Liam Kazar released his debut studio album, Due North, last week, though the Chicago-raised, Kansas City-based multi-instrumentalist was already renowned for his session work and stage presence over the past decade. He rose to fame as a teenager in the early 2010s as part of the genre-melding ensemble Kids These Days, and later co-founded the indie group Marrow with its three of its former members, including Ohmme’s Macie Stewart. Kids These Days’ only full-length release, 2012’s Traphouse Rock, was produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, and Kazar later went on to join the touring band for Tweedy, Jeff’s duo with his son Spencer. Due North, out now via Kevin Morby’s Woodsist imprint, Mare Records, features contributions from Spencer on drums, Lane Beckstrom on bass, keyboardist Dave Curtin, pedal steel guitarist and co-producer James Elkington, Sam Evian, as well as Ohmme (whose other member, Sima Cunningham, is Kazar’s sister) and Andrew Sa on backing vocals, but it also finds Kazar coming into his own as a songwriter and front-person: from the swaggering funk of ‘Old Enough for You’ to the strutting ‘Shoes Too Tight’ and the gentle dreaminess of ‘On a Spanish Dune’, his songs are charming as they are playful and as wonderfully textured as they are direct.
We caught up with Liam Kazar for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about his earliest musical memories, the making of his debut solo album, and more.
What are some of your earliest memories of music?
My earliest memories are listening to my dad’s vinyl of Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life and a Frank Sinatra Greatest Hits. When I was young, my grandfather passed away and I needed to get a suit for the funeral, and I insisted on getting a fedora because I wanted to dress like Frank Sinatra and dance to Frank Sinatra in my suit and fedora.
What did you realize you wanted to start making music?
It started around seventh grade. I had sort of just stumbled into a friend group and everyone could play music. At the time I could play piano, but I didn’t really like playing piano, and I quickly started playing bass and then guitar soon after that. And it was just sort of fumbling my way into it. I started singing a little bit because nobody else wanted to sing, and because I was singing I started writing the songs because nobody else was writing, you know, just sort of filling the hole, and then we became a band. And then from then on, it was just like, all my friends were musicians. Always just hanging out with musicians in high school, all my afterschool activities were related to music, and just everyone I hung out with was a musician. Kind of been that way ever since.
My dad was the one who exposed me to music when I was a kid – he plays guitar. My sister’s a musician, and you know, I’m a younger sibling, just sort of doing what my older sibling does. And so music was always there, but it was just sort of like, music’s the thing that I do with my family when we’re home. It wasn’t until my friends were into it that I got into it.
Was there ever a point where you felt like rebelling against that kind of lifestyle because you grew up in a musical family?
Well, musically rebelling, but not rebelling against music as a whole. Like, the whole spectrum of a teenager’s emotions or anyone’s emotions exists within music, so if you’re pissed at somebody you can show that to them with music. Or if you don’t want to do what your parents did and want to set your own path, you can do that with music too, even if your parents are in music. So I never questioned music’s power or felt like I need to get away from music to be rebellious, but within music I sort of did that.
When did you feel like music had the power to express things that you couldn’t otherwise?
I felt pretty early on that you can pretty much express anything, but the thing that I want to express is joy. And I found it hard to express in earlier bands that I was a part of – depending on what sort of group I’m playing in as a live musician, I do like to try and express joy and sort of build that into the architecture of the music, and that was kind of the goal of this record.
How do you look back on your time with Kids These Days?
You know, at this point, I’m almost 10 years away from that period of my life. When I think about it, I don’t really think about the music that we made; I think about the stuff that we would do, what it means to be in a band, you know, like being in a tour van or being in the green room. I don’t think about the shows as much, I think about the times in between. And I think about them fondly. I think about how I’m older, because I think about how resilient we were when we were doing that and sleeping wherever, you know, doing whatever, and not really worrying about ourselves and just sort of running around. And I think, Wow, my body has aged. [laughs]
Outside of that group, how do you feel that your collaborations early on have shaped who you are as a musician?
I think with putting together a solo record and introducing myself as a solo musician, it’s like a tyranny of choice, you know. It’s like, what do I want to do, if you could do anything you’re capable of? It’s not about some interplay between two musicians, or it’s not wholly dependent on that, the way that a band thing is. And it’s like, once you get a band together, you can certainly sculpt that sound, but people are who they are, and once you sort of get them you’re going to figure out what that group of people is going to sound pretty quickly. And then, when it became, “Well, it’s just you, what do you want to do?” I spent at least a year trying to figure that out, make that decision of what do I want this thing to be.
Why did this feel like the right time to do that?
I was not really touring that much, I was just around, you know, and I wanted to stay musically active. But I’m always writing songs, and it sort of was like, “Okay, I’m not really in a band right now, and I have the bandwidth to really focus on songwriting as opposed to focus on somebody else’s live set of music that I need to keep in my head.” And once I got the ball rolling, then I was like, “Okay, I really want to do this, I really want to be a solo artist, try and make a record.”
Was that a period of reflection for you as well?
I would say less reflecting and more, like, trying to look into the future, trying to figure out what the future holds. It was like, I know I like music, I know music is like the most important thing to me. I know I’ve worked with people who have done it into their 40s and 50s, and made a life out of it. How do I do that, because I want to do that. That was more of what was in my head, it wasn’t like, “Gosh, remember that tour I did three years ago?” It was more like, “I don’t think I want to just stay in a city and work at a bar the rest of my life. I want to make music with my life, for real.”
I read that the album began to take shape after a conversation you had with Jeff Tweedy. What do you remember about it?
The truth is I remember that little nugget that he gave me, which is, “It sounds like you’re writing for other people that you’ve played with before, it doesn’t sound like you’re writing for yourself.” I know he’d said a bunch of other shit to me when we hung out and I showed him songs, and that happened maybe after the third song I showed him – I showed him like 12 songs. But that just immediately blew the doors open for me, like, “All right, never mind, I gotta start over. You’re absolutely right.” I know he said other things to me and we’ve been together and played together countless times since then, but that was one of the more tangible aha moments in my life.
Did you land somewhere specifically when it came to figuring out your musical identity?
Well, I knew that the dissonance in the record was going to be between what was musically happening what was lyrically happening. Because I sort of was like, if I’m fearful about something and want to write something that I’m scared of or wrestling with, that doesn’t mean the music has to match that. It can, it often does, but it doesn’t have to. For this record, lyrics were written very separate from the music, which is not how I’ve written songs before, because I really knew what I wanted to be writing about. But every time I would write about that stuff, you know, anxiety about the future, about the state of the world, whenever I would set those lyrics to music as I was writing them, the music wasn’t what I wanted it to sound. The music was too dire-sounding, too intense. I knew that I really wanted to have some joy in it because that’s my life. Like, while I’m also nervous about things that are going on in the world, I also really enjoy being around people that I like and we laugh and we have a good time. So I sort of let the music carry that part of it and the lyrics carry more the sort of brain talk that I have with myself.
I was thinking about this in relation to the opening track, where I feel like that anxiety about the future turns into confidence when you sing “And I bid so long tomorrow/ And farewell to the past.” Why did you want that to be the opening statement on the record?
You’re absolutely right. That song I wrote during COVID, and that kind of became a defense mechanism while that was happening, of just like, Stay here, stay right here and you’ll be okay. You know, like, don’t worry about what’s happened, don’t be waiting for the phone to call for everyone to say like, “You can go back to normal now.” All you have to do today is go clean your car. You know, COVID might be going on, the world might be a scary place, but right now, you can go clean your car and sit on your porch. And that was sort of how I made it through pretty early on, because my life was being really turned upside down, as everyone’s was. My partner was able to work in the pandemic and I very quickly wasn’t, and just trying to have my brain not spin out waiting for it to get out of it. So early on I got to a point where I was like, I’m not going to be sitting around waiting.
How did you go about choosing your collaborators for Due North? Did you go into it with a different approach than you had in the past?
It was different. In the past I’ve always recorded, you know, trying to get as many people as I can together at the same time and sort of knock it out. And I would say 90% of this record is recorded one person at a time. Except for Lane and Spencer, they would record together sometimes, but maybe only a third of the record. The whole record is pretty much just me working with one musician at a time, which I’ve never done before, and which took a long time because I’m not very good at being an engineer or anything like that. But it was because I didn’t know what I wanted to be and I didn’t want to pull everyone into a studio and do a bunch of stuff and then a month later realize I don’t like it or that it’s not me. James Elkington, we mostly worked on this record together over email, like, I think he came to the studio one time, but it was a lot of just sending emails to each other, rough mixes, ideas about songs, having a phone call every once in a while. And so, a very, very accumulative, strange, way to make a record.
I love how the record combines a sense of joyfulness and vulnerability, and the way that manifests in the flow and sequencing of the record as well. Was it challenging to maintain that balance?
Well, the last piece of the puzzle was going to mix the record with my friend Sam Evian. He came into it with fresh ears and he put together the sequence, actually, and he put it together like that [snaps fingers]. He was like, “I know exactly how this album needs to be sequenced.” And I would have never sequenced it that way in a million years, so the flow of the record is entirely credited to him. I love particularly the whole A side, the way it sort of runs into each other. And the songs that he sort of cut off and let go and let deconstruct, you know, the way they naturally do at the end of a recording session, that was a really interesting, cool choice he made too.
I wonder if that made you recontextualize the record or helped you see the songs in a different light.
Not really, it more so just helped me realize how other people hear my music. And it made me feel that I’m relating what I intended to relate. The fact that the way it was sequenced, that there’s all this sort of explosion of joy and party sort of chaos towards the beginning of the record, I like that because that was the thing that I was trying hardest to tap into, and that I still hope that people relate to immediately. And then maybe slowly develop into the sort of like the fear aspects, the meditative aspects of the record. I don’t mind if that comes at q later listen. I like the immediacy of the record the way it is now.
I think that definitely comes across, that was how I experienced it as well. I wanted to single out a specific moment on the record, which is ‘No Time For Eternity’, where you sing, “One thing I like about the past is there’s no fear and doubt.” Could you elaborate on what that line means to you?
I would say, of what I’m trying to get across on the record, ‘No Time For Eternity’ has kind of got everything that I’m trying to say. With that lyric specifically, it was just a realization that I had, you know, of like, as I’ve gotten older, like when you think you’ve said something stupid at a party, or maybe you met a friend of yours’ new partner and you’re afraid you said the wrong thing the first time that you met them… As I’ve gotten older, I just don’t worry about that anymore. I’m not saying I don’t care about being a kind person when I meet people – I want to be a kind person or being thought of as that – but like, the past is just that. It’s past. And if you’re worried about anything that you’ve done in the past, that can only be corrected in the future. So, the past is the past and I don’t worry about it. When I think about it, I tend to sort of have involuntary amnesia of the things that I don’t want to think about, and I tend to lean towards things that I do enjoy thinking about, because there’s just no fear or doubt there.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.