One of the last songs Kendel Carson prepped for her extraordinary new album, Alright Dynamite, was a cover. It came about when the 24-year old Canadian singer/musician (and fiddler extraordinaire) was in a bar one night with Chip Taylor, the legendary songwriter (“Angel of the Morning,” “Wild Thing”) and her trusted collaborator.
Suddenly, Janis Joplin’s “Mercedes Benz” belted out of the jukebox.
“Neither of us had heard it in so long. It kicks so much ass!” says Carson. “The original isn’t even really in tune, but it just has something else to do it…there’s that attitude, that magic.” She laughs. “So, for the album, we did this rippin’ fiddle take on it. And I have a bit of a running theme about cars and trucks, so the song suits me just fine.”
Trucks? Fiddles? If that sounds familiar, you may remember Carson from her single, “I Like Trucks,” which came out in 2007 (on Rearview Mirror Tears) and garnered the singer a huge audience on both sides of the Atlantic. The song, a playful slice of country/roots music, served as a nice introduction to the singer, who was already a much sought-after studio/live performer in her homeland before the song hit.
But to really get to know Kendel Carson, listen to Dynamite. It suggests a singer who’s both confident and coy, and a musician who’s technically gifted but spontaneous at heart. It also ties together everything that make her one of today’s most important new performers – her mentorship with Chip Taylor, a childhood spent in the prairies of Alberta and, later, the burgeoning roots music scene of Victoria, and her lifelong passion for music and the fiddle.
“I own this record a lot more than my first record,” she says, and it shows; Carson took greater reins on the songwriting this time out, contributing to four tracks, including the album’s sultry standout “Oh Baby Lie Down.” Recorded over two sessions, Dynamite saw Carson and Taylor working with a heroic cast of musicians–John Platania (Van Morrison), Bryan Owings (Emmylou Harris, Buddy Miller, Shelby Lynne), Ron Eoff (The Band, Delbert McClinton), and Tony Leone (Levon Helm, Ollabelle)–and recording the tracks in upstate New York, close to Woodstock in an old converted barn.
Lyrically, new tracks like “One Blue Dress on the Line,” “Jesse James” and “Cowboy Boots” show a singer and songwriter who’s imagery is still heavily attuned to the countryside. “The feeling of growing up on the prairies is like nothing else,” she says. “As a kid, I remember riding horses and dirt bikes around, and wandering along train tracks. Those childhood images stuck with me.”
Those images, and Carson’s love of music, began on a family farm outside of Calgary. It’s where the singer first learned about the fiddle…and discovered her love of trucks (“In Alberta, everybody drives a truck,” she explains. “My sister liked trucks, and boys that drove trucks; I picked up on that pretty quickly. I mean, I wore dresses, but I also rode ATVs!”).
Her mom taught young kids – and she knew music was a great development tool, and had son Tyler taking violin lessons when he was five. Carson, 2 years younger, didn’t want to be left out. “I had to sit there while Tyler practiced. It looked fun, so I asked if I could join in,” she says. Her mom agreed, and soon Carson was playing day and night.
Although classically trained (and eventually a performer in the National Youth Orchestra and a featured soloist with the Victoria Symphony), Carson’s musical passion lied in the folk, country and rock scenes – especially after her family moved out West. “There’s an amazing roots scene out in Victoria,” she says. “That became my primary influence. It’s a really community-minded spirit out there. It’s inspiring.”
Carson and her brother quickly made their mark on that scene, working in several bands together and ending up under the tutelage of Daniel Lapp, one of the greatest violin instructors and performers in the world. Lapp was also a touring member of Spirit of the West, a legendary Canadian folk-rock group. “I adored that group since I was 7, so working with Daniel was amazing for me” Carson says.
Through her connection to Lapp and a friendship with the group’s drummer, Carson was able to make her way backstage at a Spirit show in Victoria, fiddle in hand. “I met the band and asked them ‘who’s playing fiddle with you tonight?’ and they laughed, because nobody was. So they asked me to come up for the encore.” That impromptu jam – which ended up with Carson shotgunning beers on stage (a Spirit tradition, it seems) – led to her befriending Spirit founding member Geoffrey Kelly.
Eventually, Carson joined Kelly’s other group, the Juno-award winning Celtic-Latin folk-rock band The Paperboys. That, in turn, is how Carson ended up at a folk festival talking to Chip Taylor. “I talked to this guy one morning, and afterwards my band was like, ‘Do you know who that is?’ It’s the guy who wrote “Wild Thing.’ I didn’t know!”
Through the festival, and the coming weeks, Taylor and Carson kept talking. “I told him I was looking for direction,” says the singer. “I felt like it was a gift to meet him, so I just asked, kind of naively, if we could keep in touch. And it definitely worked out – he called and asked me to come to New York to record some music. He said he had a gut feeling about me.”
Neither Carson nor Taylor expected more than a couple of songs and ideas to come out of that initial recording session. Surprisingly, they ended up cutting a whole album in just a few days, including the eventual hit “I Like Trucks.” Laughs the singer: “I’ve always liked cool cars and old trucks. Before we recorded together, he asked me to tell him something about myself that made me different from other girls. When I got to his place, the song was there… he definitely got what I was about!”
The resulting album, Rearview Mirror Tears (released on Train Wreck Records), caught the ear of an unlikely source: BBC DJ Bob Harris, who championed the single “Trucks” and helped turn it into a hit thousands of miles from Carson’s home. Success snowballed: the influential U.K. mag Q named Tears one of the five best roots albums of the year. Eventually, the record’s success led her to a sold-out tour of England, Germany, Ireland and Denmark. Back in North America, the video for “Trucks” received over 350,000 hits on YallWire, while the album was heralded as the top debut album by the Freeform American Roots Reporters; XM Radio labeled it one of the Top 10 Best X Country Albums of the year.
Dynamite appears ready to expand on that early success. Two years after her stunning debut, Carson is brimming with more confidence than ever. “Chip helped mold me into something more complete,” says Carson. “He helped me find my own voice. I remember one of the first things he told me – to treat singing like playing the fiddle. It just has to be me being me, going by feeling.”