Youth may be wasted on the young, but it would take a pretty harsh judge to conclude that Bo Keeney didn’t use his formative years wisely.
Born in Los Angeles, California in 1988 to a mother who sang in punk and hard rock bands and hung out with “Van Halen” & “Guns ‘N’ Roses”, and with an equally music-mad father, Bo began playing the drums from the age of four. He was an accomplished stick-twirler by the time the family moved across the Atlantic to Winchester, England at the age of 11, but he found himself keen to do his own thing and began raiding his folks’ record collection for inspiration.
I lost a bit of the love for music,” he explains, “because I didn’t feel like drumming was what I really wanted to be doing, until I discovered music like Funkadelic and Stevie Wonder - stuff I could relate to. Plus a lot of heavy metal – System of a Down, Rage Against The Machine, Hed PE. I started nicking my brother’s guitar and playing stuff for fun.”
The move to the UK had not worked out well for Bo, who was doing badly at school, a development probably not unconnected with him feeling a bit of an outsider having arrived from overseas. He began missing lessons and sneaking into the school music room to play the piano, teaching himself any and every instrument he could get his hands on. At which point his obsession with music began to take on a whole new dimension.
“I knew my parents put a lot of effort into me being a drummer, so (feeling reluctant to ask them to buy him other instruments) I would save up my lunch money and basically didn’t eat lunch for years so I could buy a bass and an electric guitar which I kept hidden under my bed. It was all about music at that point and collecting CDs and records and stuff to distract me from school.”
A move to Florence in Italy at the age of 15 pushed Bo deeper into his own musical world, “music felt like the one thing I could really hold onto.” Returning from Italy without the qualifications to get into sixth form college, he enrolled in a music production course at an arts college, which was where his songwriting really began to take shape, helped by his borderline-obsessive determination to be a one-man band all the way.
“I wanted to do it all like Stevie Wonder did it – I wanted to play bass like Flea and perform like Beck, crossing genres all the time and never being easy to pin down.”
At the age of 16 he entered a junior songwriting competition run by the British Academy of Songwriters and Composers, and despite being instructed to send in only one song, he sent in a whole album’s worth – repeatedly.
“I really wanted to get their attention,” he says. “Even if it was a negative reaction. Just so they would notice me. So I kept sending the same CD, and the same letter.” The tactic worked, he won the competition and one of the judges, Will Frank, offered to manage him.
After initially using the entire bottom floor of a flat in Basingstoke to record, he then moved on to a shipping container on a Winchester industrial estate, which he turned into a studio. “I immersed myself in that and barely slept for a year. I was doing three-day marathons as a norm – really burying myself in the process of recording.”
But after initially trying to pour as many of his wide-ranging influences as possible into the record, he made a conscious decision to simplify matters, turning away from the Jeff Buckley approach of wearing influences and multi-instrumental virtuosity on his sleeve.
“I didn’t want to make music to intimidate people,” he says. “I just wanted them to feel like they could relate to it. I just wanted to make music that you could immerse yourself in like I immersed myself in the music I love. “I wanted to put it together piece by piece, playing all the bits on it.”
Thankfully for his own sanity, Bo has since realised collaboration isn’t such a bad thing.
“It almost bugs me a bit to know that there are some other musicians playing on the record,” he smiles. “I sort of wish that I could say it was 100% me. But I’ve realised over these years that it’s not healthy and it’s not going to help me be a good singer or a better performer. So I’ve tried to simplify it and move into a place where I can be more collaborative.”
“I don’t want to dwell on the past,” he says, and on this evidence, he’s got too bright a future to have to do that. Currently tightening up his act with a live band, the next step is to transport this singular, one-man vision onto the stage. And judging by the determined, perfectionist way he has approached his career so far, whatever direction he decides to take, he won’t ever be accepting second best.