After years of traveling, singer-songwriter enjoys a laid-back island life
Singer-songwriter Robert Kuhn was born and raised in Houston. But at age 18, he set out to see the world — or at least other parts of it.
Over a 15-year stretch, his journey would take him through Pennsylvania, New York, South America and finally to Galveston. From the road came lots of writing, lots of songs and lots of thoughts about life and the pursuit of happiness.
One of his many adventures stationed him in Nicaragua, where he was a sustainable-living farmer from 2004 to 2010.
“I saw people living well and happily without money, so I got into agriculture and farming,” Kuhn said. “But it’s very difficult work. After six years, it was enough so I came back to Houston.”
Kuhn’s candid talk about the reality of a life off the grid is refreshingly honest. So is his music.
Growing up, Kuhn always had a guitar by his side, but only recently released his first album, “Everybody Knows,” recorded at Houston’s historic SugarHill Recording Studio.
Earlier this year, the album was declared one of 2014’s local best by the Houston Press. Deep influences of early Bob Dylan can be heard on the 12-song CD, from Kuhn’s harmonica and guitar playing to his rhythmic storytelling style.
Organ and piano playing by Jahrel Pickens further lend to the Dylanesque ’60s and ’70s sound.
“My dad was a big Bob Dylan fan,” Kuhn said. “The first Dylan song I learned was ‘Up To Me.’ I was in the eighth grade and the song was about taking things into your own hands. I played the harmonica before I played guitar, but when I heard Dylan doing it all at the same time — it was something I knew I wanted to do. I built a harmonica holder from a coat hanger.”
A history of listening to some of the world’s most respected rock and folk songwriters and musicians such as Dylan, “The Band,” Bruce Springsteen and Townes Van Zandt, along with his immersion into South America’s wide ranging Latin beats, have led Kuhn to create soulful, yet modern rhythms of his own.
With the occasional Spanish language lyric or song, and a heartfelt yet sometimes quirky vocal delivery, Kuhn’s music is reminiscent of Jonathan Richman, The White Stripes, Wilco and The Proclaimers. His upbeat masala of sound — with some blues thrown in — has won some attention, with select tracks finding radio airplay on one of Houston/Galveston’s most popular stations for local music, KPFT 90.1 FM in Houston (89.5 in Galveston).
Despite having to reassimilate to a more consumer-driven life, Kuhn is still as laid back as a Sunday afternoon and has been a Galveston resident for the last five years. He credits Rex (Wrecks) Bell, owner of the Old Quarter Acoustic Cafe in the island’s downtown, for his support. ZZ Top, Secret Agent 8, Grady Lee, JT Van Zandt, Sisters Morales and many other notable bands and performers have played the Old Quarter.
“Galveston gave me a great start when I came back to the United States,” he said. “It’s such a tight community of musicians, artists and songwriters. I always feel very comfortable in Galveston.”
Joining Kuhn on “Everybody Knows” is Chris Larmour on drums, Clark Duhon on bass, Claire Silverman on cello and Houston blues legend, the late, Little Joe Washington on guitar.
“Joe was a very special person — a real character,” Kuhn said. “I’m so happy we got a chance to record with him. He spent his whole life playing music.”
“Everybody Knows” also features original artwork by Galveston artist Catherine Stroud. Stroud had painted the somewhat abstract interpretation of Kuhn playing his guitar on his front porch before the album’s release and the two decided it would make a great fit.
“Everybody Knows” is alive with its unpolished, raw sound and smiling grooves.