Kasey Anderson knows the optics aren't great.
For a convicted felon who served two years in prison for defrauding investors of hundreds of thousands of dollars in a fake benefit album, releasing his own album, and touring in support of it, just doesn't look right from certain angles. Isn't he supposed to be paying back the money he ripped off? How could he afford the studio time? How could he justify it?
When he got out of jail three years ago, Anderson, who had carved out a name for himself in the Pacific Northwest roots scene in the mid-aughts, operating out of both Portland and Seattle, figured suspending his aspirations as a recording artist was part of squaring his debt with society. He was content focusing on his sobriety, treating his bipolar disorder, holding down a job, maybe playing a small show here and there, and trying to piece together some semblance of his previous life.
So how, then, did he wind up on tour, with a new band, and a new record to promote? It's not, he insists, some grandly orchestrated scheme meant to reintroduce him to the music scene—it just sort of happened.
"There was never a time where I was like, 'It's time for the Kasey Anderson comeback,'" Anderson says over the phone from Chicago, where he's performing later that night. "It just was a bunch of really generous gestures by people who were around me that made it feel like it would be OK to do this."
Returning to music, on however small a scale, wasn't a decision he made lightly. He'd used music to steal from people. Being allowed to play and write and record again was a privilege he hadn't necessarily earned just from his time served.
But while Anderson resigned himself to a future of writing songs pretty much only for his own gratification, those close to him weren't content to have him play out the rest of his career from his couch. A series of gentle nudges, from friends and colleagues, convinced him that starting over, in some form, was possible. It's a testament to the goodwill he'd built up in the years before going to prison—and, perhaps, a measure of just how much he squandered when his lies finally caught up to him.
Before everything came crashing down, Anderson had built a reputation as one of the region's best under-the-radar singer-songwriters. An unabashed Springsteen acolyte, his blue-collar folk narratives reflected a well-studied grasp of American music history, from blues to alt-country. He scored gigs opening for the likes of Jason Isbell and Steve Earle. Counting Crows took him and his band, the Honkies, out on the road, and even recorded a cover of his song "Like Teenage Gravity," for their 2012 album, Underwater Sunshine (or What We Did on Our Summer Vacation).
By that time, Anderson had enough clout behind him that when he began soliciting investors for an album and concert benefiting the West Memphis Three—three rock fans wrongfully convicted of murder in the '90s and set free in 2011—and started dropping names like Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam and Lady Gaga, it didn't sound completely beyond the realm of possibility.
In the intervening years, the album would be referred to in the press as a scam. But Anderson says he initially had every intention of making it happen. The problem, of course, was that no major artists had actually signed on. And to make things worse, he'd started dipping into funds earmarked for the benefit, spending it on vacations, studio sessions and drugs. To perpetuate the lie, and buy himself some time to figure out how he'd pay back the money he'd spent, Anderson fabricated emails and forged documents, and even tried to pass off unreleased Springsteen demos from the '80s as exclusive recordings for the project.
"I don't know what the endgame was for me," Anderson told me in 2016, "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 happened. They were attempts to keep everybody at bay, more or less."
All told, Anderson bilked investors—including many personal friends—out of nearly $600,000. In 2013, he pleaded guilty to federal wire fraud charges and was sentenced to four years in prison, which he spent at the Federal Correctional Institution in Sheridan, Ore. A few months before starting his term, Anderson was diagnosed as bipolar, and finally confronted his drug and alcohol addiction. But he is careful not to use either as an excuse for his behavior.
"I need to be able to continue, for the rest of my life, to take responsibility for the stuff that happened," he says. "It's a really slippery slope when I start to say like, 'Well, you know, I'm type 1 bipolar and I also was pretty deep in the throes of cocaine and alcohol addiction.' The second you say that, it sounds to someone like you're forgiving yourself, and I don't ever want to come across that way, because it's disrespectful to the people who were victimized by me."
Anderson was granted probation in 2015. A year after his release, his name started showing up on concert calendars around Portland again—small gigs at places like Skyline Tavern and Kelly's Olympian, mostly at the invitation of friends and fans who hadn't entirely written him off.
But the notion of making another record just didn't sit well with him. On the one hand, the conditions of his release stipulate that a percentage of his income go toward financial restitution for the money he stole, and he couldn't bring himself to justify the expenditures related to putting out and pushing an album. And anyway, after what he did, how could he expect anyone to support him?
Gradually, though, Anderson found himself getting pulled back into the studio, again at the behest of others. Counting Crows frontman Adam Duritz asked him to contribute a song to an album benefiting a friend's cancer treatments, so Anderson convened a band to record a cover of Tender Mercies' "Wiseblood." That group—Jordan Richter, Ben Landsverk and Jesse Moffat—started jamming together regularly, which led to Anderson workshopping new material with them.
Still, it took one more slight shove, from songwriter BJ Barham, to assure him that making new music would not violate the terms of his re-entry into society.
"I was just like, 'Man, I don't think it would look very cool for me to make a record and try and put my name behind it and ask people to pay for something I made,'" he says. "And his thing was just, 'You should leave it up to people to decide whether or not they want to hear your record, or whether or not they think you're like an irredeemable piece of shit.'"
It also helped that Richter runs a studio, and offered to record him pro bono. With his conscience more or less at ease, Anderson spent 2017 assembling what would become From a White Hotel. Released under the name Hawks and Doves, the sound of the record is right in Anderson's roots-rock wheelhouse. But it is not, in his words, simply a set of contextless "bangers." Culled from songs written at different points over the past few years—some while in prison, others while recovering from a lithium-induced seizure last summer—Anderson says he was trying to write this record "to remind myself that a lot of the danger that has been part of my life has been self-inflicted." Nowhere is that made clearer than the closing, title track, a plain-spoken confessional in which Anderson lays his sins bare: "They sent me off to prison for telling half a million lies," he sings, "and living all around the world on bread that wasn't mine."
Once it was finished, Anderson was content simply uploading the album to Bandcamp. But, once again, his friends stepped in, getting it into the hands of Americana label Jullian Records, who agreed to put the record out.
But as Anderson said, please, don't call it a comeback. At this point, a full-fledged return to songwriting still doesn't seem entirely feasible. Eventually, the acts of generosity that made From a White Hotel possible are going to dry up, and he'll have to go about his career the old-fashioned way, with the attendant self-promotion. Besides, right now, other parts of his life take precedence—his new marriage, his training to become a certified drug and alcohol counselor, his ongoing attempts to make amends for his crimes.
For the time being, simply having the album out, and getting to play it for people, is enough.
"People dig this record," Anderson says. "There are some radio stations playing it, there are people at shows. It doesn't necessarily mean that this is gonna be the rest of my life, and then I'm going to try and rebuild a career completely. It just means that, for now, this is a really cool thing that I get to experience, for the next however many months it lasts."
SEE IT: Hawks and Doves play Secret Society, 116 NE Russell St., with Redray Frazier and Nathan Earle, on Friday, Aug. 24. 9 pm. $10 advance, $12 day of show. 21+.