Like many singer/songwriters, Kim Richey would rather not be restricted by her various successes. Yet in the wake of the recent release of her fifth record, Chinese Boxes, she's getting used to the critical temptation to pigeonhole each new batch of her songs into a definitive genre — be it Pop, Country or AltCountry.
But when you consider Richey's background and the diversity of her previous records, maybe you can't entirely blame journalists for our quaint notions of categorization.
By phone from her Nashville home, she acknowledges the situation.
"I'm asked every time I put out a record ... usually it's something like, 'So this record is really different from your last one. Why is that?'," Richey says. "They said that with (my last album) Rise, and they're saying that with this one as well."
Fair enough. I quickly cross that one off of my scrawled list of questions before I forget and ask it anyway. Either way, though, she must know why we ask such things — after all, her music has changed significantly since the twang-laden, Roots Pop of her first records, Kim Richey and Bitter Sweet, released in the mid-'90s.
If you got on board the Richey song express back then like I did, you might wonder where the layered, deliberately produced Pop sounds of her crossover records, Glimmer and Rise, came from. But Richey has never been a dyed-in-the-wool Country singer. In other words, she didn't grow up defending Hank Williams or Loretta Lynn to her childhood friends in suburban Dayton, Ohio.
"Growing up, my influences were never Country," Richey explains. "You see, I listened to the radio a lot and you were liable to hear anything on the radio. Also, I had a great aunt who owned a record store in Ohio and she would let us take 45s but never albums whenever we went to visit when we were little. So even my influences were very random, so it always seemed to be more about the song than the artists."
That Pop sensibility is instantly compounded when you go into the studio with Giles Martin, the son of Beatles producer Sir George Martin, producing as he does on Chinese Boxes. So maybe it's OK to call her new songs vaguely "Beatlesque." At least second generation-style.
"Giles is one of the best people I've met really, regardless of whom he's related to or anything," Richey says. "He's really talented and hilariously funny and just a fine person. I really enjoyed making a record with him. He's done a lot of different stuff — very varied things — like I have."
In fact, she recorded the new record in London, where she's lived off and on for the last few years. And if London doesn't quite have the songwriting community that Nashville does, it's still England's capital city with vast opportunities and access to mainland Europe.
Though she hasn't released a record since Rise five years ago, she hasn't exactly been standing still.
"I've been writing the whole time, I haven't really reinvented myself," she says. "The last five years weren't a break. I've just been trying to write more for other people. I've also been teaching a little bit. I taught at this music college conservatory in Copenhagen, which was fantastic.
"That's what I thought I would always be, a teacher. I have a degree in Environmental Education. I like the elementary school kids. A lot of things you end up doing as an adult you don't even realize they're an option when you're young."
Often, it's the very willingness to be open to new opportunity that finally brings those things to you. Throughout her career, songwriting has been Richey's touchstone, her way of dealing with the stress and vagaries of a musician's life. Richey's introspective songs reflect the crafted grace of a consummate writer.
There's a reason why Trisha Yearwood, who scored a No. 1 with Richey's song "Believe Me Baby (I Lied)," and other Nashville divas such as Patty Loveless and Mindy McCready seek out her songs to record.
Luckily, Richey is savvy to the differences in her songwriting approaches.
"When I was trying to write for other people so much, I found myself writing stuff that wouldn't be right for me in a million years but it would be great for (them)," she says. "I don't really write for other people anymore — the songs I've written that other people have covered usually have been on my records. And I love Trisha. She's a good pal, and I thought she would do a good job with the song and it's likely to be a success. It's just not the type of song that I want to keep doing."
This restlessness provides her the juice to create. Whether it's moving around geographically or just discovering new outlets for her songs, Richey believes this sustains her craft.
She also makes a point of finding new writing partners, drawing them from her pool of Nashville friends. Most of the new songs are co-written with buddies like Joan Osborne and Mindy Smith.
"I wouldn't want to make the same record over and over again," Richey says. "That's probably not a great commercial decision on my part because people don't know what to make of me or what box or bin to put me in at the record store. It's just more interesting for me, musically, and I think it's the same for people listening."
Her ability to adapt and be challenged by fresh musical scenarios also extends to her experiences live onstage. I recognized that firsthand when I saw her play the Tractor Tavern in Seattle seven years ago. In a songwriters' circle featuring the bad-boy bill of Ryan Adams and Chuck Prophet, Richey more than held her own as the trio traded their own songs back and forth on acoustic guitars.
After playing solo for quite a while, Richey will play here with her new band. Then she packs up and hits the road again, heading back to her second home of Europe.
KIM RICHEY plays the Southgate House on Thursday.