Robert Kuhn Changes Course on Watery Maria the Gun
Gladys Fuentes September 1, 2017
Kuhn decided to begin his decade-long travels, like so many young, hopeful Americans before him, after reading Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. “It was the first book that opened my mind that you can just go to Mexico and Central America like that," he says. "You can just get on the road. I wanted to do that.”
And “do that” he did. Throughout his travels, Kuhn had his guitar in tow and was aware that music is a unifying force. “It’s an instant connection when you play music. No matter where you are,” he says.
Kuhn did plenty of writing while traveling, even writing a yet-unpublished novel based on his journals. When he returned to Texas after so many years away, he made his home between Houston and Galveston and found musical support from two local legends, bluesman Little Joe Washington and former Old Quarter owner Rex “Wrecks” Bell.
“Rex has been my biggest supporter since the beginning," says Kuhn. "He put me up at the Old Quarter and helped me. Whatever I got going on really started at the Old Quarter.” Little Joe Washington made his final studio recording on Kuhn’s previous album, and their friendship resonates on the record.
“Little Joe was my buddy," he says. "We were good together. It was so cool to have him be a part of that. It was special. He could have one string on the guitar and make it work.”
With Everybody Knows, Kuhn and his band went into SugarHill Studios and cut 12 songs in one day. Maria the Gun took him and his band to Wolf Island Recording Studios in Dayton, Texas, with fewer time constraints and new leadership under producer and fellow local musician Kevin Skrla. “With this album, everybody had the time and energy to make it," says Kuhn. "The other one was like, 'Okay, we got a day and we are going into SugarHill with a band, 1-2-3 go!”
Though Kuhn's distinct voice and world-beat sound are constant throughout both albums, Maria the Gun brings an edginess not felt in his previous album. “Those songs were written at a different time of life. Those songs were written when I had just come back from living in Central America, so I was more with that kind of 'pura vida,' and now I’ve been here for a little while and I’ve had some experiences in these past couple of years," he says.
"There’s a lot of stuff going on in the world too, a lot of turmoil; things are getting hotter. Music is an expression of what’s going on in the world.”
Tracks such as "Bonfire" and "Viva la Revolucion" especially highlight this turmoil in the current political climate all over the world, while tracks such as "Low Way" bring us back to the singer's unifying message. "It’s not just a revolution of one political power, one place; it’s a world revolution of consciousness that is spreading and has to spread, I feel like, for everybody to get together,” Kuhn states.
He describes the difference in his new album as “Darker but still light. A different shade of it. How can you think it’s all just fun when it’s all really real? I think everybody is scared. And you think, “What can I do?' At least being a musician I can put something out there."
Influences from all over the globe converge in his music, and Kuhn can be hard to pigeonhole for those who wish to do so. “People still put me in the folk genre and I really appreciate folk music," he says. "Now I really have an understanding that everything is folk music.” With his new album in particular, though, Kuhn says, “Most people are putting this in Americana and I think it’s cool because it’s a Spanish-Mexican blend of blues and rock and roll and Latin folk. It’s fluid.”
Fluidity and water are reoccurring themes for Kuhn, and on Maria the Gun in particular. "Most of these songs were written in Galveston when I’m living close to the water," he says. "Why did I pick these songs? Even though they are all different, what do they have that makes them the same? It’s a watery vibe, fluid thing to it. Water can be a powerful force, it can get violent. Especially here or anywhere that has ocean."
Any Houstonian knows this well, especially after the recent devastation caused by Tropical Storm Harvey. Kuhn rode out the storm in Galveston, lending a hand, as so many wonderful Houstonians did, to a pregnant friend and neighbor helping her prepare her home for incoming water. Now, he says, he's looking forward to getting back to work and playing Saturday afternoon's Post-Harvey "Houston Hang In There" show at Cactus Music along with Gio Chamba and Say Girl Say, as well as a full record-release show later that night at the Big Top.
"I’m ready to put this album out there," Kuhn says, "because I think there are a lot of people out there that are thinking the same thing, [that] there has to be some kind of change for our life to continue the way we want it to continue and so it can continue."
Worldly Journeys Reflected in Song
By Andrew Dansby, HOUSTON CHRONICLE, February 10, 2014
Folk-blues musician Robert Kuhn's adventure began when he bought a one-way ticket to Argentina. He had graduated from Pennsylvania's Bucknell University, where a football scholarship had gotten him into school but injuries frequently kept him off the field. After graduating, the English literature major had an itch to travel - and like many before him, that
itch came from reading Jack Kerouac's "On the Road." "I grew up in Houston, but I'd never been to Mexico," he says. "It didn't even occur to me that you could just drive there. Or that you could continue on into Guatemala. So me and a buddy decided that's what we were going to do." Then the buddy bailed. So Kuhn purchased airfare to Buenos Aires with little more than a few changes of clothes, a couple of books and a guitar. He moved about Central and South America for more than a decade, working odd jobs and odder jobs, watching the drug trade pass from South America on its way to the United States. He got married. And he also wrote songs. Some of those appear on "Everybody Knows," a fascinating debut album with worldly colors that reflect his travels, as well as some bluesy shadings that represent his Houston roots.
As often happens to someone on a border-crossing journey, Kuhn returned to Texas in 2010 with more stories and life experiences than money. While teaching in Chile for a year, he also played music and worked as a puppeteer. He spent a year in Costa Rica. During a stay in Colombia, he remembers feeling his room shake when a bomb went off in Cartegena prior to an election. He was in Venezuela in 2002 when Hugo Chavez was ousted from office for two days during a coup d'état. His longest spell in one place was six years on Little Corn Island off the coast of Nicaragua, where he worked as a fisherman and farmer. "There weren't really any venues to play music exactly," he says, though he found plenty of opportunities to play anyway. "You'd still get paid in other ways. Sometimes you'd get cooked a big pot of food." Being out on the water as a fisherman, he got to see the drug trade up close. "You'd have pirates, police, all sorts of chases and see drugs get thrown overboard and then pulled back in. A lot of these places were recently war-torn regions, so everybody there had seen plenty of violence." Kuhn wrote the entire time he was in the south. Much of what he wrote was for a book he's now editing. But he also came out of it with songs. Upon his return to the United States, he settled briefly in Houston, where he worked at a shirt factory, which he describes as "awful, just awful." But it allowed him to take care of things he didn't need in Central America - like a car - while also trying to find open stages at night.
On the island
Kuhn moved to Galveston and started playing nights at places like the Old Quarter Acoustic Cafe and Rip Tide. From those sets a band started to form. He was participating in an open mic in the Heights one night when local blues great Little Joe Washington happened in selling some of his albums. "I remember reading about him," Kuhn says. "So I asked if he'd like to do a song. I gave him my guitar, and I played harmonica." Washington liked what he heard that night, and since then Kuhn has been playing harmonica in his band. Washington also played guitar on three songs on "Everybody Knows." Kuhn recorded the album nearly a year ago at SugarHill Recording Studios. The album is difficult to pin down. His travels have lent some of the songs an international flavor. "Tear Your Love" has a reggae lilt, and the Spanish-language "Mujer Chinandegana" is - at least judged by my sketchy Spanish comprehension - an invitation to dance, as is the title track. But elsewhere, the record takes folk and blues constructs and places them in intriguing, sometimes dark arrangements that suggest alternative pop and rock. The bluesy "How Long?," with Jahrel Pickens' pulsing keyboards, suggests "Time Out of Mind"-era Bob Dylan. Claire Silverman's cello adds a somber but beautiful tone to songs like "Aurita." Kuhn's voice - cracked, raspy and expressive - ties the recording together. His vocals sound as well-traveled as Kuhn himself. Kuhn is 35, an atypical age to put out a debut album. But he has a large stash of songs from which to draw for his next recording and no regrets about spending his 20s the way he did. "In a lot of cultures getting away like that is almost mandatory," he says. "I met some Germans when I was down there. Their families were shoemakers. But when you grow up and first get out of the house, you're supposed to get away from it for a while. You're supposed to shed who you used to be."