“Attic Demonstration” was not really meant to be a polished album when it was finished in 1976. Kenneth Higney’s hope, as a writer more than a performer, was that it would catch the ears of established artists so that they might license his songs and cover them.
Listening to the record now, which has just been reissued, it’s hard to imagine that many musicians would immediately think to project themselves onto Higney’s work. Some of the tracks begin as easygoing folk-rock ditties before roaring, buzzing guitar solos charge in. Others, like the “No Heavy Trucking,” rollick anxiously over Higney’s erratic guitar. A rough-around-the edges group of songs, its rhythms often hold together loosely, while Higney’s voice often strains and warbles. He recorded most of his tracks in one or two takes, a method he still prefers.
“It’s basic strumming and an attempt at singing, and you can quote me on that,” says Higney, who is scheduled to play his first-ever show at the Inman Square gallery Lily Pad on Saturday. “It’s a natural sound. I have absolutely no intention of saying I want to sound like this or I want to sound like that. I just go in there and it’s going to sound like me.”
Higney says a few offers came and fell through to cover the tunes on “Attic Demonstration,” but for the most part no one bit. Through the 1980s, though, the collection of songs became something of a gem among record collectors. These days on the exhaustive music catalog Discogs.com, sellers have listed copies from the first “Attic Demonstration” pressing between $250 and $300.
Despite his steadily grown following, and despite beginning to release new music again in 2009, as of this year Higney had never put on a public concert of his material.
‘If “Attic Demonstration” had come out now it would have come and gone and would not have had the long life it did.’
Talking from his home in New Jersey, Higney knocks out the reclusive outsider-artist impression one might gather from his story. He is spirited, forthright, and friendly as he recalls some of the tales that have been conjured up about him. He says someone once wrote in an English magazine that he was living in a dumpster.
“A lot of the myths are pretty funny to me,” he says. “Everybody has their own theories. . . . Now there’s so much information out about everybody. Nobody wants to keep anything secret. I always loved the mystique of not knowing a lot about other people and other artists. If ‘Attic Demonstration’ had come out now it would have come and gone and would not have had the long life it did.”
Some of the stories, however, are true.
“The myth is I was driving a truck [while putting together ‘Attic Demonstration’], and the fact is I was driving a truck,” he says. Early on, his long hours driving were part of what kept him from getting on stage.
“Driving a truck all day, getting up at 6 o’clock in the morning and then getting home at 8:30 at night, it’s like, ‘Oh, I don’t feel like putting a band together,’ ” he says. “A lot of other people worked the hard shifts more than me, but I’m more of a lazy sod.”
He went into music publishing, another job that kept him busy enough to put off performing even longer. When he started to record his own music again three years ago, he began to grow open to the idea of performing, but never made the push to set something up.
Then, Nick Williams, who runs the Providence-based label One Kind Favor, approached him about reissuing “Attic Demonstration” and the 7-inch follow-up, “Funky Kinky/I Wanna Be the King,” both on vinyl.
“In the process of talking he said to me, ‘Why didn’t you do any live shows? Would you be interested?’ ” says Higney.
Williams says he first heard of Higney when someone came into a record shop he was working in to sell him a copy of “Attic Demonstration.” The sale didn’t happen, but something about the album stuck with Williams.
“It didn’t quite sink in, but I kept thinking about it afterward,” Williams says. “The more I listened to it I could kind of hear this strange internal logic in the way the songs were written.”
Jesse Gallagher, a local DJ and member of the rock band Apollo Sunshine, had reserved the venue for Saturday night when he heard Higney was looking to book a show that night.
“I was like, ‘Holy [expletive], that guy’s alive? He’s playing?’ I was down to do whatever it took to help put on the show,” says Gallagher. “[‘Attic Demonstration’ is] one of those records you get a strong reaction from one way or the other. You can’t just put it on and not notice it’s on.”
Williams is excited to see if Saturday night will prompt Higney to book more shows.
“Hopefully this is just the beginning,” says Williams. “Nobody really knows what’s going to happen.”
Higney says he’s open to the idea. He likes that the show will be small and low-key (in the past, he has attributed his avoidance of the stage to shyness, but says he’s over that). He plans to play an acoustic set that mixes “Attic Demonstration” and his newer material.
“Maybe I’ll get an adrenaline rush and say I want to do this more and more and more,” he says.
Though his first goal was to get others to play his songs, he feels the work is distinctly his. This performance is an opportunity to express that.
“My entire ego is in my songs,” he says. “If someone is going to love them, I want them to love me. If someone is going to hate them, I want them to hate me.”