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Keeton Coffman’s ‘Hard Times’ a perfect union of shadow and light

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Keeton Coffman’s ‘Hard Times’ a perfect union of shadow and light (photo by Jess Genevieve)

Gifted singer, songwriter and musician Keeton Coffman knows a thing or two about confronting adversity. The heartland rocker from Spring, Texas, located north of Houston, is set to issue his second full-length album, “Hard Times,” on June 18, featuring a stunning batch of songs he wrote as he found his way out of what he called the darkest period of his life.

Coffman launched a solo career after his popular Houston area band of seven years, The 71s, called it a day in 2012. A number of singles and the debut album “Killer Eyes” followed and created some powerful momentum for the artist until he was sidelined for about 18 months by a debilitating bout of depression.

Coffman had been diagnosed with bipolar II and obsessive-compulsive disorder as a high school student where he was a decorated athlete. When an injury at age 20 ended his dream of national championship status, he fully embraced music.

While speaking with Coffman about the episode which resulted in the clutch of original songs he wrote during that bipolar spell, it’s clear that he isn’t about to be defined by a chemical imbalance. The only reason we discussed it is because he probably wouldn’t have this particular batch of masterfully crafted songs had he not completed that dark journey.

In the following interview with The Maine Edge, Coffman revealed truths about the characters he sings of on “Hard Times.” He speaks of his influences, his songwriting technique and his earliest musical memories. Determined to keep it real, he also admits to a painful truth about his own character which he keeps in check by confronting it.

The Maine Edge: Are the people you’re singing about on “Hard Times” based on real-life characters you’ve met?

Keeton Coffman: The songs start with something I’m going through, then I wrap up these emotions and things I want to say in a fictional character or story because it’s safer. I can take that character to their full limits. My writing style is kind of founded in two guys. Springsteen is a huge influence as you can probably hear. Also, I read a quote from C.S. Lewis where he was talking about “The Chronicles of Narnia.” He said ‘I write fictional characters but once they’re finished, I find myself in every one.’ That kind of changed me as a writer. I’m free to create these characters, and once they’re finished, I feel like the characters are talking to me about myself.

The Maine Edge: I read that as a child you discovered an Alvarez guitar hidden away in your mom’s closet behind her records and how pivotal that was for you. Do you remember when you first realized music was important to you?

Keeton Coffman: I don’t remember music not being important to me. My first memories of my mom are watching her make mixtapes so she could teach aerobics. That should date me a little bit. She would spin tunes off records and I remember listening to artists like Lionel Richie, Billy Joel, Bruce Hornsby, Don Henley, and Michael Jackson - he was huge for me. I could memorize most any song from an early age. They tried to put me in piano lessons at about eight but the traditional Beethoven piano stuff just didn’t stick, I wanted to learn “The Way It Is” by Bruce Hornsby. When I found the guitar, I could jump ahead and learn songs by The Eagles and Jackson Browne, then I started writing my own.

The Maine Edge: It seems that every songwriter works a little differently. Some wait for inspiration, others are like carpenters that set aside a certain time every day to write. How does songwriting work for you?

Keeton Coffman: I think the second method applies more to me but I’ll add that songwriting for me is very spiritual. I feel connected to whatever the listener subscribes regarding divinity, love, or the universe, when I say I feel tied to my maker when I’m writing. The best analogy is the surfer and the wave. I don’t feel like a musician when I’m not writing. The best songs tend to show up the more faithful I am in setting aside that time but it’s a selfish act. I want to connect with whatever it is so I’ll sit down and pound out a few chords then boom, the inspiration finds me.

The Maine Edge: In the press release for “Hard Times,” you discuss how being bipolar affected you and how you came back from a dark period with this batch of songs. Were these songs all written as you were going through that experience?

Keeton Coffman: Yes, and I think a great analogy for being bipolar is someone who’s diabetic. It’s a chemical thing and when you need insulin, it happens. You go through some dark seasons but this particular dark season found me. It was like wham! I woke up one day and the floor was crumbling. Luckily for me I had a few things in my life to help stabilize me, including a good physician and a caring wife and family. We touched on another thing that really helped which was writing songs every day. Every day I can get out of bed I’m going to write.

When you can’t trust your mental faculties, which by the way is what the song “Night” is really about, you don’t know if what you’re thinking is yourself or what. I couldn’t evaluate the songs I’d written so it was a great surprise after that 18-month period when I was playing them for my producer (Ryan Cecil) who’s also a guitar player on the record and kind of my best friend, and he said “This is the best record you’ve ever written.”

The Maine Edge: “Wounded Heart” sure sounds like a song that should be on the radio right now. Who is that song directed toward?

Keeton Coffman: The person being sung to is me. It starts off “Wounded little heart at the radio dial, waiting for a lyric and a song to smile on you.” That was me as a younger guy. I would stay up late before the internet existed listening to the radio and wondering what was coming next. It was almost a source of scripture. Also I realized I’d spent a lot of time looking for happiness and love in places I was never going to find it. Meanwhile there were people and there was God, true love, infinite love, looking at me and saying “I’ve been here all along.”

The Maine Edge: “Magician” is another song that grabbed the first time I heard it. It’s ominous but a very cool song. What inspired it?

Keeton Coffman: “Magician” is the one song on the record I didn’t write. My band insisted that we do it, and to their credit, they take that thing to another level. I have to be real, I wanted to hold it back because it’s so dark. It confronts a truth I find in myself which is that if I have the opportunity to deceive someone for my benefit, I will. I have to look that guy in the mirror every day. I think we have to acknowledge the darker side of ourselves to experience a sense of freedom. When we play the song live, people say “I love that ‘Magician’ song!” (laughs). I’ve written so many songs about love and joy, I even have a song about Heaven. They’ll say yeah, yeah, but “Magician…” We’re all a bunch of dark people (laughs).

The Maine Edge: You have some very striking black and white images for album art on “Hard Times.” Where did you find those photos?

Keeton Coffman: Those images are from J. Genevieve. She’s what I call a photojournalistic artist. She has a way of turning her photographs into works of art. I found her in Instagram and reached out to her and asked if she’d listen to my record and create a piece for every song. I didn’t offer any other input – it’s all her, and she’s amazing. If you follow me on Instagram, I’ll have something for release week on how each image fits into the album.

Coffman is a busy guy. He’ll hit the road this summer and fall, both solo and with his band. He operates a music school for all ages and skill levels called The Rehearsal Room for which he created the curriculum. The expanding facility is scheduled to move into a new rehearsal, recording and performance space in two weeks.

(“Hard Times” will be available on CD, and all digital music outlets, on June 18.)

Last modified on Tuesday, 15 June 2021 17:50


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