Houseplants and a new album, 'Gloria Avenue,' help Worn Flints singer Kenny Stiegele cope with the death of his sister

Worn Flints singer and guitarist Kenny Stiegele purchased his first houseplant six months after his sister died.

And then he purchased another one, and then a half-dozen more, and he kept going until eventually his apartment resembled a greenhouse.

“Tending my plants helped me get out of bed, which helped my depression,” said Stiegele, who counts his current number of houseplants around 45. “It’s crazy what these plants have done for me. I know it sounds bonkers, but I think it’s having something to care for, and having that life around me. I have these large spider plants, and I’ll trim the babies and water-propagate them, and then I give these little spiders as gifts. I gave my drummer one for his wedding, and family members get plants now for Christmas and things like that. It’s almost sharing life, in a way.”

A similarly open-hearted communion takes place on the Worn Flints’ new album, Gloria Avenue, much of which finds Stiegele confronting the loss of his sister, Valerie Piechuta, who died of cancer in January 2018. Songs are set in hospital waiting rooms and with Stiegele nervously pawing his phone at home, anticipating a call with the dreadful news. Other tracks detail the depressive haze that followed her passing, which Stiegele said consumed him for much of 2018, leaving him emotionally numb. “Shit’s hitting the fan around you and it’s like, ‘Why am I not feeling anything?’” he said.

Relief arrived in the form of houseplants and then, gradually, music. Early in the writing process, Stiegele envisioned a more-traditional Flints album, filled with lighter-waving, escapist jams, though both his mind and the music kept returning to his sister. He also couldn’t shake the sense that something deeper within him had shifted.

“I was a little bit weary of the Flints thing. … I was sick of singing and dancing, kicking shit over and just being rowdy,” said the frontman, who will join his bandmates for an album release show at Woodlands Tavern on Friday, March 1. “I even told the guys, like, ‘I don’t want this to be a rock record. It’s going to be a sad record. It’s going to be a tribute to my sister.’”

On the shattered, slow-burning “Morning Light,” darkness eclipses Stiegele after he receives a call that his sister’s health has cratered. Then on “Oh Brother,” the frontman transforms some of his sister’s final words to him into a divine plea, allowing his guitar to swoop in and pick up the thread once her words give out in the chorus.

“When you get to those last couple of weeks, they’re so fucked up on drugs because that’s the only way they can stand the pain,” Stiegele said. “So she was kind of gone, in a way, but these waves of her would come back, and ‘Oh Brother’ is what I heard when she would clench my hand, and I would know it was her for a little while.” 

The record’s familial bond is further deepened by a pair of emotionally resonant recorded messages. In the first, Piechuta breaks news that she’s pregnant, and that she would be forgoing further chemotherapy in order to have the baby. (Piechuta gave birth to a healthy baby girl before she died, and a photo of her two daughters graces the cover of Gloria Avenue.) In the second, a recorded conversation that falls near the end of “Morning Light,” Stiegele tearfully apologizes to his sister for not being more present in her life — an exchange that has taken the musician considerable time to even begin to come to terms with.

“In those years she was sick, in my head it was like, ‘She’s going to be fine.’ I didn’t think it was going to go that south, so I had this selfishness, and by the time I was readily available it was too fucking late, and she was bedridden, and it’s my biggest regret,” Stiegele said. “At the very end of the record, that conversation that me and my sister have, I tell her I’m sorry that I wasn’t there for her as much, and she says, ‘It’s OK. I’m just glad you’re here now.’ And in that little bit I felt forgiven for being so selfish, you know what I mean? And I told myself I would never be fucking unavailable for anything for my family ever again. Every fucking birthday party, every little thing, I don’t care what it is, I’m going to make it, because I felt so selfish that I wasn’t fucking there when I needed to be.

“I wasn’t there when she fucking passed and my whole family was, and I was playing a goddamn show at fucking Woodlands Tavern, and I found out in the back parking lot that she passed away, and it was like, ‘What the fuck am I doing, man?’ I’d gotten just so wrapped up in this shit because you just want it so fucking bad. You want to be successful so goddamn bad with this music because it’s all you know, and it’s all you’ve ever done. And it was hard, man, having this realization that this shit I do with music really is fucking nothing. I have a whole lifetime to do it. I’ll start 18 more bands before I fucking pass away. It’s my first fucking band. It doesn’t matter. Family is more important.”

In response, Stiegele has since reorganized his priorities and become more available to not only friends and family but to the world at-large (he said he’s now more apt to go out to club shows and support fellow musicians rather than simply focusing on his own career) — a newfound openness he intends to embrace on future Worn Flints albums.

“There’s going to be a little more emphasis on songs people can really connect to and get to know,” he said. “The landscape of the music that I want to make has now changed.”