Andy Kim co-wrote one of the most famous pop songs of all time at age 16. Now, at 62, he is right back where he started: trying to find his place in an ever-changing music landscape that seemingly has no room for him.
However, for the first time in the Montreal native’s roller-coaster career, he's presenting himself less as an aspiring pop idol and more like your cool indie-rock uncle. The seasoned songwriter who once hustled his way into the Brill Building compound of Jeff Barry – with whom Kim authored the Archies classic "Sugar, Sugar," 1969's biggest hit – has found an unlikely ally in his current comeback bid: Kevin Drew of Toronto art-rockestra Broken Social Scene.
The two are separated by more than just a quarter-century age difference: Where Kim hails from a world of professional song factories and unionized session players, Drew built the Broken Social Scene brand through carefree camaraderie and kitchen-sink experimentation. But each found success circumventing traditional industry channels. While Broken Social Scene and their Arts & Crafts imprint have served as lynchpins for post-millennial Canadian indie rock, Kim was forced to be a self-starter in an era when little infrastructure existed for unsigned acts. After the "Sugar, Sugar" buzz faded, the latter found himself rejected by labels that wrote him off as a bubblegum dispenser. He had to bankroll his 1974 single "Rock Me Gently" out of pocket, but it eventually reached Number One.
"I always thought my career at the beginning was more about courage than talent," Kim says during a recent interview at the Toronto offices of Arts & Crafts. His jet-black coiffure, dangling earrings and perma-tan project a youthful visage, but his light Noo Yoik-schooled accent betrays him as the quintessential old-school entertainah. "It went from a dream to being in an environment with Jeff and Lieber & Stoller and Don Kirshner and Phil Spector – my transistor radio came to life. But for all the hits I had at the time – with John Lennon giving me my gold record for 'Rock Me Gently' – you get lost in the fact that you have so many friends. It wasn't reality. You're on the Billboard charts? You got tons of friends. Not on the charts? People don't call you back."
After decades of seclusion in L.A., an invitation to collaborate with Ed Robertson of folk-rock funnymen the Barenaked Ladies lured Kim to Toronto in 2004. Inspired by the city's tight-knit musical community, Kim would go on to host a Christmas charity concert that has since become an annual tradition attracting guests ranging from Rush's Alex Lifeson to rapper Kardinal Offishall. It was at the 2008 event that Kim first crossed paths with Drew, who was becoming increasingly disillusioned with the logistical drudgery of keeping Broken Social Scene together. In Kim, Drew found not just a new friend, but a veritable life coach.
"Andy instills such a positive, immense emotion that it makes you really happy," Drew raves with the zeal of an infomercial testimonial. "He really finds what's best in you and reminds you of it six or seven times a day. It's really uplifting."
"I know Kevin talks a lot about how I've helped him," Kim says. "I never helped him, I just reminded him of who he was: this fabric of a genius, poetic artist that is not around a lot. Those elements he has are pretty fragile and ephemeral in the world. So for me to have come from the wonderful learning platform of the Brill Building to meet with Kevin, there's a sameness to it – there are no rules."
That sense of playful abandon runs through Kim's upcoming release, It's Decided, out February 24th on Arts & Crafts. Recorded in tandem with Drew's 2014 solo release, Darlings, the new album features an eclectic, BSS-like assemblage of contributors including Dave Hamelin of Montreal rockers the Stills, John McEntire of Chicago post-rock titans Tortoise and Ohad Benchetrit of Toronto avant-psych ensemble Do Make Say Think. Together, they complement Kim's sage but vital voice with a celestial sound that's adult and contemporary without being adult-contemporary. And though Drew balks at the notion that he's playing Rick Rubin to Kim's Johnny Cash, It's Decided shows a veteran artist taking stock of his life, be it through an otherworldly orchestral remount of his 1969 single "Shoot 'Em Up Baby" or the deceptively upbeat, clap-along campfire stomp of "Sail On," on which Kim slyly admits, "I visited my gravesite, to see what it was like/You know, I kind of liked it."
"We lost a lot of people while we were making this record," says Drew. "I lost a guy very close to me, like a second father; Andy's love, Summer, lost both her parents; Dave lost a very good friend's father. We just kept saying, 'We've got to finish this record because people are dying!'"
But as Kim explains, mortality has weighed heavily on his mind ever since he lost his father in 1976, triggering the post-"Rock Me Gently" retreat from which he's now fully emerged.
"I was walking on the beach in L.A.," he says, "and a thought came to me: When you're born, you're given a certain amount of heartbeats, so you may as well be doing what you love to do with the people that you want to be with. When you're involved in a situation where there are assholes, you need to remember that you're never going to get those heartbeats back. That's how valuable I feel heartbeats are. So when I would see Kevin so involved in this album, I was so blown away by the fact that that he was giving me his heartbeats."