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For Los Angeles artist Kiefer Shackelford, music has always been a personal endeavour. Over his career, the musician has been evolving a style inspired by jazz and other Black American music that’s warm, approachable, and most importantly, “comes from an emotional place”.
Whereas Kiefer’s two albums and three EPs to date were crafted largely solo, with him playing keys and producing beats, his new album When There’s Love Around is the first to feature a full band. With this rich accompaniment, there’s a new sense of expressiveness to Kiefer’s music.
When There’s Love Around is an album of two halves. The first half is “about feeling small and insignificant and stressed,” Kiefer says. “It’s about things that cause me to worry, but at the end of the day, are probably unimportant from a larger cosmic perspective.”
On ‘i remember this picture’, ‘curly’ and ‘crybaby’, Kiefer reflects on his childhood and youth: the nostalgia of looking through old childhood pictures, being an emotional kid in school, and feeling self-conscious about his appearance. He says about ‘curly’, “When I grew up, I thought I looked weird. I had curly hair and brown skin. Now I like my curly hair and complexion. This song is my swag!”
The album’s second half is more reflective and spiritual, its cathartic mood occasioned by the loss of Kiefer’s beloved grandmother. While grief and loss are main themes, the tone is still largely positive – Kiefer describes himself as an optimist. He wanted to express the intense emotion of “missing someone, wishing them well beyond life on Earth”, and knowing that life can be beautiful and vast as well as painful. Four of the songs on the album’s second half are dedicated to his grandmother, followed by the title track – a Crusaders cover that offers a sweet reminder to live in the moment and appreciate the love around us – and closing with the blissful ‘i love my friends’, a song recorded on Kiefer’s birthday about the joys of friendship.
To help realize his vision, Kiefer assembled a band of his favorite musicians, including DJ Harrison, Andy McCauley, Josh Johnson, Will Logan, Sam Wilkes and other jazz luminaries. They laid the album down in three sets of sessions over 2020, including one stint at Jazzy Jeff’s studio after the DJ invited Kiefer to record there. Several songs were recorded in one or two takes, with any mistakes left in, true to Kiefer’s preference for music that feels spontaneous and from the heart. Kiefer has long performed with a live band, and found the setup suited the communal spirit he was striving for on this album: “I find something about the Herculean type of jazz performer really alienating. I want to celebrate human connection,” he explains.
The album’s two halves are united by the question of identity. Kiefer says: “I'm asking who I am, what my past means, what loss means, what my spirituality is. And in the midst of all of that, in every song, there is a theme of love. Even if it seems mundane or weird, we are perpetually living in a moment that is special and divine.”