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Just look at us now: Kenneth Pattengale of The Milk Carton Kids

Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale of The Milk Carton Kids. Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale of The Milk Carton Kids.

It’s part Simon & Garfunkel, part Abbott & Costello. 

When you listen to The Milk Carton Kids, you’re hearing some of the most poignant, soul-searching and timeless acoustic music of this century — perhaps any century, truth-be-told. 

And when you witness the singer-songwriting duo (Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan) onstage, you’re in the presence of true friends — musical soulmates, guitar wizards, comedic brothers — who first crossed paths as struggling artists in the madness that is their native Los Angeles. 

Two voices and two acoustic guitars, swirling around a single microphone. It’s a sound and tone that radiates outward into whatever space they may find themselves in, filling ears and hearts with an old, kindred soul feeling and connection — something all too easily lost, perhaps forgotten, in this world of ours today. 

Smoky Mountain News: What do you think about the juxtaposition of growing up in Los Angeles — the epicenter of noise, traffic and organized chaos — and being a folk musician surrounded by all of that? 

Kenneth Pattengale: [Laughs] Yeah, right? [It’s] interesting. Joey and I grew up in different parts of LA. I grew up in northeast LA, Joey grew up out on the west side. I learned this after I went through college and became an adult, and that is Los Angeles can be the loneliest place on earth, despite it having something like 25 million people in its metro area. But, it really is the loneliest place until you find your people. 

I realized that after seeing a few of my college friends who came to LA from out-of-state and never found their people — they got chewed up and spit out. It occurred to me, as weird as someone might be, you can always find somebody like you in Los Angeles. It’s not a given you’ll find them. But, if you do find them, you’re going to find some good company. 

I feel like that actually, in some ways, is very much the story of how Joey and I met. And to be able to find a person who sort of fit my sensibilities, but also challenged me, and had similar goals, but a different path — that was the luckiest thing that ever happened in my life. Who would have thought, out of 25 million other people, he and I would have found each other? And the last decade, as they say, is history…

SMN: So, do you think folk music was your escape from that noise? It such a beautiful thing to think about a person with just their guitar in the middle of all of that…

KP: You know, there was a lot of that for me. My parents have this beautiful home in northeast LA. They bought [it] decades ago before it was a really fashionable area. They have this nice little corner that sits up on top of a hill and overlooks the eastern valley of Los Angeles City. And what you just described really is that — sitting there with an acoustic guitar and playing as you look out over the city and all that’s happening. It is quite the juxtaposition, and is quite meaningful in that way. That was — at once — very influential on my writing and my musicality. 

SMN: How important is that banter, not only between the two of you, but also between you and the audience? 

KP: Well, it’s crucial. Because otherwise you’re going to a show to listen to 19 sad [songs] in-a-row. [Laughs]. 

SMN: And it would come across like putting quarters in a jukebox kind of thing, instead of the real blossoming of watching two people onstage…

KP: I think that’s right. Audiences today are very generous in their attention span when it comes to going to a concert and standing for an hour-an-a-half and enjoying somebody who either puts no effort or poor effort into doing anything other than just playing their songs. Not everybody is a natural born speaker or entertainer — sometimes that’s just how it is. If you’re going to see a songwriter play, that’s demanding a lot of the audience to just sit there for song after song. Whether you’re being funny or talking about something serious, you’ve got to break it up — the people sitting there deserve more than that. 

SMN: What is it about the dynamic of two musicians and two acoustic guitars that appeals to you?

KP: In the beginning, we liked the sound, we liked the added space, the realness of it. There’s less pieces to put together to make it sound true, and that’s really invigorating — that nimbleness and accessibility. There’s nothing to hide behind, but also nothing to prop ourselves up on. We have to figure it out, to make it enjoyable and make it interesting — just with those simple tools. And I think that’s brought out a very unique part of our collaboration, writing and performing. 

Editor’s Note: To listen to the entire audio stream of this conversation, go to YouTube and search: “Kenneth Pattengale Garret K. Woodward.”

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