Kerry Michael Warren's powerful debut, Mighty Days, is like an aural diary you revel in hearing, the emotions and stories spilling out in song like so many secrets. Mighty Days is a baker's dozen of original tunes that range from haunting to soaring to bluesy to melancholy to vibrant. And Kerry, whose potent trained tenor ties the dynamic CD together, has experienced and survived things most people only read about, pouring all his emotions, experience and humor into Mighty Days.
Kerry, who has lived in San Diego most of his life, working in theatre, piano bars and as a singing teacher, explains the genesis of Mighty Days: "It started out with a bit of that singer-songwriter 'slit your wrists' seriousness. Then I had an epiphany. I did not want to perform Christmas suicide music my whole life. That is not who I am. Sex and food-maybe at the same time-and laughing, those are my favorite things. It shifted the whole album for me."
Kerry's writing and delivery is cathartic, full of the passion and pain of a hard-lived life, coupled with a beauty and light that can only be gleaned by seeing the ugliness. And Kerry has seen the darker side. The product of a single, alcoholic mom, Kerry was practically an orphan when his mother was diagnosed with terminal throat cancer before he was even a teen. "I was farmed out to family friends, and then I got mad at my mom and said, 'You can't die!' She had surgery, couldn't talk for a year, but didn't die!" relates Kerry, who, by that age, was already an accomplished singer, pianist and guitarist, and had written his first song, "Sunshine Blues," at the age of nine.
Despite being a loving parent and driving Kerry to theatre auditions-which he would always nail, thanks to a beautiful vibrato and dramatic charisma-his mother's drinking problem escalated, and at 14, Kerry ran away from home. "I became a homeless teenager," he relates. "I was very good at not letting anybody know. I would sometimes sleep on the floor of a room my mom's friend was renting near downtown San Diego. It was a house owned by a huge black guy. He was running this place as a whorehouse, and his claim to fame was that he had sold pot to the Beatles. There were nights I slept in the park. Or I'd stay up all night with friends at Denny's and sleep in the park during the day, which was safer."
Kerry's irrepressible spirit was never dampened. "I had a fantasy that I was going to be a star," he laughs, "but survival was paramount." Fortunately his talent and stature helped him survive. "I was singing in a piano bar at 15, and I was already 6 feet tall, so I was able to get my own apartment at that age as well. At the bar I got free drinks and tips and was playing Elton John and Billy Joel; I love singer-songwriters, music that moves me, that's emotionally dynamic. Plus, I love the whole sardonic, caustic wit thing." As a homeless teen, Kerry was without many of the usual growing-up landmarks of MTV and concerts. "I was always in my own little musical universe," he admits. "I bought 45s at garage sales. My first album was Meet the Beatles, and it was old by then, but new to me. I love Joni Mitchell's Blue, Carole King's Tapestry... and I had an older friend who introduced me to Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. All my friends have been older, eclectic artists, so I grew up playing and loving Cole Porter and Billie Holiday.
Songs on Mighty Days reflect his hardscrabble life, innate talent and myriad influences. Along with the moody, retro-feeling "Cobalt Blue," the commercial yet left-of-center "Little Runaway" is one of Kerry's personal favorites. Kerry is speaking from his own experiences when he says, "Kids having trouble at home think they're really big and tough, and they have no fucking clue how tough it is out there. I thought I was immortal, and by the time I finally got my own apartment at 15, most of the kids I knew were dead or in prison. Few people survive the kind of childhood I had. To me, it seemed kinda fun to be homeless... But of course, I did it in a much more innocent time."
While many songs reflect Kerry's life experience, he also points out that his compositions, which are akin to "three-minute movies," are much more universal than first-person: "I don't always write in a literal fashion; it's pretty broad, and a little more impressionistic than realistic," he explains of his writing approach. "I'm a person of big feelings, and I try to express them."
Surviving solo as a teenager gave Kerry a maturity beyond his years, with a rare compassion, drive and humor to go with it. So it was only natural that, as a young adult, Kerry would get involved in helping the homeless community he was once part of. He founded and became the volunteer director of the Curbside Players, a choir 27-people-strong based out of San Diego's Friend-to-Friend clubhouse, a drop-in center for multiply diagnosed homeless schizophrenics. Kerry also sang lead on the song "Eye of the Storm," which was released internationally through MCA on a CD titled Voice of the Homeless. Without a background in social work, but with a natural clinical skill, Kerry worked with the homeless choir for seven years. "And seven years later, all 27 people were no longer homeless," he says proudly. "It was like getting a Ph.D. in humanity. There isn't a story I haven't lived with them." He received a Note of Commendation from the Mayor for leading the Curbside Players' performance at the 59th Annual Conference of Mayors, ironic in that the very homeless who were a "blight" on San Diego's streets were entertaining the nation's leaders.
Kerry also became one of San Diego's youngest theatrical composers, creating the musical Dracul, which debuted at the Lyceum Theatre in 1995 to rave reviews. He also earned a Certificate of Appreciation from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, which used the music he composed for Dracul in their Emmy broadcast.
More accolades followed. He received two prestigious Volunteer of the Year Awards from the City of San Diego, as well as the Channel 10 Leadership Award, the resultant ceremonies and press earning Kerry well-deserved recognition and praise. He furthered that respect as founder and facilitator of the "Finding Your Voice" singing workshop. Kerry works with 24 students for nine weeks at a time on not merely singing, but empowerment through vocalizing. The workshop culminates in a live performance, with each student singing a solo in front of an audience of about 200. One of those students became a huge fan of Kerry's voice and songs and turned into a benefactor, funding the sessions that would eventually coalesce into Mighty Days. Yet another student-a CEO and president of a company backing a multi-platinum artist-was likewise dazzled by Kerry's charisma. Though she had previously decided to leave the music business, after hearing Kerry's songs and voice, she changed her mind and is now behind visioning his career.
The musical team on Mighty Days is equally impressive. While Kerry plays piano, keyboard and his Taylor acoustic guitar, he is joined by Duncan Moore on drums (Ricki Lee Jones, Tom Scott, Wayne Nelson, Kim Carnes, Kenny Loggins); Ivar Antonsen on piano for the song "Cobalt Blue" (Ben Webster, Jimmy Heath, Slide Hampton, Art Farmer, Charles Tolliver); bassist Kevin Hennessey; guitarist Ron Florentine; and backup vocalist Peggy Lebo. Kerry, who has nearly 200 original songs in his repertoire, wrote and worked on the tunes for Mighty Days over a period of two years, never allowing time or money constraints to interfere with what the CD needed to become. He also came up with a poetic phrase that helps put the album in context: "Angels incognito will elevate this child above the reckless fumblings so violently imposed. A question of wounding with an answer of healing. Lost inside these mighty days there is, at last, a light." Indeed, from the edgy, lyrical opening title track "Mighty Days," to the poignant, positive farewell of "Till Every Dream Comes True," Kerry's debut is fully realized, at once deep and heartbreaking yet with a strong smattering of fun, humor and hope. "Your life is a reflection of your consciousness," he believes. "It's a question of taking a leap of faith and stepping into the void with trust, and that's the experience I've been having; the universe has been conspiring to support me! As long as I live where my heart and life belong to my community, what is supposed to happen will happen," Kerry says, concluding: "With the life I've led thus far, I don't pine for vapid, frivolous bullshit. I don't need validation. I do this because I can't imagine not doing it."