Time can be a funny thing. Mass popularity always comes with a backlash — ask anyone from Justin Bieber to Jon Bon Jovi — and an artist who was on top of the world can suddenly find themselves dramatically uncool.
But the ever-fluid cycles of popularity and nostalgia can shift, and that artist can also unexpectedly find themselves cool to a new generation — ask anyone from Hall & Oates to Fleetwood Mac — and that seems to have happened with the curly haired saxophone virtuoso Kenneth Gorelick, known to the world as Kenny G.
Now 64, Kenny has been enormously popular since his career began in the early ‘80s — he’s estimated to have sold more than 75 million albums worldwide — yet he’s actually more cool now than he’s ever been before. Last year he guested on Kanye West’s song “This Gospel” and even serenaded West’s wife Kim Kardashian for Valentine’s Day. In recent months he’s ventured into the indie-rock world by appearing in a recent Postal Service video, jammed with Ed Helms on a bluegrass song, and most recently performed with The Weeknd on the “Time 100” television special in a new version of the deeply ‘80s-influenced song “In Your Eyes” that was released last week as an official remix with even more Kenny G.
Kenny spoke with Variety on Tuesday night about how it all came together, what it was like to work with the Weeknd, why his music is so popular, what’s coming up next, and how it feels to be cooler than ever before.
Obviously, you’re perfect for “In Your Eyes.” Had you heard it before The Weeknd reached out to you?
Actually I hadn’t. His tour manager texted me — I’m not sure how he got my number, but that’s fine — and put me and Abel [The Weeknd] on the thread and said we’d like you to play on this tune. I listened and said [laughing], “Okay, this sounds right up my my alley, I know how to play this type of groove.” I told him that it sounds like a song from the ‘80s, and I said, “Look bro, I’ve still got the ‘80s hair, so this is gonna be easy!”
What was it like working with him?
I didn’t know him before we started texting, although I saw him perform at one of Clive’s Grammy parties [the annual Pre-Grammy Gala thrown by legendary label head Clive Davis, who signed Kenny and helmed some of his biggest releases], and he sounded so good I thought I have to give this guy my best — not that I wouldn’t give anybody else my best, but he really impressed me.
Anyway, what I really like about him is that he’s very bright and very specific about what he wants. There was already a saxophone on the track and I said, “Are you asking me to just repeat what that player did, or can I give it what I think it should have?” And he wrote back, “Do whatever you think.” So I took it into my studio and started experimenting with licks and sounds, and I sent it to him and he loved it. He had one suggestion about a line that I played, and I followed that suggestion and it made it even better.
So he didn’t have any hesitation about asking you to do something different, and you didn’t mind being asked?
I love that he did that. I said, “This is just my idea, but I want you to love it.” I wouldn’t say it was my first draft because I’d worked on it for a few hours. When I work on solos I really take my time and I’m very meticulous. I didn’t think he’d want me to start off simply, so I brought energy and played a few more notes than [sings the melody]. But it needed to be simple at the beginning, and it took me just a few seconds to redo it, and he wrote me back and said “Perfect.”
He’s a perfectionist too — when I interviewed him in March he told me he had 67 different mixes of his song “The Hills.”
I felt that. After we’d done the [“Time 100” version], he wrote that we needed an intro for the remix [single release]. So I did a rough version in my studio and they sent me back a version that I actually didn’t like, so I said, “Look, if you love this, it’s your record — but I think it can be better.” And I explained why and he said “Do that!” We went back and forth three or four times and, to me, it was way better than it started. I loved the fact that he was super-open to that kind of collaboration.
He’s kind of a serial collaborator — what makes him easy to work with? Is it that open-mindedness and not being precious about changing his ideas?
I think that’s a good way of putting it. My two sons are both musicians — don’t worry, this is going to tie in! — and my 23-year-old really knows The Weeknd’s music. So I played him the intro and I said I thought I could make it better — “Dad, come on man, just go with it!” “No, I’m gonna ask if I can tweak it.” And what you’re saying is true — Abel wasn’t attached to what he had. He was like, “Do what you said and let’s see what happens,” and every time we went back and forth it was so supportive and kind and creative. There was no “You’re not hearing what I’m saying,” it was all “Cool, try that!”
Are you going to work together again?
The vibe was that we’re definitely going to do to more together, and when live performances happen again, he’s got several nights at the Forum [in Los Angeles scheduled for August of next year]. He said “Why don’t you just come down and sit in every night?” If I’m not on the road, I will, it would be so much fun.
NO BIG DEAL KENNY G IN MY LIVING ROOM!!! Happy Valentines Day 💋💋💋 pic.twitter.com/A1GD0UlEwu
— Kim Kardashian West (@KimKardashian) February 14, 2019
It almost seems like over the past couple of years you’ve become cooler than you ever were, between this and that Postal Service video and the Valentine’s Day thing with Kanye West — did you see that Weird Al Yankovic photoshopped himself into that photo, playing the accordion?
(Laughing) I did not, that’s fantastic! I actually met Weird Al at that same Grammy party and I said, “Bro, come on, we have to have a picture together!” We’re like brothers. I love what he does, so I’m so happy that he did that.
Does all of this make you feel like a new generation is embracing you?
I am feeling it! I’m flattered that these young guys are calling me to play. The Kanye thing was very easy, just like this one, because it just worked with my vibe. And even though the Postal Service was rock and roll and the Ed Helms thing was bluegrass, I’ve always thought of myself as very open. If you play me something, it could be heavy metal, bluegrass, R&B, super-heavy jazz — I feel like if I can just live with it, I can find the right vibe for it. It’s like a puzzle — it’s their song and I don’t want to be in the way but I also don’t want to be just a background sax player, and at the same time I don’t want to do too much. I love that challenge.
I remember Daryl Hall saying that he was struck by how quickly people’s opinions of him changed when the backlash to Hall & Oates’ overexposure finally wore off. It’s like if you can ride out the backlash, on the other side you’re a legend.
Yeah, I think you’re right about that — and by the way, [that can happen] if you’re lucky enough to be able to ride it out, if you still have some momentum. I feel very fortunate: It’s almost 40 years since I signed my deal with Clive in 1982, and I’m still out here working — even “South Park” did a version of me, I don’t know if you saw that?
I don’t think I did?
You’ve gotta see it, it’s really funny. I play the note that makes the world crap their pants.
Actually, now that you mention it, I did see that.
Yeah, those are the funny things that I appreciate. It is like riding a wave. I’ve got a new record ready to go — I don’t want to release it until we’re close to back to normal — there’s an HBO special, they’re doing a documentary on me, so there’s a whole bunch of stuff coming up in this little part of the wave. I think whatever wave I’ve ridden, I’m kind of back in some ways — not that I ever felt like I wasn’t, because however the wave rides, I still get to make music.
None of this is calculated, I could never have calculated that I would have this career. There’s something intangible about the way music touches people, and I think, Why me? Why do people connect with my playing? Maybe they can feel that I love what I do and put my heart into it, and I’m not doing it because I want to be rich and famous.
It’s also probably something you don’t want to mess with by over-analyzing it.
It’s funny, that’s been one of my real philosophies in life — don’t ask too many questions, just keep doing what you do. “How do you write songs?” I don’t really know — they come to me and I write them, and let’s not think about it too much.