle bar and a few tables. But I really like Snacky on Grand St.
LS: Yes! You got me hooked on it.
KK: Yeah I eat there all the time, it’s really close to my practice space. Half the time I’m sitting there working on a new song and all I can think about is Snacky’s and thinking this song is not as interesting as what I’m about to eat.
LS: I’ve always loved your old Wurlitzer, what made you choose that instrument?
KK: Well, in the band I play a Rhodes. I just find those old keyboards very romantic. I played when I was 6 but it was guitar for most of the time. Then it wasn’t until 3 or 4 years ago that I got really into the keyboards again. Once I sat down at the keyboard and started writing songs again, everything in my life that wasn’t working just gelled and everything made sense. My heart is in the keys, it’s my favorite place in the universe.
LS: If you weren’t a musician, what else could you see yourself doing?
KK: I do a lot of drawings, I made all of the posters for the band. I suck at computer design so I just do everything by hand even if it takes 7 hours.
LS: Just out of curiosity, where do you get some of your awesome stage outfits?
KK: I really get into the costumes, everything is planned out and it’s another thing that makes playing fun for me. I’ve gotten a lot of stuff from this place Dolly G on Graham Avenue. I’m a very visual person so it’s a part of that. I’m inspired more by colors and shapes than by listening to other music.
LS: So what’s your advice for other working musicians out there doing their thing?
KK: You just have to do it. Pick your advice and consider the source. When I first started this band I got so much advice. Maybe you should do this or do that instead. I used to take it really personally and wonder maybe I should be writing pop music and doing things differently. And then I just said, well I don’t write pop music. It was just this thing that snapped in me one day and I realized I didn’t give a fuck. This is who I am. This is what I do. I can’t do it any other way. That’s my biggest piece of advice. It will click and you’ll know.