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by Matt Dornan / pictures by Tonya Berlin
"From what I gather, he comes in with an acoustic guitar, lays that down and just builds around that," says Wesley Kidd, former band-mate and current manager of Chicago-based singer-songwriter Kevin Tihista, and it's the standard formula when discussing any one of the by-numbers singer-songwriters to have crawled from the woodwork since Elliott Smith single-handedly revitalised the stereotype in the latter half of the last decade. But Kevin Tihista is anything but yer average acoustic glum-slinger. Since the infectious strains of Lose The Dress were first heard courtesy of sadly now defunct UK talent-spotters Easy!Tiger, who released a 7" back in 2000, Tihista's talent has been there for all willing to listen. Previewed by the superb, self titled, mini-album on Rough Trade, Kevin Tihista's Red Terror (to give 'them' their full title) delivered a stunning debut full-length, 'Don't Breathe A Word', on the Atlantic subsidiary Division One last year. A melodic tour-de-force of pure, soulful pop crowned by a voice born to break and melt the hardest of hearts, the twelve-track collection simply dripped class. Despite a superficially unimaginative fixation with the love song, Tihista's open, sometimes self-deprecating lyrics rang as true as the chiming acoustic from which these songs evidently grew.
"I only started writing songs about three years ago," he tells me, faced with the burden of coming up with a fresh approach to love songs.
"So there are a lot of ghosts that need some exorcising. I'm still writing songs that I needed to write when I was in my twenties. It's getting tricky, but I have to get it out of my system."
Kevin's intention to continue writing in this vein (although, he claims, a new song, Jim Henson's Blues is the first he's written purely from imagination), suggests a desire to pen classic love songs of the type that
"you identify with so much that you play it over and over again. And not only hear it but feel it. [A song] you love so much that you call your girlfriend up and play it over the phone for her. The one that says exactly what you've been trying to tell her all this time. The first one on that mix tape that you make for her. The one that simply says 'Baby, I love you'."
And, presumably, for added cachet, the kind of melodic sensibility that Tihista seems to have in spades.
"It's instinctive," he says.
"My mom used to listen to some great music when I was young. So, growing up, sitting next to my Kiss records would be a Cat Stevens or Drifters record." Such nostalgia isn't atypical of Tihista who's confessed he wouldn't renounce a '70s revival.
"It would be nice, we would all have moustaches," he jokes.
With an Anglophile flavour to his voice he attributes to not having bought any American-made music since he was sixteen -
"Once I heard The Smiths, that was it" - Kevin doesn't wear his influences as brazenly as some, instead channelling everything into his prolific, often nocturnal writing.
"He can be very hard to get in touch with," says Kidd.
"As he is usually asleep when the rest of the world is awake. Usually, whenever I get frustrated if I can't get a hold of him, a new song will unexpectedly arrive in the mail and absolutely blow me away."
A reaction clearly shared by the labels large and small that have released Kevin Tihista's records. The demise of Division One soon after 'Don't Breathe A Word' was released hasn't dented his opinion of the music industry.
"It afforded me the luxury of moving out of my girlfriend's mom's house. Although it never lasts you do get to record and go on tour and all that good stuff. Don't have high hopes and you'll do just fine."
Often visibly nervous in performance and during interviews (
"Sometimes I do them as if I were someone else"), he's refreshingly accepting of the trappings of 'fame'.
"I never thought I would have a record deal and have to play in front of people," he reflects.
"But now that I have to I just pull my pants up and deal with it." It's a philosophy shared by Kidd.
"We went into that deal with zero expectations," he says.
"And we came out with a few new fans. I'd say that's pretty good."
Those who disapprove of Tihista's unashamedly retro brand of timeless songcraft, tend to single out his 'soppy' lyrics which hark back to a less cynical era of music (although Lose That Dress could hardly be considered coy or sentimental, and Stoopid Boy's inspired opening line 'The only good impression that I ever made was on my pillow' suggests there's more to him than laments and love-letters), with accusations of insincerity and, as proposed by one reviewer, the need for 'more distress' in his life.
"I've been listening to 'The Best of Bread' lately and can't believe the similarities between us," he responds.
"So I wish they would say 'he sounds like Bread,' so that people can say 'I like Bread with their shitty lyrics.' As far as needing more distress? Yes, that's exactly what I need."
And with that we leave Kevin to another long night.
"Not sleeping has its benefits," he concludes.
"You go absolutely insane but you get so much done." No doubt striving to find his deserved place on that mix tape.
CWAS #10 - Spring 2002