Kenna Zemedkun is a pop artist with something to prove. When his first album, New Sacred Cow, appeared in 2003, no one knew what to do with it: Critics were too blindsided and radio couldn’t sell it. The singles “Hell Bent” and “Freetime,” which garnered occasional MTV2 rotation, floated around on the periphery of the mainstream like satellites sending off a transmission of some new sound. In truth, Kenna is not so new; from the Depeche Mode synths to the house drum loops to the Bono-esque croons, his music is deeply rooted in pop history. What sets Kenna apart—as other critics have labored to point out—is the way all of these things come together in a perfect storm of vintage and modern sounds. Though other artists have invariably turned to the ’80s (from Gwen Stefani’s sweet escape to the Killers’ kitschy glam), only Kenna’s act seems totally genuine—a true revolution of retro sincerity and current political malaise.
If New Sacred Cow was a journey through Kenna’s head, as he says, then his follow-up, Make Sure They See My Face, is a much more public venture. Until now, Kenna hasn’t appeared in any of his music videos, but he’s front-and-center in a Hype Williams-directed clip and a Sony PSP ad. The single “Say Goodbye to Love” is being pitched as an urban club banger by his new label, Interscope, but as The Village Voice put it, the “greatest thrill…is that Kenna’s square-peg edges still never quite line up with the mainstream whole.” Kenna readily admits that he can’t be something he’s not, but he’ll fight to show people what he is. Above all, Make Sure They See My Face is a much louder work—urgent and confrontational in approach. That also, according to Kenna, is a part of who he’s become, even if it means coming off as a little self-righteous. His new mantra is “by whatever means necessary.”
Why was there so much delay in getting the new album out and what’s been the hardest part about getting there?
We had a couple missteps and I had to regroup to get things a little more organized before we put the record out. I had a bad video [for “Out of Control (State of Emotion)”] and I wasn’t into it, and I had to go back and re-shoot a different video.
Make Sure They See My Face is a louder, more aggressive album than your debut. Why is that?
Probably just because I’m that much more crazy. I’ve gone through so much and I just started realizing that you have to barrel forward and not wait for the attention.
Did you feel you were getting a lack of attention?
Well, it wasn’t a lack of attention so much as it was a lack of…support. I hadn’t put together the right team of people to make New Sacred Cow have its chance. Now I have a great team and they’re really looking after me. We’re doing our best shit at this point.
Yeah, it looks like Interscope is really starting to put you out there. You’re seen performing “Out of Control” in a recent Sony PSP ad, of all things. How do you look at that kind of commercial exposure?
I look at it like sponsorship in the skating world, or sponsorship in any of those realms that makes sense. As long as you’re associating yourself with a company you respect. Nobody can disrespect Sony: They make great products and great technology. I’m not afraid to be a part of something that represents the future. And, you know, there are other things that I would probably be fine aligning myself with. It’s really whatever means necessary at this point. We all as artists are trying to find new ways of reaching the fans and reaching the people who care about music. If PSP wants to represent the future by having my music in their campaign, then I’m pretty cool with that.
What new expectations did you set for yourself following your last album?
I think maybe on this record I wanted to be a little more open. The last record was definitely a foray into my inner, ethereal dreamscape of a mind. And this one is much more down to earth and probably a little more direct in nature, and I think that’s just who I’ve become in the past few years.
There is the sense in Make Sure They See My Face that while your image might be more defined, your music is still more or less the same. Did you feel any pressure to move your sound in a new direction?
I did feel that pressure. That’s why the record’s a lot more schizophrenic than New Sacred Cow was. New Sacred Cow was a fairly congruent album. This album definitely delves into a lot more diversity. I think to some degree I felt like I needed to do more with this record, but I realized there’s only so much one artist can do to support the concept of making something new. I can’t do everything that every artist does. At the end of the day, I’m still looking for people and peers and artists to play off of because they make me wanna be a better artist myself. At this point, I’m still looking at the classics. I haven’t really had the opportunity to go up against anyone who’s current. I feel like I’m going up against shit.
Who are the classics you’re looking back to?
The classics remain to be early Police, Talking Heads. Even currently, U2, but more so early Genesis, Peter Gabriel, the Beatles, Pet Sounds—I could go on. Also the Sam Cooks of the world, and the Nat Kings, the Frank Sinatras. Just people who were entertainers, but at the same time they actually were spirit-filled, music-bringing superpowers. That’s what I want to become. I’m not that yet, and I’m mediocre at this point, but at some point I will strive to be great and fight for it.
Why do you think you’re so often tagged with the hip-hop label even though your music doesn’t sound much like hip-hop at all?
I think the world needs to put you in a category that they understand, and sometimes it’s based on thoughts that are ignorant. And that’s fine with me. Put me in whatever category you want me to be in. I belong in all of them. That’s not my responsibility. My responsibility is to make music that defies you, defies everyone, and carves a path, caves a road for people to go down that may or may not ever have to worry about being categorized.
On New Sacred Cow’s “Man Fading,” you sang, “Let’s start a revolution,” and your latest songs, “Out of Control” and “Face the Gun,” sound a similar note of alarm and urgency. Do you feel the need for some kind of revolution these days?
I feel the need to start the revolution of what matters. It’s gotten to the point where everything’s so derivative. We’re so desensitized by the bombardment of whackness—whack music, whack everything. And we’ve actually allowed ourselves to be that way. I’m now asking the question, “Does it matter?” Does what you’re listening to matter? Does it affect you? Does it make you a better person? Does it make you stronger? Does it help you glean information about yourself that you had no knowledge of before? There are plenty of reasons why I would want to go and download everyone’s music, because they don’t mean anything. A lot of artists at this point mean nothing—it doesn’t mean crap to hear them. So why would I care? Why would I be loyal and not pick it up on the Internet? But for example, my fans have respected me for an entire year—my music has been floating around, but it’s been really hard to find on peer-to-peer sites up until recently. My fans have been really respectful, and you create that relationship over time with people who are actually active. I appreciate them and those are the people I make music for.
How do you think fans of New Sacred Cow will react to the new album?
I’ve gotten a lot of responses indicating that they like it. They’re surprised I’m so different, but I’m still the same person. There’s always a level of melancholy. I think this record is definitely more like my Pet Sounds album, even if it isn’t as amazing. In my mind I’m like Brian Wilson, looking at happiness from the outside in, trying to create a better world with the music for myself. Some people understand that, some people won’t. But no matter what, it’s still a journey, and when you listen to it, you can travel down a road and know that I’m on one now, and maybe you’ll wanna join me.
It’s hard to think of another recent artist who has earned so much acclaim while remaining virtually underground. Do you ever feel invisible?
I’m the most famous not-famous person on the planet, and I’m fine being that. I don’t mind anonymity. It’s bull to say, “I’m a superstar.” My goal is to have a stage to do well by others, and if that means I’m not famous, I’m good. There’s no frustration in that. What makes anyone out there think that this hasn’t been my master plan in the first place? What makes everybody think I’ve been affected or held back? At the end of the day, I wasn’t in my videos. Who does that? Who would refuse to appear in their videos if they want to be a star? Who doesn’t choose to do things the way that I have to fight for the music itself? If I had done anything differently, I would’ve had to have changed my music, change myself, and been a different human being. I chose to not do any of those things. I chose to stick to my path. And it takes longer when you stick to your path. And I’ll be here for as long as I need to get to the point where I need to be to know what I’m gonna do.
In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell wrote, “Kenna is the sort of person who is constantly at odds with your expectations.” Do you think that refusal to be pigeonholed, in addition to being a roadblock, has also endeared you to your fans?
I hope so. I think more than anything else, the kids know that people don’t battle this much to keep their integrity these days. My dad gave me my name, and it means a great deal to me, and I respect my family and my inheritance, and I don’t wanna ever be less than my family’s name. So I’ll battle for that, and I’ll battle for the gifts that have been given to me in respect of that. And I think that’s my responsibility to the world as well, because who would you want? Do you want me to be myself or do you want me to be something that someone created? I hope that most of my fans, if not all of them, want me to be me.
Do you think people are finally starting to “see your face”?
[Laughs] I think so, because I’m pretty available at this point. But, you know, it’s great to be introduced. It’s great to finally meet the people who have been there for me.