I rushed toward Tandem Wine and Beer on College Avenue in Appleton a few minutes late to my interview with acoustic singer/songwriter Kurt Gunn, where he would later be playing a show. I was greeted outside the door by Gunn himself. The first thing he said to me was “maroon and white stripes.” I messaged him earlier on Facebook that I was running late and he could recognize me by what I was wearing — a maroon and white striped dress with matching maroon tights. We shook hands and I apologized for my tardiness. He said it was no problem; he had to haul some gear into the venue anyways. Wearing Doc Marten boots that he’s had for about 10 years now, wool socks because he’s struggling with a cold, a denim shirt, a newsboy hat and glasses, Gunn looked the part of a musician.
Once we finally sat down for the interview, Gunn, sipping two different kinds of tea — peppermint and peppermint ginger, handed me three of his CDs titled “Underneath,” “Scenes From a Small Town in Maine” and “Ballad of the Unknown Picker and Singer.”
Gunn has lived in De Pere for 10 years, not far from his hometown of Green Bay. The 41 year old moved to De Pere 10-12 years ago, but has been playing in the Fox Valley exclusively for about the last two and a half years.
Gunn also is a part of the Kurt Gunn Band, which is comprised of himself and always bassist Chris Hanaway and drum player Ric Armstrong, but he adds other musicians into the mix occasionally. Gunn enjoys his solo work just as much as playing with the band.
“I don’t like to do either of them too much because it gets boring, like solo I get lonely, so if I’m just playing solo all the time, I’d like to have some buddies with me sometimes, and if you play too much with the band, you want to kill each other; you don’t want to do it anymore. I love both,” Gunn says.
Hanaway and Gunn both have children who play together while the two bandmates hang out.
“I love performing with Kurt Gunn, he’s a very, very good friend of mine,” Hanaway says. “Kurt is one of the main bands that I’ve been involved with consistently for probably 10 years or so and I like it for two reasons — I respect Kurt, I respect his writing, I think he’s a great writer, and so I really enjoy the music, but I think even more importantly he’s a good friend of mine.”
Gunn has been playing the guitar since he was just 14 years old. He says his writing process typically starts with the guitar.
“For me it’s usually guitar, then I’ll come up with some sort of hook, and then I’ll just record it on my phone voice memo,” he says. “I come up with a little snip-it and then what I’ll do is I’ll record just the guitar and myself singing nonsense lyrics just to find a melody, and then that’ll be version one. Then I’ll come up with the first verse; that’ll be version two, and then version three. There could be like 10 or 12 generations of that and then it becomes a song.”
Gunn describes his style of music as “singer/songwriter, americana, but a bit of folk, a little bit of old country.”
He has two major musical influences from different decades.
“I know it sounds cliche but The Beatles. I’ve always liked The Beatles. I don’t listen to a lot of current stuff but I would say current would be Ryan Adams,” Gunn says.
He even has the Help! album art from The Beatles record tattooed on his upper arm.
In addition to his music career, Gunn has been a firefighter for the Green Bay Fire Department for 17 years. He works 24-hour shifts, one day on and one day off, repeating for three days, and then four days off.
“I don’t get a lot of weekends off, so that’s why I don’t play a ton, so that would be the biggest roadblock,” Gunn says.
Although he loves playing at Tandem because it’s “super laid back,” he would have to say his favorite local venue is Gibson Music Hall. Gunn seems pretty impressed with the local music scene.
“It’s a lot better since I started playing here in Appleton versus Green Bay,” Gunn says. “I choose to play down here because for my genre it’s better, more well received. All and all it’s pretty awesome with Mile of Music and everything — it’s really opened up this area to people wanting original music.”
Gunn remembers a time when it wasn’t so ideal to be a musician in Northeast Wisconsin.
“I’m old enough to remember back when it was, like, all cover bands, and you didn’t dare play your own song. People have asked me to leave for playing my own stuff and booed, all that, so I’d say it’s a lot better,” Gunn says.
He does, however, have a unique take on how the Fox Valley could be more conducive for music makers.
“It’d be cool to see some writing groups [where] people get together like these people sitting here, and you play a song and then the next person will play a song and then the next person, and you talk about it and share ideas and stuff like that,” Gunn says.
He also thinks local festivals could be more supportive of local musicians.
“It seems to be a lot of people from outside Appleton, even outside of Wisconsin and the Midwest even. There’s so many good bands in Wisconsin, you could have a whole festival with just that,” Gunn says.
After the interview, I sat for a while sipping espresso and enjoying the show. Gunn sang with singer Amanda James, Hanaway and Armstrong. He switched to Spotted Cow for the performance. I thought James and Gunn harmonized beautifully and they both have strong, powerful voices. Overall, Gunn turned out to be a down-to-earth, modest man, whose talent speaks for itself.
I came to realize that anyone who works with Gunn is happy to talk about why they love playing with him so much and why he is a special kind of artist.
“I really enjoy singing with Kurt. I would say Kurt’s music is fine tuned and steady,” James says. “He’s a very consistent artist, coming out with new music often, which is very admirable in times of covers and pop hits.”
Being the modest guy that he is, Gunn shied away from questions pertaining to his own talent and what sets him apart from other acoustic singer/songwriters. Hanaway, however, had no problem answering this question for him.
“He’s a fabulous writer and I know he’s very humble and he doesn’t give himself enough credit,” Hanaway says. “He’s been extremely tenacious; he’s stuck with this for years, and the original music scene can be tough sometimes.”
Hanaway goes on to explain how difficult it can be getting crowds to come out to shows, but that Gunn has been persistent, and his particular lyric writing style is why he is now being recognized and appreciated.
“I think that it’s paying off for him now and I think that it’s well-deserved because he’s a great writer and incredible lyricist,” Hanaway says. “His songs have a way of really connecting with people, the way that he tells a story in a song — it’s not overly specific, so it’s very relatable and I think his music connects with people on a deeper level.”
Hanaway thought that although the size of the audience at the Tandem show was small because of competing venues, it’s not always the quantity but the quality of the audience that matters.
“The great thing about Kurt’s shows are the people that show up are there to listen to the music, so it’s really rewarding to play for a crowd like that no matter how big it is,” Hanaway says. “If they’re enjoying the music and listening then it’s a great show, so we were really happy with the people that were there; it’s always nice to play for people who appreciate it.”
Gunn is currently recording a new full-length album. The title is unknown at this point. It will be released sometime between February and April of 2018.
Check Gunn’s music out at one of his upcoming shows. He will be at the 3rd Annual Chocolateer Holiday Ball featuring Kurt Gunn and The Chocolateers at Jimmy Seas Pub & Grill in Green Bay December 15 and La Vie Boheme, a wine bar in De Pere, December 30.
For a full list of upcoming shows, or to listen to Gunn’s music, visit kurtgunn.com.