Springfield’s Freedom Kerl will drop his self-titled EP next month.
“For the first time ever, I’m collaborating with another person on mixing a couple songs,” Kerl said.
“I found a website called Soundbetter.com and hired Grammy winner Jack Bartlett to twist the knobs on two tracks: ‘No Ones Perfect (especially you)’ and ‘Fuck You Cancer!’
“I’m very proud of this record. There’s a ‘banger’ (is that what the kids call it?) called ‘I Feel Alive’ that is about partying on the weekend post-COVID. There’s a rock song called ‘Stop Watching the News’ that is pretty self explanatory. There’s a darker tune called ‘I Wanna Be Like God’ that expresses the confusion and depression that I was feeling watching the protest/ riots last spring.
“And like a few of my other records – I’m dropping a recording of a family member at the end. This time it’s my 10-year-old daughter Bailey’s song, ‘I’ve Been Working All My Life.’”
Kerl is a 48-year-old insurance agent. From the outside, his house looks like every other house on the street, but inside, he has produced and recorded eight of his own albums in the past four years, two EPs for his friends and more than 50 music video recordings.
Kerl’s musical journey began by listening to some of rock’s giants.
“My musical inspirations have been the same since I was a kid – Prince and Bob Dylan,” Kerl said.
“Then, in the ‘90s, The Velvet Underground. I think everyone who learned guitar in the ‘90s was inspired by VU, Lou Reed made rock ‘n’ roll guitar playing attainable to novices. Nowadays, I’m on a two-year Tom Petty kick. His songwriting sounds so simple, like early Beatles; they just make it sound so easy to put some chords and lyrics together in a way that everyone will love.”
Kerl’s more formal career began when a friend wanted to start a band.
“My friend Charlie wanted to start a band in the early ‘90s, and I was gonna be the frontman because I was charismatic and could dance, haha!” Kerl said.
“Unfortunately, I was missing a key element, I couldn’t sing. But I was bitten by the band-bug. Charlie taught me to play guitar as he learned to sing. That was how we formed our first and only band, Tangeena Barren.”
Tangeena Barren cut their teeth at old Philly spots like The Grape St Pub, The Barbary, The Rusty Nail, etc. One day, Kerl came to band practice and told the group: “We have to move to Chapel Hill if we wanna get noticed.” So they packed up their stuff, and off they went. North Carolina was good to them. They hooked up with a well-known producer and booking agent, played approximately 150 live shows a year for three years, and that is when Mike Kerl took the next step of “rockstar preparedness” and legally changed his name to Freedom.
The band eventually moved back to Philly and broke up, but Freedom kept his name. He was 30 years old and only identified as a rocker. Now, it was time to grow up. He started selling insurance, and had the same obsessive laser-like focus on his insurance career as he had on his musical one.
Kerl’s music ranges from ridiculous to profound, and his lyrics range from punchlines (“Friggin Boo” a Halloween parody) to gut punches (“Mother’s Arms,” a song about George Floyd’s death). He said he gets most of his songwriting inspiration from conversation.
“Someone will say something like ‘no one’s perfect’ or ‘don’t change that dial’ or ‘I can’t breathe,’ and I type it into my iPhone notes,” Kerl said. “Sometimes, a song rolls out in 10 minutes, and sometimes it takes a couple hours, but I’m not one of those people who logs a lot of lyrics and pieces them together at a later date. All of my stuff is straightforward storytelling, so, I have to knock it out while my head is in that space or character. The music is easier, I use a lot of the same keys and chord changes on my stuff, I just change up the arrangements, tempo or drum beats.
Kerl reflected on some of his favorite moments in his musical life.
“Looking back now, it’s not the big shows in front of 500-plus people, it’s the smaller gigs where the audience was dancing and bumping into the microphones while we all sweat our asses off together in some shitty bar,” he said.
“And a lot of those folks were our family and friends, some who are now gone. But, in my mind, I can still see them dancing in front of the stage. That’s a nice memory to have, inspiring someone you love to dance with joy.”
He also talked about getting feedback from one of his heroes.
“Recently, as a solo artist, I sent a copy of my song, ‘Woman Oh Woman,’ to Prince’s world-renowned studio engineer, Susan Rodgers, asking her to take a listen and thanking her for the inspiration she provided by tracking so many Prince songs in the ‘80s,” Kerl said.
“She actually responded and gave high praise to the song, and its message. Acknowledgement by your heroes (or their recording engineers) is a pretty special thing.”
Unlike most of us, Kerl doesn’t have to travel far to hear great music. His Kabaret Kerl, located in his basement, has hosted national touring bands like Low Cut Connie, The National Reserve, Sarah Shook and the Disarmers and The Yawpers.
“My cousin, Mike Kropp, took me to my first house concert to see Ben Vaughn in Media in 2017,” he said.
“I came home and my wife, Cheryl, asked ‘how was the house concert?’ I said, ‘I have good news and bad news, the good news is: It was great. The bad news is: We’re gonna start hosting house concerts, haha!
“Since I still have friends in Chapel Hill, I reached out to John Howie Jr., who was playing drums for Sarah Shook and the Disarmers, and asked if she would be interested in playing a suburban basement in Philly. I guarantee all the bands a very generous cash payment, dinner, drinks and, most importantly, a room filled with kind-hearted music loving people (my friends and family). You can find some footage on YouTube if you search ‘Kabaret Kerl.’”
Like the rest of us, Kerl is looking forward to when the pandemic ends.
“I’m looking forward to hosting house concerts again,” he said.
“I really miss the excitement of bringing a new band to my home, and introducing them and their music to my friends and family. Plus, a lot of my friends play music, so it will be great to sit around, play guitar, drink some beers and just be uber-social again.”
Now, many years later, he often professes to “balance your life,” which is his own reminder to work hard, but play hard, too.
“I like to balance rocks,” he explained.
“It sounds silly, but it’s calming to me. Out front of our house, by the lamp post, I have four to five rocks balanced on top of each other. It’s a constant reminder when I pull in the driveway to balance my life by spending time with family and friends, and myself. It started as a joke on Facebook, but now it’s become a mantra, it will likely be my next tattoo…the phrase, not the rocks, haha!”
These days, Kerl no longer desires to be on stage at some club headlining a show at midnight. He truly loves just sitting in the basement, having a couple beers and recording a song, whether it’s his own, or a friend’s.
“At this point in my life, it’s about legacy,” he said.
“I want to look back when I’m 70 and say, ‘I did that, and it sounds pretty good!’
“It’s freeing to no longer chase the rock star dream and only make music as art. I’m finally beyond caring what other people think, but don’t get me wrong, I would sell my soul to have a hit on the radio!”