All Too Real

By Steven Libowitz   |   October 1, 2020
Ken Grand with wife Rebecca Riskin, once a popular professional ballerina turned realtor whose colleagues called “the First Lady of luxury real estate”

On January 9, 2018, Ken Grand went through the kind of hell most of us could never even imagine. That was the night that a torrential downpour resulted in the infamous Montecito mudslides and debris flow that killed 23 people. Among the casualties was Grand’s wife, Rebecca Riskin, the popular professional ballerina turned realtor whose colleagues called “the First Lady of luxury real estate.” Riskin washed away in front of his eyes by 15 feet of mud, boulders, and tree branches moving at 20 miles per hour that also crushed one of his legs and destroyed the family home. Grand also suffered extreme hypothermia and was near death before he was finally rescued, then spent months in the hospital and rehabilitation.

But this month something beautiful has emerged 33 months after the tragedy as Grand is releasing Too Real, a seven-song album full of heartfelt songs that are both deeply personal and widely accessible as musical moments of love, loss, and recovery. The record is heartbreaking, hopeful, and healing, capturing both a moment that Montecito will never forget and its aftermath while offering a glimpse into the pain of being human that anyone can access.

The album is co-produced by former Cache Valley Drifter David West and features backing vocals from singer Leslie Lembo, Grant’s vocal coach and the one who first told him that his songs needed to be recorded so that others could hear them. Grant, who considered himself just a hobbyist before making the album, plays the Lichty kiku, a baritone ukulele that feels appropriate for his voice and the country-folk feel of most of the songs.

With the final mix of the record due to take place just days later, Grant talked about the tragedy (which he usually simply calls “The Event”), the songs, and the process of healing through music from his usual Sunday afternoon spot on a bench beside the pond at Alice Keck Park.

Q. You just played music for fun before the mudslide. Why do you think music showed up for you as you recovered?

A. Probably everybody who plays sort of messes around with writing songs. But after the mudslide, these lyrics, the first two verses of “Thank You,” came to me in the hospital. I wrote it for the nurses and the therapists and everybody that was taking care of me. It wasn’t until later that I finished it up in the Sierras on a Christmas vacation about a year and a half later, and after that I started writing pretty regularly. And right away the songs just had a different quality. They just felt better. I’m pretty critical of myself. I always hated my voice. I got kicked out of choir in fifth grade. I couldn’t sing. And even when people have said that I have a nice voice, it was hard to believe.

What was it that had your music and songs become one of your methods of recovery and moving forward?

In a lot of ways, the songs chose me. When I was still in the hospital people brought me ukuleles while I was laid up. I was really shattered and beat up and I couldn’t walk for a few weeks. So, I’d lie in bed and play the ukulele a little bit and there was a nurse who had a beautiful voice and we would sing together a little bit.

Oh, I’m choking up a bit. That’s so sweet.

It was very sweet and sad… So much of music is about love and loss. But it’s like that’s an abstraction until it happens to you. In the hospital, and when I was recovering, I started to feel music in a very different way after that event. It pierced the veil. It was no longer on the surface. It was deep inside of me. I get emotional when I’m singing “Then I’ll Cry.” Even right now, I’m tearing up just talking about it. I got broken open and I just feel in a completely different way in a completely different place than I did before. And it comes out in my music.

I’ve been moved every time we’ve talked before today. And it’s happening again for me right now, too. It’s hard to get the questions out. I’m sorry.

No. I get it. We’ll cry together. These are all tough songs. I’ve started to realize that when someone cries when they hear these songs, it means the song worked. I see it as a compliment, even though it’s hard. Rebecca’s friends have a hard time listening to my songs because it’s personal for them. But it’s real.

I think that’s why I’m moved. OK, so can you tell me about the process of the writing, how you craft the songs?

Usually it starts with a lick or a chord progression that I’m just playing with and that evokes a mood. And then I start to see pictures and I fill them in with words. I think I’m much more competent as a lyricist than I am as a musician. I can’t execute across a broad range like Elton John who can write whatever he wants. I don’t have that skillset. I have to work around what I can do. When I find licks or chords that I like, the words start to come. For example, “Still Alive” had a bluesy ‘thirties chord progression and the words just started pouring out. I realized I was writing a metaphorical rendition of the whole experience, the night of the mudslide, the aftermath, and even the process of becoming a songwriter and musician. So, you know, that song had a lot of thought in it, but it also flowed out very quickly, like almost all of them.

“Somehow” came from being really disabled for a year when I couldn’t do very much. I had moved up to a house on the Riviera and I threw a dinner party for some friends. I went and bought placemats and napkins and I shopped and cooked the dinner. And then I stopped and looked up at Rebecca and I said, “You’d be shocked. You’d be so proud of me, how far I’ve come in starting to live a life on my own.”

Ken Grand and his dog Olive both survived the 2018 mudslides that destroyed their home and killed Grand’s wife, Rebecca Riskin

Your songs are all so deeply personal about your experiences with the mudslide and everything since, but each one has a different approach as if they came from a different place inside you. I thought it’d be interesting for you to take us through each of them.

I have to tell you that it used to just bug me when I would hear Bob Dylan or somebody say they don’t know how they wrote the songs, that they just showed up. I thought it was so pretentious, like they wanted to be an enigma. They wanted to be mysterious and cryptic. And then it started to happen to me. Now I get it. The songs just come and you don’t really understand how they do.

“Somehow” actually recounts a conversation that I had with Rebecca not long before she died. I’d asked her what she would do if I died. She told me, well, I’d probably move on. That’s what people do. I thought it was cold, and I said, I hope I die first because I didn’t want to be alone. But then she died in the mudslide. And that’s been the theme that runs through all of the songs. It’s struggling with what “making it through” really looks like. What does survival mean? I was really wondering, am I going to be the guy with the shopping cart who’s sleeping in front of the CVS on State Street? I was physically beat up and emotionally very raw. Now it’s not so much an open question, but all the songs are about that struggle of what survival means. I am still struggling with it to some degree. It’s about fighting the good fight and trying to be optimistic and keep as good an attitude as I can while understanding that this event has transformed me. I’ll never be perfect, but I’ll be better again. That’s where that line in “Never Get Wise If You Never Get Old” about having two good legs. There was a rumor going around Montecito that both of my legs had been amputated and everybody in town was telling that story. So when I hobbled into Lucky’s again for the first time on my crutches, Leslie, the bartender, just broke down in tears.

I can only imagine that was quite a moment.

It was pretty emotional. I also want to talk about “Then I’ll Cry,” which is about the first grandchild born after Rebecca wasn’t here, the first one who would never know her in any way, which is really sad. But it is the nature of life. It does keep going.

I really like that song because the words you came up with are so simple but they illustrate the cycles in a very real and personal way – the hills turning green and brown, and the days getting short and long again… I’m pausing because I’m feeling tears coming again.

Don’t apologize. I understand. Those lines are about Rebecca and Montecito. She was a fiend about roses. She loved them. But there’s sort of a double entendre in that verse about roses keep on blooming and people bleed from thorns. The night I was rescued, the very last hurdle getting dragged out of the mud was going over this wall outside our house that was covered with roses. I was so near death I didn’t care about the thorns, and I ended up with a scar on my left wrist that looks like a number seven. So now when I see roses, which are beautiful, I can’t not think of Rebecca. That’s the metaphor: life is beautiful, and it’s also painful.

I love how these lyrics all come from truth.

Well, it’s our life here. The whole story is in the hills. That’s how everything happened with the fire and the mudslide and the boulders. When I first got out of the hospital, when I looked up and saw the hills again, I got very scared. We take the earth for granted. But when you get swallowed by it, it’s pretty powerful and you realize that we’re vulnerable because we’re not just living on it, we are of it.

I want to ask you about the production of the record. It seems like you and David West really clicked, and the album sounds very organic.

David is amazing, and I respected him immensely from the beginning. It’s like we’re cut from the same cloth in that I also love bluegrass and the kind of music that he does. But he does this for a living and at first I was concerned that my songs weren’t worth recording. So I asked him to listen to the songs, and tell me if it’s stupid. If they didn’t have any merit, then let’s just stop making it. I didn’t want to embarrass myself… I had never performed for anybody or recorded. So making the record was the first time I ever had to be accountable to a time signature or accountable to other people to stay on key. It was a strange and wonderful experience.

And it’s only now after making it that I will call myself a musician because I spend a lot of time here playing in the park around people and they thank me for it. They seem to enjoy it. So I’m starting to get comfortable with that notion that maybe Leslie Lembo was right and that the songs could be valuable for other people, maybe cathartic for someone other than just myself.

I keep getting the sense, both from you and the album, that ego has almost no role in this project. That it’s something you just needed to do and hope that people like.

Actually, I’m embarrassed by it, like almost my worst fear. The songs are the thing. I want them to be heard because I’m proud of them, not that I’m filled with pride. I’m proud that I did something difficult and brought it home.

You wrote that you don’t want to see life as muddy and messy, and that the record is your effort to make peace with that mess and turn tragedy into something meaningful and beautiful. Has that happened for you?

The act of finishing this album and putting it out feels like I really turned a corner. If trauma is something that lives inside of you, doing this album was like giving birth to a child that grows up and moves out two years later. That feels relieving to me. I feel a freedom having done that. Singing the songs, or even doing this interview, brings me back to something that’s very tragic… I have tended to be on the overly emotional side since the tragedy. I think I only cried twice in front of Rebecca, and I’ve cried a thousand times in front of complete strangers since. I’m not embarrassed by my emotions. But I don’t want to continue to be that person. I don’t want to carry those emotions with me forever. And I think I’m going to be much better able to move on for having processed all this and birthing it as a record. If a child is successful, it moves out and leaves you. That’s my wish for this child.

(Too Real will be soon headed to Spotify and other online portals as well as Amazon. The earlier mix can be heard at https://soundcloud.com/user-128146408/sets/too-real.)

 

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