Deeds: Songwriter Korby Lenker revels in his ‘Little Life’

mdeeds@idahostatesman.comFebruary 28, 2014 

Crossing the country alone doesn’t bother Korby Lenker. When you’re as confidently quirky as this bow-tie-sporting, Twin Falls-raised musician, you find company along the way.

Lenker has just hit the Idaho border when he pulls over to take my phone call, and he can’t shake the memory of a new friend.

“Yesterday was kind of a cool day,” he says. “Just because I met this interesting person and had an interesting experience. That’s the best part about touring.”

Lenker, 37, had never seen the Salt Lake Temple, so he decided to check it out. He wound up hanging out for a solid hour with a 65-year-old religious woman, he says.

She had handed him a pamphlet.

“All of a sudden, we’re just rapping about her experience in the church,” he explains.

Anecdotes like these are part of the eccentric allure of Lenker, who will perform Feb. 28 at Neurolux (7 to 11 p.m., with openers Adam Wright and Mt. Joy, $5 cover).

A multiple-award-winning songwriter, Lenker hopes to log 200 tour dates this year during a newfound career resurgence. He will release his sixth full-length album and first book of short stories, “Stuffed Piranha” on March 25. After working a Nashville day job in recent years, he suddenly has a publicist, a booking agent and a licensing company working to promote his music.

“I’m not famous!” he declares. “I’m totally living hand to mouth. I have no idea if I’m going to be able to pay my rent when I get off of this tour. It’s going to be close.

“But the creative freedom,” he says, loading up his voice dramatically for the statement’s final word, “is extraordinary!”

A mortician’s son, Lenker discovered he was musically gifted after he began taking piano lessons at 8: “I never had a backup plan,” he says. “It was always gonna be music.”

Lenker’s high-school band, Clockwork Orange, rocked Twin Falls with new-wave covers. During a six-year stretch at Western Washington University in Bellingham, he formed a popular bluegrass act called The Barbed Wire Cutters, which successfully toured the region.

After the Cutters broke up, he moved to Seattle and focused on a solo career as a singer and guitarist. When taste-making radio station KEXP started spinning his music, he became “kind of the young singer-songwriter guy in Seattle,” Lenker says. He got management. He played the Bumbershoot and Sasquatch festivals. He opened for acts ranging from Keith Urban to Nickel Creek and Ray LaMontagne.

Then things cooled off. So around 2007, Lenker decided to move to Nashville. Within two weeks, he had won the Merlefest Chris Austin Songwriting Competition and was signed to a small record label.

“Six months later, the indie label had imploded,” Lenker says. “I was so broke — beyond broke. It was clear that I had started over.

“There’s a lot of people like me who had a name for themselves in their local town, but when they move to Nashville, they’re just another talented person. There are so many people who can write a good song and sing.”

In hindsight, it was good for him, he says.

“It kind of hurt my feelings, because up until that point, I had always been able to do music full time,” he admits. “I was 30 years old, and I was valet parking cars at a hotel downtown. I did it for 3 1/2 years.”

But slowly, Lenker made music, re-energized himself — and kickstarted his career.

His self-titled new album is filled with excellent playing, charming hooks and lots of spirited variety — from rootsy vibes to indie-pop.

Deep in the album is an irresistible tune called “My Little Life.” A winner at the 2012 Kerrville New Folk Competition, it perfectly sums up Lenker’s essence. The lyrics list things that aren’t part of his life (steady job, smokin’ girlfriend, fancy phone), then things that are (sleeping in, going to movies, a few good friends.) “Just me in my apartment all alone,” he sings, “but that’s just fine. My little life ... is mine, mine, mine!”

It is easy to imagine Lenker singing those words happily, window down, as he drives his 2002 Izuzu Trooper from state to state.

“I put brand new tires on my car right before I left on tour,” Lenker says at the end of our conversation. “They were totally bald ... and it was like the most grown-up thing I’ve ever done in my whole life.

“It was kind of depressing,” he adds, laughing of course.

Michael Deeds’ column runs Fridays in Scene and Sundays in Life. He co-hosts “The Other Studio” at 9 p.m. Sundays on 94.9 FM The River and appears Thursdays on Channel 6 News.

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