John Carroll ‘s new solo album Blowout is inspired by a period in Costa Rica spent playing with local musicians and imagining “failed utopias” from Fyre Festival to the Heaven's Gate cult, by way of seedy motels and the wild sounds of nature.
In 2021, Kirby visited Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica to film an episode of his travelogue series Kirby’s Gold with the Kawe Calypso Band. Between 5am wake-up calls from oropendola birds and psychedelic sunsets, Kirby wrote Blowout, inspired by the local people, music and nature. After the sun went down, he’d jam with local Calypso legends and sneak in the occasional gig playing Bob Marley covers and standards at Puerto Viejo’s bars.
Among Kirby’s influences is Hermeto Pascoal’s famous performance of “Música Da Lagoa”, in which the Brazilian artist and an ensemble play flutes and wine bottles under a waterfall, half-naked. The affinity with the environment and Pascoal’s stripping away of any formality “informs just about everything I do,” Kirby says. While by no means a calypso record, Blowout is “inspired by the spirit of the music” Kirby encountered in Central America, from the stories woven by calypso artists to reggaeton-pop hit "El Gato Volador”, which sparked “Flying Cat”.
The album’s joyfulness is alloyed with melancholy: “I love the concept of saudade,” Kirby says. “For every moment of elation, there’s a certain sadness embedded in the feeling because we know it will come to an end. Blowout is about enjoying yourself even though life is tough, before the candle blows out.” He notes that Kawe Calypso’s bass player Giante died shortly after filming Kirby's Gold, playing gigs up to his final days.
Blowout teeters between two definitions of its title – a moment of destruction and one big party. Kirby contemplated episodes of collective delusion, such as Fyre Festival and the Heaven's Gate cult, imagining “a festival where everyone gets beamed up to utopia or heaven instead of starving or dying unfulfilled.” “Mates” is the ecstatic soundtrack to Kirby and pals rolling deep to the festival, while “Oropendola” and “Gecko Sound” echo Costa Rica’s nature. There’s a darker side, too: “Vertigo” is named for a vestibular system condition that makes Kirby dizzy and nauseous; “The Takedown” imagines a “sinister drug sting,” and “Hotel Jonny Chingas” pictures a seedy sex motel run by elusive Chicano legend Jonny Chingas.
Like charisma, a signature sound can’t be faked. Over six solo albums and dozens of collaborations, Kirby has finessed one recognisably his own, no matter what genre he’s working in. Once a dutiful student of ‘50s and ‘60s piano jazz, Kirby found a sound that felt true to him when he allowed spontaneity, improvisation and error into his playing: “I love a good ‘miss’ in music. Reverence is good for building a foundation, but you have to miss a bit for it to be truly your own.” With a stripped-down band accompanying him on Blowout, Kirby gives himself permission to miss, and so taps into something glorious and ineffable.
If Kirby’s earlier records were explicitly spiritual, drawing on New Age and exotica, Blowout considers the mysteries of the universe via a less direct and more irreverent path – think Haruomi Hosono or Sun Ra, or Kirby’s occasional collaborator Laraaji. Kirby says, “I'm trying to use imagination in music to create my own myths, and to keep things playful and funny and not too sanctimonious.”
In addition to his several solo records on Stones Throw, Kirby’s collaborated with other artists, from global superstars to indie musicians. He’s recently worked with Yves Tumor, Liv.e, Remi Wolf and Eddie Chacon, and earned a Grammy nod for Steve Lacy’s Gemini Rights and its lead single “Bad Habit”. While Kirby is proud of these collaborations, it’s on the solo albums that his personality shines through, and Blowout is alive with the refreshing breeziness, warmth, and curious blend of humor and devotion that make his music so addictive.
About John Carroll Kirby
John Carroll Kirby is a producer, composer and keyboardist from Los Angeles. Though Kirby's background is steeped in jazz, his signature sound blends genres and styles. An in-demand collaborator for artists ranging from superstars Solange, Frank Ocean and Harry Styles to indie musicians Yves Tumor, Connan Mockasin, Liv.e, and many more, Kirby has lately focused on his own prolific solo output, releasing five LPs on Stones Throw in a little over two years.
My Garden (2020), a blend of jazz and exotica, was praised by The Fader, LA Times, Q, and Mojo. The same year, Kirby released Conflict, a calming piano album in response to the year’s chaos. Following his first film score for the animated feature Cryptozoo, Kirby’s 2021 jazz-fusion release Septet marked a return to ensemble playing, while Dance Ancestral (2022), with additional production from Canadian artist YuSu, took a more electronic-forward approach.
Alongside these albums, Kirby has released episodes of Kirby’s Gold, a web series inspired by Huell Howser’s California Gold. In the series, Kirby chats and improvises with artists ranging from painter Ariana Papademetropoulos to an Eastern European choir and Costa Rican calypso band. Most recently, Kirby received a Grammy nod for his work on Steve Lacy’s smash hit “Bad Habit”. In March 2023, Stones Throw released Sundown, Kirby's album-length collaboration with R&B singer Eddie Chacon.