Interview

Career Horse Racer Peter Kleinhans Turns Singer-songwriter, Debut Album out January 2018

Peter Kleinhans

I am always excited to learn about a new artist with a unique backstory, and Peter Kleinhans does not disappoint! Having been a race horse lover since childhood, Kleinhans spent the better part of five decades training, racing and announcing in the race horse industry. Today, he has put down his reins to pick up a guitar and will be releasing his debut album, Something's Not Right, this coming January. I was able to sit down with this interesting artist to talk about his big life transition, his songwriting and album producing process, and his upcoming nuptials. (Congratulations, Peter, on your two big achievements happening only a month apart!)  Read on to find out more about this fascinating emerging artist...

What made you decide to change from horse training and racing to music full-time?

There were several things coming together at once that made me decide to switch gears.  First and foremost is the fact that harness racing (my corner of horse racing) is basically a dying sport.  When I was a kid, racing drew more people annually than any other sport.  That's hard to even fathom now.  The horses, trainers, and jockeys (or the drivers, in harness racing) were household names.  I grew up wanting to either be an announcer (my hero was New York announcer Dave Johnson) or a great driver like John Campbell.  Everyone knew these guys.  Eventually I got to do both - and I still love it - but it means less to me now.  At 15, nothing was cooler than for me than to say goodbye to my parents and jump on the bus to Roosevelt Raceway out on the island for a Saturday night of betting.  I did it whenever I could.  Now, less than forty years later, almost no one I know under the age of 40 has ever even been to the racetrack.  It's lost all its relevance.

What was so weird was that I had finally reached the top of the game in 2010.   After a lot of years racing for peanuts at leaky-roof tracks, I got to the point of training a stable full of 20 really good horses.  My best horse, Enough Talk, won the Breeders Crown that year and got named trotter of the year for the second time in three years.  But I started thinking - OK, I've accomplished something I wanted to, and that's great, but- as in the words of Peggy Lee's great song, "Is that all there is?"  At some point, I think everyone has to ask themselves- do I value things the same way I used to?

At the same time, my daughter had just been born that year, and I was also taking care of my son from a previous marriage, so I started looking for something that I could do from home, since childcare was becoming my real career.  I had been a creative writing major as an undergraduate, focusing on poetry.  Like racing, poetry has lost a lot of its cultural relevance- I seem to have a knack for caring about things no one seems to care about anymore- but music, its close cousin, will always be something people care about. It seemed to make sense.

I'd played piano since childhood, but I'd never picked up a guitar before.  But in 2013 I found a great guitar teacher, Matthew Smith, who helped me learn not only how to play the instrument, but also how the elements of the guitar could make songwriting more accessible than with a piano or keyboard alone.  He co-wrote a couple of the songs on the album and has become a friend of mine as well.  I also took a one-day songwriting course through Gotham Writing Workshops with Tony Conniff, who inspired me to take the work more seriously.  He's now both producer and bass player on my songs.  

As I started working- and I'm sure this has been the case with many songwriters- the experience became increasingly energizing.  One song might become uninteresting to me for a while, so I'll start something new, then hopefully come back to the first one.  I realized that I was getting a decent number of songs together and noticed that they were reflecting certain themes and turning them into an album seemed the next logical step.

I still don't know if I'd call myself a full-time musician (although it's a flattering description).  I'm just very happy to have completed this project and I'm interested to see if people connect with it and are moved by it.  If so, I'll keep going.

What was the songwriting and album producing process like for you?  Being your first album, was this a challenging process at first?

It’s been a fascinating learning experience.  I’ve always been a bit of a loner and I’ve never played in a band.  When I started with this, I had no idea how songs were even built.  Now I have a bit of a routine.  Apple’s Garage Band was a wonderful place to start learning how to construct a song, and I learned a lot, quickly, when I found that it was already installed on the computer I bought in 2010.  I found that I could get the ‘bones’ of a song down, writing and playing all the parts and singing over them, at home.  

Once I started collaborating with Tony Conniff at his studio, I really began to enjoy the process of polishing the songs.  We would bring in session musicians like Larry Saltzman, Marc Shulman, and Karen Lloyd, among others.  I have nothing but respect for the musicians I worked with- they’re dedicated to their craft in a way that is very refreshing.  I find the back-and-forth between songwriter, musician, and producer to be incredibly dynamic.  I respect these musicians’ insights, and I think they respected the music, and the process really had the feeling of putting egos aside and working towards the best possible result.

But the hardest and longest part of this process wasn’t even the music itself- it was everything that came after the music was written.  Working on photographs to go with each song, putting together the album box, and just trying to get it all “out there” has been a long process.  But it’s all worth it to see it come to fruition.  So, I appreciate the opportunity to answer these interview questions because how to get exposure is the part of all this I have no idea about.

What's the inspiration for your single, "3,000,000 Years"?

"3,000,000 Years" is in a way a synthesis of everything I’ve learned and thought about after getting out of horses.  In 2011, after I gave up training horses full-time, I spent a year as a student of history, current events, and economics learning how they are all connected.  It all started by watching a movie called “Collapse”, about Michael Ruppert, to whom this song is dedicated.  Ruppert wasn’t always right in everything he said, but his discussion of oil- how it has built our world, how we are dependent on it for absolutely everything, and how quickly it is depleting- is brilliant.  He understands the nexus between oil, money, debt, and our monetary system, and that nexus is fascinating.  We haven’t run out of oil yet, but we’ve run out of the easy oil to get, and that’s why we’re doing risky things like offshore drilling and fracking to compensate.  The oil on this planet took millions of years to materialize, out of all the energy embedded in organic matter, and we’ve used about half of it up in 150 years.  That’s stunning- both in the ingenuity we have showed in getting to it, and in the complete rapaciousness our species shows when it finds a bonanza like this.  

2011 was an amazing experience- I’d ride the subway, read, finish a book, find a new book to start… I think people can learn so much more on their own, when they become curious and fascinated by something, than by simply following a protocol in school.  I found a whole set of thinkers out there that you almost never hear about- but they’ve got it right.  Aside from Ruppert, I particularly love Chris Martenson (who puts out a great blog- peakprosperity.com), Jim Kunstler (kunstler.com), and Charles Hugh Smith (oftwominds.com). 

But it’s hard to take ideas on history and philosophy and make them into a song.  You risk sounding very preachy.  So instead of trying to teach something, I thought of "3,000,000 Years" as an ode to the human animal in all its glory and absurdity.  I’m constantly amazed at what we as a species has accomplished in its relatively brief span on earth… and how much of that accomplishment has been crammed into the last couple of centuries.   I’m also awed at the fact that I happen to be alive right now- it’s such a pivotal time in the history of the species, with all manner of things spinning and growing, merging, flying apart.  When oil was discovered in 1859, the human population stood at around 1.3 billion people; it is currently at 7.5 billion, and it’s only headed up.  We’re using up everything we have (the ocean fish population is down 93% in less than 100 years- how is that possible?!) and borrowing every cent we can to keep things going.  How long can we do it?

There’s nothing controversial about these statistics but as a culture we spend far more time focusing on our material comforts and binge-watching TV than thinking about the implications.  One of the lines in the song goes “one thing we always knew we wanted was more, more more.”  Now’s a time where we may need to become comfortable with the idea of less.   Can we?   I don’t know- I’m the first to admit that I’m as addicted to comfort as anyone else.  But I do believe that if we’re going to figure things out, we need a critical mass of people to start thinking about them- we can’t just leave things to ‘the experts’.  ‘They’ aren’t going to solve everything.  So hopefully the song can get people to think and discuss these things.  “Put down your phone and come up for the kiss” is a probably ill-fated hope I have that this species can connect, put aside its differences, and build lifeboats for each other.   We’ve never quite shown that complete ability to do that. But there’s never, ever been a moment like this. 

Listen to "3,000,000 Years":

Coming from a completely different industry, what do you find to be the biggest challenges with the music industry?  What did you find the most gratifying?

Since I’ve started this chapter of my life at a relatively late age, the biggest challenge for me has been to see if anyone cares about or likes my music, and to figure out how it fits in the larger picture of the music being made today.  I know that my stuff could sound old-fashioned in a way.  I wasn’t old enough to experience the music of the 60’s and early 70’s in real time, but I do see that period as the golden age of music.  So if my music sounds like it could have been written back then- but about current themes- I’m fine with it.  I don’t have to be on some cutting edge of things; I just want to write songs that sound good and say something.  

Promoting myself is also a challenge because it’s not really my style.  In my songs, I’m often trying to write stories about other people, not myself, so the concept of making it ‘about me’ isn’t one I’m totally comfortable with.   I also have to admit that I don’t really understand the music industry very well.  Until  2006, I’d say, I could recognize a ton of new artists and their songs, and I could see the trajectories in the music from the 50’s through the present.  Now with the idea of the album almost being an anachronism, everything is so splintered that people can just listen to a very specific set of tracks if they want to.  That’s great in a way, but I think it takes away from the sense of music as a shared experience.  I live in New York City, and one of the great things about the city is that if you name a particular street corner, there are millions of people who will have shared memories about that same street corner.  Everclear’s song “AM Radio” captures that same idea of music in the early 70’s, where everyone would go outside, listen to the radio, and connect over the songs.  Now, with everyone having their own phone and earbuds, that kind of community connection over music isn’t what it was.

The most gratifying thing about this project has been seeing these songs go from abstract ideas to finished products.  The anticipation of hearing the newest ‘rough’ of each song as it develops is addictive.  It’s the same anticipation I used to feel when a horse of mine was getting ready to race.

What's coming up next for Peter Kleinhans for the rest of 2017?

I’m looking forward to getting this album absolutely completed by the end of the year- I spent a ton of time and effort on the box and insert because I wanted this to be an artwork, not just a collection of songs.  While it’s taken a long time, it’s basically finished and I’m proud of the product.  It’s the kind of thing that I can say “well, no matter what else I did with my life, at least I made this.  

But mostly I’m concentrated on my family.  I have two wonderful kids who keep me focused and grounded, and I’ve had the almost impossible luck to meet a spectacular woman whom I will be marrying in January of 2019.  I don’t think of a romantic relationship as something you just lock in and forget about.  It’s an ongoing work of creation, and as much as with the music, it requires continued effort and tending.  I’m proud to be putting in that effort with Colleen, my fiancee- we are even collaborating on music now, and I hope to have one or more of her songs on my next album.  I’m just as excited to see how my ongoing relationship with my children is evolving.  My daughter doesn’t live with me full time, but I think I use my time with her to engage and expand her mind, and it’s wonderful.  And to see my son- who was completely dependent on me at one time- taking the subway by himself, writing his own music, becoming a kind, strong man, and gradually needing me less and less… there’s a nostalgia for the old days but it’s offset by an appreciation for how things change.

Still, I know the world isn’t all roses.  My album is an ode to the struggles that people are going through in all sorts of ways- emotional, financial, etc..  It’s called Something’s Not Right for a reason- so many of us feel this way in one way or another.  I attempted to address these struggles in a way that dignifies them, and I hope I succeeded.  My music will always have at its heart an empathy for the 8,000,000,000 people on this crazy planet, trying in their own ways to live their lives with dignity and self-respect.

For more information:  peterkleinhans.com