Kellylee Evans is a singer/songwriter who is launching her first CD today, Fight or Flight?. Her music is called urban jazz and, although she was described as â€œSade meets Erykah Badu meets Norah Jones,â€ she reminds me more of a mix between Cassandra Wilson (for her interpretation of the music) and Tracy Chapman (for her intelligent, sensitive lyrics).
Kellylee writes all her songs, music and lyrics. Sheâ€™s had limited public exposure so far but she placed second (and won $10,000) at the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition in September 2004. The judges were Quincy Jones, Al Jarreau, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Kurt Elling, Flora Purim and Jimmy Scott.
You can buy Fight or Flight at amazon.com, or at CD Baby, where you can listen to extracts of all the songs on the CD. You can also visit her website. CD Baby also has commentary on Kellylee and the tracks on her CD. Here, in an interview with Kellylee, I’ve taken a more offbeat tangent and let her talk about her music.
Fight or Flight is your first CD. When did you decide you wanted to record, and how did it come about?
Well, I started writing my own music in 2002 after I had an allergic reaction to some medication and bought myself a trip to the hospital. The experience totally freaked me out and led to me finally focusing on my music career. One of my first songs, â€œI Donâ€™t Want You To Love Meâ€ is on the CD. For the most part, I had been a jazz singer of standards, but I felt like I needed a change. Being a singer who couldnâ€™t play, read or write music, I always felt like such an outsider in the jazz world. I didnâ€™t understand much of what was going on. I just enjoyed making sounds that made me happy and that made listeners happy. Still, that outsider feeling wasnâ€™t so good, so I began to feel alienated from jazz. There was also an issue of taste. I really like â€œpopâ€ music and I want to feel open to all kinds of sounds. I wasnâ€™t sure how that desire fit within the jazz world. Every magazine I read seemed so caught up in what was jazz and what wasnâ€™t. Then I became caught up in it too. I began to write my own music and I started to rebel so sharply against it being called jazz. Yet, everywhere I went, people that I played it for would say that it was jazz. To this day, I think of it as more â€œjazzyâ€ as opposed to jazz. I think of it as just plain music. When I write, I donâ€™t sit down and try to write a jazz song.
Anyway, you asked how the record came about. I decided in the fall of 2003 that I wanted to get the music recorded. I wanted to make this pop record, to make a clean break from my â€œjazzâ€ identity. I was so afraid that people who had heard me as a jazz singer of standards wouldnâ€™t be open to my own original tunes. But I didnâ€™t really have any connections in the pop musician world. I had met Lonnie Plaxico, a bass player who was Cassandra Wilsonâ€™s musical director for around 10 years, at a jam session at the Ottawa Jazz Festival. I gave him a call and sent my music down to him, just guitar and voice stuff that I did with my friend Drew Gonsalves â€”who is in a great dub calypso group called Kobotownâ€” and he agreed to put together a band for me and help me with my recording. I went down to New York in January 2004 and we rehearsed for 2 days and recorded for another 2. Once I got back home, I redid my vocals at AudioValley Recording Studio in Perth and finally had my CD. I also redid a couple more tunes in 2005 with another bassist/producer in New York named Carlos Henderson.
The very first time, on your way to the recording studio, what was going through your mind?
I was scared out of my mind. I had had vocal nodules in the year leading up to the recording and my voice wasnâ€™t very strong. I was so nervous about booking that studio time, and having a permanent record of my vocal decline, it isnâ€™t funny. But I was reading a lot of self-actualization books at the time and one of the constant themes was â€œleap before you are ready,â€ which seems counter-intuitive and crazy, but has really worked for me on more than one occasion. And it did on this occasion. My voice totally held up and I was ultimately happy that I had decided to take the chance and do the recording. Now, whenever I hesitate on leaping into the unknown, I think back on that time.
Whatâ€™s the difference, for you, between singing your songs on a gig and recording them?
It really depends on how you approach singing. On the bulk of this record, the songs were achieved with one or two takes and a couple edits here and there. So, it is truly like singing live in that you take what you get, to a certain extent. I mean, the nice thing about recording is, if something is really bothering me, I can always fix it.
But I find with singing live, you take the good and the bad and you live with it. Itâ€™s a very humbling experience. There is also so much more energy in singing live and seeing the people. The attention and positive response can really build you up and create a magical experience. But then, I say that and the energy can totally work against you. I just did a large, high profile gig where I sang two songs in front of really important industry folks and they just talked and talked and talked. Now that is very humbling. The folks in front were shushing them and trying to being very polite and proper, but even their embarrassment for me and in the people that were talking comes back to me as energy and affects my performance. My embarrassment goes back into the music and it turns into a very painful experience for all involved. You then decide on how you are going to respond to it. I try to be positive about it, but it still hurts. I kept thinking that it was my job to be so amazing and compelling that they couldnâ€™t help but listen. I guess I canâ€™t let it get me down. I wonâ€™t let it get me down!
Then, you have another amazing performance where youâ€™re singing and itâ€™s so quiet you can hear yourself breathing and we all take the opportunity to let the music wash over us. Thatâ€™s amazing. I live for those moments.
How about the musicians playing with you? How did you gather them around you?
Iâ€™ve been pretty lucky to work with some really amazing people over the past few years. Even in the beginning of my career, I was being taught how to get into the band experience by some of the best players in our city. The players on my CD are phenomenal as are the musicians who play with me live. I usually meet people when I go out to watch gigs. Iâ€™ll see a musician playing and make it a point of getting their contact info. Then, I can build the band. Sometimes, the musicians bring in people that they think would be great for our sound. That has worked the best so far.
Now that itâ€™s all done, how do you hear the musical textures on the new CD?
I think the CD has a really neat vibe to it. People have told me that the music is soothing yet energizing. I love that idea. Iâ€™ve tried to incorporate many different music influences in the sound, especially my Caribbean roots. Youâ€™ll hear this pulse through a lot of the music, even more when we are playing live, as I get the music even closer to how I originally envisioned it.
I understand you write both music and lyrics. What usually speaks to you first, words, or melody?
I find both come equally. Sometimes I will be inspired by a phrase or word. Sometimes, I will hear a melody and work from there. Sometimes, I noodle around on the piano trying out different chord progressions and see what melody would sound good on top of it. I love writing music. It feels great to be singing music that I wholeheartedly endorse. I feel like I have a voice. Not that I have ever had a problem expressing myself, but I think people look at me as some friendly, bubbly flake and then listen to my lyrics and see that my emotions do run the gamut of the human experience.
Whatâ€™s the difference, for you, between singing your own material and interpreting someone elseâ€™s?
There is this feeling of true authenticity of message. I love that. Itâ€™s like, you go to the card shop and you pick up card after card after card, trying to find the one that would best express your feelings to your loved one. The blank cards seem so daunting because you will have to come up with an acceptable gem on your own. Well, I feel like I am creating the content for those cards and it is a great feeling. People come up to me all the time and tell me how one song or the next really â€œspokeâ€ to them, expressed their feelings on a topic. That is an honour in my books.
What was the first song you sang on your first gig?
I really canâ€™t remember the name of the song, but I know that I was in kindergarten and I was singing a solo and it was a big deal for me. From that point on, I knew that I wanted to be a singer, along with a bunch of other aspirations, like being an OB/GYN and a lawyer and a dancer and an actress. So many dreams, so little time!
What’s the worst gig you’ve ever had?
That would have to be that one I was telling you about before where everyone talked. What made it so bad was the visibility of my embarrassment. We were on a very central big stage. Couldnâ€™t really hide in a corner and weâ€™ve played a couple of gigs before where people have talked. After the second or third song in when you realize that only a few die-hards are listening and for the rest you are just pleasant (you hope) background noise, the gig turns into a paid rehearsal and a chance to see which song will make people pay attention. You also start to focus on pleasing those few people that are actually listening too.
Iâ€™m happy to say that I havenâ€™t played that many gigs like that. Weâ€™ve been really, really lucky. Either that or we havenâ€™t played enough gigs!
Whatâ€™s the relationship between the mental knowledge you have of the tune youâ€™re singing, and your artistic expressions of it?
Well, once you know what the melody and lyrics are (much easier when you have written the tune) thatâ€™s when you just jump and start to try different things. Sometimes I find that I will get very used to singing a tune one certain way and then, one day, something will happen where I will take a step into a new, different direction and the whole song changes, often for the better. Sometimes, you just let those mistakes fade away into the ether.
Do you like to listen to lots of styles of music?
Many different styles and sometimes nothing at all. I find that it is much easier for me to create when I am in a vacuum. When I am not listening to new music constantly, I can better determine what I want my sound to be. When I am listening, Iâ€™ll just press scan on the radio or watch the different music channels on television or on the Galaxie radio network on television. Country, opera, classical, hip-hop, world.
How do you define what is good (as opposed to what you like) when you hear someone play or sing?
Hmmm, what is good for me is usually what I like. If I donâ€™t like it, it isnâ€™t good for me. Might be good for someone else, but I try my best to follow my own feelings on music.
What was the first jazz record that made you go “Wow!”?
I think it was listening to Ella Fitzgerald sing â€œMr. Paganini.â€
Whatâ€™s next for you?
Well, with the release of the CD, I will finally be able to get the music out to as many people as possible. Many performance opportunities are coming up and I love getting out there. You really canâ€™t tell what kind of experience you will have; itâ€™s a spin of the roulette wheel every time. Will you mess up and be upset? Mess up and be okay about it? Have an amazing performance, but still be down on yourself about some little thing. Have an amazing performance and acknowledge it, accept it and praise it. Will you be well received or ignored? You just never know, but the risk is still worth it for me. I love singing.