Kelley Hunt is a rhythm and blues singer who has six critically-acclaimed CDs to her credit, including the recent award-winning The Beautiful Bones. Her previous CDs include Gravity Loves You, Mercy, New Shade of Blue, Kelley Hunt, and Inspiration. She regularly tours the U.S. and Canada with her band, performing at blues and jazz festivals, on television and radio shows, in movies, and at concerts in a variety of venues, including currently on the Blues Cruise. She has been featured many times on National Public Radio’s “Prairie Home Companion” as well as at the Austin City Limits Music Festival. She also regularly leads workshops on blues piano, songwriting, and singing, and she collaborates regularly with other writers and artists, including Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, with whom she offers Brave Voice writing and singing workshops and performances.. She also composes for film and various projects. The TLA Network is thrilled that Kelley will be teaching an online class, “Soulful Songwriting: How to Begin, Collaborate, and Finish Your Song” Feb. 14 – Mar. 13. Here is an interview excerpted from The Power of Words: A Transformative Language Arts Reader.
Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg: Have you always known that you needed to make music?
Kelley Hunt: I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know that. My first memories of myself as a child involved music, either hearing my mother or my father, or hearing music in the house when I was just a tiny little kid. I never questioned it and the people in my family never questioned it.
CMG: More than anyone I know, you play in many genres at once. What gives?
KH: I think a common thread runs through all of them that has to do with my development as a person. It also has to do with what I was exposed to as a child and what I chose to surround myself with that gave me comfort when I was growing up. So instead of trying to put some kind of censor on myself and think, I’ll just do this style or that, a few years ago, I made a conscious decision to not be conscious of the style and simply let happen what was going to happen, knowing it was going to be unique to me, and also fully understanding it would be incorporate a lot of things. And that’s when my music and creativity opened up, when I took the fences off from the different styles and quit separating them.
CMG: One of the styles that you do, gospel, speaks to a spiritual center and yet I hear that in so many of your songs. Is singing and writing songs part of your own spiritual practice?
Kelley with Mavis Staples
KH: Yes, I think it’s the major part. It’s also a reflection of things that fed me as a young child and as a young woman. My grandma sang gospel and spiritual music, my mother and father, and especially my mother sang in church so when I was very, very young, like two, I had a memory of watching my mother be the entire choir in the little church I was in. It wasn’t so much about saving souls but about the music she was doing, and the style was gospel. As a little kid, I thought that’s what you do, it’s the no bullshit approach, it’s celebratory because she absolutely exposed herself, tears coming down her face, smiling and very unguarded in her music. I found that endearing.
CMG: Who wouldn’t? Where else did you learn about music and community?
KH: I also saw my mother in different settings sing different styles of music, and I would observe the people that were observing her, and see how moved they were, and seeing what she put out that moved them somehow that wasn’t about the music but what she did. Even as a young child, I realized how moving that was for other people, like a direct line to somebody’s soul.
CMG: Kelley, you grew up in Emporia, Kansas which is what we might call a medium-sized town in a small town state.
KH: I think it was 18,000 people when I grew up there.
CMG: What was the role of music in both community and identity when you were growing up?
KH: Well, I’d say, interestingly enough, it had a very strong role in the school system that I was in. There was a lot of singing, dancing, music from other cultures that was brought in (like part of learning Spanish), but I had exceptional teachers in junior high and especially in high school in singing. I was bored a lot – there wasn’t a whole lot going on in my world or anyone else’s – so I tended to get involved in singing in school choir, church choir, rocket adult choir. And in my home, it was music all the time, mom singing, my parents’ friends coming over and playing music – they all played music. My older sister sang and wrote songs, my brother was singing in a choir in junior high, and there were records and radio always. I woke up in the morning and my mom would be downstairs with the radio going on, playing the hits of the day, and when I came home from school, she always had music playing in the house. It was something for me to do with my time, a way for me to be unique. In a lot of ways I didn’t fit in — I wasn’t the blue eyed, blond hair Kansas girl. But when, although I was really shy about it for a long time, the cat was out of the bag, and I played in a talent show with a guitar and singing, I realized I was only one doing this. Music allowed me to be myself.
CMG: It seems like music also allowed you to convey where you come from, such as in songs like “Rose’s,” which is about the corner grocery store in your town, and “Queen of the 88s,” famously about the woman who taught you to boogie-woogie. You’ve used your songwriting to keep some of that life going on.
KH: I hadn’t thought about that, but because it’s so meaningful to me and helped me make some choices in my life and helped form who I am. There’s something very dear and limiting about growing up in a small town. My choice was to leave that town, but I think I’ve written about the things that meant the most to me in one form or another.
CMG: I’ve also noticed that a lot of your songs celebrate the essence of being alive. What’s happening between you and the page and piano when you write?
KH: I lose my sense of time when I’m writing. I get very energized, I get really focused and excited, and three hours can go by and it feels like ten minutes. There are days when ten minutes go by and feels like three hours but more often than not, I’m very energized by it. Sometimes I have to work on songs a long time, and sometimes I finish them quickly, and sometimes I go back to them a year later. But when I really feel like a song in done, and I have some investment in that song, often I immediately take it to a performance setting just to see how it flies. When I take (a song) to an audience, I have a preliminary experience of taking it to a band and fleshing out arrangement, which can be real exciting or put a big damper on the song if it isn’t working. My intention is when I’m writing to write something well, and if not, let it go.
CMG: One thing that I find particularly unique about your process is that you write songs with so many people. You collaborate constantly. Why?
KH: I didn’t do that for most of my adult life. I only recently started co-writing in the last four years, three years. I used to be very adverse to it; in fact I turned down an incredible songwriter – I turned him down for seven years, the head of the gospel songwriting division at Universal. When I really took a hard look at why I was turning down these opportunities, I realized it was about fear, fear about being unequal, fear of sounding silly. I was just afraid. I wasn’t ready so it was good I didn’t do it until I was ready. I was scared to death and now when I do it (co-writing), I realize it’s not going to work with everybody, but I’m going to grow form the experience in one way or another.
CMG: One other thing I wanted to ask is how you sustain yourself when keeping yourself employed full-time as a performer, and keeping a whole band employed and being on the road so much under so much pressure with all those guys.
KH: That’s been a real process for me over the years, always surrounded by men in my work with occasional women writers or performers. I have to really work at it. I need time by myself to be quiet, I try to eat healthy food, I drink an ocean of water, and I do a lot of reading that is positive, uplifting, interesting. We call our tour bus the book mobile because I always show up with five to six books, books that inspire me, that feed my emotional/spiritual female self. I feel like I have to work keeping my attention and thought process in a healthy place. It’s easy to get discouraged when physically fatigued, easy to go to that bitter place of “why am I not wealthy and debt free when working as hard as many people?” It’s a conscious focus to take care of myself, also keep in touch with women friends and family…and find pockets of time alone.
CMG: It takes a lot of courage to do what you do, to live the dream without any holding back
KH: (laughter) Well, I think there’s some courage involved, there’s strong will involved, there’s some audacity involved, and there’s just some insanity involved. There’s a big price, or has been, almost as if I’m driven to it and have to do it. It’s a blessing and curse but more often it’s a blessing, it’s my choice, but then again, I can’t see doing anything else.
CMG: I’ve found your concerts to be deep exchanges, soul to soul. What’s happening for you when you perform that you can give so much, so vibrantly to the audience?
KH: I feel as though I’m in my element, it’s my joy, it’s what energizes me, and if I’m lucky – and although this doesn’t happen all the time – my day has been spent preparing for that burst of energy. I’ve been quiet, I’ve been restful in whatever ways I can on the road. Sometimes I’m out there when I’m sick, sometimes when I’ve just had an upsetting incident when I walking out, but generally what happens is that once I’ve began the process of playing and performing, it lifts me up. It has a lot to do with the audience. I feel very part of the audience – I don’t feel separate from them – and we’re all participating in this event. I just feel like I’m in my element. I know how to prepare, to be present and do that job. That’s what I’m here for.
CMG: If you were talking to yourself 20 years ago, what advice would you share?
KH: I’d say, listen to your intuition more. I’d say, don’t take yourself so seriously. Enjoy your gifts and spread them around.
CMG: And one more question – especially considering the very political songs you’ve been writing of late – what’s the role of music and social change for you?
KH: A lot has to do with personal growth. When you’re aware of what’s happening, and it becomes important to you, and you’re ready to say something about it in public, then it’s time to do that. Many times – in all of our history in music and politics – music has played an important role. When commentary needed to be had, it could be out in the song and out in the world, like in the work of Woody Guthrie. A lot of my songs tell a story, but it’s not necessarily a conscious decision to say, “here’s a political song,” yet because of something that’s been on my mind, it comes out in my work. It can take a bit of courage to do that out in the world – it won’t always be well-received. A good song doesn’t necessarily need to beat you over the head, but a good political song will last forever.