Kasey Anderson, Portland Singer-Songwriter Who Stole $600,000 in a Fake Charity Scam, Is Out of Prison and Playing Music Again

The musician talks personal accountability, surviving prison and why you shouldn’t stand so close to him.

Kasey Anderson is out of prison, but the reckoning for his crimes is still in its early stages.

A fixture in the Pacific Northwest alt-country scene, the 36-year-old Portland-based singer-songwriter plead guilty in 2014 to charges of bilking nearly $600,000 from investors, many of them his friends. He had solicited the money for what he claimed was a star-studded album dedicated to the West Memphis Three, three rock fans falsely imprisoned (and released in 2011) for murder in the 1990s. He told investors that Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam, Lady Gaga and other major names had agreed to contribute songs to the record and participate in a charity concert series. To perpetuate the con, he falsified emails and bank statements, among other things, including passing off early '80s Springsteen demos as new tracks recorded for the project.

Anderson was sentenced to four years in federal prison. He was released last October, and has quietly started playing gigs around town again. (His next show is at Kelly's Olympian this Thursday, Sept. 22.)

But Anderson—who counts among his fans Counting Crows and Jason Isbell— says he's not expecting, or even necessarily trying, to revive his songwriting career. After all, that's hard to do when you're on probation and still trying to pay back thousands of dollars in restitution.

He says he's not looking for sympathy, either. Now four years sober and on medication for bipolar disorder, Anderson spoke to Willamette Week on a day off from his job as a clerk at clothing store Animal Traffic about personal accountability, making amends, surviving prison and why you shouldn't stand too close to him.

Willamette Week: I wanted to start by clarifying the details of your crimes. From what I understand, when this whole thing started, you had a legitimate intent of making a West Memphis Three charity album.

Kasey Anderson: I had a very sincere intent to do it, to the extent that [producer] Danny Bland and I spoke about it, and Lori Davis [wife of Damien Echols, one of the West Memphis Three] and I spoke about it. Once money started to come in, Danny and Lori both had a lot else going on, and it was my responsibility, like, "Get ahold of us if this is really going to happen and we can start doing it, and we can start putting it together." And I never did that.

So how did it end up spiraling out of control?

I did some traveling while I was in Europe, and I dipped into that money that had been earmarked for and was in the account for the West Memphis Three stuff, and I thought, "I'll just pay this back." And I kept dipping into it without paying it back, and then all of a sudden it was at a point where I knew there was no way for me to pay it back any time soon.

And so were some of these more egregious things you were accused of doing to further the con your attempt to dig yourself out of a hole, then?

They were either attempts to buy myself time to pay it back, which I thought I would be able do at the time. I'd go, "OK, if I can get six more months and just put everyone off and say the album is delayed for this reason, then I can pay it back and we can go forward." I don't know what the endgame was for me, if I thought people would forget about it or if I'd come into some huge amount of money I'd be able to pay it all back and have nobody know what had happen. They were attempts to keep everybody at bay, more or less.

When this first started and it was a legitimate idea, was the plan to try and get these huge names, like Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam, some of the biggest artists in the country, or did you start invoking those artists only after you'd fallen down this financia hole?

Artists of that caliber became more or less part of the delusion and part of the fantasy. When we started out, it was like artists we knew or maybe some dream artists. Maybe somehow we could get to [Tom] Petty because he was part of the movement to free the West Memphis Three. [Eddie] Vedder had been involved in a number of West Memphis Three things and he was from Seattle and Danny and I know a lot of people in the Seattle music scene, so maybe that was possible. Beyond that, I guess I started to try to live out fantasies. Some of the stuff, like the Lady Gaga thing, I really don't know where that came from. [Ed. note—Anderson told investors Springsteen was recording a duet with Gaga for the album.] That's not even a thing I would want to happen in my wildest dreams.

You said you were dipping into these funds and spending it on things. What specifically?

I spent it on travel, drugs, drinking, just general fucking around. I spent it on recording costs, some of it went to living costs when I didn't have money to do that. In the beginning, it was just travel and leisure stuff.

I know you were battling addiction at the time, did a lot of it go to that?

I think a fair amount went to that. It's hard because you don't get a receipt when you buy cocaine, so it's tough to say how much went to it. But a fair amount went to drinking and doing drugs and generally behaving poorly.

When, in the midst of all this, were you diagnosed as bipolar?

It was more toward the end, in October 2012, when a lot of my Seattle friends staged an intervention and said, "Listen, we know this going on, it seems to us there's more to blame here than just addiction. This is not your typical addict behavior, so maybe you should have some of this stuff looked at." I had a couple of diagnoses done, and both doctors I saw said this is pretty textbook Bipolar 1, mania and delusional behavior taken to a pretty big extent. After the second diagnosis, and that would've been November or December 2012, that's when I started taking lithium and undergoing treatment.

I was going to ask if there were people who knew what you were doing while it was happening. Were there people who you confided in?

It was all more or less kept to myself. I think for sure there were times when people were like, "Where is he getting the money to live this way? Where does his money come from?" But no one asked too many questions. And then it got to a point where I was involved in the civil suit, so that became sort of public, but once it made its way to my friends, they stepped in and began to say, "Everything you've said doesn't add up."

You said your friends were starting to question where your money was coming from. Was there any one egregious expenditure that made them suspicious?

When the Honkies went in to make the Let the Bloody Moon Rise record, and we were also traveling to one-off gigs, and we did the Counting Crows tour which was a pretty big expenditure, everybody in the band started to be like, "Hold on, we're not making enough money at the gigs to finance this, what is going on on the side? Where is your money coming from on the side?" That was the big thing, when the music stuff started, I was racking up expenditure after expenditure for the band, and the guys in the band had all been in the business long enough to go, "Wait a minute, the money part of this doesn't make a lot of sense."

So when they broached the subject, what did you say?

They didn't broach the subject until the end, when everything had been made public anyway. They just made off-hand comments like, "He must have a trust fund" or "He must have family money." No one directly said, until the end when everybody was aware of what was going on, no one said, "How can you afford to live like this?" or "How can we afford to travel this much or make this record or spend this much time at Avast or whatever?"

When you look at on all this, how do you think about it in retrospect? Is it a haze?

It really is more or less a haze, I guess. And there's a level of detachment that comes from being not especially present at the time some of this stuff happened. When my lawyers presented me with the list of people claiming they were victimized and claiming damages, they were like, "Did this really happen? Is this the amount of money you took?" And I was like, "I really don't know. If someone says I took money from them, then they're probably telling the truth. They have no reason to lie about that, so it seems reasonable that this number is correct." When I look back, I can remember details here and there of things that happened, but it's not a three- or four-year blackout in my life, but there's not a lot of very specific detail I can call upon.

But there are things that seem so premeditated, like playing this old Springsteen outtakes and trying to pass them off as new songs. Something like that, how do you account for that, because it seems like it would take a lot of planning and forethought?

It's hard to try and explain to someone without sounding like I'm making a bunch of excuses. There was no point at which I sat down and went, "I'm going to bilk these people out of this money and use it to do this." The Springsteen thing—people who are Springsteen fans and have access to the bootlegs have those recordings, and I knew that the people who were giving their money didn't have those recordings, so it was a decision I made probably in an afternoon, to rename the files and send them out. But to someone outside the situation, it does look like he really thought this through. And I didn't. But one way or another, it doesn't make it more or less shitty, for lack of a better word. Whether I thought about it for a week and then did it or thought about for an hour, I still did it purposefully to deceive somebody.

The prosecuting attorneys were trying to say that there were some examples of scams that happened after these charges had come to light—for example, that you lied about needing money to help your aging father. How do you account for those later lies?

For me, there was still so much scrambling and trying to cover things. There was a period of that time where I completely went off medication. Again, it's hard for me to say that, because it doesn't excuse what happened. It's not like I completely blacked out. I just think in general, in my life, from October 2012 until the day [I went to jail], there was a lot of desperation and delusion and not wanting to face up to and take responsibility for, and thinking if I could just make this one thing happen, I could get away from everything. I think I was past the point of, "I'll just get away from it and make it all right and pay it all back"—just to the point of, "If I can do this thing and make it to Los Angeles, I can start this life and not have to deal with this other stuff." So some of those decisions were made of that mindset.

You bring up Los Angeles. You did go to L.A. while facing trial and essentially absconded.

At the time, I didn't sell it to myself as absconding, but if you're doing something where you can't even tell your mother and father where you are, and I'm lying to my folks and saying I'm in this place, and lying to my pre-trial officer and saying I'm in this place, and lying to my girlfriend in L.A. and saying it's no big deal I'm here—obviously, if you're lying to everyone in your life, you're probably not doing something that's right. It was just another thing of like, "I'll get to L.A., I'll start this life." I don't know if I thought, "This will all pass." I think at the time there was still this glimmer of hope in my mind that, "Maybe I'll get nine months home confinement and then I'll just tell the girl in L.A. I have to go back to Portland for nine months and I'll deal with it then." There wasn't a lot of holding myself accountable or taking blame or being responsible. There was just a lot of delusion and deceit to other people and, "If I start this new life, I don't have to reckon with anything that happened in the 33 years prior to this."

So when did the reality of what you'd done hit you?

The reality didn't hit me until I was at SeaTac, in the detention center, that first night. The day before, I'd received a call from my attorney that essentially said, "You can come home immediately, or they'll kick your girlfriend's door down and take you home. So if you have any regard for the people around you, you'll get on a plane and come home." So I did that, and it wasn't until I got to SeaTac that first night or first few days where I was just like, "Holy shit, this is where I'm going to spend the next—" I didn't know at that point, because the prosecutor was really angry and talking about 87 months, so I was like, "This is where I'm going to spend the next five to seven years of my life." That's when I started really having to confront, you know, these are the people I victimized, these are things I did to victimize them, these are the ways I put my family and the people I care about in harm's way. This is the reason I'm here. I'm not here because someone tattled on me or I had a string of bad luck. I'm here because I made a series of selfish and not especially sane choices, and they culminated in me now being in prison."

Had you ever been arrested before or have any sort of criminal record prior to this?

I spent a night in jail in South Dakota in 2010 on tour, but other than that, no. I got into an argument with my girlfriend in a motel and people heard the disruption, and the cops came. I had taken a phone out of her hand while she was trying to call the cops, and it's illegal to interrupt a 911 call.

While you were in prison, did you live in a constant state of fear or did it normalize at a certain point?

It normalized for me at a certain point. Also, for the first year I was in the holding facility, where people of varying custody levels are, so I saw a lot more of the things that you see on TV happen in that first year than I did in the second year. Once I had figured out that as long as you mind your own business and don't lie to people and stay out of trouble, then trouble doesn't really find you, then the fear subsided and you get into this really miserable little routine and trying to make the day go by each day.

And what was your routine like?

At SeaTac, my routine was a lot of exercise and basketball and then television in the evenings. When I got to Sheridan and had a job, my routine was go to the library and work as the librarian, and then play music in the music room and work out in the evening.

I read that you kind of had a prison band in there.

There were a ton of guys who played and a handful of guys who were pretty good. I was in a couple different bands, but we had one band where we played my original tunes, and that was a good way for me to work out tunes and see what worked and do something that felt a little bit normal.

Did you see anything happen that really shook you?

The first time I saw a large-scale—not a riot, but a fight between two races. And to see how abruptly that's dealt with, and how violent things can get, and how quickly they can get violent, that was really jarring. There wasn't a lot of violence at Sheridan, but at SeaTac, it got to the point where we were all pissed off when it happened because it meant we were going to be locked for a couple days. You'd see a group of people fighting or some violent thing happen and it's just like, "Goddamnit, now I'm not going to be able to talk to my family for four days because this asshole stabbed the other guy or whatever." So you get desensitized to it pretty quickly.

In what ways to prison change you, beyond making you account for your crimes?

A couple things I've noticed is that I'm more polite, because manners are a really important thing in prison. You say "please" and "thank you," you say "excuse me" if you walk between two people, you hold the door open. Those things have become more of a habit for me than before I went in. Also, I wouldn't say I have a hair-trigger, but I'm quicker to become uncomfortable. I can feel my body tense up and be ready for confrontation, which is just a function of having been around it. I wasn't personally involved in any confrontation, but when you're in a situation where there could be violence at any moment, you're always physically on the ready. So I could feel that happen to me. The other day, someone stood next to me at a crosswalk, and it was just because they weren't paying attention, but I turned around and said, "You need to back up, you're in my space." I never would have said to somebody before prison.

You've been making amends since you've been out. Have people been receptive to that?

For the most part, people have either been receptive or they've said, "I wish you the best, but I don't have any desire to carry on a conversation with you. I appreciate you reached out and tried to make amends but let's just let it go and don't worry about contacting me in the future." The worst case scenario for me so far has been people saying either, "I'm going to need some time" or "I appreciate it but don't contact me anymore." For the most part, people have said, "I appreciate it, I wish you the best," and we've gone back to, not necessarily daily contact, but the friends I had when I went in more or less are who I've had since I came out.

And how are you paying the money back?

I have to pay a percentage of my income toward restitution every month, I think for the rest of my life. When I get off probation, it gets turned over to a different division of the government, but the federal government is still collecting a debt. So it doesn't change, I just think the penalty is different if I miss a payment. Right now, if I miss a payment, my probation officer can send me back to prison. Once I'm off probation, if I miss a payment, I think they take different steps. But more or less, for the rest of my life, I have to pay a percentage, and the more income I make, the bigger the percentage is. Right now it's not a huge percentage because I'm not making a shitload of money, but if I somehow got a job that paid $100,000 per year, the percentage would be bumped up a significant amount.

I know you're working at a friend's store in town, and you're also selling a live album through your website. I don't imagine that's a particularly large part of the money you have coming in right now.

I played a show at this place called Standing Suns Wine in Buellton, California, which is where they filmed Sideways. John Wright, who owns the winery, is a friend of the guys in Counting Crows or had heard my records through the Counting Crows guys, so he contacted me and said, "Hey, I want you to come play, I'll pay you this much money." I was like, "Look, man, I don't think anyone is going to come out." And he was just like, "It doesn't really matter to me, I like your songs, I want you to come play my place." So that wound up being good because I could say to my probation officer, "I'm going to go do this if it's OK with you, but this money is going to go toward restitution. I'm not going to go to Santa Barbara or Buellton and fuck around for three weeks and play a show and come home and go back to work. I'm doing this so I have more money to pay toward restitution." And my probation officer was cool with it. Selling that live record or any of the old LPs I still had lying around—I think maybe 20 people have ordered something through the website, and it's the same as income, a percentage of that goes toward restitution.

With offers like that, and like Peter Ames Carlin inviting you to play Skyline Tavern in July, are you surprised that people are willing to help you after what you did?

Yeah, I really was, and I've tried to be really careful about doing that. On the one hand, I don't want it to look like I came out of prison and went back to, "OK, great, I'm going to start doing gigs and we're going to write another records." I understand I have a debt, financial and moral, to people I have wronged, and a big part of my life, for the rest of my life, is going to be trying to make financial and personal amends. But at the same time, when Peter approached me, he was like, "Listen, your songs are great, it's time for you to start playing them. It doesn't have to be you trying to have a career. You have the right to play music if you want to play music." And when he put it that way, I was just like, he's right, I haven't forfeited the right to play a show at a bar somewhere. So it's been a really nice surprise. A lot of my friends, and Peter was one of them, have said, "What you did is really fucked up, and I'm glad you're trying to make amends, but you've always been good to me personally, so until you do something to wrong me, I'm going to support you. If you prove to me you're not worth supporting, or if you take advantage of the fact that I'm willing to forgive and be of help to you, it's a different story altogether. But for now, it seems like your life is on the right track, so I want to help you." That's been really cool to me not just as a person and how it applies to my life but to be able to see that people really forgiving and kind, and if you're honest, even if you've fucked up and made mistakes, people are willing to forgive." That's one of the things, when I was in the middle of it, I just lied to everybody because I thought no one would ever forgive me for this. If I'd just told the truth at the beginning and said, "Look, I spent some of this money, I don't know how I'm going to get it back to you," things would've turned out differently.

You have some demos on your site that were written this year. How did this experience inform your songwriting? Have you changed as a songwriter because of any of this?

One thing it did was prove to me I know how to write songs of different kinds without having to create a situation in my life where I was sequestered or in the middle of some ridiculous drama in order to try wringing a song out of it. I could just take a day or a couple days and sit down and write a song because I understand how that works from a structural standpoint. I think the songs are a little darker, and they come from a place of self-reflection and thinking about whether or not there is any sort of redemption that's possible for people. While I was in prison—and prison is a punishment, and there is suffering—I came across a lot of people who suffered quite a bit more than me and who were going to be in prison for longer and under far worse circumstances. To see that, and to see the way people learned to carry themselves, informed a lot of how I wrote. And not just songs but letters I wrote back home or things I would say to my girlfriend about trying to have some perspective and not think the things that were happening to me were the worst things to happen to anyone in the history of the world. There are people suffering a lot worse next to me and all around.

Was there anyone whose story particularly resonated with you?

This older African-American gentleman moved in across from me a couple months before I left. His name was Melvin, and he'd been in for a long, long time, and had achieved this zen that I think a lot of people in prison either achieve or at least pretend to, where he said, "I don't ask my wife what she's up to, as long as she stays in touch." He'd been through the system, started out a much higher level and seen a lot of violence and been party to a lot of violence, and you see how hard guys work to get to camp because it's safer and closer to home. He had been through a lot but he was also really polite to everybody, he didn't have a chip on his shoulder, he gave advice to young people to came in. Yeah, there are some pretty unsavory dudes in there but there's also this community that forms where if a new guy comes in and he needs something, everyone bands together to provide for him until he's able to provide for himself. It's nice to see that kind of community spring up organically in a place where you wouldn't presume that's the case.

At this point, is it possible to have an expectations or goals on an artistic level?

No, it's not really possible for me to have any expectations beyond having the ability to write songs and play them, whether it's at my house or in a peers' basement or maybe at a bar. Even just putting that live record on the website, to me, is asking a lot of people, and I don't know how much further than that I want to go. I've wrote songs that I think are good and I'd like to record them, but one end of that is, it's presumptuous of me to think people still would want to listen to a record I'd make. Secondly, making a record is a pretty big financial undertaking, so for me to justify that while I have this enormous debt is pretty difficult right now. I don't know if circumstances will change or my mind will change about it, but at the moment it's like, how can I spend $10,000 making a record when that money should probably be going to the people whose money I took to begin with. So right now, my only real expectation is to be able to play and have fun and play a show if it comes along, or play at a buddy's house if the invitation gets made. Pretty small-scale stuff.

You've been careful not to come across like you're making excuses for your behavior. But there are people who might say that doing an interview like this is a means of engendering sympathy. What would you say to that?

My response would be to read the interview carefully if you're interested in it and see what I have to say. I feel like in the instances I've had to do interviews, I've gone to pretty great lengths to hold myself accountable for what happened and not say, "You have to understand I'm bipolar and I have addiction issues." Because it doesn't really make that big of a difference. At the end of the day, I took money that didn't belong to me, I spent it on things that didn't have anything to do with what I said I was spending it on, and then I lied about it. So whether it was drugs or bipolar disorder or some combination thereof, or just greed, I was still deceitful, greedy and dishonest, and that ended up with a lot of people having lost money. I think for me to publically take ownership of that, because I didn't do that in the times leading up to my arrest and imprisonment. I did an interview with Seattle Weekly or one of the Seattle places where I just talked the whole time about bipolar disorder and all the shitty things I'd done and how it was all a function of bipolar disorder, so these are opportunities for me to be publicly accountable and make as public amends as I can without getting too into details that belong privately between two people.

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