Kelley McRae’s Turntable

August 3rd, 2011 in Featured by 1 Comment

We were first introduced to the soulful sounds of Kelley McRae while in Durham, North Carolina as she played at the Pinhook with Humble Tripe and Justin Robinson and the Mary Annettes. Kelley and her husband Matt left their home in Brooklyn and are continuing to travel around the United States in their VW van playing at venues and in people’s homes. We’ve been keeping in touch and now that Kelley and Matt will be coming to the Bay Area, California the last week of September through the first week of October 2011, we’ve asked her a few questions about her Great VW Camper Van Tour of 2011, 10 girls on her turntable, and some insights into stories from the road and her own life for The Hidden World of Girls Series. (Left: Kelley and Matt performing at the Pinhook in March 2011)

What started your interest in music and in songwriting?
There are a lot of small moments that I remember from growing up that I think fostered my love of music and had a huge hand in the kind of songwriter I would become.  I have a distinct memory of the first time I heard the song ‘Summertime.’  I was five years old, it was programmed into a small electronic piano we had, and I remember having a feeling like I had discovered something magical. I also loved the three part harmonies I heard in the old Southern hymns at my grandparent’s Baptist church in Vicksburg, MS. And on car trips my dad had this Don Williams tape we would listen to all the time.  There I was, probably 8 years old, and I would sit in the middle seat of the car between my two brothers just singing my heart out with Don about ‘The Only Game in Town.’  So music was always around growing up, and I always loved to sing, but had never considered songwriting until I took a guitar class my junior year of college.  I was studying acting, so I took this class for fun, but as soon as I learned three chords all I wanted to do was write songs.  I always compare it to falling in love.

So we hear you’re coming to the West Coast at the end of the summer! What dates will you arrive and where are you headed afterwards?
We arrive on the West Coast the last weekend of August and will be making our way down the coast, from Vancouver to San Diego (and many stops in between!), through September and October.  I’m currently booking venues and house shows and things are starting to take shape!  You can see all our show dates here:  www.kelleymcrae.com/shows and you can request a house show by emailing me at kelley[@]kelleymcrae.com.

You grew up in Mississippi, transitioned to Brooklyn, and now you’ve been hitting the road in a VW. What inspired your house tour around the United States?
Last July, my husband Matt (who happens to be an incredible guitarist) and I went up to the Catskill Mountains to escape the heat of our unair-conditioned little apartment in Brooklyn, but also to do some thinking.  I had been in New York City for 7 really wonderful years – I met and was mentored by some incredible musicians, signed with a small label and recorded two albums, and toured the eastern half of the US and in Ireland, England, Germany and Sweden.  But more than any of these things, as is true for a lot of artists, my time in New York City was spent trying to pay the rent.  I spent as much time as I could playing music, but 40 hours a week were spent at day jobs, and I was really exhausted.   Matt and I were talking about all of this on our trip to the Catskills and we found this unbelievably gorgeous valley where we were hanging out talking and playing our guitars.  It was there in this little valley that I first had the initial idea for the tour.  I said something to Matt, basically to the effect of ‘What if we quit our jobs, lived in a van and just toured the country playing music?’  Matt was game, and so the idea built over the next few months until it became a reality: ‘The Great VW Camper Van Tour.’  We sold everything, left our apartment and have been living in our VW Camper Van for 5 months now.  We’ve played 75 shows and driven 17,000 miles and we’re still going!  It has been amazing.

Could you describe to us how house shows normally work?
House shows really are the heart of this tour. We will probably end up doing around 150 shows this year, and 100 of those shows will be in the living rooms, backyards, front porches, back porches, decks, carports and sun rooms of people all over the US.  And because this is a new thing for most people, we try to make it an awesome experience and we like to keep it really simple.  The host of the show invites around 20 – 30 friends over for a night of music.  You don’t need a sound system and you don’t have to deal with money, we simply put out a $10 suggested donation bucket out with our CD’s and Tshirts. We usually do one longer set or two short ones.  It’s a really relaxed, intimate environment and perfect for the kind of music we play.  I love house shows because you really get to know people, you never know what you’re walking into and they have the potential to be magical!

How many people travel with you on the VW tour?
Just me and Matt!

What are three aspects you enjoy most while traveling on your VW tour?
1.  The thrill of living out my dream of playing music full time.  I’m probably working harder than I ever have in my life, but I feel really free.  2.  Getting to travel and see this friggin’ gorgeous country!  3.  Meeting so many extraordinary people and hearing their stories.  I have been blown away by the kindness and generosity we have consistently encountered on the road.

What are some difficulties as well (if any)?
Well, we spend a lot of nights sleeping in Walmart parking lots.  Which is about as glamorous as it sounds.  It’s hard to not have your own bathroom, shower, etc.  It’s hard not to have your own space in general.  But, it makes it possible, and so it’s totally worth that sacrifice.

Throughout The Hidden World of Girls Radio and Multimedia Series, we’ve been learning about the sometimes untold stories of women from around the world. Are there some stories that you’ve encountered while on the road through the people you’ve met?
I’m hesitant to give you all the details, because it’s not my story to tell, but the host of our show in Minneapolis was an American Indian and the story he told us of his grandmother’s life took my breath away.  When I told him that this story was remarkable, he said that, sadly, there were so many stories just like it in the American Indian community.  I think that the stories of these women – women who were taken from their families at a young age, women who were married off to white men twice their age and I’m sure many, many other things that we now consider shocking – need to be told.

Do any personal stories come to mind that you’d like to share of being a girl and growing up, stories of coming of age, crossing the line, or changing the tide?
I have a song from my first album called ‘What Ya Get Is What Ya See.’  It’s a song about being 14 years old in Starkville, MS and feeling like my worth was totally wrapped up in what I looked like: “I’m not pretty like the girls on TV / My face won’t open any doors for me /  So I’ve stopped dreaming ‘bout my destiny / Cause what ya get is what ya see.”  As a girl growing up in in the deep South, and then as an actress in college, I believed that the prettier and skinnier I was, the more worth I had.  It took me a really, really long time to get beyond that 14 year old perspective.  It was actually songwriting and a 70 year old sailor in Baltimore that first started changing the tide.

I moved to Baltimore the year after I graduated college and ended up getting my first gig at the Barista Café, a little coffee shop on the harbor, every Thursday night.  I eventually gained a small following, a rag-tag group of down to earth, lovely and bizarre people.  The coffee shop was right next to a dock where a lot of people lived on their boats.  One of those people was a wild looking sailor with a long white beard and long white hair named Richard. Richard had a foul mouth, a wicked sense of humor and a soft spot for people he considered to be ‘real people.’ He came to my first show at the café and never missed one for the next year.  He painted a backdrop and set up lights for me at the shows, he pushed me to go further with my songs and singing, he got all glassy eyed at the right moments of sad songs and he eventually set up a weekly recording session for me in Pennsylvania.

As I played these first shows to Richard and my rag-tag group of friends, I began to feel truly comfortable in my own skin for the first time.  Part of it was that as a songwriter, I found that the more I was truly myself, both in my songs and on stage, the more people responded.  I didn’t have to be a skinnier, prettier version of me – I could just be me.  I can’t tell you how good that felt.  It was an immense relief.  It was under the loving and nurturing eye of Richard and this group of Baltimore friends that I began to believe that I was beautiful, because they believed I was beautiful.  It is one of the most profound gifts I’ve ever been given.

Girls On Kelley’s Turntable

Patty Griffin – ‘Long Ride Home’
Patty has a way of capturing loneliness and regret that is stunningly beautiful.  She will break your heart every freakin’ time.
Lucinda Williams – ‘Car Wheels on a Gravel Road’
This is the title track of one of my favorite albums of all time.  I love the Southern imagery in this song, especially having grown up in Mississippi.
Aretha Franklin - ‘The House That Jack Built’
I am a huge Aretha fan and this song has been stuck in my head for weeks.  Her voice and energy are ridiculous.
Gillian Welch - ‘Orphan Girl’
This is a song that people will be singing 100 years from now.
Jenna Nicholls – ‘Holy Moses’
I heard Jenna perform in NYC and nearly fell out of my chair.  She is a truly incredible songwriter and has one of those effortlessly cool, powerful, feminine, unique voices.e.
Kasey Chambers – ‘Barricades and Brick Walls’
Kasey has an incredible story and is the real deal.  She writes some serious old school ass-kicking country songs..
Nina Simone – Her cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’
A haunting cover of an amazing song.

Mary Gauthier - ‘Mercy Now’
Mary is one of those songwriters that everyone who really cares about music should know.  Bob Dylan is a fan if you need a second opinion!  I got to know her at a songwriting workshop in Costa Rica where she totally kicked my ass in the best possible way.  I’m a better songwriter because of her.
Laura Marling - ‘Rambling Man’
This song totally stopped me in my tracks.  It has a fierceness that you don’t hear enough in female songwriting and it is totally inspiring to me. And the video is perfect.
Susan Enan – ‘Bring On the Wonder’
I was a huge fan of Susan before we became neighbors and good friends in Brooklyn.  This song was featured on the show ‘Bones’ and gave her some much deserved love and attention from around the world.

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