An Interview with Kenna Turner West & Lee Black
When Legacy Five released their current project, Just Stand, I wrote a very positive review of it here. The project was full of standout tracks, but of all those tracks, the one that stood out the most was “Faithful to the Cross.”
I had seen the authors’ credits on various projects, here and there, but honestly had no idea who they were. I had almost worked up the nerve to email Kenna Turner West (who was the one I could track down via Google) and ask for an interview, when, out of the blue, the other co-writer, Lee Black (who, by the way, is a guy) sent me an email out of the blue thanking me for the review.
Of course, I took this as the open door I needed and set up this interview.
DJM: What led to your interest in songwriting?
Kenna: I grew up in the music industry. My dad [Ken Turner] sang bass with The Blackwood Brothers for many years, so I was raised backstage listening to songs like Dottie Rambo’s “He Looked Beyond My Fault” and Lanny Wolfe’s “Precious Blood,” which was probably the first lyric that completely wiped me out. What a wonderful song.
Lee: I first took an interest in writing at about 13 or 14. They were really bad attempts at the kind of pop, R&B, and country songs I was listening to. Nothing that I would ever let anyone hear now even if I had copies of them…but that’s when the bug bit!
DJM: How did you get started?
Lee: I’ve always loved writing and initially thought I would be a journalist. As I continued with piano lessons, band, choir…those kinds of things…the writing interest took on more of a specific focus with songwriting. And that interest really started growing throughout my college years. That’s when I first had the thought, “I would really love to do this professionally.” I entered some songwriting contests here and there, had some success at it, and met some writer and publisher types who really encouraged me. So my wife and I decided early on to move to Nashville and try to make a go of the writing thing. My first cut was on Brian Free and Assurance’s first project after Brian left Gold City. I was working on a song by song basis with Dave Clark and a publishing company he had called First Verse Music. I signed with Daywind Music Publishing in the late 90’s and wrote there for a few years. In 2000, a college roommate of mine called and said he was planting a church in Fairhope, AL and asked if I would come and serve as worship leader. After a lot of prayer, we felt like the Lord was leading us here. We have been here almost nine years now – some of that time in full time worship ministry and about four and half years in a part time role as I took a job in music publishing at Integrity Music, across the bay, in Mobile, AL. That time was a really good education for me in publishing and songwriting. I was exposed to SO many songs and had the opportunity to work with writers and A&R people in planning projects.
Kenna: I’ve been on the road as a singer and speaker for twenty-six years, but in the late 90’s I took a staff position at our church near Nashville for several years. One night at a Bible study, a friend who didn’t know I was a “closet songwriter” told me that I should be doing something with my songs…she even loaned us her husband’s studio to make it happen. A few months later, another friend from church who worked for The Spring Hill Music Group gave the songs to Phil Johnson who called the next day and asked me to write for them. Within a month, I had a title cut on Karen Peck and New River called “A Taste of Grace,” and a few weeks after that I had a cut on Jeff and Sheri Easter called “We’re Not Gonna Bow” which was a #1 song and a Dove Award nominee. It’s wild…four years later I was voted songwriter of the year, yet if it wasn’t for two friends from church, my songs would still be in a notebook under my bed. Now I am at Word Publishing, thanks to Dave Clark, and got a second Dove nomination this year for a song I wrote with Lee and Sue Smith called “Big Mighty God.” It’s crazy favor.
DJM: Do you mostly co-write with other authors, or is that just what’s gotten published so far?
Lee: Like I said, I live in Fairhope, AL…so contrary to popular belief, you do not have to live in Nashville to write songs, but it does help to have a presence there. So I usually spend about three days, every other week, in Nashville writing. I plan those trips specifically to co-write. Over the last couple of years, I’ve written close to 100 songs a year but only five or six of those a year are single writes. I love the co-writing process and feel like some of my best songs are co-written. There’s just something that happens in a co-writing situation when you’re able to bounce ideas off of someone else and get different perspectives.
Kenna: With the exception of a few songs I wrote with Twila Labar while I was at SH like “Get About God’s Business,” I didn’t do a lot of co-writing until I signed with Word. I remember telling Sue a few years ago that I had a fear of going into a co-write and “firing blanks.” She said not to worry about it…that some days it’s about fellowship over a good cup of coffee. She doesn’t remember telling me that, but wow, it changed everything for me. Now I actually prefer to co-write. It’s probably 70% talking and 30% writing. Unless you are Lee, Allison Speer, and me, then it’s 80% laughing and 20% writing.
DJM: In the co-writing process, do you see yourself primarily as a lyricist or a composer?
Lee: I feel like I’m a jack of all trades and master of none. It depends on who I’m writing with. Sometimes I have to be the melody guy, sometimes I have to be the lyric guy, sometimes it’s a give and take with both.
Kenna: I hear the melody and the lyric in my head at the same time, so I am a bit of both, I guess.
DJM: How many songs have you written? How many have been cut?
Kenna: I have probably written a thousand songs…most of them need to stay unheard, but some are really special. I’ve had some great cuts on The Talley Trio, Brian Free and Assurance, Karen Peck and New River, Jeff and Sheri Easter, Best of Friends (Sheri, Joyce, and Karen), Ivan Parker, Legacy Five, The Hoppers, Lordsong, Mike Lefevre Quartet, Larry Ford…a bunch of amazing folks. Next year, I have a co-write on Lauren Talley’s new project, several with Mike and Kelly Bowling, and a handful on the new Sisters release…some of those are co-writes by Lee and me.
Lee: Yeah… I’d say the same thing about mine: some of them don’t need to see the light of day! But I’ve had cuts by Ivan Parker, The Nelons, The Ruppes, Mike LeFevre Quartet, Brian Free and Assurance, Legacy Five, among others. And, like Kenna said, some that I’m excited about for next year!
DJM: Of your songs that have been cut, what are some of your highlights, some of your favorites?
Lee: This is funny timing on this question, because this week I would definitely answer that question this way: Our kids at church are presenting a Christmas musical, for which I co-wrote songs, this Sunday night. Over the years, I’ve had a few cuts that have been pretty cool. But there absolutely has been nothing sweeter than hearing my own children sing my songs. Knowing that they’re “getting it” and knowing that something I’ve had a hand in writing is helping to shape their faith is incredibly rewarding. The cuts will come and go – I feel like this stuff is eternal.
Kenna: I love “Red Letter Day” by The Talley Trio. But my sentimental favorite is a Sheri Easter cut on the Best of Friends project called “If She Could.” I wrote it about my grandmother’s battle with Alzheimer’s, yet every word of the song is about her grandmother as well.
DJM: Touching on what prompted this mini-interview, you recently had an incredible song on Legacy Five’s “Just Stand” project. What sparked the idea for the song “Faithful to the Cross”?
Lee: So many times in a Nashville writing room, the conversation goes like this: Who’s looking? What do they need? Oh… let’s write that. Kenna and I wrote “Faithful To The Cross in February of last year.” This was one of those great days when we didn’t have anybody specifically we were targeting. We just wanted to write a song that moved us…
Kenna: That day, another writer was supposed to join us but had to cancel. So Lee and I started throwing out hooks like always to see what we wanted to chase down. I mentioned a song I had written a few years ago that had a strong chorus but weak verses. The back half of the chorus said, “Forgetting what’s behind me, counting it as loss. Faithful to the finish, faithful to the Cross.”
Lee: It immediately grabbed me. I love that idea of running the race well, finishing strong…that thought of leaving a legacy for those behind us. I remember at one point, as we were singing through the chorus, Kenna pointing to her arms getting the “glory bumps” and thinking we were really on to something.
When Kenna and I write, we will get a work tape finished, then I’ll go home, record a piano track in MIDI, and email it to Kenna’s husband Kerry who is a GREAT engineer. They have a studio in their home. And depending on whether the pitch is male or female, she or I will sing the lead on the demo and then we add BGV’s…
Kenna: Lee came over and sang this amazing vocal on the song and I immediately pitched it to Scott Fowler. Our demo didn’t have background vocals on it yet so the song didn’t come off as powerful as it was written, and they passed on it. So I shot it over to Terry Franklin for BGV’s. The night we finished the mix, I emailed Scott again about the song, but he said they were tracking two days later and that their song list was already finalized. I resent the song anyway…it couldn’t hurt to try again.. He emailed back a few hours later and told me that they were going to find a slot for it.
DJM: I know the song just came out, but have you heard any neat testimonies or stories about the song yet?
Kenna: I got the sweetest note on FB from a man who had just lost his father, saying that every word of the lyric was about his dad. He thanked us for writing it…made me cry. Scott Fowler also had a nice piece on his blog about the song.
DJM: Anything else you wanted to share with the readers?
Lee: Just that feel privileged to get to do what I love. And grateful that occasionally those songs that I love writing end up getting recorded. Big blessing.
Kenna: I am thankful that as I mature in Christ, the songs do, as well. And I am thankful for the friends I have made through co-writing, like Lee and his family. God is so good!
DJM: How can people get in touch with you? Do you have a website?
Kenna: I am on Facebook, or you can holler at me on my web site: www.KennaTurnerWest.com.
Lee: I Facebook and Twitter. I have a MySpace that doesn’t get updated too much. No website.