Environment, anthropology, and family VHS videos inspire Kenai musician

Nelson Kempf, a musician from Kenai, was awarded an Individual Artist award from the Rasmuson Foundation to work on a new album. (Photo Rasmuson Foundation)

Every person has their own history within the broader history of a place. That may be family, personal, or generational. How you remember it may be different than how it actually was. For Kenai musician Nelson Kempf, that means digging into his own history—family and beyond.

Along with 24 other Alaskan artists, Kempf recently received a $7,500 individual artist grant from the Rasmuson Foundation to pursue making a new album. He calls it a chance to “decolonize” Alaska’s history and look at his own.

“When you’re a kid, growing up, there’s a sort of god-like quality to the adults in your life, your parents, your grandparents,” he said. “That sort of transitions into that family pride eventually as you grow. And then eventually I think you look back at those moments growing up, and you may have to reconsider them.”

The new album project is timely, with much of America reckoning with the reality of its history versus its memory, but Kempf says he’s been thinking about these things for a long time. He started studying anthropology with Dr. Alan Boraas at Kenai Peninsula College before moving to Nashville, where the ideas grew more.

“I think a lot of us are sort of having conversations that are difficult,” he said. “It’s starting to dawn on me that there’s definitely going to be some vulnerability. It’s a little bit intimidating for sure, to think about. It’s good, and I’m super excited about everything going on right now, and you know, if I can contribute in some way, that’s great. I feel good about it. I’m up for that discomfort.”

Though he said he has done the singer-songwriter style, he’s moved away from that over time. The new album is more like an exploration, with some interesting technological tactics. He said he is importing family video tapes and using data, translated through software to produce sound. A few songs are written, but it’s still a work in progress.

“This sounds kind of strange, but I’m going to be using a lot of data manipulated through software, et cetera,” he said. “I’m going to be sort of representing environmental data in the sort of sound structures. And then I’ll be using a lot of field recordings of wildlife, people, I’m going to be going through and digitally transferring a bunch of my family videos, old VHS tapes from back in the day, and using a lot of that audio. I do do storytelling, but it’s not sort of in the way that a lot of people I think think of storytelling in songs. My songs aren’t super narrative. They’re more abstract, I guess.”

The coronavirus pandemic has been tough on everyone. But for artists and performers, it presents an existential crisis—if you can’t get people together to listen or enjoy art work, then it makes making a living pretty hard.

With a different album that was finished in February due out at the end of this week, Kempf had been busy booking promotional shows and tours for this spring and summer when the pandemic hit. All of that is out the window now, and that makes it hard to make a living. Music is basically free this days, with streaming services and other distribution, so most musicians make their money from playing live shows. But live shows are usually places for people to gather close together, often singing, and often in a closed space. Those are public health no-nos right now.

“The kind of silver lining—I think this is also happening in a much broader way—it is kind of cool to have all the YouTube concerts and Instagram concerts and all the innovative ways people are coming to this, making the best of it, coming up with new, cool ways to make and present art,” he said. “Of course, I want live music to come back, but I also hope that a lot of the things that people are doing and trying out now will stay in the new world, the post-corona world.”

In the meantime, he said he’s grateful for the grant that will help cover the cost of making the last album and providing for his family.

Fans can find Kempf’s most recent album out this week on bandcamp, Spotify, and other streaming services.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at eearl@kdll.org.