(by Britt McKenna)
Conceived in a tipi and raised by parents he describes as “semi-nomadic, back to the land hippy homesteaders,” Kai Welch spent his formative years living off the land in Oregon, an experience he says straddled a fine line between utopia and squalor. Though his family “steadily and half-heartedly normalized” when he was a little older, early memories of living in tree-planting camps and tanning buckskins with his father continued to be a guiding force in Kai’s development as both an artist and a person.
Fast-forward to today and you’ll find Kai living and writing music in Nashville, TN. Though he isn’t a Nashville native, Kai has made an indelible mark on Nashville's music scene. As a writer, he was nominated for a Grammy for best American Roots Song in 2020 with his co-writer Sierra Hull - losing in the category to John Prine, a loss Kai considers a big win. He first came to be known for a critically-aclaimed collaboration with Abigail Washburn on her record “City of Refuge”. His work with The Greencards on their final album Sweetheart of the Sun, for which Kai co-wrote five tracks, yielded a Grammy nomination for Best Folk Album in 2013. He is also a respected multi-instrumentalist and singer, who has recorded and performed with a vast range of artists including Kacey Musgraves, Rickie Lee Jones, The Fray, Rayland Baxter, Liz Longley, Lera Lynn, Morgan Wade, Bobby Bare, Jr., Laura Veirs, Sarah Jarosz, The Straybirds, and Alejandro Escovedo. His work has earned him supporters in many corners of the music world, including world-class banjo player Bela Fleck, who describes Kai as “a powerful musical force."
Kai has released two studio solo albums: the full-length Send It Down (2011), and the self-recorded and produced Perpetually Out Of Fashion EP (2014). His recent collaboration called The Wu-Force has been featured on NPR, which called it "fearless..delicate..and intriguing".
His love for music and nature also led him to start Music for Wild Places, a non-profit concert series that takes participants on multi-day, musical adventures through some of the world's most beautiful wilderness areas.
Kai Welch is a Nashville-based songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and producer.
He has shape-shifted between these multiple roles his whole musical life, from early years as a semi-serious classical musician, to formative times busking as a young man to help shoestring sailing adventures in the South Pacific, through to a current career as a studio-owner/record producer.
As a songwriter, Kai once lost a grammy to John Prine, which he claims feels like a big win. He has produced records for artists as diverse as bluegrass superstar Molly Tuttle, indie favorite Rayland Baxter, and psychedelic voyager Ric Robertson (The Sam Grisman Project). As an instrumentalist Kai has contributed to records by artists like Rodney Crowell, Sarah Jarosz, Rhiannon Giddens, Morgan Wade, and countless more. And as a sideman, he has crisscrossed the world for 15 years, notably with: Kacey Musgraves during her meteoric multiple-grammy-winning “Golden Hour” era, Rickie Lee Jones, Abigail Washburn, and currently the nostalgia-pop band The Fray.
AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL NON-FICTION aka my life story as told by me
I was born into a tribe of semi-nomadic back-to-the-land hippies in Eastern Oregon in 1980. My parents made money for part of the year, planting trees as contractors for the US Forest Service and living in teepees and yurts. The rest of the time they tended their garden, took care of the horses, practiced midwifery, tanned buckskins and beaded clothes and generally homesteaded. It was something between Eden and squalor.
Then we moved to town, and those sweetly subversive dreams of "getting off the grid" got papered over with the normal shit of child-rearing in the '90s; parent-teacher conferences, piano lessons, insurance, VHS camcorders, rollerblades and skis and skateboard ramps, high-school musicals, ramen noodles, roofing leaks, Les Miserables 2-CD-Box Set, family pets, TV-watching time limits. Before I knew what had happened, I was a teenaged, dubiously born-again Christian Jew Hippie kid in a meth-riddled small-town America. I wasn't allowed to listen to Nirvana. So I sneaked it on unmarked cassette tapes.
To the West of my town, the freeway disappeared into a mountain pass called Deadman's Pass, and the sun went down into that notch in the hills.
Breaking out of that little town was a revelation. At 17 years old, I wanted to know everything, and I probably got as close as I ever will to knowing everything. Every subject in college fascinated me, so I took classes in everything. My major was "independent studies", but you could have also called it "do what you want"; which was a stroke of luck, because it kept me around until graduation.
And when I finally knew everything, I headed for the South Pacific - that seemed like the most exotic place I could think of. A place so isolated by ocean that time hadn't had a chance to tarnish it, where paradises were so numerous as to be expendable, where whole islands could be nuked by atomic scientists wearing safari hats and sunglasses, and no one would miss them. I figured chances were good that I could find an uninhabited island and figure out how to play Robinson Crusoe and survive. That appeared to me to be the purest thing I could do. The goal was pretty simple: to get out of the cycle of earning and spending money to buy things that really only serve the purpose of facilitating that selfsame cycle. I had started writing a lot by then, poetry and music, countless half-baked songs and one or two good ones. So it was a journey to get away from everything I knew and find my thing as an artist too. I wanted to tear it all down, everything I'd learned and seen and tried to emulate in the past. I wanted to start with nothing.
It never came out quite as clean as all that. When ideas become realities they take on a form and a shape that's unpredictable and beautifully deformed by the whims of circumstance. I headed for the "South Pacific", but I was waylaid for half a year partying with hooligans in Australia. I did eventually find an uninhabited island to inhabit, but it was only about 100 yards from mainland New Zealand. I only played Robinson Crusoe there for a week or two, before I got tired of rowing to the mainland every other day to refill the water jugs.
I hopped sailboats to the Tongan islands, in search of a pure virginal culture, a Rimbaud-like disappearance into something impossibly distant. But there I found mormon missionaries, donuts, a lot of pregnant stray dogs, and gangster rap. I learned gospel songs, in English, from Tongan fishermen who didn't speak English. I have some great field recordings from that time, on the ancient forgotten recording format: MiniDisk. They flipped out when they realized that they could listen back to themselves on my Minidisc recorder.
It might have taken me until then to appreciate something I still learn everyday: that human life is all mixed up and messy, that we are all a part of a fabric of inconceivably varied ideas, cultures, and influences.
There are a lot of people trying to pose as purists of one type or another. Pure rocker, pure folkie, pure punk, pure country. I'm not a pure anything. I'm an American and that could mean just about anything.
I have called Nashville, Tennessee home for over a decade. It's here that I found a community of people who inspire me and keep me creating, musically and otherwise. I count as friends people that I admire and respect, and love to work and create with. So as much as I sometimes long for the days of high-seas and high-minded adventuring, I love being in a place where everyone speaks my favorite language, which is music.
My strongest belief, and the one constant that I can distill from all these inner and outer adventures, is that life is mysteriously divine, and that this planet we are a part of is host to infinite wonders. Our challenge while we are here is to appreciate them and one another fully.