Raised an only child, Matthew Kenney of Edgewood, Kentucky, was tasked with finding ways to entertain himself. The baby grand piano in his parents’ sitting room was his first inspiration. He began piano lessons in the third grade, but bored with the formal training, he quit after six months. Instead, he played by ear, learning everything from commercial jingles to the pop songs on his mom’s favorite radio station.
At age 12, Kenney had saved enough money from mowing lawns to finally buy a bass and amp. “I knew I wanted to teach myself, and I figured four strings would be easier to figure out than six,” he recalls. Two years later, his parents gave him his first acoustic guitar for Christmas. He still plays that instrument today.
Throughout high school and college Kenney learned songs by ear and composed instrumental pieces in many styles, but it wasn’t until his father’s passing in 2006 that he finally composed his first full song. “I coped by spending every moment I could exploring music, from country to classical. I wanted to learn to play every instrument. I bought a set of drums, and from there, things just blossomed,” he says.
Kenney eventually teamed up with two friends to create the band Ampersand. His job as a repossession agent meant working odd hours, but allowed him to play local shows. Ampersand has recorded two studio albums.
Currently, Kenney is working on a solo project. His job means frequent long drives in his tow truck, time spent seeking out new genres on the radio, and finding inspiration in unlikely sources. He says that everything from talk radio to current events pique his interest as possible song material. “I have about 50 songs in my head. None of them are written down, except for the titles. I like to be flexible. Sometimes a song evolves as I collaborate with others. That’s when I have the most fun—when I’m watching my vision become greater than myself,” he says.
Who are your main influences?
My biggest influence is Silverchair. I was 15 when I bought their first album, Frogstomp, in a record store. I’d never heard of them, but I liked the frog on the cover art. The first time I listened to that album, I was changed. Their music moved me in a way the pop music and Catholic hymns I’d grown up on never could.
Why do you continue to make music?
I’m compelled to make music. Even without an instrument I find myself singing and composing lyrics. Music spans the entire spectrum of human experience. It can evoke joy or pain, sadness, or confusion. It keeps me grounded and provides a context through which I can better understand the world around me.
How do you continue to learn?
As a musician, it’s important to remember that listening is just as important as creating. I listen to every genre of music. I listen to music theorists discuss technique. I watch TED talks about advances in acoustics. I also try to break the rules. I make mistakes on purpose to see what I will discover. It’s a process that never ends. It’s important to surprise yourself sometimes.
What benefits have you found to making music?
Music always was, and still is, my therapeutic outlet. I dabbled in sports and drama in high school, but always came back to music. The guitar is both limiting and limitless, and that dichotomy poses new challenges for me every day.
How do you make time for music in your life?
I keep guitars next to the places I sit to relax. There’s one in the basement and one in the living room too. When the mood strikes, I always have an instrument handy. My wife wonders how I can watch a movie and play music at the same time, but sometimes that’s when I get my best ideas.
What is the best memory you have of making music?
The opportunity to record in a studio. I got to take my own creation, record it, and watch others get excited about it too. Recording my music was like etching my story in stone. It’s a part of me that I will have forever.
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