By Justin Sanders
With their band The Kin, Isaac and Thorald Koren have toured the world with the likes of Pink, Coldplay, and Rod Stewart. At one time, not so long ago, they were bringing their signature brand of high-energy yet introspective alternative rock to crowds of 20,000 people and more – even checking in with Conan to play their song “On the Rise” in front of a nationally televised audience.
But, the best way to see the sibling duo might just be in a small side room here at the CreativeFuture office, where they popped by recently for an interview and an impromptu rendition of their hauntingly beautiful song “Abraham.”
“We were always so committed to changing the experience in the room we were playing in,” said Thorald Koren. “It was really about how we could bring everyone closer and weave the song into the room.”
Having been in the room with them for that performance, I can attest to the truth of that claim. In person, the brothers have that towering coolness that only rock stars can pull off, and yet they also exude a magnetic warmth that somehow pulls you in closer. Indeed, after more than 15 years of working their way up the recording industry’s ladder, their ability to connect with people on a personal level led the Koren brothers to step down from it. They set The Kin aside and moved out to Ojai, California – a small, spiritual town north of Los Angeles with a magnetic warmth of its own.
These days, as the Brothers Koren, and with their side project BRAVES, Isaac and Thorald still play music, but their focus has turned to The Songwriter’s Journey, a proprietary 10-step mentorship program they developed that helps would-be singer-songwriters “dare to suck” as they find the courage to express themselves through music.
“Fearlessness is such a silly thing that we strive for,” Thorald said. “What is consistent through all happy, creatively expressed people on Earth is that they were scared, but they did it anyway. As long as you find a way to do it anyway, the magic reveals itself.”
No prior musical experience is required to take The Songwriter’s Journey. The only requirement is to have “music inside you that’s been wanting to come out,” Thorald added. “If you don’t have that, then we’re not for you – but if you have that, then we are. That’s it.”
JUSTIN SANDERS: Let’s get a little background on you guys. Where are you from originally and what role did music play when you were kids?
THORALD KOREN: We grew up in the south of Australia, in a beautiful beach city called Adelaide.
ISAAC KOREN: Music was a big part of our family. We would come home from school and our mother would be cooking and turning up Janis Joplin, the Rolling Stones, and then Dad would wake us up on Saturday morning with Pink Floyd’s The Wall – [laughs] which is a very ominous way to wake up. There was always music, always expression going on in our house – though our parents aren’t musicians per se. It’s something we found ourselves.
JS: How did you find it?
IK: When Thorald was 11, he was given this beautiful guitar and went straight into learning how to play it. I thought I was going to be a lawyer and was very studious. I only started singing when I was 15 and it all kind of came at once.
JS: When did you and Thorald start performing together?
IK: We didn’t actually perform together until later, when we were trying to figure out what to give to our father for his second marriage.
TK: We were like, “We’re both broke. What can we do for a gift? Oh! Let’s write a song together.”
So, we went into our hotel room bathroom two days before the wedding and we started harmonizing, and this song just flowed out of us. It was very Simon and Garfunkel – perfect harmony, movements, etc. It was this beautiful, way too long song. [Laughs] When we played it at the ceremony, our dad went from crying to checking his watch.
But, that kind of kickstarted it. It was just a sense of, “Yeah we’re going to do this together.” We found ourselves in New York City, and we thought we were about a week away from musical success. And we were right – [laughs] just add about 12 years to that week.
JS: How did you find yourselves in New York?
TK: As young kids, our mother had this fabulous mid-life crisis and decided to leave her three kids, divorce our father, and go to New York City on a gut feeling. It was pretty wild. She just went, instinctually, without any of us.
I came to visit her after she moved and I just got this gut feeling that I wanted to live there, too, and go to a performing arts high school. So, we found one and I got into it, and then I got the jazz bug. Then Isaac studied at the school, too, and it became clear that we were going to cut our teeth in New York.
JS: At what point did you go from being two brothers playing together to being in a band called The Kin?
IK: Around 2005 we settled on the name.
TK: It means “family,” “tribe.” We kind of just arrived at it.
IK: And then in 2007, we met this amazing collaborator and patron while playing a show at a barn in Pennsylvania. He said, “I don’t know what it is about you guys but I want to invest in whatever it is. We’ll record a couple albums and hit the road.”
So, with his backing, we rented a 250-year-old farmhouse just outside of New York City and we spent three months recording our album, Rise and Fall.
TK: We started a label and that launched the first wave of The Kin really being out there in the world.
JS: Eventually, you went from releasing on your own label to getting signed by Interscope. How did that come about?
TK: We had actually come to something of a closed door in our music career in the years following Rise and Fall. Then, we randomly played a show on Abbot Kinney in Venice, California, back when Abbot Kinney wasn’t nearly as trendy as it is today. DJ Mormile, who is the nephew of Interscope Records founder Jimmy Iovine, happened to be in attendance. He invited us to lunch with him the next day and we became incredible friends.
We ended up being one of Jimmy Iovine’s last signings at Interscope, and were suddenly thrown into the major label system after more than a decade of playing music. It started a journey that found us touring the world, opening up for the likes of Pink, Coldplay, and Rod Stewart.
JS: What was that like after so many years of struggle – to suddenly be playing arenas with such huge headliners?
IK: Going back to Adelaide, where we’re from, and playing the arena there with Pink – who is literally bigger than the Beatles in Australia… you can’t really put a price on that.
TK: We loved it. We became a great opening act because we loved the opportunity to step out in front of people that had never heard us before, and convince them. All the years of struggling made us adept at winning a room over, so that by the time we were with Interscope, it didn’t matter how big or small a room was – we were like, “We got this.”
JS: But, the sheer scale of an arena is just so different than, say, a rock club. Did you have to learn anything new technically to play them?
TK: The level of the systems in those venues is so high that once you get your sound dialed in, it’s just a matter of having great engineers. Those big tours just amplify you, and you learn to play into that space quickly.
But, how you play into that space is another question. On the Pink tour, we were out on a giant heart and there were a couple thousand people around us in 360 degrees. And then, as far as you could see, there were people in boxes. How do you be yourself and hold that space? You have to become really present and really big and really open yourself to that opportunity.
JS: Would you get a chance to rehearse in the arenas before the shows?
IK: No, and you don’t get to soundcheck much either. It’s a five-minute soundcheck if you’re the opening act, and they really look down on it if you go longer.
TK: It’s sink or swim.
JS: Okay, but that aside, touring with rock stars like Coldplay has to be amazing, right?
TK: It’s as good as you would imagine. [Laughs] Sorry, I can’t hide it. That feeling of the lights going down and 20,000 people getting excited that something’s beginning. Hearing your sound hit the back of such a space and moving that many people and taking them somewhere. It really is the rock star dream. It feels that good.
JS: And yet, you guys wound up stepping away from that world of big global touring. The Kin came to an end. Why?
TK: The best way to say it is that we didn’t get the push we were looking for from our label, so we parted ways with them.
We had this feeling then that maybe this was the time we start writing for others. We had always dreamt of having a little window to do more writing and developing of other voices. So, we came out to Los Angeles and started meeting with people who were looking for songs in the pop space here in L.A.
At the same time, the L.A. pop world is often people writing together and producing tracks that might make it to an A&R rep at a label, and then an artist might cut their version of it – and that’s just not our way.” We’re way too personal. We care way too much about who someone is in their core. What have they been through? What’s their story?
We realized that instead of simply getting hired to write songs, we should put together an approach to inspire artists to call out all of who they are through song, and then help them release it themselves or plug it into the music industry.
So, we came up with this idea and we gave it a name: The Songwriter’s Journey. We’re now four years in and more than 65 people globally have come on the journey with us. Hundreds of songs written, people signing to labels, people just having a better life because they finally were creatively expressive. It’s opened up a whole new pathway for us as not just artists, but developers and coaches and supporters of people who are discovering themselves using song.
JS: How does the Songwriter’s Journey help participants discover themselves?
IK: We’ve found that everyone has what we call a “musical cosmology,” which is that if you look at all of your musical influences – from childhood to now – you will see that you prefer different keys and certain emotional or melodic builds and frameworks. Maybe it’s a lyrical theme, but whatever it is, these cosmological musical elements will repeat. We have certain ways of isolating what those elements are, which lets us start the songwriting process from the person who will actually be singing the song, and from the music that is really going to make them sing.
It’s reverse-engineering the songwriting process so that it comes from the artist, not the market. Because we’ve gotten used to music that’s been engineered with a market-first mentality, and the industry looks for artists that fit that mold.
TK: It just became really obvious we needed to help people from a deeper place. I think great music comes from that place, so we help people be brave enough to go to that place, and we also empower people who don’t think that they can do it.
JS: How do you go about empowering people?
IK: Holding a deep listening space is really all it takes. Everyone wants to be seen and everyone wants to be heard, and it’s very rare in this life that we get to stop and take stock of who we are and where we’ve been and what we’ve been through and value it. As a society, we’re so focused on winning, but it’s when we lose – when we fall – that we actually learn something. So, helping people actually do that heavy work can actually be a really positive way for them to gain a sense of value and a story.
So, it’s about self-reflection and self-knowledge and then being able to play with that story by creating metaphors that might actually sound good when sung.
JS: But, what made you – two guys in a rock band – believe you could connect with people in a way that goes deeper than just songwriting?
IK: I had done a lot of songwriting with people, and had always been that person in my friendships that did a lot of listening. To be honest, I was resistant to holding that mentor space at first, but once I was in there, I realized it was something I had been honing and that I’m good at.
TK: My specific work on the behavioral side is really about helping someone form a new relationship to all of the noise – the feelings and sensations that are going on inside their body, and that can often distract from the core of who they are.
I spend a lot of time helping people reframe their relationship to that core, which is the part they’re really afraid of feeling – and the reason I can do that is because I almost lost my own life to obsessive compulsive disorder.
JS: How so?
TK: As a child, I just thought I was the quirky, worried kid who could fixate on any subject for months on end. Then, when I was 23, I went head-on into adult-onset OCD and really lost my mind in a lot of ways. There would be days I could function and there would be days when Isaac would come looking for me because he hadn’t heard from me for 48 hours because I had been in a room ritualizing and trying to clear away my problems.
Eventually, the only way out of it was to see the OCD as nothing more than an alarm system inside my body and to tell myself that it was just noise, to live uncomfortably until it settled down.
With the help of others, that’s what I did, and now, six or seven years later, I’ve completely rewired my brain. Along the way, it came to me to help coach people through what I had just experienced.
JS: So, how does the process of tuning out that noise translate into songwriting for the people you work with?
IK: We all have an inner critic that says, “Don’t do that. You’ll embarrass yourself. It’s not safe, it’s not good enough, etc.” That’s the noise that Thorald is talking about, and it can cause a lot of people that we work with to judge themselves before they even finish something, or before they even start.
We like to help people go back and find out where that voice came from and realize, that’s not them. That’s just a voice trying to stop them from doing something. Rather than fear the voice, we like to try to see it with compassion and see it as scared, like a child – like an unreasonable 4-year-old who needs them to take charge and say, “Come under my arm and don’t look. We’re doing this anyway.”
The thing is, the part of us that is critical isn’t going anywhere. There’s no surgery that takes it out. But, we can help you build a new relationship to the impulses that keep you from expressing yourself.
TK: Fearlessness is such a silly thing that we strive for. What is consistent through all happy, creatively expressed people on Earth is that they were scared, but they did it anyway. As long as you find a way to do it anyway, the magic reveals itself.
JS: Give us an example of a Songwriter’s Journey success story.
TK: My favorites are the folks who didn’t really see a pathway to expressing themselves musically at all, and then it kind of unfolded. One woman we worked with, named Sadie Nardini, was a total rock star when singing at karaoke, but was always told by her mother, “Don’t sing beyond that, because I never got to live out my dream.”
This is a really common thing that we’re finding – a lot of people are pressured into not shining too brightly by a family member who co-opted the person’s gift as their own.
So, we started working with both Sadie and her mother, at different times, and Sadie went from dreaming of singing to doing two albums and headlining music festivals with her band. At the same time, we penned this jazz record with her mom, who finally got to live out her dream.
It was like seeing a family issue be healed – as it became okay that they could both have music coming from them.
JS: It sounds like you’re doing great work, but do you guys miss playing arenas?
IK: I’m ready to go back to an arena. [Laughs] Do you know an arena that will take us?
TK: We do miss playing venues like that. Our shared, greatest desire is to connect with people. How do we connect with 1,000, 15,000, or 20,000 people in a way that is as deep as going on the Songwriter’s Journey with one person? How do you get beyond just being a performer in front of all those people? What’s deeper? We’ve asked ourselves that and we’re very eager and willing to find the answer – to fuse performance with the depths of intimacy that we’ve now discovered through other pursuits.
JS: What’s the best piece of advice you ever got from one of the megastars you toured with?
TK: It was less advice than simply the space they gave us to thrive. I remember when we opened for Bon Jovi of all people – we got the gig because he had this competition to let a local band open for his show that night. You don’t even have to like Bon Jovi’s music to know what that means for a little band who normally plays in front of 150 people in their hometown. I feel like he said more than words with a whole tour of giving bands that opportunity, and we got to be the recipients.
IK: The greatest thing I learned from touring with Pink was seeing her see everyone as an equal. You could tell from the way she talked to us or to the crew, or anyone, that they felt seen as human beings. Coldplay had the same effect on people. They’re just the nicest guys.
That is the best lesson for success we can impart, I think: If you want to be successful, treat everyone like they’re equal. If you make people feel sacred or unique or valid, they will do whatever they can to further what you are doing as well.
Photos: Nic George / Brothers Koren