Curt Kiser could be the poster boy for the old adage, “All good things come to those who wait.” After he parted ways in 2013 with local band Pomegranates, Kiser retreated from music other than occasional guitar accompaniment at church services. But within two years he had come up with a songwriting/performing project that he dubbed Carriers.
Over the next two years, Kiser met Afghan Whigs bassist and local producer extraordinaire John Curley and the National's drummer Bryan Devendorf through random chance, and assembled a rotating collective of musicians to play Carriers gigs. All that activity resulted in Carriers' Best New Artist nomination and a stunning live performance featuring Kiser, Curley and Devendorf at the 2017 Cincinnati Entertainment Awards ceremony.
Kiser had been recording with Curley at Ultrasuede and began leaking songs to radio and the press in 2017, but it would be another two years before he assembled all of his recordings into Carriers' debut album, Now is the Time for Loving Me, Yourself & Everyone Else, released just over a year ago. The long wait for the actual release of the full set was well worth it; Now is the Time... took home the Album of the Year CEA at last November's event.
Having just signed with a booking agent, Kiser and the touring version of Carriers were playing extensive out-of-town shows after the release of Now is the Time... — Kiser had to drive from a gig in Washington, D.C. in order to attend the CEA show — and he was looking forward to more roadwork in the new year. Early this year, just before the coronavirus pandemic hit, Kiser wrote a brand new song — a raw, vulnerable and beautiful track titled “Without You” — which he recorded himself at home. The song was digitally released in late August, almost a year to the day after Carriers' debut album.
“It started as a loop, then I added the guitar progression,” Kiser said in a recent email interview. “The melody for the first verse came to me and, before long, I had the majority of the song written. It felt close to complete when I added the high pitched-octave lead part over the choruses. Those late-night sessions that go into the early morning are my favorites and definitely when I write the most.”
When Kiser originally conceived the song, he was attempting to impart a sense of who he was in the world in the context of turning 30 and his evolution as both an artist and an adult. The song had already begun making its way into the public consciousness when life came to a screeching halt. At that point, “Without You” suddenly seemed to have an even deeper and more pervasive message.
When I first wrote it I was thinking about my own experience and it was a prayer for me going into 2020,” says Kiser. “I played it once at Northside Tavern, a few livestreams and then it became a song I wanted to release. The sentiment for sure became more poignant once everything was shut down. I think I was aware of the duality pretty soon after. I feel like there is always a sense of knowing people are going to interpret a song differently, but the interpretation feels pretty universal this time around.”
For the time being, “Without You” will remain a digital-only release, although Kiser would definitely be down for a physical vinyl release somewhere down the road. As for the decision to allow his home demo to be the officially released version of the song, Kiser remains convinced that it was the right thing to do.
“I wasn’t feeling so sure about it at first,” he says. “A few friends took a shot at taking it somewhere I couldn’t, but I realized I liked the original mix. Sometimes it's nice to have that pressure out of my hands, but after showing some people and receiving positive feedback, I decided to trust my ear on this one. I sent it off to (local musician/engineer) John Hoffman to master it and it was ready to go.”
There is also a distinct possibility that “Without You” will show up on Carriers' sophomore album, whenever that happens, although it will likely be in a slightly altered form by that time.
“It could be fun to re-record with the band,” Kiser says. “I enjoy collaborating and seeing where a song can go. It most likely will just depend on how many songs I end up going with for the record. Album two has been ready to record for a while now. I do have just about all the demos recorded in some fashion. Some of them are songs from early Carriers days and then there are about 50 to sift through and decide which ones are album two or three. Usually, by the time I’m ready to record, I’ve got so many new songs to choose from, but I’m trying to not make another double album this time around.”
Like everyone whose creative spirit has been chained in the basement during the pandemic, Kiser is itching to get back in front of people to continue supporting Now is the Time..., but he's just as anxious to begin work on a second Carriers album. He's stockpiled a sizable amount of material, not just work done during the quarantine, but also some of it dating to the earliest days of the band. For that reason, “Without You” is not necessarily a signpost pointing toward Carriers' sonic direction going forward.
“I’m still trying to figure that out,” Kiser says. “I write a lot of songs. Some are upbeat with layers of synth and guitar, some are Folk tunes that I’m trying to figure out how I want them to sound, and some I feel very certain of what I’m trying to accomplish. I’ve got groups of songs that sound good together and pretty cohesive, then I’ve got other vibes I was just enjoying at that time. I think the next record will end up being a nice blend of tunes with production that ties it all together. My friend and drummer, Alex McGrath, is producing this next record for me. He’s got such a good ear and specific ideas for how he wants us to sound live and recorded.”
For all of the uncertainty surrounding the next phases of reopening and the potential for a spike in COVID cases, Kiser is anxious to return to the studio and the road. But given recent events beyond the upheaval of the coronavirus, he's more aware than ever of his role as a translator of the current zeitgeist into musical entertainment.
“It’s all coming together, slowly but surely,” Kiser says. “I’m gathering the people who are going to be a part of it and figuring out the best plan of action for making a record safely during a pandemic. We need a large studio for this one but I'm excited to make it happen. This pause has been important for multiple reasons. Greater issues in society have taken center stage, as they should, and I felt like I needed to rethink what I’m doing, why I write music, and who I’m writing for. I’ve always written honest songs but with the current climate, there is just so much that humanity needs right now — justice, equality, hope, freedom and healing are at the top of that list. I want my life and music to always reflect and inspire this.”