For Costa Mesa musician Billy Kernkamp, getting into music as a child was as natural as breathing.
"My family was always very musical," he said. "My mom sang, my sister sings and all my uncles play guitar. In my earliest memories, my mom would always be singing standards in hotels for World War II veterans, and we were a very social family, always having parties. I was always surrounded by music. I was inspired by listening to all those old standards, and all that early rock 'n' roll, and I've always had such a love for that."
Now the chanteuse's son has created a career of his own, in a genre all his own — and his popularity is skyrocketing. Kernkamp will appear next week at the South Coast Plaza Village in a concert benefiting Music for a Cure, on the heels of his 2010 OC Music Award for best live acoustic act, and has a new album in the works.
Although it's difficult to label Kernkamp's music, he described it as a blend of rock, Americana, folk, indie and country; it's frequently labeled as "alternative country," he said.
"I'm fine with whatever label someone gives me; I am whatever the audience wants me to be," Kernkamp said. "I just do what I do. I just said, 'I'm gonna do this, and hopefully I'm gonna find the audience.' If you want to say I'm a rap artist, I won't be bummed out."
As Orange County music producer Dallas Kruse often tells Kernkamp, "If it's good, it's good. That's it."
Kernkamp said growing up in Huntington Beach, he was always at odds with everyone and their musical preferences; he disdained megalithic metal bands like Metallica, and tried to instill his preferences on others.
"So with that being said, if I was in Austin or Nashville and everyone was playing country, I would be in a metal band," Kernkamp laughed.
As Kernkamp grew older and traded his saxophone for a guitar, he was exposed to more diverse music like jazz and the Smiths. By high school, he had discovered rockabilly music.
"I just loved it," Kernkamp said. "To me, that was the perfect music. By the time I was 19, I was in my first rockabilly band. We played from San Diego to San Francisco."
Kernkamp then founded his own band, Billy K and the Starliners, and was amazed to find that he was asked to open for the big acts he adored.
"In my mind, these guys were like monks," he said "They had such a reverence for the older music, and such a discipline as far as tackling those songs. They were just so in tune to that stuff."
But by 23, Kernkamp had hit a musical wall. He was itching to delve into his other musical influences, like the Smiths, the Replacements and Dinosaur Jr., but felt held back.
"I felt a hindrance, because once you're involved in a scene, you get locked in creatively; there's a limit to what your audience allows you to do," he said.
Kernkamp took the quarter-life crisis as an opportunity to step back, build a side business and tackle his creative yearnings. By the ripe old age of 27, he was back with a new band, Last Campfire, and began exploring his "'70s alternative country roots," including artists like Graham Parsons and even the Grateful Dead. Kernkamp also recorded a three-song EP about two years ago that's led him to his current work.
Kernkamp's shows are known for their communal atmosphere, in which his friends and colleagues from Zion Studios — like Dallas Kruse, or Johnny Hanson of Melanoid — are welcome to take the stage and join in the fun.
"Music is so communal anyway — what's the point of creating something if it can't be shared?" he said. "It's like making a great dinner. You can eat it by yourself in your kitchen, or you can share it. It's important to let the audience have a part of it, to sing along and stuff. We're all in this together, and we're all sharing it together, and it just creates this intimacy and sense of communion. It's a great, great thing. I want to share this so badly with everyone I encounter, and I always want to give my best. Even if I'm serving them a cup of coffee, I want to make sure it's the best coffee they have all day. I'm a pleaser."
The family ties were palpable at Kernkamp's July residency at Costa Mesa's Detroit Bar, where he was given complete rein on booking acts and brought in friends like Jameson Burt and Echo Echo, Casey and the Tall Boys, and Two Guns.
"It was just like having all my friends over the past decade there," Kernkamp said.
Since his surprise win at the OC Music Awards, Kernkamp's star has continued to ascend. He said he is impressed with the Music for a Cure organization, and is eager to help them in their mission.
"They're good people, it's a good cause, and it's local," Kernkamp said. "Right now I'm a lowly Orange County artist, but ultimately I want to help out, too. It makes me feel really, really good — like I'm doing something more."
If You Go
Who: Billy Kernkamp, Barrett Johnson, Melanoid, Justin Grennan and the Project
What: Summer concert benefiting Music for a Cure
When: Doors open at 5 p.m.; show is from 6 to 10 p.m. Aug. 20
Where: South Coast Plaza Village, Sunflower Avenue and Bear Street, Costa Mesa
Cost: $5; 18 and older