So unpack this: Local singer/songwriter Kevin Hyfantis, leader of Kevin Hyfantis and the Bishops Band and part-time keyboard player for Knoxville rock 'n' roots band the Black Cadillacs and Jonathan Sexton's backing band, has just recorded a new EP featuring the members of the Bishops Band and a cast of local and Nashville session players. The title of the disc is simply Hyfantis. Is it a solo project, a new Bishop's Band disc, or something in between?
"I debated whether to release it under the name the Bishops Band," Hyfantis says. "But I used a variety of musicians. All the guys in the band still played on the record, but I used different guitar players and keyboard players. Plus, it was more of an individual effort in the writing process. In the past I have written—and the guys have written with me—for that particular band sound, which was kind of this mish-mash of jazzy rock, maybe a little Steely Dan influence. The newer stuff I've been writing has been almost Americana-ish."
On Hyfantis, Hyfantis hasn't completely abandoned the classic pop-rock sensibility that defined the Bishops Band's 2010 CD, Carnival Authority. The jazzy arrangements have been pulled back, and there is more acoustic guitar, but Hyfantis won't be mistaken for a honky-tonk singer or old-time troubadour. The touchstones on the new EP—recorded partly at Erick Nowinski's Rock Snob studio in Knoxville and at the Nashville home studio of Mike Webb, a touring member of the classic country-rock band Poco—seem to be John Mayer, Dave Matthews, and Jack Johnson: artists whose pop is informed by, but not quite immersed in, folk and soul. Hyfantis' keyboard keeps his sound firmly rooted in classic radio-pop songwriting, but his raspy baritone gives the streamlined songs a rough, soulful edge.
"I think it's just kind of a natural evolution," he says. "Like I said, I was writing two years ago, when we released that full-length album, with a specific sound in mind for the band, for these guys who were all trained jazz musicians, and me being the only one who was not—trying to first and foremost impress them and get them excited about playing the songs. It was a good lesson in songwriting and writing interesting chord progressions, whereas this stuff I've been writing has been more lyric-focused and about the melodies and the simplicity of the song and getting back to that basicness of a great song, as opposed to trying to arrange something with a thousand different chord changes in it."
Hyfantis says the direct approach he is taking now makes more sense to him, and he hopes it will with audiences, too. "I felt like people don't really connect as often with the kind of stuff that we did on the last record," he says. "I think musicians really loved it because of all the interesting tidbits, but your average music listener wasn't really into it. ... I don't think we ever did find what our target audience was, to put it in business terms. I'm hoping this will narrow it down a bit and people can connect more and be like, oh, that's the kind of stuff he does."
The solo project will remain Hyfantis' main priority for the foreseeable future. The new EP is already available at iTunes, CDBaby, and other digital distributors, and the songwriter intends to market the new music in Nashville—with an eye toward songwriting and licensing deals—after its official physical release this weekend at Barley's Taproom & Pizzeria in the Old City. (He plans a Nashville release show sometime soon, but details are still in the works.) But the future of the Bishops Band—guitarist Josh Hobbs, bassist Nate Donegan, and drummer Shaun Schuetz—isn't in doubt.
"It's still a unit," Hyfantis says of the Bishops. "In fact, they'll be playing with me at the release show, and any other band shows that are booked, they'll be playing with me. I don't know looking forward—will we do another Bishops record and try to get back to that kind of sound? Right now I'm just focusing on trying to promote these songs and get them into the hands of the networks of people I know in Nashville and try to do this for a living somehow. That's my focus for the moment."