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Multi-genre musician writes, sings, plays and raps

Ethan Kenvarg ’12 has shown Grinnell a lot of musical versatility over the past three years. He raps, he sings, he plays guitar and generally rocks it out at Open Mic. Often appearing with Katie In ’13, Kenvarg is frequently seen at Bob’s Underground Cafe performing a variety of acoustic songs, some of which he writes himself. Last week, he sat down with Will Hurd to talksabout learning the guitar, his beginnings in the rap genre, his favorite and least favorite concerts and his musical aspirations.

Ethan Kenvarg
Ethan Kenvarg '12 practices guitar in the stairway of Haines for his next Open Mic performance at Bob's Underground - Marfa Prokhorova

So, to start off with, when did you start playing music?
Well, I started playing guitar when I was 13, because my other friends played instruments and I thought I should play something. And I started singing seriously my junior year, because my friend was like, “Hey, I’m in an a cappella group and you should join.”

You were in a high school a cappella group? That’s badass.
Well, not really. We were awful. It’s kind of like the G-Tones in that we’re not that good but no one knows because we just have fun with it, if that makes any sense.

Sure, what kind of music did you do in the a cappella group?
Same stuff as G-Tones, lots of pop tunes.

Lots of ironic covers?
Well, not ironic, because you were in high school and you were like, “Oh my god, I want to sing Billy Joel!”

Wow, you were in a way different high school than I was. Was anyone else in your family musical?
No, my mom initially when I started playing guitar questioned me, like, “Why are you doing this?” And I was like, “I don’t know, my friends are doing it.” And she had the expectation that I was not going to stick with it, because I was 13 and I was at that age where you want to try a bunch of different things. She wasn’t like, “Why are you doing this, you shouldn’t be doing this,” or anything. I don’t know, I wish I had started earlier, actually.

What inspires you to write music?
Personal experiences. I base almost all of the songs I write on things that have happened to me in the past, because it’s a good way to get things out and be creative with it.

What are your influences, what do you listen to?
I listen to a lot of different stuff. Right now I’m into a band called The Streets, a UK rap group. I’m really into The Walkmen, Maps and Atlases because they just came and played. But I really listen to anything. And that’s kind of how I write my stuff because I try and copy other styles. So I’ve been like, “I want to write a song that’s like a Bon Iver song!” And then I do that and it just turns into something new and original.

I’ve heard you’ve been rapping around campus. Can you tell me a little about that?
I guess if we we’re gonna start from the beginning of my musical roots, I used to rap all the time. That was my main thing. It was before I started playing guitar and all that and I used to just rap a lot with my friends. And I sort of lost that as I started playing guitar. But recently I’ve been kind of talking to people and free-styling with my friends around campus. And there was that hip-hop concert two weeks ago [Suga City] and I ended up on High Street just free-styling with those guys. So that was fun. You know, I’m out of practice and I don’t want to be like “I rap!” because I can, but I used to be better. I’m working on that.

I’m intrigued, where do you rap around campus?
Well recently I’ve been playing with Mike Kleine [’11], he produces a lot of cool beats, so the last couple Saturdays we’ve jammed together in the Free Sound room. And I don’t know, just when I’m walking around I guess, muttering to myself.

Who’s your favorite rap group?
Well, I’m really partial to Mos Def. I guess if I had to have a favorite it would be MF Doom, because he does really compound, multi-syllabic rhymes at the end of lines that are really, really tough. I don’t know of any other rappers who do that, you know instead of rhyming just a couple syllables, he will rhyme like whole lines. He’s got a really unique style.

When you play your other music, do you do mostly covers, or your own stuff, or what?
It’s kind of a combination of those two, I try and play mostly my written stuff to see how people like [it] and fortunately Grinnell is a very supportive community. But yeah, I do a little bit of both.

I know you collaborate with Katie In ’12, and you mentioned Mike Kleine. Are there others?
Well, this year my goal is to play lots of different types of music. I mean, the reason I play acoustic guitar is because, well, I’m not going to go to Bob’s and bring an electric guitar, and start like rocking out. But when I’m in my room I can’t play my electric guitar, either, and get that practice. I write rock songs and I never get to play them. I’m trying to go down that road. I’m playing rock/punk stuff now with AJ Johnson [’12], I’m rapping with Mike Kleine.

Do you want to form a band or anything?
Yeah, I’d like to. I’ve been trying to do it with a whole bunch of people, it’s just hard to coordinate that stuff.

Besides at Open Mic, where do you generally play?
I played at Bob’s a couple of times, played Gardner a couple of times. It’s been nice.

What’s the best concert you’ve seen at Grinnell?
Well the Maps and Atlases concert was really great. I don’t know if it was the best, but it was really awesome, I really like that band. And they did a little acoustic set at the end, which was cool. Jeffrey Lewis was great, Royal Bangs when they came—that was a great show. It was one of those shows where by the end your shirt is just soaked and you’re euphoric. That’s probably my favorite show I’ve been to, the Royal Bangs. But there are so many great concerts at Grinnell, and so many of my friends just don’t go to them. Just because you haven’t heard about them doesn’t mean they’re not great. And I’ve learned that by going to a lot of rock shows. I remember last year, Those Darlings, like there were a lot of country people there being like “hey sweet, this is kind of country stuff” but also rock and punk, too. More people just need to go. That’s a plug for [concerts], right there.

Well done, what about worst concert?
Well, the Kool Keith concert was just awkward.

He was really drunk, right?
Well, a) he was really drunk and b) he was just saying really offensive things about women and homophobic things. We were like, “Oh man, I really want to listen to you rap but I’m also offended like everyone else here.” Definitely most awkward concert.

What’s the last CD you bought?
Hmm, Perch Patchwork by Maps and Atlases, right after the concert. Also, Jukebox the Ghost, which is Alice Thornewill’s [’11] brother’s band, and they’re sweet. I’m really into them.

Are you looking to continue with music professionally after you graduate?
Well, I’m a bio major, but once I graduate I plan on playing music. I know it’s sort of a lofty goal to want to be a musician, but people have the idea that if you’re a musician you’re making lots of money and f*cking lots of women or men, but for me I just want to be able to get by. … I mean, playing music every night, how’s that not a great thing to be doing with your life? How’s that not a great life goal?

How can people find your stuff?
I’ve recorded some music and done some stuff with Katie, come find me and I’ll give it to you. I have a MySpace, it’s I’m trying to put out my stuff so when I leave, someone somewhere maybe will have heard of it.

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