"Rock-and-roll is a bummer.” That’s Kevin Lee Newberry’s mantra. And he should know. The performer and recording artist has spent years in the local music scene. From his early career as a true Riverside punk-rock party dude, to his current role as an older, wiser (and, yes, slightly spent) sage, the man has been through a lot. Now Newberry is seeking positivity, both personally and artistically. That has meant taking his art into his own hands, recording personalized and all-original 90-minute cassette tapes for internet pen pals.
You might not be familiar with Newberry, but he’s been performing music for a long time—since the flannel-clad ’90s, in fact.
“I was 14 when I got my first guitar, and it was definitely because of Nirvana,” he told Folio Weekly. “From 14 until my 20s, I was really heavy into Nirvana. Everything that I learned to play was in Nirvana’s catalog. I didn’t play anything but Nirvana songs for about two years. At 16, I started playing around with writing songs because I wanted to write a song for my girlfriend. At 18, I got serious and I started playing in bands, writing guitar songs. I was guitarist for a band called The Beating. We were a together for six years. After that, I did Helios Eye.”
The lo-fi, mostly acoustic recordings of Helios Eye favored Beck’s One Foot in the Grave more than Nirvana’s Nevermind. The intimacy of the style allowed Newberry to come into his own as a songwriter. For his next act, he would retreat further into himself.
“I prefer performing solo,” he explained. “I did the band thing, and that was fun, but I just outgrew it. I have to write every single day. I have all of this stuff and I got to do something with it. So I just prefer to ... by myself ... I just do that. I don’t have to show the guys all the parts. I just record it and it’s done.”
At the same time, Newberry changed his lifestyle. After spending years as a certified party guy, Newberry is sober and inspired by his new horizons.
“I used to think that getting messed up and being drunk was where my inspiration came from,” he said. “It got to the point that I felt like I needed that stuff to write. I’m 39 now, and have been off everything and I’m good. I’m open. The energy is coming out, and these songs are coming out so fast. If I could stay up all night and just do this, I would. All of the stuff that I had to go through to get where I am now has humbled me. Now I’m writing more and it’s inspired me to write some more upbeat stuff. It’s even opened up doors where I am writing about all kinds of stuff. [The drugs and alcohol] are not good. It’s not a way to live.”
Newberry’s choice to record on cassette tape was an obvious one. Like many musicians of his generation, he grew up listening to tapes and using them to record quickly and affordably.
“Tape happens to be a source that I like,” he explained. “I think it sounds good, I think it’s cool, and I think it’s personal. It’s like writing a letter. There’s something about that mix-tape feeling that feels incredibly personal. As an underground artist, I want to keep it grimy and offer something cheap for people who don’t have a lot of money.”
These personalized tapes are to Newberry what commissioned works are to a painter. Indeed, he was inspired by watching his partner, visual artist Margot Audler, sell her paintings.
“Something clicked in my head and I thought, ‘What if a cassette was like a painting? People could tell me what they want me to write about.’ The idea was like a blessing. People tell me what they want the songs to be about, then, I just take a few random words they give me and I build a 90-minute album around that. Some of it’s experimental, some of it’s really crazy, and some of it’s really tight.”
True to the concept that each tape is absolutely unique, like a painting, Newberry doesn’t backup or archive anything. Once the tape is handed over to the now-dedicated fan, the artist might never see or hear it again.