For the better part of 10 years, Jonathan Kirby has expressed his love of music through the written word, most notably in long-form pieces in Oxford American, an esteemed literary magazine.
So it came as a bit of a surprise to admirers of his work that his latest project involves creating music. Earlier this month, he released a digital album, the 11-song, 26-minute compilation, “Safe to Disconnect,” which is both a computer term and an assurance that, especially now, it’s OK to unplug.
Also surprising? The songs were inspired by Kirby’s daily strolls around Buena Vista, a moneyed neighborhood not exactly known for its artsy vibe.
Kirby acknowledged that the neighborhood is perceived as being an “upper crust enclave,” but on his walks, he was struck by the beautiful architecture and landscape.
He recently moved into a three-bedroom house in Buena Vista.
When the new coronavirus began to spread and people were ordered to shelter in place, Kirby set about exploring the area on foot.
“I’d take evening walks to get my mandatory oxygen and sunlight intake, walk along a new street, see a new house, hear a different bird or different wind chime that would stick with me,” he said. “I’d sit at the piano and see what came to me. It helped me organize my thoughts and feelings and any anxiety related to this moment.”
All the songs are instrumentals, with all but three named after a Buena Vista street. Kirby tried to capture the mood of a particular street in his melodies. For instance, “Womble” is sparse, a bit haunting, reflecting the street’s large houses, which conjure up feelings of loneliness in him.
Birds sing throughout “Runnymede,” one of the prettiest roads in Winston-Salem. The song is gentle and dreamy, and like the road, over way too soon, clocking in at 1 minute and 11 seconds.
“Stratford” is busier, more rhythmic and uptown, recalling that street’s sometimes harried pace.
Kirby also includes a cover of The Association’s “Never My Love,” turning that lush ballad into a cinematic dirge. At 4 minutes and 40 seconds, it’s the longest song by almost two minutes.
The album is a soothing and meditative soundscape, a respite from the sadness and anxiety of life during a pandemic. The working title was “Music for Engaged Relaxation,” but Kirby changed it to “Safe to Disconnect,” a message that laptop users recognize as a sign that it’s safe to remove a thumb drive. Kirby also liked the broader meaning of the phrase.
“I wanted to let listeners know that it’s OK to take 26 minutes, to close your laptop and stop looking at infection rates, just take a moment to listen to non-confrontational relaxing music made in a digestible fashion and see how you feel on the other side of it,” Kirby said.
Recorded on April 5 and released shortly after, Kirby originally intended to make the album for his circle of friends, but he’s been encouraged by the feedback and has a backlog of requests for cassettes.
The album represents Kirby’s first commercial recording since 2010 when he contributed a song to a Krankies compilation album.
He once harbored dreams of making a living as a musician but after a short stint in Los Angeles, he moved back to the area and switched to writing about music.
He has a particular passion for early soul and R&B music of the Carolinas.
“I realized my talents would be better served to elevate and celebrate the marginalized musicians that had come before me rather than throwing more music on the heap,” Kirby said.