WORDS BY TAYLOR CARIK
It took other people’s music—country music, specifically—for DJ Kukielka to find his musical bearings in these turbulent social times.
A longtime player in Minneapolis-St.Paul, Kukielka found local acclaim with his early emotional and confessional work in pop band Hojas Rojas and adjacent solo sets. He continued his musical development with Haters Club, a pop project with guitarist Ted Held, which was more melodic than Hojas Rojas’s White Stripes–style riffs.
But when Haters Club went on hiatus after the release of The Golden Age of Haters Club, Kukielka wondered—or wandered?—for what was next musically.
“Strangely, maybe the best way to find your voice is through playing other people’s music,” says Kukielka. He, Held, and Ryan Otte (who music fans likely know as honky-tonk crooner Cole Diamond) formed the classic-country cover band Bourbon County almost ten years ago.
Going deep on all the ins and outs of country classics opened up not just a whole new songbook, but also new avenues for Kukielka’s own music. “I can’t stress enough how important it was for me to spend those hours learning and performing those songs by all those amazing singers: Charley Pride, Willie Nelson, George Jones. Wish I would have done that when I was 20.”
The resulting EP, RIYH, is a collection as diverse as a Bourbon County set and as eminently listenable. The songs fit together around Kukielka’s voice and his and Held’s guitar work (“His music brain is totally different than mine, and that adds a lot to the music,” he says) showcase an evolving singer-songwriter finding a more personal path, but also one that appreciates the past and present of his own more experience-filled creative journey. Jack White has still stuck around in closer ‘Persephone’ and there’s a swatch of Wayne Coyne in ‘Teenage Love,’ a love letter to Hidden Beach and being “a stupid, stupid teenager.”
The hints of Willie Nelson in the pop ballad ‘I Wouldn’t Blame You’—which reuses the opening line “Did you do all the drugs in California?” as a bittersweet closing that evokes an older, more settled singer and songwriter—actually originated with another musical icon. “[The song] started with a conversation about Gram Parsons, and turned into everything. I think it’s beautiful and can mean so many different things. Is it beautiful? Is it fun? Can you sing along? These are the questions I ask myself.”
Even though listeners will hear familiar influences, Kukielka explains his songwriting changed. “Everything doesn’t need to be a damn confession. I just started writing down interesting phrases from movies and literature, focused on imagery, and wrote on a more cinematic scale.” Changing his approach added illuminating qualities to his new music that weren’t present in either his earlier band or present band’s earlier music. Times change, society changes, it makes an impact on the process.
“I hadn’t written a song in so long, maybe 5 years, until during the pandemic I started working on the songs for RIYH. The last couple years were so heavy! Just absolutely wild and heartbreaking,” he says. “It seems like a lot of people looked inward during the pandemic, but for me most of the writing through the tough years was looking outward, looking forward, looking for beauty, looking for fun, making something worth sharing, I hope.”