A Career in Music
by Mathieu Rainville
Mike Keneally is one of popular music’s best-kept secrets and a great example of DIY ingenuity. He briefly worked with musical giant Frank Zappa in the late 80’s, a job that gained him a fair amount of name recognition. A virtuoso guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist with a knack for eccentricity, Mike has never exactly been a good fit with the corporate record industry. To bypass the once-necessary evil of a major record label, Mike, along with his manager Scott Chatfield, opted to start his own small shop, Exowax Recordings.
"I knew that owning and controlling one’s own work was a good thing, and I knew it would be a challenge and a major step", he says. Every record put out so far by Exowax Recordings has been well received by both music critics and Mike’s steady following of loyal and devoted fans. All seems well and good in the world of Mike Keneally, but the path that got him here hasn’t been all that straight and easy.
In his teens, Mike taught himself guitar by listening to his favourite records by The Beatles, Frank Zappa, ELP and Steely Dan, among others. It quickly lead to the realization that he had a natural talent for learning and making music. When Mike had just finished high school, his parents believed in his musical ability so much that they told him to stay at home and work on becoming a full-time musician. Sure, Mike was overjoyed by that proposition, but he reckons that it wasn’t without its pitfalls: "I felt grateful and un-pressured at first. I knew that my father was sincere in his desire to sustain me while I learned and experimented. I don’t doubt that it spoiled me a bit - when your parents provide for you like that, it can take a long time to realize that the rest of the world doesn’t necessarily consider it a major priority to do the same.
I’ve had some challenging times in life coming to terms with that, none of which I blame my parents for! As time went on, I naturally began to put pressure on myself. When I got the job with Frank Zappa and was finally able to help out my family financially (by that time my father had fallen into difficult times in his business), it was very satisfying for me."
Speaking of Frank Zappa, the story of Mike Keneally being hired as a touring musician by the iconoclast composer is not without its entertainment value. In 1985, Mike had called Zappa’s office a few times to try to talk to his idol and, once, Frank himself took the phone. Mike quickly expressed his dream of working with him, to which Zappa replied, "keep dreaming." Yet less than two years later, Mike was able to get an audition and impress Zappa with his guitar prowess. But Mike, we wonder, what goes through the mind of a 20-something when his wildest fantasy comes alive? "Disbelief, delight, bliss. I was in a happy cloud for months." Okay, we can understand that… but what comes after? "I was left with a very real dilemma and this question kept me confused for a long time until I started making my own albums, and I realized that THAT is what you do next - your own music."
Since the early 90’s, Mike has produced and released ten solo albums and he has appeared on countless others. His career seems to be on a roll, but since Mike is not financially backed by a media giant, he still can’t be certain that he’ll be able to sustain himself indefinitely with his music. "A career in music is one of the most tenuous ways imaginable to attempt to support yourself, especially when the music is unconventional. It requires a thorough devotion to the idea of music as its own reward, because there surely are lean times financially, times when the quality of the music itself must be called upon to nourish you."
In his case, though, hopes are up - being unconventional is one thing, but being unconventional and unconventionally talented is another thing altogether. Mike admits, "an artist like me is ensured of having a loyal following pretty much forever, as long as the quality of the work remains high and the effort I put forth as an artist is sincere and passionate. Not being attached to a trend is a blessing, because I can forge my own path and steadily build a following, while trends fall around me left and right. I can never really become "uncool" because my coolness is not really an issue- it’s not a fashion or a social choice to be a fan of my music, it’s simply about the music, and appreciators of good music will always be around - not in as large numbers as those for whom music might as well be a can of soda, but there is an audience for real music, and we reach more of them every year."
Thanks to a healthy dose of self-belief, an extraordinary ability and a tad of entrepreneurship, Mike Keneally has achieved the goal of many musicians and workers alike: to do his own thing and succeed at it. Today, he still entertains utopian ideas, even if it’s with a touch of humour; when asked to summarize his career plan in no more than a sentence and five commas, Mike takes the challenge upfront (and takes a mocking shot at the interviewer): "I want to create a stimulating and inspiring body of work, music which actively and consciously generates loving and life-affirming energy, which will hopefully spur others on to similarly generate positive feelings through their work and their lives, and provide an example to others of a way of living and feeling which doesn’t involve killing or hatred or negativity. (I’ve got two, count ’em, two commas left over.)"