It’s hard to believe that someone as laid-back and cheerful as Kirby Heyborne could incite any sort of controversy whatsoever, but being an LDS celebrity comes with a price. Many know Kirby as an actor, from LDS-themed films such as The R.M., Sons of Provo, and The Singles Ward, but he’s also a heartfelt, passionate, and sincere musician. Kirby’s acoustic-based folk is touchingly simple, yet texturally complex, and the strength of his lyrics are in their honesty. In this interview, Kirby talks about the pressures of being a celebrity and the motivation necessary to succeed in music.
Do you consider yourself an actor first, a musician first, or both?
A: I think of myself as both and actor and a musician. I think that being good at one definitely helps the other. As an actor, there is a rhythm and a musicality that is always present. As a musician, there is a need to put aside insecurities and let the world see your flaws. I’m lucky that I make a living doing both.
Tell us how you began writing songs.
A: I started writing my own songs when I was 12-13 (7th grade). My first one that I recall vividly was a melodic (and some times lyrical) rip off of Paul Simon’s “Cecilia.”
“Please, please. I’m down on my knees.
I’m beggin’ you please don’t leave me.
When you left me that day I had nothing to say but I’m sorry.
When you left me alone I would call you on the phone.
Baby, Baby don’t leave me.”
Looking back, it’s funny to me to see how clichéd and naïve I was. What was great was that all the girls in my home economics class asked me to sing the song everyday. Small groups of 3 or 4 would gather around. Needless to say, I loved it.
Subsequent songs during that year stayed on the greatest topic of musicdom: love (won and lost.)
At the time, I only played the piano. I was just realizing that the more I understood theory, the more I understood song structure. I started writing a number of songs on the piano using the basic I, IV, V chord progressions.
When I was 15 (9th grade), I picked up the guitar and that’s when my songwriting accelerated. With the acoustic guitar, basic chord theory and the knowledge of the relationships between chords are fundamental. I had a Beatles songbook that had diagrams of the guitar chords written above the piano line. I saw how the Beatles used basic pop progressions and I started to copy them.
In high school I took AP music theory and composition classes and fell in love with all aspects of music. My eyes were opened to the fact that music is perfect. It is based on learning simple principles and then building upon that. When I learned that each note is made up of 13 audible tones, I was blown away. There is so much more to music than what is gleaned with a cursory ear.
During high school, I was writing original songs (highly influenced by the contemporary singer/songwriters of the time: David Wilcox, John Gorka, Patty Griffin, and some older singer songwriters: Paul Simon, John Denver, and always Lennon/McCartney.) and performing small concerts for friends and classmates at intimate venues.
After a year of this, I formed a group with a good friend, Marc Thorup (Marcus Bentley) and we found a lot of success in the local and regional scene. When we started we were each writing an equal number of songs. By the time we stopped playing as a band, 5 years later, that dynamic had changed to 60/40 (me the former, Marc the latter.)
Meanwhile, after serving a mission, I dove into the music theory and composition department at the University of Utah. I loved every note, every teacher, and every bit of information about music.
I try to encourage my kids to find ways to make up songs, to find music in everything. We’ll make up songs as we’re playing together. Sometimes we sing instead of talking. It’s fun to see my kids being creative and finding cool ways to phrase things. We’ve made up songs to help the kids remember our address, to memorize poems, and to help them to become potty trained. (That’s one of my favorites to date.)
Alan Sparhawk told us in October, “It’s a fluke to be able to make a living on just music.” Do you agree? Is acting different?
A: I think that with anything if you work hard, work smart, and work consistently to improve yourself, you can make a living doing what you love. Few people apply all three of those elements to the vocation they are really meant for.
If you look at Alan and his road to success, I’m sure you’ll find it paved with all of these elements. For him to say that it’s a fluke to be able to make a living on just music is his way of being humble in my opinion.
I think that in addition to working at it, you also need to know your niche and embrace it. I’m never going to be a successful rock/alternative singer no matter how much I love the genre and want to be a part of it. I can be a pensive, storytelling, singer/songwriter and make a living, though. I also will probably never be a tough/edgy character in a film. I can make money in film as a congenial everyman. Once you know who you are and what you can do, then you work to be the best you can in that category.
One quote on your website compares your music to Dylan, Taylor, Stevens, and Lennon. How do you feel about those comparisons?
A: I love their ability to tell a story and marry lyrics with melody. I’m very flattered by these comparisons but in no way think I hold a candle to any of these giants.
What are your main musical influences?
A: I find influence in every aspect of music. I’ll listen to R&B, Classical, Alternative, Rock, Country, and Folk and find inspiration.
Your latest release, The Elm Tree, isn’t really an “LDS album” but the focus seems to be uplifting and hopeful. How has your album been received in the LDS and non-LDS world?
A: Those who have purchased the album have received it really well. More people connect with the album as a whole as opposed to just a single song. That’s great because from the beginning, I wanted the album to be just that: an album. Each song tells a different part of the story of a life. And just like in life, there are moments that shine and stand out. When we look at an entire life, we see the character behind the person.
Who did the cover artwork on The Elm Tree? It’s beautiful.
A: A good friend of mine, Diane Packer, designed the cover. She is an amazing artist. We looked at 2 covers: The Beatles “Revolver” and The Beach Boys “Endless Summer.”
She was able to capture the message of the album: Simplicity and a connection to life.
It seems that the lives and work of celebrities in the LDS world, like Richard Dutcher, Will Swenson, Jon Heder, Katherine Heigl, etc., seem very much “under the microscope” from other Latter-day Saints. Do you feel like this is unfair? How do you handle the pressure of being an LDS celebrity?
A: I think that a part of being a celebrity is to be scrutinized. You can’t please everyone.
I’m fine if someone doesn’t like my performance, but when they start criticizing my life, it’s hard to not get hurt. They don’t know my day-to-day life. They don’t see the service that I do in my community and church. It’s unfortunate that that some of the most hurtful comments aimed at me come from church members who don’t know me.
I have learned that it’s best to not respond. No matter what you say or what evidence you provide, they will keep their mindset. As long as I am a good husband and father and a worthy member, I’m fine with the work choices I make.
One of the most frustrating things to occur recently involved BYU. I have performed there a number of times over the years. I recently contacted them to set up another performance: either a concert or an improv show. I was informed that because I had done a beer commercial, they wouldn’t allow me to perform. They didn’t care that I was a temple worthy member.
My first reaction was to defensively ask them why they allow other performance groups who are not LDS to perform. They just have to sign a code of conduct saying they will uphold BYU standards while they are on campus. BYU doesn’t care what they do in their regular lives. I wish that they would show the same tolerance for a worthy member.
Of course, that’s what I wanted to say. But I didn’t. They had already made up their mind. Nothing I could say or prove to them would change it. They were concerned that the vocal minority would cause too much of a problem if I were to come to campus.
You recently did a series of shows with piano extraordinaire Marvin Goldstein and vocalist Sarah Morgann. Do you plan on doing similar tours in the future?
A: Yes. We have an awesome Christmas show. There’s music, improv, sketches, and audience interaction. It is the greatest Christmas show in the world.
Many of our readers are faithful Latter-day Saints trying to succeed in music. Do you have any advice for these readers?
A: Don’t just say that it’s your dream to be a musician, make it a reality. You have to work hard, smart, and consistently. Be grounded. Learn from people that are already doing what you want to do. Don’t be needy. Be honest with yourself about your level of talent. Just because your mom says that you write amazing songs doesn’t mean it’s so. Get feedback from others who don’t care about hurting your feelings.
Making a living as a musician/actor is like learning the guitar. When you start, you’re excited and focused. You learn all the standard chords and you impress yourself and your friends by being able to play “Blister in the Sun” by the Violent Femmes. By the time you get to a song that requires you to learn how to do a bar chord, you feel like you have to slow down and work again. It’s frustrating. A lot of people give up on improving their guitar skills at this point. They find easy ways around bar chords. There is no easy way around bar chords. In order to improve, you have to buckle down and work through them. Then you need to keep working. Challenge yourself. If you’re not challenged, desire decreases and you plateau.
If you don’t enjoy the challenge, don’t do it.
Can a faithful Latter-day Saint be successful in the American music world?
I think that some Latter-day Saints use the sentiment “The entertainment world is a horrible place that is full of temptations” as a reason to not try their hardest. If you’re steered off the path, don’t blame it on a music career.
To quote Orson Scott Card from his amazing Alvin Maker series: “A man might have plenty of help finding the short path to hell, but no one else can make him set foot upon it.”
Where can interested readers listen to your music, buy an album, or support you in any way?
A: Everything is on my website: www.kirbyheyborne.com. I keep it updated with information about everything. They can go to iTunes and give my albums positive, thoughtful, and intelligent reviews. Come to shows. I love talking to people who are serious about music. Whether they’re a fan of music or a maker of music.
Any important shows coming up?
A: They’re all important! My website has a calendar with concerts and appearances.