Myles Kennedy had finished his first solo album. Then he threw it away.
“I had been working on a record for about seven years,” says the singer/songwriter known worldwide as the voice of Alter Bridge and of Slash’s band, Myles Kennedy and the Conspirators. “It was actually finished two years ago, but when I listened to it with a fresh perspective, when all was said and done, I thought it wasn’t the right first step to take in this journey—its shelf life had expired.”
So he started over, and found himself “writing like a madman.” More than twenty songs spilled out in a short period of time, and as Kennedy listened to his work, he began to comprehend the direction in which the music was pulling him. “It became incredibly obvious what the source of inspiration needed to be lyrically,” he says. “I realized it was time to jump head-first into something I’ve been putting off for my whole life as a writer.”
What eventually emerged was Year of the Tiger, an album almost entirely focused on the loss of Kennedy’s father when the singer was just four years old. “My family was very involved in the Christian Science church,” he says. “So when he became ill, he chose not to seek medical attention, and passed away a few months later. By all accounts, my father was a good, honest man, but I still struggle with the choices he made which ultimately led to his death.
“This was something I had wanted to dive into throughout my career,” Kennedy continues. “It just took decades to muster up the courage. Beneath the surface, the wounds were pretty raw, but it just had to be done.”
Delving into this emotional territory required a musical approach far different from the hard rock that has defined Kennedy’s arena-filling career. The majority of the record was written on acoustic or resonator guitar and recorded directly to tape using a limited number of tracks. Kennedy himself plays banjo, lap steel, bass, and mandolin in addition to guitar on Year of the Tiger, joined by drummer Zia Uddin and Tim Tournier on bass, along with longtime Alter Bridge producer Michael “Elvis” Baskette.
“I’ve always wanted to make a record where I could have the opportunity to explore and document a different element of my musical DNA,” he says, citing his love for the blues, R&B, and acoustic based music and listing such influences as Mississippi John Hurt, Chris Whitley, K.D Lang, Nick Drake and the acoustic songs on Led Zeppelin 3 and 4. “I was trying to tap into something a little more subtle, as opposed to a big, bombastic, high gain sonic attack.”
With the production and arrangements, too, Kennedy began with what he didn’t want, which was anything that felt too processed and slick. “I wanted this recording to be about the vocal, so we kept the instruments arranged in a way so that my voice would be dominant in the mix,” he says. “The recordings I love aren’t perfect. Going straight to tape, going for the song and the performance, making sure that the lyric is honest and resonates with you—the way to capture that is not to suck the life out of it. They call it wabi-sabi in Japanese culture, the idea of embracing beauty in imperfection.”
Even as a singer, Kennedy—three-time winner of Loudwire’s Vocalist of the Year award—was determined to explore a new range and approach. “I was trying to keep things in a lower register,” he says, “not relying on the vocal histrionics that I fall back on in a rock context. On this sonic canvas, I didn’t want to distract the listener from the depth of the song, what was paramount was how the lyric was conveyed emotionally.”
The album found its initial direction from the title track, which was an idea from Kennedy’s first pass writing a solo album. “I remember stumbling onto the melody and title of the song years ago. It stuck with me but I couldn’t seem to complete the concept until it dawned on me that 1974 was the Year Of The Tiger according to the Chinese Zodiac.” he says. “Once I realized that was the same year we lost my father, I knew where I needed to take the record lyrically. The song is really the preface for the entire story from my mother’s perspective. It’s a battle cry of resolution, to persevere under the circumstances we were enduring after dad passed away.”
Kennedy pays tribute to his mother throughout the album. The song “Mother” tries to imagine her experience of the tragedy, fighting to keep things together for Kennedy and his brother. “Turning Stones” represents the singer “trying to get in my mom’s head throughout the difficult journey” while “Ghost of Shangri-La” opens with an image taken directly from his family’s lives in the aftermath of his father’s death.
“The song starts with the line ‘There are thieves outside of our window,’ which was inspired by something that happened to us,” Kennedy explains. “A few weeks after dad passed away, our house was broken into. Ultimately, it served as the catalyst for my mom to uproot us from Boston and move out west and start over again.”
“The Great Beyond” is perhaps the most ambitious song, the grandest in scope, on the album. “That one is probably the least congruent sonically, but it’s so epic in nature that it felt appropriate because of it’s subject matter,” he says. “It describes my father’s passing with surreal imagery from a lyrical standpoint. It was perhaps the most challenging lyric to write, and perform, but it is a very necessary part of the story.”
With Year of the Tiger, Myles Kennedy opens himself up in ways that would be painfully, shockingly personal and intimate for anyone, much less for a revered rock and roll frontman. “Songs like ‘Blind Faith’ or ‘Nothing But a Name’ are almost like open letters to my father, expressing an ache that’s never subsided,” he says. “This record is my attempt to convey things that I’ve needed to express for a long time. What I found hiding in the deep, dark corners of my psyche was difficult to face, but in the end, what came out of the creative process was very cathartic.”