Kim Churchill has been back to his childhood home in Merimbula, Australia, only three days in the past three years.
The 20-year-old singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, who played the Big Time Out Saturday evening, has been living out of a camper van since graduating from high school in 2009.
He’s busked across Australia, performing his one-man-band folk rock show to crowds at the markets, headlined some of Australia’s biggest festivals and toured Japan, Canada and the United States.
He released his first self-titled album in Canada in March through Indica Records, an indie label based in Montreal.
Churchill is making a life for himself sharing his music with others and trying to surf as much as he can.
He spent almost a week surfing in Tofino before making his return to the Big Time Out last weekend.
“That’s been a big part of my life growing up,” he says of surfing. “To tour Canada, I love it so much, but I miss the surf, so we started trying to organize me to get to a surfing destination maybe once every five or six weeks for a week to surf, and I just surf my ass off. That has been a really lovely way to tour, having those breaks.”
Churchill says surfing is something he does for himself.
“Playing music and touring and being a musician is very much about giving your music to everybody else; the whole process is very much about giving and performing your emotions,” he said. “Surfing is about taking for me.”
Churchill has been playing guitar since he was four years old.
His mother would take guitar lessons on Wednesdays and then come home and give her son the exact same lesson.
“I guess I don’t really remember, but I really took a shine to it, for a four-year-old,” said Churchill. “I actually was liking doing it, I mean on a very, very, very basic level.”
Churchill’s father started him on classical guitar lessons, and he trained classically for 10 years.
“I finished the grades when I was 16, and I had a serious rebel against everything that was classical and everything that was disciplined,” he said. “That’s also when I started playing live and I discovered that music’s not only a personally interesting thing but a really amazing tool of communication and it can be a job. That’s what I was discovering the last couple years of high school.”
Two days after he finished his high school exams, Churchill bought a camper van and left home with his guitar.
“I’ve only been back three days in the last three years,” he said.
When he started out, Churchill did a lot of busking, and he still busks at markets when he goes home to Australia.
“I still do that for money and it’s really what keeps me afloat because I don’t know when you start making money in this business,” he said. “In hindsight, it was very important in teaching me how to grab people’s attention. It’s a different style of performance.
“When I was playing classical guitar and doing recitals, there was an audience that was there for a purpose … That kind of, I find, distorts or waters down the whole process of performing music because there are so many predetermined things that the audience is thinking they have to do — you have to clap, you have to be quiet, you have to sit and watch and appreciate this music.
“When you’re busking, there’s none of that, so I feel like it’s the very core of performance.
“Not only do you have to stop people in their tracks and turn their heads around to watch you, but you have to hold their attention and learn how to build an audience from nothing. You also learn how to play to nothing, which is very important as well. I think if I hadn’t done a lot of busking, it would’ve taken me a couple more years of touring around Australia to get to the stage to be able to tour Canada.”
Churchill considers Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Led Zeppelin big influences, and he’s currently obsessed with anything Jack White does and with Bon Iver.
“What I like about especially Bob Dylan and Neil Young is they got to the same things — it’s creating an artwork,” he said. “It’s not creating a sound; it’s actually creating a piece of art. I think in that sense, they paint the whole picture, lyrically, melodically. That’s what I’m really enjoying, the idea of using sounds to splash on a canvas, and that freedom as well … I like to let things move freely and not be confined by certain arrangements. With my music, people always understand it’s going to be changing and moving. I would be very upset if somebody bought my album and expected to hear the same sound all the time.”
Churchill says the members of Led Zeppelin are kind of like his superheroes.
“Bob Dylan and Neil Young feel like friends; Led Zeppelin are like gods.”
Growing up in Australia, Churchill feels the Internet played a big role in exposing him to more music.
“The Internet, it was very inspiring for me,” he said. “I knew very little about music. I had a very classical guitar upbringing, and YouTube came out, and all of a sudden, I could see these amazing guitar players, these amazing finger pickers, an amazing lead player in England … It’s been very important in receiving all of this stuff, and as I’ve been on my own musical journey, it’s been as important.”
His current Canada-U.S. tour ends at the end of October, and he’s trying to convince him management to take some time off. He’ll go to Australia to play some festivals and head into the recording studio in January.
Life on the road isn’t easy, and for Churchill, the key to not burning out is to find little comforts and to find a rhythm.
He says there was a time this winter when he started feeling very burnt out, as he was flying on six or seven airplanes a week and driving thousands of kilometres.
“I did 17 shows and 10,000 kilometres of driving in 14 days in the winter, across from Vancouver to Toronto,” he said. “I bought a camper van, and it broke down outside the last show on the last day, and that was that. I drove the van across Canada, and it died. I was feeling very burnt out around that time. Since then, I’ve sort of found that I needed to take more time for myself.”
Churchill considers festivals like The Big Time Out as his homes.
“For a musician, you don’t really get a home,” he said. “I have suitcases for my stuff, and I have a whole bunch of ways that I can give myself some kind of substance, but I’m living out of a suitcase. It’s being able to come here and instantly hug five or six people and immediately being put back into an environment that you understand and feel a part of. It’s these kinds of communities I really have to find and inject myself into so that I can feel like I’m part of the communities.”