Reading about Justin Kalk‘s musical development brings to mind something of an artistic trident: the first prong a reverence for the past, strengthened by an early introduction to instruments and past masters, enhanced by a formal musical education; the second, a tendency to experiment and take chances; and the third a dedication to always move forward. Somewhere at a crossroads between each of these elements is the new Justin Kalk Orchestra album, VoLcanO, though in keeping with the latter, despite having just released the new full-length, Kalk is already looking ahead to what’s next.
Speaking of his father via email, Kalk reflects being surrounded by music at an early age, “I remember crawling up to his Gibson 335 and strumming it back when it was taller then I was.” His great uncle taught him how to play lead guitar — early influences that still ring throughout Kalk’s music included Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, and Jeff Beck — and his grandparents would take him to jazz concerts at a young age, introducing him to many of the musicians along the way. While recognizing early on that music was going to be an essential part of his life, looking back Kalk says he had to fully invest himself in music if he was going to make something of his calling. “Berklee just seemed like the most logical next step if I was going to be serious.”
“Our bassist Steo [Britton] and I have played in bands together since we were kids,” continues Kalk. Britton would join him at Berklee College of Music, where they began writing music together, before expanding their group in founding the Blue Sky Traffic. While landing a spot on NBC’s “hybrid television-internet show” StarTomorrow in 2006 and releasing an album the following year, the band experienced a few lineup changes before Kalk relocated to Nashville and formed the Justin Kalk Orchestra. Rounding out the lineup would be drummer Jeremy Williams. “I saw him playing out at 12th & Porter a few years ago,” says Kalk, “and knew instantly I needed to jam with him. He just brings the gospel, jazz, hip hop style and chops. A lot of bands try to hold drummers like him back, but in this project I need someone who can rip!” In 2010 the band released the full-length album Blue Sky Traffic, led by the stomping electric blues of “I’ve Changed Too.”
Prior to the release of the album Kalk had reached out to Ralph Steadman, sending the legendary visual artist a letter with some of the music that would later appear on the album with the hope that he’d take a listen. “He wrote back,” says Kalk — “he was blown away.” The relationship evolved from there and Steadman would later create the artwork for not only Blue Sky Traffic, but also the band’s new album. “The cover for VoLcanO is just a masterpiece. I went to his house last spring and brought him the album,” continues Kalk. “There’s a lot to it. I especially love the bird at the bottom of the volcano.”
Musically, VoLcanO continues to balance the old with a penchant for experimentation, balancing “blues, rock, funk, [and] hip-hop.” Helping guide the release was Grammy award-winner Tom Hambridge, who produced the album. “Tom produced the last few Buddy Guy records,” says Kalk. “Buddy is the real deal and so is Tom. He’s a good soul. As a producer, he gave me permission to be myself.” In the case of VoLcanO, this manifested in a range of sounds, from the gentle, soul-inspired “Bee Sting” to the blues-funk hybrid, “Dirty Thing,” which was recently accompanied by a stop-motion music video, produced using $80 worth of clay and an iPhone by Kalk and his friend, William “The Facillitator” Macdonald. “It took two weeks,” adds Kalk. “My lovely wife Kelienne was extremely patient.”
Even with so much happening right now, however, Kalk’s imagination and creativity have hardly been tied down to the new album. In addition to his own music, he runs Stiff Neck Rocker, “a boutique rock & roll company” that he says is “taking on a life of its own.” “I’ve been working with this two piece, Reverse Buzzards. A self titled album is inches from the finish line for these guys… They sound like if Jeff Buckley, Radiohead, and Queens of the Stone Age had some kind of bearded baby!” Kalk’s also working on new music with Vanessa Barbee, Willy 3rd Street, and Keya Gordon. “I’m waist high into my third album as well,” Kalk continues. “Musically, it’s been a very fruitful year for me.”