Ahead of their performance The Piano/Piano Tour, NPR Theme Composer BJ Leiderman and singer-songwriter Kenny White sat with DPAC student ambassador Lucy Bullock for an interview. Below is a transcript of their conversation edited for readability.
Lucy: It’s great to have you both here today, BJ and Kenny, to talk a little bit about your performance and your backgrounds in music. Thank you so much for joining us today. As our first question, how did you two meet?
BJ: We met in Asheville, there’s a seedy section of the city called South Slope, and I was walking drunkenly one night out the backdoor of a club and Kenny was laying there on the floor … no, I’m just joking. It was Asheville, about how many years ago, Kenny?
Kenny: Seven. Six?
BJ: Really?! Come on, make me younger, dude! Promise me that we’ll start a song together and then we’ll forget what we’re doing in the middle of the song — this is a great idea, I think. We just stop in the middle of the song and forget the lyrics.
Kenny: Don’t wish too hard for that.
Lucy: We’re going to get the inside scoop of some of the set here.
BJ: Okay. Okay. So across the street from me is a wonderful woman by the name Betty and she holds house concerts from time to time with really great people coming through town. And she said, “I’ve got this wonderful singer-songwriter by the name of Kenny White who’s coming.” Did you need a keyboard?
Kenny: Yeah, I needed a keyboard.
BJ: So she knew I had a studio across the street so she said, “Would you bring your keyboard over and a small PA system?” So I brought all my stuff across the street and I ran sound for him and I don’t remember any of it.
Kenny: He really did come out of that back door of that club.
BJ (jokingly): He said, “You know, we had a good time. You ran sound great. We talked, we laughed, we made love. And then the night was over.
Kenny: And then I hit you with a hammer.
BJ (laughing): Okay, that part is true.
Kenny: I’m learning it at the same time you are.
BJ: Exactly the way we learn our songs. So a few years later, like months ago, I don’t know how it exactly started for me, but Betty brought up his name and I got in touch with his publicist because I’d heard this fabulous song of his that we’re gonna play at the concert called “The Other Shore.” What album is that from, Kenny?
Kenny: Long List of Priors.
BJ: Long List of Priors. What a name. Okay, so this song made me cry out loud in my living room to myself. You know, no one there and I’m crying. So I looked up some of his other stuff. I went on YouTube and found that each song from his latest album Long List of Priors, he did a live video of him in the studio with people. And one of the things that caught my eye was David Crosby from Crosby, Stills & Nash, here he was singing harmony for Kenny White, my God! The rest of the songs that I heard were just fabulous. So somehow [after] phone calls from both sides we decided to do a mid-country trial with three cities.
Kenny: BJ, he doesn’t remember that night, but he gave me his album. And, of course, I didn’t listen ’cause I never listened to anything. And then when he got in touch with me, I ran and got it and listened carefully.
BJ: Did you play it backwards? Because I’ve got some cool, Beatles-type stuff going on …
Kenny (laughing): No, I haven’t tried that yet.
Lucy: When was your first performance together?
Kenny: You’re looking at it. It’s gonna be in your backyard. We’ve rehearsed a couple of days in Brooklyn, New York, and then down in Asheville for four days.
BJ: So the place in Asheville where we were rehearsing, the White Horse in Black Mountain, the gentleman who owns it used to be the manager for J. Geils Band during a period when they toured in Europe to open for the Rolling Stones. It turns out that Kenny’s best friend is Peter Wolf, who was the lead singer of J. Geils Band, and Kenny’s working with him now. Can I say that?
BJ: Kenny’s a producer. Kenny’s worked with Shawn Colvin. Kenny’s worked with … you got a nomination or some sort of thing on that one?
Kenny: Well, I won a Grammy for it. I didn’t pick it up because I was one of 15 producers on that record.
BJ: Oh, I see. When I go to New York, I’m going to the Grammy offices and I’m gonna demand your Grammy.
Kenny: It was also for an album called Elmopalooza. It was duets with Sesame Street characters and I produced the duet between Shawn Colvin and Ernie. I didn’t really want my first Grammy to be Elmopalooza, so I never picked it up.
Lucy: Kenny, you have an extensive background with radio and tv jingles and, BJ, your side has been NPR show-composing among other things. How do both of you find inspiration when composing and what do your new works “fall in” right now?
Kenny: Mine have been snapshots of the human condition. And, you know, I was in therapy for a long time and I started writing different kinds of songs when I was in it. You know, I don’t think therapy’s for everybody but it sure helped me in a lot of ways.
BJ: Oh, I think it’s for everybody. The people who aren’t in therapy are exactly the people who should be in therapy.
Kenny: Yeah, that’s for sure. When I was in my 20s, it would’ve been a lot more possible to get a record deal, but I was all over the map the way I wrote. I wasn’t writing things connected to my heart until much later. And I think that came from wanting to express things that I couldn’t in my life.
I was able to do it through lyrics and music. So most of my stuff is somewhat personal. But also, I hope [it’s] universal enough where you could relate some parts of your life to the lyrics or an audience member could. And that’s what I’m hooked on now. That’s what I’m addicted to now, those kinds of songs.
BJ: I find what he just said to be true and what I love most. He’s a great lyricist and a great storyteller. You know, the older you get, sorry, the more of these truths you realize are actually true — universally and on an individual level. So he’s a guru in being able to put that into song. What caught me by surprise is the music side of it, the songwriting, the melodies.
We have found out in our rehearsals and in this, you know, trial gig we did in Black Mountain, that it’s an exciting mixture. It’s almost flammable.
Lucy: What can our audience look forward to during the show?
BJ: I’ll start with this one if you don’t mind, Kenny. Kenny’s got like 50 different albums. I’ve got one. Kenny is known for his work. I’m known for 10 minutes of public radio themes. So some people will be in the audience because they know Kenny. They may also know my name and may have heard my stuff on the radio, but they want to hear his original stuff. They have not heard one of my original songs yet, so I will be playing some of them. Kenny’s joining me on some of those. I love covers, so expect stuff by Cat Stevens, Springsteen, Elton John, Billy Joel, and my own stuff. And then Kenny will join me on my public radio theme medley. You will hear us play the themes live.
Kenny: I’ll be playing my own stuff. We share the stage a lot during the show. We’re alone for a little while during the show. And we join each other on a few songs. I think it’s a really good mix and should keep people entertained, if not walking out thinking about the world a little differently.
Once again, the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center thanks Kenny White and BJ Leiderman for taking the time to chat with DPAC student ambassador Lucy Bullock. See The Piano/Piano Tour on Thursday, October 20, 2022.