Kenna Mae Reiss has been a part of C-U music from a young age, working her way up from high school music groups to open mics to a residency at the Iron Post. She radiates coolness in the late July heat. Sitting outside Flying Machine Coffee in Urbana she smokes confidently and talks to me about her lifelong musical practice, unfazed by the loud construction going on next door. It’s not a stretch to say that her confidence is mirrored in her music—Reiss has a voice more powerful than the next singer-songwriter. Whether she’s singing about the “Barista Blues” or much heavier shit, she belts it out proudly. Amongst recording a full-length album and promoting a Kickstarter campaign to fund it, she’s making the most of Champaign-Urbana before her impending move down South.
Smile Politely: How did you get into music?
Kenna Mae Reiss: I got into music when I was pretty young, just because my dad was a big influence on me, as a drummer. He played in a lot of bands around here like Clockwork Orange, back in the day.
SP: So you grew up around here?
Reiss: Yeah, I grew up in Sidney, actually, 20 minutes southeast of here, went to Tolono Unity (High School), and I did acapella chorus, jazz rock band in high school but I started playing guitar when I was 15 and I’d been writing music for a long time. I’d sing to myself a lot and I’d make up my own songs all the time.
SP: How did you settle on the kind of music that you play now?
Reiss: I wouldn’t say that I have settled on this type of music. I think that this is just what I’m making right now and what I’m feeling right now. I don’t think that I’ll always be making such aggressively sad music, I hope! But that is what I’m doing right now and that’s what feels good to me right now.
SP: How did growing up in this community foster your development as a musician?
Reiss: I think it did a lot, when I was 18 I came up for Folk and Roots Fest and there was an open mic night at the Iron Post, the singer-songwriter collective that was happening then, and I got up and did a couple songs and then I got this really good response…I’d never played out in front of people before. I’d played for high school shit but that was different because my mom and dad were in the audience so of course they’re gonna applaud. It felt really good and then I met Chris Strand who I went on playing a duo with and he really affected the way I think about things as a musician and as a sensitive person.
SP: Who’s (Chris Strand)?
Reiss: He was a bass player for the Curses; he’s in Diatonic now. He did other things, he’s in a honkytonk band called Old No. 7. He does a lot of shit. But yeah, we played in a duo together and it was mainly the stuff that I had written when I was 16 or 18. I think the support that I got immediately from people I respected was what shaped how I am.
SP: Have you recorded anything previous to this new album?
Reiss: Yeah, I recorded at Earth Analog with the Flower Jacks, and then that was the only other rerecording experience I have besides being in the studio with James right now.
SP: For your Kickstarter-funded album?
Reiss: Yeah, that’s for Blue Darlin’. We’ve been working for a while, we just got Matt Yates in to record drums and they sound really cool, I’m really excited about it, and this guy Tyler Bundy, he’s really cool, he tracked a lot of bass and some crazy, weird ambient guitar.
SP: Do you usually perform with a live band?
Reiss: No actually, I play solo most of the time, or with Bob Watson, but I’m really excited about what we’re doing in the studio because, this is like a band that I’d have, if I could have a band on the road—this is the sound that I’d want, so it’s really fun to be able to slowly mold that and make that exactly what I want.
SP: Will you be touring with a band?
Reiss: That’s my goal. That’s why I’m moving to New Orleans in November. That’s kind of my goal for moving down there is to move down there to soak up what’s going on down there as much as I can and get a band together and come back up through.
SP: Why New Orleans?
Reiss: One of my friends lives down there. She’s a fiddle player I’ve worked with a lot, and I visited down there and just kind of fell in love with it — there’s just so much passion in that city and that’s kind of what is pulling me back I think. And I was born and raised here, grown up here, I’ve been creating here I think it’s kind of time to expose myself to something new.
SP: Can you talk about your residency at The Iron Post?
Reiss: Well, I bartend there and I used to play there a lot with the Flower Jacks, and when that ended I needed a job, and Paul Wirth the owner gave me a bartending gig and then also wanted me to play some shows there, and I didn’t really want to devote a weekend once a month to that. I wanted to be able to keep the weekends open to do other shows, so we decided on the last Tuesday night, and Bob Watson comes over and plays with me once a month there…Bob just lays down some really sick crazy riffs that I like a lot, and he’s hilarious.
SP: Do you think that Champaign-Urbana is a good place for folk and roots music?
Reiss: I think it’s a great place for anybody to create. It’s a good central location for anybody to tour out of. We’re right next to Chicago, it doesn’t take long to get to Nashville. I think it’s a really great location and I kind of wish that I wasn’t born and raised here so that I could end up here again. It’s a great town, it’s full of people who want to create and want to support people creating. It’s awesome, and there’s a lot of singer-songwriters here that I really like, but it’s not where I can be right now.
If you open yourself up to it there are a lot of people, of so many ages and backgrounds who end up here, who have so much to teach you and so much that you can learn from them that they don’t even know they’re teaching you. And that’s pretty cool, that’s something I really love about this town, especially when it comes to singer-songwriters and artists. I think it’s awesome. I think it’s a great place.
SP: Do you think you’ll ever come back?
Reiss: For sure, I know I’ll come back. My family’s here and I’m really close to my family. They’re my rock. My two sisters are my best friends so I’m always going to be coming back here. My plan is to come back here through tours quite a bit and hang out in Champaign-Urbana. I’ll definitely end up back here at some point in my life, but it’s time to travel.
You can catch Kenna Mae at Crystal Lake Park next Friday for The Urbana Park District's Folk and Roots Fridays at 12 p.m., at the Iron Post the last Tuesday night of each month at 7:30 p.m., and at various locations listed here.