Both a gifted producer and classically trained jazz pianist, Kiefer Shackelford is a uniquely 21st-century kind of musician.
Equally comfortable laying down a fiendishly nimble piano solo as he is slicing samples in Ableton Live, Kiefer draws from various corners of Black American music - jazz, hip-hop, R&B, funk and electronica - to create a vibrant soundworld populated by head-nodding beats, soaring synths and rich, complex harmonies.
Signed to storied hip-hop label Stones Throw, Kiefer operates at the centre of an LA-based musical nexus in which he has become a sought-after collaborator, lending keys and production to Anderson .Paak’s Grammy-winning Ventura and playing on Drake’s chart-topping Certified Lover Boy.
For many, these moments might represent the apex of their ambition, but to hear Kiefer tell it, he’s more excited by low-key jams with his buddies than dropping in on sessions with Dr. Dre. “I really do have this overly principled view on music,” he says. “Making music with your friends is just the fucking best.”
Kiefer’s latest release is It’s Ok, B U, a diverse set of sixteen tracks that finds him switching gears from the live and collaborative approach of his previous record, When There’s Love Around, and returning to the solo beatmaking that defined his earlier releases. Working from a home studio, Kiefer ran his beloved upright piano and a handful of synths into Ableton, framing vivid improvisations with sloping beats and softly psychedelic sound design.
Touching on themes of mental health and self-acceptance, the record finds Kiefer abandoning self-doubt and embracing his creative instincts. “There are a lot of opportunities to not do the thing that is the most captivating to me,” he tells us. “But this is music I genuinely love to make. Every time, I'm getting a little bit better at having a direct line to whatever my spirit wants to play.”
We caught up with Kiefer over the phone from his home in Los Angeles to find out more about the making of It’s Ok, B U.
Let’s start at the beginning. Could you tell us about how you first got into music and where that all started for you?
“I've been playing music since I was very little. My dad plays the piano every day. There's always a piano in the house, so I’ve been playing probably since I was three or four, but started learning more intentionally when I was like six or seven with my mom, who also plays a little bit and taught me how to read music. It’s something I've always done and enjoyed.”
When did the production side of things come into play?
“I started recording music on GarageBand when I was 13 or 14, but I wasn’t really serious about it at that point. Hip-hop, I didn’t fall in love with until I was 17 or 18. Actual beatmaking, the process of making beats, I didn’t fall in love with until I was about 20.”
This is your first solo project in a few years after working with a live band. What led you to return to that way of doing things?
“I wanted to do it! I love making beats. It's really, really fun. I spent all this time making the live record prior and that was really great. When that was over, I went through a period of writing music - I mean, I'm always in a period of writing music - but I entered a new period of writing music, and as I was doing it, I was making beats and I was like, this is incredibly fun, I don't want to do a studio album right now, I want to do this again.
“I do what I like when it comes to music, that's the rule. If I like it, I'm going to do it. Because I think that's how I'm gonna do my best work, if I’m doing stuff that's really fun. If it's fun, I'm going to do it all the time. If I do it all the time. I'm going to be good at it. If I'm good at it. I'm going to have a lot of fun… and it becomes this awesome positive feedback loop. I just let my desire take me where it wants to go.”
Were you working primarily from a home studio for this project?
“That's correct. I did it in my room again. That’s how I love to make music. It's really fun, it's really natural. It's super intimate and really dynamic.”
What’s your home studio set-up like?
“Very simple. The main element is my upright piano. I've been using that for many years, I’ve used it on the Anderson .Paak record that we won a Grammy for, it’s on the Drake record that I was on as well, and it’s on each of the seven albums that I've released.
“I've had different mics that I've used over the years. Nothing fancy. I used some Shure SM81s at one point, I used some AKG C214s at one point, simple stuff. I've also used a Neumann that I borrowed from a friend one time. Honestly - it sounds crazy, but it's true - I love the SM57 the most, for that piano specifically. I think it's because when I use the upright, I record it with the felt over the strings, and that twangy tone of the 57 balances it out really well.
“That high-mid-range 3000Hz twang of the 57 is perfect for it, especially for the type of music that I make. It’s such a simple waveform, and there’s not too much detail, which I think sometimes with the piano is not my favourite. I like a really simple tone, and it’s great for that. Then I run it through the Universal Audio 610, which is great. That’s basically it for tracking the piano. I have a Warm Audio preamp that I use sometimes, but not too often.”
What synths are you using?
“I have my Behringer Model D, which I love. The DX-7. The UDO Super 6, that’s probably my favourite. The Prophet-600, I love that one as well.”
When it comes to beatmaking, are you using any hardware or working in the DAW?
“No, I used to use an MPC2000, but I don't use it anymore. So it's really simple: all in the box until we get to mixing, and then we go into the studio and mix on an SSL console. But until then, it's really simple, just making music at home.”
What DAW do you use, and why do you use it?
“I’m on Ableton. I’ve been using it for the last eight or nine years. It’s just easy. All the DAWs more or less do the same things, right? So I think beyond that, it just comes down to workflow. It's easy to use - it feels like I'm playing a video game. That's why I started and I think that's why a lot of people like it. Also the sampling engine on it is really cool, I love using that.”
Do you use any soft synths?
“Not really, no. It’s all outboard gear. I don’t use any software instruments. Sometimes I’ll use Keyscape, I don’t know if that counts as a soft synth though. That’s the only software instrument I use.”
How about effects plugins?
“I love Waves J37. I've been using that for years. That's a classic one that everyone likes. XLN Audio RC-20 is another one that a lot of people use all the time that I use as well. I'm not too crazy about plugins either.
“My whole approach to music-making is very, very simple. If anything, it's more focused on my musicianship, and with the production part I try to execute really simple things. Plugins, I probably really only use maybe 15 or 20 in total. They’re all really simple as well: FabFilter, the LA-2A Limiter sometimes. For delay, I literally just use Ableton’s Delay and Echo… I keep it really, really simple, honestly.”
How does the songwriting process typically start for you?
“I can write a song a bunch of different ways, but I think the most common way would be making a drum loop first, and then maybe keys or bass next. Sometimes I'll write on the piano first, but that kind of leads to something different - if I'm writing a piece, I'll start with the piano, but if I'm writing a beat, then I'm gonna start with drums. But you can do it any way you want, you know?”
Thinking about the way you approach the piano, are there any players that have had a significant influence?
“As far as pianists go, Herbie Hancock's an obvious number one. Mulgrew Miller is also on that top tier for me. Cedar Walton, Wynton Kelly, Phineas Newborn Jr., Bud Powell, Hank Jones… it’s a long, long list of pianists. When I was in college, I wrote down my favourite piano players and there were like 95 of them. But that was in college - it's been 10 years. At this point there's hundreds and hundreds of dudes that I’ve studied, it's been many, many years. That's the thing I know the most about, the history of jazz piano. I love it.”
You’ve said that the new record takes a different harmonic approach that’s centred around triads that “sound like rock chords”. How did that take shape?
“Those are the type of chords I used to play when I was like 13 or 14 and I listened to a lot of classic rock. I would play Elton John, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, The Who - things like that. It's funny, because that music is not necessarily always geared for piano, but I would play along anyways, because I just loved it so much.
“So, as is often the case with musicians, when you get older, you study so much and you're piling information up and up and up this way, and then you end up with a sound that maybe isn’t related to where you started. Then at some point, as you start to develop, you end up regressing back to the stuff that you really love. I think that’s subconsciously what happened here.
“The song Doomed is like that - major triads are the thing, but then I'm just superimposing them over a different chord in the left hand - to really oversimplify my explanation here - but if you were to look at just what the right hand is doing and mute the left hand, it's literally just a chord progression that could be a The Who song. Triad, triad, triad, triad. But then in the left hand there’s this other harmonic context that’s actually a little more complicated.
“I’ve been noticing over the years that more and more of that has been occurring. So on this record I just allowed myself to do it, because I thought it was interesting. Then when you listen to it live, that song really ended up being a Prince thing, which is totally not what it sounds like on the album… music’s crazy.”
Do most of your songs end up changing dramatically in their live incarnations?
“100%. I don't think you could play it live the way it is on the record at all. There's a difference between the recording and the song itself. The song itself is just like a DNA strand that can be expanded out to so many other different things. So yeah, live, it's completely different in terms of the performance of it, but the song is the same, the characters are the same.
“So Doomed turned into a Prince groove, kind of like the groove he would play on Let’s Work. Turns out it’s the same tempo, it’s 120 and it’s just swung now. But what’s crazy is, we're playing to the tracks, so you can actually hear the background elements but we’re just doing a different time feel. For all of the songs, you’ve gotta arrange them differently and you’ve gotta liven them up. The live arrangements are much more detailed.”
You’ve said for this record, you wanted to let yourself ‘go crazy’ and ‘express yourself in the biggest loudest way possible’. Can you talk about how that manifested itself musically?
“For sure. The first example is the first and second songs, where I picked a really cute first track and then the second track was angry. I haven't done a whole lot of angry music on my records before, even though it's something I love to do. The tune My Disorder is 100% “I’m pissed off”. In the past I may not have allowed myself to put that on an album, but this time I was like, ‘no, I'm gonna do that’, because I love to make angsty music sometimes! It's part of the story.
“Also, the solos got longer. The song August Again is just a really long piano solo. The same thing for the last tracks, It’s OK, B U and I Mean That - if you combine those two tracks it's like a six or seven minute piano solo. That’s a long time. There were a lot of thoughts like: ‘oh, this doesn't make sense, who's gonna listen to that?’, or ‘I should probably be doing something like this’ or ‘I should probably simplify that’... There are a lot of opportunities to not do the thing that is the most captivating to me. But I chose not to skip it. I chose to do what I wanted to do the most.”
Is your ability to filter out those doubts a skill that you’ve always had, or something you’ve had to develop over time?
“For better or for worse, I haven't been concerned with what other people want me to do. But it’s a decision you have to make every time. It may not be an effort thing, deciding to make music that's more inherently you. I don't think that's an effort thing, it's not something you try to impose your will on. It’s an allowing thing, you have to allow yourself to do it. It's like meditation. Meditating doesn't take effort - meditating is non-doing. But it does take intention, and you have to allow yourself to do it.
“I generally have done a good job of not being concerned with what other people want. I do keep it pretty honest, and this is music I genuinely love to make. Every time I'm just getting a little bit better at having an even more direct line to whatever my spirit wants to play.”
We’re told that you’ve struggled with anxiety and panic and that music-making can be therapeutic for you. Can you tell us more about that?
“As I begin to talk about mental illness, it's important for me to mention that I'm not an expert. I'm only an expert on my own experience. But something that I've learned in my life is that it's extremely important for me to have meaning and purpose. If I have that, then I generally do pretty well. So music is a way for me to do that, and to understand what my purpose is, and then also to observe how I'm feeling and to understand myself a little better.
“Music is also a way for me to socialise and connect with people, which is also an important element of having good mental health for me. It's an incredible tool when I'm not feeling well, to be able to make music. A lot of people journal, and I journal occasionally, but I musically journal every single day. That's a really great way for me to understand myself and what's going on with me. It's relaxing, it makes me feel good, it builds my self esteem - it does so much.”
You’ve worked with a real variety of talented musicians. Who has been the most fun to collaborate with?
“I like working with my friends. I'm very lucky that I happen to be friends with a lot of really talented people. But yeah, honestly, I like working with my friends. I've been in some crazy rooms where you're working with a really iconic musician, and those are awesome. It's great in the moment but then once the day is over, you're like, whatever.
“The stuff that’s really great is when I've been making music with my buddy for a year or two or three or four, and then it's like: ‘wow, this is really special’. Whenever I work with MNDSGN, that feels really good. I've known him for 10 years now, so making a song with him, though we don't do it very often, it's really nice to do it. I like working with my friends. My buddy Pera Krstajic, my buddy Luke Titus, I love working with those guys.”
Who is your dream collaborator, someone that you haven’t yet had the chance to work with?
“I'm terrible with this question! I don’t know… Kendrick would be dope. Making stuff with 9th Wonder would be dope. Doing more stuff with Pete Rock, I love sending stuff back and forth with him. I don't know. I also just love making music with my friends. I really do have this overly principled view on music. Making music with your friends is just the fucking best.
“When it's all said and done at the end of the day, if you have really awesome connections with people and stories that span many years, that's the best thing. That's what I'll be the most proud of at the end of the day, not like, ‘oh, I went to a session with Dr. Dre once’. Which I have done more than a couple times. That's fine, that's all fine and good. But I wouldn't trade my experiences with friends for that.”
We’ve really enjoyed following your Piano Labs YouTube series. What led you to start making those videos?
“Thanks. I just thought it would be fun. I love talking about piano. That's the other thing - it's not just playing, it’s talking about it, which is what we're doing right now. I love talking about piano and talking about chords and harmony. So I figured, ‘hey, I'm doing these free lectures every Sunday, I might as well film them and put them on YouTube’.
“It's really that simple: I just set up my streaming setup, which I had been doing on Twitch for some time, hit record and then send it to an editor. Shout out Schnoodle Video. Schnoodle is really dope, he edited those videos for me. Once I come back from tour I'm gonna do some more of those.”
Do you have any sense of the direction that you’ll be taking with your next project?
“I have no idea. I’ll let the music tell me what it wants to be.”