Torn between the group he founded 10 years ago and a chance to go his own way, Ben Kyle pondered what choice to make, then prayed for help while cleaning his kitchen floor.
Whether it was divine intervention or just purely coincidental, his prayers were answered with two clear signs within a 12-hour period this summer.
The result of this appeal to a higher power is the November 13th release of Ben Kyle, the first solo album of his career that puts his peaceful, easy feelings on the line with lovely odes to family, friends and favorite places as he seeks a simpler way of life.
Kyle -- a native of Belfast, Northern Ireland who, since the age of 13, has lived in Minneapolis, where his parents relocated in 1994 to raise their seven children -- is a soft-spoken, gentle soul, who'll never be mistaken for a wild rock rebel battling powerful and mysterious forces, imagined or real.
But the proficient singer-songwriter (an eight-time International Songwriting Competition winner), who has fronted an Irish-Americana folk-rock band, called Romantica, deals with the same ongoing struggles of any indie artist who's still trying to "make it" while raising a family of his own.
So, despite some nice achievements with the band that included their second album America and landing on Paste magazine's best of 2007 list, something didn't feel right as they were close to putting the finishing touches on a follow-up last year.
"I had this group of more personal songs that I just wanted to get done," Kyle said last week over the phone of the decision to take responsibility for his own new material and put a record that's "been almost done for a long time" on the back burner. "And that's what ended up becoming this solo album, which felt more real and sort of from the heart for me at the moment."
While he said Romantica is currently in hiatus mode, the band still occasionally performs together, though not with all of its original members.
Drummer James Orvis decided to retire from music and talented pedal steel player Luke Jacobs moved to Austin and continues touring with Carrie Rodriguez, the accomplished fiddler and singer-songwriter. She made a well-received album of mostly cover duets with Kyle in 2011 (We Still Love Our Country), has graciously lent her musical skills to Romantica and has taken them on tour as a supporting act.
"I'm full of gratitude towards Carrie," Kyle said of the hard-working Texan, who is scheduled to release her fifth full-length album, Give Me All You Got, on January 22. "Such a proponent and just her support, not only taking us on the road with her, but giving me the opportunity to actually play, sing and make a recording with her... None of that was stuff that she had to do, of course... I'm excited to see what happens to her own career. I hope she really makes the record she wants to make and receives the attention that she should."
Kyle would like to write and record an album of originals with Rodriguez, and "it'll be just a matter of stars aligning again." The same could be said of Romantica.
Stating emphatically that, "The band's not finished," Kyle went on to explain, "There was a natural dispersion of people's lives and priorities. And it wasn't sort of like I was putting the brakes on Romantica and then sort of everyone else was like, 'Oh, that sucks.' It did feel like a very natural sort of development."
Ben Kyle songs such as "The Turf Club" and "The Dark" (the new version utilizing four pedal steel players, including Jacobs) were intended for the abandoned Romantica album, but he ultimately didn't think his band's live recordings "captured the performance that I had hoped to capture."
Starting from scratch, he brought a more intimate approach into his home studio.
With a more laid-back musical style, the sparse new versions didn't feel like a band album to Kyle. Still, most of Romantica (and guests including Rodriguez, Eric Heywood and Jessy Greene) played on what he had trouble calling a solo record. It practically took an act of God for Gentle Ben to take that extreme leap from frontman to one-man show.
Wanting to remain loyal and not disappoint his bandmates, the bandleader first considered calling the new project Ben Kyle and Romantica. "But that seems kinda lame," Kyle remembered saying to himself. "So I sort of felt like, 'You gotta just either stick with it, it's Romantica and whatever, even though it might have a different feel or vibe. Maybe that's just the way Romantica goes.' Or you gotta say, 'No, OK, this is Ben Kyle.' "
Even after a conversation with Romantica bassist Tony Zaccardi, who encouraged Kyle to go the solo route, there were exhausting periods of doubt during the final mixing process in August.
Then a message was delivered in a sign language that only Kyle could understand. Expecting a good night's sleep after cleaning up the kitchen, the writer of "God Only Knows" had a dream that included his entire band in an unknown house that he said represented Romantica.
"And so all of the (band's) gear had been there," Kyle added, sounding eager to provide more details.
But we were cleaning everything up and just basically cleaning out the house. And carrying amps out... We just sort of knew we were cleaning the house out and were leaving it. And even within the dream, the sense was that it was sort of sad, but I knew that I was coming, we were coming back to this house, but we were leaving it. And when I woke up, it was bizarre, but just so coincidental. It really seemed to answer my prayer. It seems to me that was a clear sign that: You're leaving this Romantica period or this season for a time, but it seems like you'll be back there. But right now, you've just gotta go for it.
If that wasn't enough of an Irish wake-up call, a reading from the Scriptures the next morning certainly proved to be the clincher.
From Proverbs 22:1...
"A good name is more desirable than great riches, and high esteem, than gold and silver."
"It was all about picking the right name," figured Kyle, who already was in the middle of making a downsizing/lifestyle change in order to spend more time with his family. He and his wife Kim, a Minneapolis native who grew up in Mexico, then moved to Chicago, another great Midwestern city, at the age of 13, have three children -- Anna (8), Roy (6) and Ivan (2).
How does a family man who recognizes that touring is the lifeblood of every thriving musician deal with that dilemma? "I'll just try to be more selective and really purposeful about how much and when and where," Kyle said.
That impending separation from the band will allow more scheduling flexibility as he shifts the emphasis to house concerts and small theaters closer to home and plans on fewer dates next year to promote this album.
A charismatic and versatile showman who primarily plays acoustic guitar and piano, but knows how to rock out, too, Kyle realizes he's won over one valuable member of his personal fan club.
He didn't play the songs for his wife Kim until the album was finished, but her response was almost as meaningful as the 10-year anniversary they'll celebrate in January. Kyle recalled her saying, "I feel like this is an album that represents us. I feel like I'm part of this. What you're singing about is... I can be behind it 100 percent."
Direct but delicate messages in "Trust," "Simple Life," "Thank You" and "The Child" offer ideals that are easy to support, while the romantic side of Romantica's lead singer emerges on "Hills of England," a sentimental journey through a Utopian countryside Kyle described as "sort of (William) Blake-ian."
"I wanna get lost in the hills of England" was "just sort of a dreamy line" that was running through Kyle's head as he was running down a country lane during a brief break on a European tour with Rodriguez last year. "I think by the time I was back, the song was probably finished in my head," he said of extending a five-mile jog to eight or nine while almost losing his way near their rented farmhouse in the Cotswolds.
Though he misses the Irish, along with their food and culture, there are no references to his homeland on this record, but the Twin Cities get reverential treatment on "Minneapolis" and "The Turf Club." Of course, Kyle literally has a band of brothers still living nearby, along with his parents, to offer more than moral support, with one sister (Laurie) in Brooklyn and the youngest sibling (Abigail) back in Belfast.
Robin Kyle, at 34, the oldest of five brothers, fronts Valet, a Minneapolis indie pop-rock band along the lines of Belle and Sebastian or the Auteurs that's rebooting after a lengthy hiatus.
"Our music is very different. And that's probably a good thing," Ben said of Robin, whose wife Jayanthi sang on Romantica's America and Ben Kyle, and performs occasionally with her brother-in-law. "I really appreciate his music, and I think he really appreciates mine, even though they're both different than what we would do ourselves."
While they may never be the next Avetts, the Kyles have discussed the possibility of putting together an Irish group (his sisters also sang on America), focusing on "more traditional music."
There's even another brother who's a drummer. Luke, who played in punk rock bands for most of his teens, has since moved on to open an authentic fish and chips restaurant in Minneapolis called The Anchor.
With such tight family ties, it's no wonder a 31-year-old Kyle said, "Although we never feel quite American, this certainly is home."
He has now lived fewer years in Ireland, where an aspiring athlete gave up his dreams of playing field hockey, than in the States, where a wide-eyed teen first discovered the joys of a "land of watermelon-flavored bubblegum and cherry-flavored Coke."
The priorities have certainly changed since then, along with his method of measuring success.
Kyle has modest hopes with this new album, saying "I'm well aware that it's not a radio album... I suppose I don't expect to get a lot of great reviews on first listen. But I do hope, and have already experienced some of this, that the people that it does move, it really moves. And the people that receive it, receive it really well."
Rest assured, Ben Kyle doesn't always have to dream big to be a sleeping giant.
Ben Kyle publicity photo by Tony Nelson.