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David Finkle

David Finkle

Posted: March 4, 2010 06:38 PM

Tunesmiths Kait Kerrigan and Brian Lowdermilk: Writing 'Em Like They Used To

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Discussing contemporary songwriting, disgruntled listeners of a certain age are frequently heard moaning, "They don't write 'em like they used to." The lament is undoubtedly true more of the time than not. Certainly, lyricists and composers aiming for the downloading market aren't writing the same sorts of songs as did the men and women populating Tin Pan Alley during the last century up to about 1960.

As always, sensibilities have changed, and with them the sorts of songs that appealed to sheet-music and record buyers then. Just as radio, television and 33 1/3 rpm's shook opera and operetta out of the public imagination during the decades of the last century, so modern societal and technological advances have altered the way songs are written.

But if "they" aren't writing 'em like they used to, that doesn't mean "they" aren't writing them with the same quality, the same intelligence, the same understanding, the same unchanging human concerns. Times and tastes may change irrevocably, but talent doesn't. In songwriting--as in all disciplines--talent will out.

For some of the best up-and-coming songwriters, only the forms--some of the rules of the craft--have changed. By the end of the 20th-century, the prevalent AABA song structure had weakened. The inflexible adherence towards exact attitude towards rhyme had long since been questioned. The truly talented young writers now take these pushed-back--though never really discarded--boundaries into consideration.

Which brings up the young team of lyricist Kait Kerrigan and composer Brian Lowdermilk, whose names aren't particularly well-known and whose songs haven't yet drawn the attentions of, for example, the contestants on American Idol, who are poking around for the "song selections" that will impress the "AI" judges.

Perhaps Kerrigan and Lowdermilk will get through to the larger public soon, possibly not--for the simple reason that they devote their tandem time to writing scores for musicals. And musicals have been dissed among Generations X, Y and Whatever for so long that only the Disney High School Musical series and now television's Glee are showing signs of turning things around.

Curiously, Kerrigan and Lowdermilk aren't in the musical-comedy biz to see their ditties favored by the Broadway-loving cabaret entertainers. When they talk about the kinds of singers they hear doing their material, they mention chart-toppers like Carrie Underwood, Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus.

Those are the names they mentioned when just a few days ago they collected a group of their friends to sing Lowdermilk-Kerrigan nuggets in a one-night revue called Under the Influence as part of Jim Caruso's always imaginative Broadway at Birdland series. Bringing jaw-droppingly impressive singer after singer to the stage, they succeeded in making it clear that they aren't writing 'em like the earlier "they" did but that they are writing 'em at the same high caliber.

Attaching the adjective "best" on any creative artist is always a foolish undertaking, but if Lowdermilk and Kerrigan aren't the best young songwriting team currently at work in New York (with an eye to the world), they're right up there with other candidates--as is implied by the many awards they've already gathered (the 2006 Jonathan Larson Award, a Richard Rodgers Award, Kerrigan's 2009 Kleban Award for Most Promising Librettist.)

Kerrigan, who played the violin on many of the arrangements, isn't ground-breaking in centering her lyrics on relationships and often on childhood memories and/or children's attitudes, but she probes the subjects deeply and often at length, which requires the under-the-rock-influence Lowdermilk to keep the melodic notions flowing. The duo already has at least one local standard (and potential chart ditty) in the urgent "Run Away With Me," where the singer begs, "Run away with me/Let me be your ride out of town/Let me be the place that you hide."

In "Last Week's Alcohol," the singer starts by sputtering, "Happy drunk, grinding to a German techno beat/Shots all around, I'm drafting you a text/I'm typing sorry." In "How to Return Home," the weary and puzzled self-reflecting singer advises, "Take a shower/Wash yourself away." In "Not a Love Story," the disillusioned singer declares, "It's not a love story/It's not a coming of age/It's not the kind of thing you put in a play/It's just a small story/It's just two friends, all grown up."

Most of the songs sung--by nearly two dozen, mostly twentysomethings working on Broadway and as talented as the songwriters they were supporting--come from shows with titles like Tales From the Bad Years, The Unauthorized Autobiography of Samantha Brown, The Woman Upstairs. Whether they'll receive Broadway, off-Broadway or even off-Broadway attention-getting airings any time soon isn't guaranteed. Kerrigan and Lowdermilk--who very noticeably only include rhymes occasionally--may have to wait some time before that sort of thing clicks for them.

Nevertheless, they're here now and they're here wow!