If you aren’t familiar with Korby Lenker, it’s important to note that he is wildly talented, ever stylish, and proudly quirky. Those three traits run through everything he touches — from his trademark bow ties to his engaging performances. With five previous albums under his belt, the Idaho native is set to release an eponymous sixth set on March 25. But NoiseTrade has a special career-spanning, seven-song compilation which includes three cuts from the new record.
NT: With your new album, you’ve gone off in some new musical directions. What sparked that shift?
KL: I’m not sure I really have gone off in new directions. I feel more like this is where I was heading when I started making music 15 years ago. I’ve made six albums and, from first to last, there’s a pretty consistent arc — from roots/acoustic music at the beginning toward a folk-pop sound on the last two albums. This newest release has a more nuanced approach production-wise, in the sense that there are more layers, maybe a little more polish, but my approach to songwriting hasn’t changed. When I started, I liked well-crafted songs, songs that felt tight and moved forward. That’s what I still like. Also, I came out of bluegrass music — flat picking, specifically — and that still heavily influences the way I play guitar today. I keep my downstrokes on the strong beats and my upstrokes on the weakbeats, just like Doc Watson said I should.
NT: And, because you’ve never been one to confine yourself to just one art form, you’re also publishing a book of your stories. What’s that about?
KL: Well, I guess you could say I’m a book nerd. I’ve been an avid reader since I was a little kid. I’ve always got a book I’m working through … in college, I was in a writing-intensive major and, when I graduated, I just kept writing. Over the last 10 years, I’ve written about 60 short stories, mostly based in real-life events on the road or in my family or my relationships. Mostly, I would post them on my website or on Facebook, and some of them got a strong response. That happened enough times that I thought it might be worth picking the 20 best stories and making a book. At first, I was just going to print it myself and sell it on my website and at shows, but now there are more people involved. I’m not sure where it’s all headed, but it going to be interesting. Of writing, I’d say that there’s a freedom to prose that you don’t get in a three-minute pop song — it’s not like one is better, it’s just they’re different and I like them both.

NT: You’ve been embedded in the Nashville creative community for about seven years now. What sorts of collaborations have you wandered into?
KL: Well, let’s just come out and say that Nashville is the city with the best musicians and songwriters on planet earth. There’s so much talent here that I feel like you can have one of two responses: You can either be super-intimidated and feel like you’re not good enough, or you can be inspired by all the great artists around you. I’ve chosen the latter, mostly because a bus ticket back to Idaho was too expensive.
Over the years, my relationship to the community has changed. When I first moved here, I heard you were supposed to co-write, so I said yes to pretty much everything. That’s probably the right attitude, but, over time, you figure out who you click with and who you don’t. All different kinds of songs are being written here, and not everyone likes what you like. So, in a sense, I guess I’d say, I’ve found more of a community within the community that I like to work with — of course, this is always changing, and you have to be open to new ideas, people, approaches.
One thing that hasn’t changed in seven years is my sense of resistance to being mushed into something I’m not comfortable with. I don’t know if it’s an Idaho thing, but I’m careful about staying true to who I feel I am and what I want to do. I’m not in it to land a number one for Jason Aldean. While I’ve been here, I’ve watched a few artists kind of lose their way after a few years in the Nashville hopper — it can easily happen when you’re co-writing with someone different everyday or trying to write a country song one day and a film/TV song the next. I’ve never wanted to be all the things to all people. I’ve just wanted to make the kind of music I wanted to make… period. I’m not famous and I don’t own my own house, but I’ve found enough people who will come along for the ride I’ve set out on, and that’s pretty much the whole thing to me. That other stuff will come along when it’s time. Being an artist isn’t about getting somewhere; it’s about making a creative life.
I should probably mention that one of the more interesting projects I’ve been a part of is this video series I co-created called Wigby. Wigby was the result of my love of talented people and this strong need I have to promote the kind of artists I like — namely people who can actually write a great song, and then play and sing it. The way it worked was, I would reach out to an artist and we’d pick a venue — usually someone’s house or just some spot that looked cool — and we’d shoot them playing and singing live. A talented engineer named David Axelrod would record the performance, and I would do the editing. The result was a pretty unique twist on the live performance genre ala NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert. Some of my favorite creative moments happened on Wigby sets. Like Katie Herzig putting gaffer’s tape on the strings of an upright piano to get this unique muted thump she wanted. Wigby was a total labor of love, and I had to back it off when my own career got busy, but while it was going we recorded Natalie Prass, Matthew Perryman Jones, Angel Snow, Gabe Dixon, and many other really talented people. It was the best!
NT: How does it feel to be back out on the road in support of the new release? Will you continue touring throughout 2014?
KL: As much as I love making records, for me, the whole point is to get people to the live show. I’ve been playing shows since I was 15 years old, and I feel like it’s only now that I’m able to play the kind of show I would want to see. I like a lot of variety, and I like to tell stories between songs and just have fun with an audience. It’s got to be fun or there’s no point, right?
Last year, I played about 170 dates, and this year I’d like to bump that up to 200. Getting out there, seeing the world, making new friends… it’s awesome. What I really like is that once I’ve played a city a few times, I start to look forward to seeing the people I played for in the shows before. I stay at people’s houses a lot when I’m on the road and, really quickly, these people become your friends. So then you come around, and you get to catch up, see how their kids got a little bigger, you know, life stuff.
NT: The stuffed piranha… Why? Where? What?
KL: Haha! Because, um, it’s awesome? Long story short, it took about two years to make this record. When it was done, I really believed in this music and these songs, and wanted to find a cover image that was something different. I looked for about two months, and one day my friend came over, fresh from the Nashville flea market with this hideous stuffed piranha. In an instant, I knew I had found my album cover. I took that picture on the cover — I put the piranha on my roommate’s cigar box, and set that on a footstool that happened to be covered in cheetah print, and click. Quirky perfection.
This article originally appeared on NoiseTrade.