Kelley McRae is a singer/songwriter who draws heavily from the same school of sound as Regina Spektor. She is from Mississippi and technically calls Brooklyn home these days although you’re more likely to find her on the road in her VW van touring from town-to-town in support of her musical exploits – specifically her most recent album Highrises In Brooklyn. The album was more or less self-released and you grab it in exchange for an email address from her website. Her music sets the scene perfectly for any New York coffee shop or for a fireplace in your living room with a few friends – which is perfect because she is playing a very special house show this Friday night in DC. If you’d like more information on the show please drop us a line allthingsgoblog[at]gmail.com. We recently caught up with Kelley to discuss influences, contemporaries and backyard chickens.
I hear an eclectic array of genres in your music. Everything from soul to folk to country. Who are some of your biggest influences and how do they come to light in your music?
Growing up, we listened to a lot of Aretha Franklin and Bill Withers on car trips and my brother’s later introduced me to Otis Redding and Sam Cooke. So that’s where a song like ‘More of Nothin’ comes from. In high school I fell in love with Lucinda Williams, Patty Griffin, Gillian Welch, Uncle Tupelo, and Richard Buckner. They all have a sort of folk/country thing going on that felt so much like home to me. I’m a huge believer that the music that you listen to really does directly impact what you write. I think all the different songs and genres on Highrises In Brooklyn is me trying to figure out who I am as a songwriter and pulling from all the music I love and that is a part of me.
Interview continued after the jump.
What influence has growing up in Mississippi had on your music?
Mississippi was a really beautiful place to grow up. I have two brothers and we pretty much lived on our bikes when we were kids – riding around meeting up with friends in the neighborhood or in the woods behind our house by this big lake. It was a really small town and we could just kinda run wild, which was awesome. We set up neighborhood boxing tournaments, wrote and performed plays in the basement, and made forts in the woods. I think that may be a rare kind of childhood these days. All that freedom. It still impacts the way I think and play and have adventures. And I grew up in the church – so I was hearing all those 3 part harmonies in those old hymns – and hearing the gospel music of friend’s churches when I was lucky. So there was all this rich southern music and food around and I think that just kinda sticks with you. It works its way into the songs I write now – both musically and lyrically.
What influence does now living in the seemingly polar opposite world of Brooklyn have on your music?
It had a huge influence on my album Highrises In Brooklyn. I was going through a pretty terrible break up around the time I wrote the songs on that album, so I was pretty raw to all the hard edges and the grit of a place like Brooklyn. The things I was seeing and hearing – the roar of the BQE, which was right outside my window, all the corner bars and the old warehouses and new condo buildings going up – All that imagery really found it’s way into the songs. I didn’t set out to write an album about Brooklyn, it just kind of happened that way.
What was the recording process like behind your album Highrises In Brooklyn?
The recording process was a blast. It all really started when I was on a plane back from a tour in Ireland and they had Josh Ritter’s album, ‘The Animal Years’ on the in flight radio. I was blown away by the album and loved how it was produced, so I sent the producer, Brian Deck, some demos and what was basically a fan letter asking him if he’d please produce my next album. I was pumped when he said yes. I went to Chicago for a month to work with him at Engine Studios and it was a really wonderful time. Brian’s incredibly gifted and great to work with and I was like a kid in a candy store for a month.
Who are some of your contemporaries (singer/songwriters) that we may not know, but should definitely be familiar with?
Mary Gauthier (one of my songwriting heroes), Jenna Nicholls, Brendan O’Shea, Michael Brunnock, Ed Romanoff, Sarah Gregory (of Sarah and the Stanleys)
Seems like you’re doing most of this by yourself and/or going the independent label route – is there going to be a point (or has there been) when you want(ed) to go the major label route?
That was definitely a goal early on. But at this point, I’m much more interested in doing whatever it takes to sing night after night. There was a kind of paradigm shift that happened for me when I stopped waiting for the label or the manager. I could all of the sudden see how I could do the whole thing myself (and with the help of a lot of friends and fans!). That was the light bulb moment that led to what I’m calling ‘The Great VW Camper Van Tour of 2011.’ My husband/guitarist and I sold everything, left the apartment, we bought a VW Camper van and we’re touring America. Playing music and traveling is how I want to spend my life, so I finally got that if I can make that happen on my own, why wouldn’t I?
This Friday night you’re playing a house show, hosted by a friend/fan. Does that happen often?
I’m hoping to play about 150 shows this year, and I’m betting 75% of those shows will be house shows. In January, I collaborated with NoiseTrade, which is set up to let folks download your album for free (for however long you want – I did two weeks) if they give you their email address and zip code. Over 5,000 people downloaded my album, which is amazing! Of those folks, I got over 100 house show requests. Those shows will be the heart of this tour/adventure.
Do you prefer the intimate house shows to proper venues?
I think it totally depends. I have played some awesome shows in venues, but there is something really amazing about the intimacy of playing in someone’s living room. It’s almost like this lost way of hearing music that I think is making a serious comeback. People used to sit around on a Saturday night playing and singing and telling stories all the time! I love that so much. And I love meeting all these people in these towns all over America. I had one couple from Detroit offer to cook me breakfast with the eggs from their backyard chickens. That, to me, is just a great story waiting to happen.