Jack Kays: A Cincinnati Punk Kid Who Found Home in D.C.
February 1, 2023 @ 10:00am
On a dreary cold October day, festivalgoers crowded together to conserve warmth as rain sporadically fell at last All Things Go Music Festival. During a pause in the rain, a man took the stage with a guitar, no accompanying band and proceeded to sing a desperate plea:
Oh my, I am wasting my time
I try pretending I’m fine
As I wither away, remember my name down the line
I am barely alive
The artist, Jack Kays, continued through his set with each song offering the same sentiment: stripped down acoustic melodies with raw, vulnerable lyrics. Suddenly, standing in a sea of thousands of damp festivalgoers felt intimate.
The 24-year-old’s music offers emotional depth shrouded in simplicity, providing catharsis to anyone who has ever gone through strife.
“Music is an outlet for me,” Kays noted as he sat in his NoMa apartment that also serves as his studio. “I write as if I were writing in a diary, and it’s all very fast.”
His 2021 debut album “MIXED EMOTIONS” evokes angst, frustration and sorrow. In multiple songs, his vocals teeter on the edge of a full-on scream, but always fall just short.
“I was expressing a lot about my experience with bipolar disorder and my experience with [drug and alcohol] addiction,” Kays said about the album.
The indie musician’s talent to captivate listeners through honesty caught the attention of drummer Travis Barker early on. Prior to the release of “MIXED EMOTIONS,” Barker messaged Kays on Instagram, which turned into a FaceTime and an invitation to collaborate.
“I was a little punk kid, so I’ve loved Blink-182,” Kays said. “And I always looked up to Travis because drums are my first instrument. He’s one of the best drummers in the world. I played him the unmixed songs from the album when I was in the studio with him for the first time.”
Their instant connection led to their 2021 EP “MY FAVORITE NIGHTMARES,” and helped Kays launch to the next level of his music career.
Originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, Kays grew up learning different instruments. He recalled playing the drums when he was four years old in his family’s basement and “developing a sense of rhythm early on.” The drums were followed by piano lessons in fourth grade and learning the saxophone in fifth grade. By high school, he was in theatre, voice lessons and band, but quit them all after picking up the guitar and taking a music tech class that taught him how to produce.
“I started becoming obsessed with producing and playing the guitar. I wanted to be my own artist and not in band. I didn’t want to be one in the crowd. I wanted to be able to express myself and be me.”
Kays now views his guitar as an extension of himself and plays a few hours every day. After visiting his girlfriend in D.C. while she attended George Washington University for four years, he moved to an unfinished basement apartment in Dupont Circle in 2021. It was there he began producing “MIXED EMOTIONS.”
Since his success and collaborations frequently take him to LA to work on music, Kays tried to live there full-time but quickly realized it was not the place for him. He listed his lack of a driver’s license and missing all four seasons as reasons, but his main issue was reminiscent to why he quit band.
“I moved away from LA because I didn’t want to be part of a music scene,” Kays said. “I just want to be a person. That’s my ultimate goal in life: to just exist.”
Further, his love and ties to the District is what brought him to set roots in D.C.
“I like being here. I feel I can really hear myself. [Plus, the] sidewalks are nice, and there are bike lanes on every street, amazing parks, free museums and some of the best food in the states. It does not get better than this city.”
Kays rattled off his favorite D.C. spots to frequent, including Bagels Etc., KoChix, Sakana, the Dupont Farmers Market and 7Drum City, where he rehearsed before going on his most recent five-week tour this past October. Kays traveled to 16 cities including LA, New York, Chicago, Boston and Toronto, and sold over 6,000 tickets, resulting in many sold-out shows.
“It was just the coolest month of my life,” Kays reflects. “But I’m very glad to be back. I am such a homebody.”
Like the nature of his songs, Kays does not shy away from conversing about his mental health and addiction struggles. As of the time of this interview, he shared he reached 90 days of sobriety.
“Musicians or people in a spotlight often portray this perfect life. And that’s never the case. It makes an unrealistic expectation for anybody who’s looking at them. Or we see people glamorizing destructive lifestyles of artists and that’s even more dangerous. So, I try to be open and honest as much as I can.”
His journey to sobriety is evident in his latest EP, aptly named “CESSATION.” His vocals shift to a more melodic and eased nature from his previous work. His lyrics also mirror a change.
“‘CESSATION’ is a reflection on my past, a diary of the present and then also looking into the future,” Kays said. “All five songs are kind of about my current state of mind. There are still those somber and dark notes there, but I’m in a better situation now.”
Each song on the EP carries hope, even if just a glimmer.
“I think we’re all works in progress, and I think it’s unrealistic to strive for 100% happiness or contentment,” Kays said. “But if you can make the split a little larger on the happiness side, that’s a win for me.”
Looking forward, Kays hopes to continue dropping singles throughout the year, hit the festival circuit hard and open for bigger acts. For his next tour, he will no longer perform solo onstage. He plans to bring his brother to play bass, a friend to DJ and is actively looking for a local drummer.
In the meantime, Kays is still getting acquainted to his growing success. While he admits he originally created music to express himself, the response to his songs from fans has also caused a shift in him.
“Whenever somebody says they’re getting sober because of my music, that’s amazing. I get a lot of comments like, ‘I really resonate with your music. It means a lot to me you do this.’ And that’s the coolest thing in the world to me.”
Listen to Jack Kays’ music on all major streaming platforms and stay updated on his new music and tour by visiting jackkays.com or following him on Instagram @jackkays.
The Story Behind the Songs
“‘Finally Fine’ has two halves. The first half is before sobriety. And the second half is after sobriety. Before sobriety, I had this thought that if I quit doing drugs, if I quit drinking, that I won’t be myself anymore. I was kind of scared I would lose all the sides of myself that I loved. And then the second half is after I got sober and kind of slowly came to realize that like, none of that’s true. I can still be all those things and I can be less self-destructive and better to the people around me.”
“When It’s All Over”
“It’s about the relationship that I’m currently in and how I’m trying to be a better partner and how I’m trying to be somebody that my partner can rely on for a long time.”
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