When you’re the son of the Byrds’ Gene Clark – a pivotal figure in the formation of three distinct sub-genres of rock music (folk/psychedelic/country) – there’s a certain expectation, spoken or unspoken, that you’ll pick up the guitar and join the family business. From an early age Kai Clark felt the pressure of such unreasonable expectations, but has always followed his own path in life, not one that had been projected on to him by anyone else. If Kai were to ever become a musician, it would happen naturally, on his own terms. When the time was right.
“My father never wanted me to become a musician,” says Kai. “Maybe it was because he thought he could shelter me from the music business and didn't want me to live that life.”
But as all musicians know, the pull to play music, once felt, is profound and inexorable. For Kai, who grew up in Mendocino, California, that moment came just before he entered his teenage years.
“I think I was around 12 when I first learned a couple chords and would pick up an old guitar that used to sit in our living room when no one was around. For some reason I was drawn to the blues and could play and make up lyrics of my own to the chords and rhythm. I started carrying that old guitar around when I went to school and it started to become a part of me.” Kai’s first electric guitar was a 1973 sunburst Fender Stratocaster – a treasured gift from his mother on his 15th birthday, which he plays to this day.
Soon thereafter, Kai followed his instinct. Having learned to sing and play at the same juncture, the impulse to write songs felt natural.
“My mom says I would sit on the couch and write these songs about love and life and she would wonder where it came from, as I was too young to have any experience in those matters,” says Kai. “I guess it was always part of me. Something deep in my soul that I – like my father – was probably born with.”
When Kai turned 17, certain painful realities, including family illnesses and his father’s untimely death in 1991, served to push him deeper into the solace offered by music.
“There was a fire inside me and music seemed to quench it,” he says. “My band and music became my family, my healing guide. Times were tough and I don't think I would have made it through without music. It literally saved my life!”
But in 2003, Kai’s life took an abrupt change. Again, following his own path, not one foisted upon him by anyone, he enrolled in the prestigious California Culinary Academy in San Francisco – an affiliate of Le Cordon Bleu – and graduated with honors in 2004.
Three years later, however, he discovered that music was again calling him. He returned to Southern California to play gigs and record with the Kai Clark Band, but in 2010 he put family first, went on hiatus and moved back to Northern California to raise his two children with wife Amber.
The Kai Clark Band
Kai’s music is pure Americana, and combines elements of blues, country and rock, with a wide range of influences that include Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Jimi Hendrix, Taj Mahal and Keb Mo.
The brief hiatus from the music business now over, Kai looks forward to resuming his career with the renewed passion and energy that comes from the peace of having followed his own path, in his own time.
“I never stopped playing and writing,” says Kai. “Having children has definitely inspired me with music and in life in general. I feel like I’m writing and playing the best I ever have and am really excited about getting back into the studio and out on the road to do live shows.”
He has also come to terms with his father’s legacy. Musicians who also happen to be the progeny of famous rock stars often try to avoid direct association or comparison with their parents’ achievements. This arises out of a fully understandable desire to have their talents assessed on their own respective merits. Kai Clark will always be the son of Gene Clark, founder member of The Byrds, but he has also embarked upon a musical career that both openly embraces his father’s legacy, while simultaneously furthering his own unique vision.
“I have a better knowledge and respect for my father’s music,” says Kai. “I love playing his songs – which I never really pursued much in the past, mainly because of my own prolific writing. No matter where life will take me from here, I will always write and play music. It is as much a part of me as the blood that runs through my veins.”
Tom A. Sandford