Kiefer Shackelford, a San Diego-born, L.A.-based multi-instrumentalist, can’t remember the first time he was perched up on a piano bench, because his brain didn’t have the capacity to remember anything yet. His father, a piano player and jazz enthusiast himself, introduced young Kiefer to the icons of jazz before he could do basic math. “My dad put me up to the keys when I was a baby,” Kiefer says. “There are videos of me standing on the piano bench when I was barely old enough to stand.” As a result, in middle school, he was more intrigued with the ins and outs of John Coltrane’s Giant Steps than the rise of Lil Wayne and Kanye West.
Kiefer’s recently-released KickinIt Alone, documents the months that followed the heartbreaking end of a relationship. At the age of 25, his work brings with it all the richness that comes from two decades spent learning how to craft music, drawing influences from nearly every end of the Black American music spectrum.
We spoke with Kiefer just after he finished giving a piano lesson—which he does at least twice a day, seven days a week. At the top of our call, I realize I forgot my notes and ran to get them. When I returned, Kiefer was humming a tune. Maybe it’s something he just taught. Maybe it’s a new composition he’s working on. It could be a deep cut from a Miles Davis record. Whatever the case, it’s clear that Kiefer just can’t escape music, but I don’t think he minds.
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Let’s take it back to the beginning. Do you remember the first time you touched a piano?
I remember the first song I ever learned how to play was a song me and my sister made up called ‘The Haunted House Song.’ My job was to play two notes: an E-flat and a D-flat, and her job was to play three-notes: a G-flat, a G and an A-flat. We’d play them at the same time just to make noise, and it was scary-sounding. I also remember my dad taught me how to play ‘Blue Monk’ by Thelonius Monk. I was really little—I must’ve been four or five. He also taught me how to play boogie-woogie stuff and blues-style piano when I was really young.
Your dad was a piano player, too?
He played New Orleans-style blues piano. He’s a very avid jazz listener as well, so he imparted all of that to me. When I was five or six, he was playing John Coltrane and Miles Davis records, and made me recite the names of the artists when the songs came on.
How about your sister? Was she older or younger?
She’s four years older than me. She’s an actress; she sings, dances, and acts. My little brother, who is three years younger than me, had a shorter career with music. He played clarinet and flute when he was in middle school and played a little bit of piano when he was young. Everyone in my family has had a pretty significant musical experience.
What was the first moment you realized you could make music—playing it, teaching it—into a career?
The first time I ever envisioned myself as a musician, I was seven or eight. I remember having a weird daydream in the schoolyard. I was riding around on a tricycle. It was a strange moment. I was singing a guitar solo and air-clapping to it and envisioning myself making music. But I was 13 or 14 when I really started thinking about playing shows and impressing girls that I liked. I started getting deep into jazz around 14 or 15, and I realized it was the dopest shit ever. Jazz to me, at that time, was more exciting than any music has been to me since. The idea that there were people out there who could improvise 10 notes per second with corresponding chord changes, and you could slow the music down and transcribe it, and [how] everything John Coltrane plays in Giant Steps is quote-un-quote correct—everything makes sense. That was insane to me. That’s when I thought, ‘I wanna do this.’
When you’re making music, do you have a narrative in mind for your album, or is it more of a free-flowing stream of emotions?
I love this question. [KickinIt Alone] absolutely has a storyline. I think if you look at the titles, a lot of people can tell it’s autobiographical. However, it was not on purpose. My goal every day is to write exactly what I feel. I’m not even trying to make the best-sounding thing, I’m just trying to journal exactly what’s going on. In making this record, that was my process every day. It just so happens I was going through a very emotional time. It was really just a means to get through this rough time, and just be extremely real with how I felt, because it was the best way to make me feel better and feel more stable on a daily basis.
It was when I recorded the first happy song, ‘Reinvent Yo Self.’ It suddenly popped in my head, ‘Man, I have all this sad music that I’ve made the last five months, and now I have a happy song. Maybe I have an album!’ So I put all the songs into a playlist and put them in the order I made them, and that’s exactly what the record is. I didn’t change it one time. Even though there’s not an explicit narrative that people will be able to interpret just by listening to it—there are no words—you can hear a very obvious emotional evolution by the way it starts off and ends completely different.
‘Butterfly Inside My House’ has an energy and groove to it. Can you paint the picture you had inside your head when you made the song?
It’s a very powerful, symbolic moment for me. At this point, my girlfriend, who I had been in a relationship with for three years, had disappeared from my life, more or less, and we weren’t talking anymore. I was really, really upset, as anybody would be. I was really depressed. One morning I was sitting on my couch, the sliding glass door was open and the sun was pouring in. It was so happy outside—it looked so beautiful out there—and I was paralyzed on the couch. Then a butterfly came and it was flopping inside the threshold of my sliding glass door. It was so beautiful, the way the light was hitting it. I really wanted it to come inside and visit me, but it just kind of flew in that space between the outside and the inside. When you’re depressed like [I was], you don’t have any energy to make yourself happy again, and sometimes you just wish the happiness would come inside and visit you. I sat there and looked at it for a good five minutes or so. It kept perching on the fence outside and circling back inside. I knew at that moment I should write about this image because it perfectly describes the challenges I have right now.
What song are you most proud of making?
I like all of the songs pretty evenly, but if I had to pick two, I think ‘Ghosted’ and ‘Most Beautiful Girl’ are the two strongest pieces. ‘Ghosted’ represents an emotional climax. That was when my contact with my ex had completely cut off. [She was] the person who I talked to every day, she was my best friend for three years. We had nothing to do with each other anymore, and I felt really alone. I remember that song didn’t even sound good to me for a couple months. I don’t even think I listened to it after the day I made it. But I came back to it a couple months later and added the intro and outro. I was so upset when I made it, whenever I listened to it, it kind of felt weird, you know. I was very emotionally vulnerable listening to it for a while.
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There seems to be a common theme here of finding beauty and rehabilitation in sadness and making music.
Sadness is an extremely strong source of beauty, if you are willing to explore it and be honest about it. I’m very emotional, very sensitive, and for a long time I saw my own sadness as a weakness. If there’s anything I want people to take from the album it’s that it’s OK to be sad, and it’s OK to be alone. I wasn’t even trying to say this [on the album], but I think that’s what the work means.
Your beginnings are rooted in jazz and boogie-woogie. How did you make your way over to making hip-hop beats?
One thing I discovered early on was the similarities between all types of Black American music. First, it started with boogie-woogie blues-style [piano], then I started to develop little gospel [skills], then at 12 or 13, it was jazz. I was always wondering, ‘What else is there in Black American music that I’d like?’ Even to this day, that’s a big part of [my life]. There were other musicians [in school] who were listening to this really dope mix of hip-hop and jazz—Robert Glasper was one of the names that kept coming up. So I asked who else I should listen to. They told me, ‘You should listen to J Dilla, you should listen to Bilal, you should listen to Dwele.’ Then J Dilla became one of my favorite all-time musicians rather quickly.
What was it like touring with Mndsgn and Swarvy?
It’s amazing. There’s two things [when performing]: the music and the people. Some people play music they really like with people they don’t like, and some people play music with people they really like, but maybe they don’t like the music. But when I play with Mndsgn and Swarvy, I love the music, and these are my favorite people in the world. It’s the easiest thing ever. All the mundane aspects of tour are all right, they’re hilarious [with them].
When you’re performing on stage with them, how do you differentiate your talents from theirs so someone in the crowd can look at you and realize you’re an important piece of this trio?
All three of us fit musically together like a jigsaw puzzle. I still try to differentiate myself by adding musical harmonies and a couple new melodic elements that weren’t originally there. Ringgo [Mndsgn] already made the tracks [we play] that sound amazing. The music doesn’t actually need me, so it’s important to understand that and remember my job is just to add.
Your music has a genuine feeling of camaraderie. How do you bring that live sound onto a track as one person?
I think, first off, not really having samples helps with that. But another thing about it too, a lot of the times—and this is a very jazz approach—whenever I do the improvised section, like a piano solo, the other musician’s job is to comp—short for ‘accompany.’ Part of comping is, although you are not the principle improviser, your job is to also improvise and to enhance and make more sense of the solo the soloist is playing. So when I record my record, I’ll play the piano solo, and sometimes I’ll go back and put a live bass part that’s comping, so if the piano goes up, maybe the bass will also go up after. Or if the piano plays a melodic line that’s staccato and has really short notes, then maybe the drums will play something that responds to that—either contrasting it or complementing it. It makes the instruments sound not that they’re just live, but that they’re alive. That there’s a real person playing them and it’s not just a loop.
What is success in the music world, to you?
To be successful is a couple of things. First off, my job as a musician is not to judge how good or bad my music is. My job is to release my music. My job is to be myself every day and let all my music be heard. There’s only one of me in the universe, and if it does not leave my body, it does not exist outside of myself. The second thing, and this is more specific: I want to win the respect of my peers. I want to make musicians around me look at things in a new way. It’s not that I’m focusing on innovating every day—it can be a natural thing.
This is obviously something long-term—it doesn’t happen day-by-day.
I just know that if I be myself and embrace the parts of myself that make me different, that gives me the best chance of having an impact.