On Spirit Animals, Roots Rockers, and Ditching the Day Job

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If you’re an indie musician and not living full-time in a van that takes you from city to city for gigs – gigs that can be as glorious as a packed club with respectful fans, or as humbling as a house concert with a dozen folks your parents’ age who’ve put together a potluck dinner – you probably have a day job. It’s a way of life for many, and although most choose not to bring it up publicly, we all probably know a tale or two of those that are now rich and/or famous. Jay-Z sold dope, Kanye West worked at the Gap, Kurt Cobain was a janitor, Tom Waits tossed pizzas, and Debbie Harry was a Playboy bunny.

Record labels have long ago stopped handing out advances and financing tours. So these days you’ll be more likely to find musicians playing weekend gigs within a few hundred miles of their home base while maintaining a steady income and doing the same type of day labor that we all do: retail, the food service industry, education, health care, technology, art, or construction. If it pays the bills and gives you the time and flexibility to both create and perform, its a win-win … especially if you’ve got a family situation to tend to.

The other day I got an email from the music editor at NUVO, the Indianapolis-based weekly magazine that bills itself as “Indiana’s Alternative Voice.” Kat Coplen wrote to me that one of their former employees had recently left his marketing gig with them to focus more on his music, and they are working up a cover story on him. Since its someone I’ve written about here at No Depression on a few occasions, she chose to pose this question to me: “In a world with a lot of roots rockers, what makes Kelly Pardekooper’s music and songwriting special?”

While you might not recognize Pardekooper’s name, you most likely have been among the millions of people who have heard his songs, thanks to shows like True Blood, Sons of Anarchy, and Justified. To recycle my own words from a previous article, he is a roots musician who writes some of the sweetest blues-infused, countryfied, American rock music of our time.

I first became aware of Pardekooper not from his music, per se, but because he was featured in my friend Sandy Dyas’ photographic book that documented the music scene in Iowa City, where he used to live. It’s a great community for all sorts of American roots music artists who build their sound on folk, blues, and country traditions and who mostly make their way by playing music in bars. Differentiating itself from your standard fare of quiet coffeehouse confessional noodlings, Iowa City music can sometimes tend toward a louder rock-based beat.

If you’d like to know what really sets Pardekooper far apart from the herd, though, it’s his business acumen and good fortune. Those two things have allowed him to figure out he can reach a much larger audience by placing his songs in film and television rather than spending 300 days a year living in a minivan and playing in front of a couple dozen people each night for table scraps.

While that upside allows for his music to be heard by millions, the downside is that it’s part of an audio-visual experience for which he doesn’t quite receive full credit, which it makes it more challenging to establish his own brand. And so it came to be that, a few months ago, Pardekooper decided to ditch the day job and devote more time to his craft. Here’s what he wrote in his journal and posted on his website:

Lots of changes for me to end 2015. A few months ago I left my alt-weekly newspaper gig at NUVO in Indy. Anyone who has followed me the past 15 years knows I love alt-weekly newspapers and they’re very connected to my University of Iowa education/background. And other than music, weekly press has always been my main gig having worked at three alt-newspapers over the years.

I’ll be spending more time working on new songs/recordings in 2016. I’ve been lucky to have a very patient and active music publisher who has always been supportive of my songs. Life is funny. When I left East Nashville over a decade ago to follow my wife’s medical career, I never thought it would eventually lead me to Los Angeles and a whole new life for my song catalog. I guess the moral would be follow your heart ya’ll.

And in recent music news, I just got word that my song “Just Shoot Me” is going to be used in an upcoming film called All We Had. Releasing sometime in 2016, the film stars Katie Holmes and Luke Wilson. So there’s that little news nugget from the universe nudging me along to keep plugging away at the songs. My music career pretty much equals slow turtle.

That song comes off of Kelly’s Haymaker Heart album, released back in 2004. Twelve years ago. When he talks about the slow turtle, he is referencing his spirit animal, providing a definition written by Elena Harris. For those in a rush to succeed, you might want to take a moment to read these words:

The turtle totem wisdom teaches us about walking our path in peace and sticking to it with determination and serenity. Slow moving on earth, yet also incredibly fast and agile in water, those who have the turtle as totem or spirit animal may be encouraged to take a break in their busy lives and look around or within themselves for more grounded, long-lasting solutions. Traditionally, the turtle is symbolic of the way of peace, whether it’s inviting us to cultivate peace of mind or a peaceful relationship with our environment.

And to Kelly Pardekooper — it’s good to see that you’re coming out of your shell.

Uncredited photo circa 2000/Basement studio in Iowa City.

This was originally published at No Depression dot com, as an Easy Ed’s Broadside column.