Concert preview: Theo Kandel is bringing folk sincerity to DC’s Songbyrd on April 19

April 14, 2023

Courtesy of Joshua Rothstein (Ice Cream for Dinner); Photo by Austin Cieszko (Instagram: @theonlymang)

On April 19, folk singer-songwriter Theo Kandel is bringing his sound to DC’s Songbyrd, along with supporting acts Kate Yeager and Rosemary Joaquin.

Kandel told the Voice he hopes to be “a modern-day James Taylor,” spiced with “a pinch of nostalgia.” He also cited Jackson Browne, Carole King and Simon & Garfunkel as important influences.

Before its April 14 release, the Voice was given an advance listen to his single “Grail Quest,” on which hallmarks of these influences are evident. A melodic acoustic guitar line serves as the backdrop for simple lyrics of longing and joins Kandel’s vocals in rhythmic lockstep as he gently hums, creating a moment that makes it sound like Paul Simon himself is coaching him in the studio.

In “Flight to JFK,” his latest single, Kandel takes direct inspiration from Jackson Browne’s “These Days” to craft the story of a trip to visit a long-distance lover. His fingerpicking gives the song more forward momentum than Browne’s chilled-out, meandering 1973 recording, but the two songs are markedly similar. Kandel also said Simon & Garfunkel’s “America” influenced the slice-of-life lyrics. “[‘America’] is just a snapshot song, and that’s kind of how I wanted this one to be,” he explained.

His dexterous, Taylor-esque fingerpicking aside, Kandel’s wistful lyricism is what sets him apart. As goofy as he is melancholic, heartbreaking lines tinged with irony drive much of his writing. In “Me & All My Friends Have Got the Blues,” Kandel croons, “Watch an ad for Prozac, crack a smile.”

Reflecting on that line, Kandel said, “I’ve done my fair share of songs that are like, ‘I’m so sad,’ but I think it’s more powerful when you describe something that happens and the feeling that it gives you—even just something super simple like that.” He elaborated, “It’s the showing, not telling.”

For similar reasons, the absurdist line, “Today, I burned the coffee,” stands out in the downtrodden but hopeful ballad,“What if it all works out in the end?”—the titular song of his 2022 EP. Later in the same song, he takes a step back from his own disappointment and sings, “there’s something funny in that.”

For inspiring his extensive use of irony, Kandel credits country-folk artist John Prine, who he says constructs heartbreaking songs with silver linings of humor. “They’re funny because they’re sad, but they’re sad because they’re funny. That’s what I wanted to do.”

Despite claiming numerous influences from the 1970s, Kandel isn’t just writing your grandparents’ folk music. He’s writing for a newer generation of listeners, addressing issues of self-care, mental health and even therapy, all with a balance of sincerity and sarcasm. Of course, he knows he’s not alone in writing about these topics. He admires artists like Lizzy McAlpine and Adam Melchor, who he said authentically address similar, relatable themes in a way that is connected to their own experiences.

Kandel, too, ultimately wants to feel connected to his own music in order to create a shared experience with his listeners. “If [my songs] resonate with me, I’m generally pretty sure that they’ll resonate with some other people,” he explained. “I don’t think that I’ve had such a different life experience from most.” This reasoning allows him to be confident people will relate when he sings about his worry that his therapist finds him boring, or about the complex emotional process of moving back home to “sleep in baseball bedding again” as an adult.

Kandel’s approach hasn’t always been centered around writing simple, heartfelt lyrics and playing along on his acoustic guitar. This much is evident when comparing Kandel’s newer singles to older works such as “Cheerios & Chocolate Milk” and “Everybody Else,” both of which were released in 2019.

“I went through a phase where I was like, ‘Oh, maybe I’m gonna be a neo-soul musician,’ which you can kinda hear on ‘Cheerios,’” Kandel shared. He said he also experimented with pop sounds on “Everybody Else” and “Running Blind,” but in the end, singing riffs and doing vocal gymnastics didn’t feel as genuine to him.

Now, Kandel feels at home in the folk genre he grew up listening to. In crafting his audio aesthetic, Kandel said he is “keeping it simple” and “making it as if a couple people just walked into a room and picked up these instruments.”

These are the guiding principles under which Kandel wrote and recorded his most recent releases, as well as an upcoming single called “Fig Tree,” to be released in May. About his goals with these releases, Kandel said, “I wanted to be like, ‘Okay, here are these three songs I’ve written. This is how I wrote them. I wrote them on this guitar. I’m playing them on this guitar. Here you go. Let’s strip it back to the essentials.’”

Kandel also has three other new songs in the works, which he hopes can further develop his folk sound. He revealed he’s experimenting with more complex instrumentations, though he’s trying to keep the sound organic. After “Fig Tree,” Kandel said listeners should expect to hear him filling out some songs with string arrangements, as well as experimenting with his new rubber bridge guitar.

Kandel recently shared a “low ticket alert” for his Songbyrd show, so he encourages anyone interested in coming to the April 19 show to purchase tickets sooner rather than later. At just $19.32 per ticket (including fees), this could be a chance to catch Kandel in concert before his newly solidified sound draws a larger audience and fetches higher ticket prices.

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Ancient History

If he can add a little Kingston Trio, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Dr. Hook, he’ll be there.