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City Hopping to Fuel Career Momentum
Brendan Kelly is young – so what? Get over it. The Massachusetts native has recorded more soulful music than peers twice his age, and he’s done it with the maturity of a seasoned pro – primarily because he’s already become one. Taking his career from Boston to Austin to Nashville has given the artist a unique perspective on America’s varied music scenes, and has afforded him the opportunity to record his music in a number of different settings and configurations. We recently caught up with Kelley in Boston to discuss the benefits of moving his career to new cities, home recording and his favorite guitars.
Can you tell us a little about your musical history?
I started playing guitar around the age of 12 or 13, but I’ve been singing my whole life. My mom was always singing in the car, and I’d be in the backseat singing, too. And she thought that maybe there was something there. The first person to introduce me to the guitar and the piano was my aunt, though. Nobody else in my family is really musical.
I moved down to Austin to record with two producers who were originally from Boston, who put together a little demo for me in my junior year. By senior year they were in Austin, and asked me to come down to work on some songs and to see where it might go, and that was the origin of Music From The Motion Picture. And from there, I kind of took [what] I learned, sat on it for a while after that first record and put some things together…
Now, you’re from the Boston area, moved to Austin and settled in Nashville for some recordings, as well. Can you explain the differences you’ve seen in the various music cities that you’ve spent time in?
Austin is known as the live music capital of the United States, and Nashville is filled more with songwriters, and country is just huge down there. If you’re in the underground or in a genre that’s not country, there’s plenty of good things for you, as well. In Austin, though, I felt there was more of a listener crowd – a lot of people who may or may not be into music, who still go out to experience music and see what’s going on.
Nashville was more filled with songwriter nights, where you’re in a crowded room with a bunch of other talented people showing off your latest songs, hoping to get noticed. You look to the left, and it’s the guy who wrote some big country song for Keith Urban or something. It’s very competitive down there.
Where have you settled down now?
I’m back in Boston now, back in my home studio that I’ve been working out of. I’m collecting my thoughts, playing some shows and doing more writing.
Do you plan on staying in Boston?
I don’t know. As a musician, you can’t really tell where you’re gonna be all the time. I came back from Nashville in March of last year, and have been touring with my band ever since. You know, things are starting to take hold so I want to keep the interest going and move forward as things come [along].
You mentioned you had built a home studio; did you record your latest, Quicksand, there?
No, actually both records were recorded elsewhere, but some of the demo tracks were recorded here.
The home studio is more for songwriting and demo-type things, where I can just pick up instruments and jump around. We can totally track here, too, but I like to go out of my element sometimes. I like to collaborate with different people who bring something out of an artist that maybe you couldn’t find yourself.
Could you take us through the recording process for the new record? Did you take the helm in the studio or work more collaboratively with a producer to find your vision?
I do like to collaborate in the studio. Quicksand was produced by myself and my producers, Drew Ramsey and Shannon Sanders, and we all kind of fed of each other as a team. Drew is a killer guitar player and singer, and Shannon is a killer singer, songwriter and piano player. As the artist, I guess I do kind of take hold of the leader position, since it is my name on the record. But I learned so much from them that I can apply to other things, as well. I mean, I’m only 21, so I always have a lot to learn.
For someone so young to put out a record that soulful and mature, do you find your age is ever an issue when it comes to being taken seriously or making headway in your career?
Honestly, I feel like my age is starting to matter less and less; age in general is starting to matter less. With YouTube and everything, anyone can call themselves an artist, which is good and bad. Whether it be a 15-year-old kid or an 80-year-old person. The age thing is just blown out of proportions these days. You can get your music out to so many different people, that I feel like [my] age didn’t really hold me back from anything.
It’s more of a stepping stone, really, because it forces me to always be doing something. But sometimes it’s good to step back and say, ‘Hey, I’m still a kid. There’s so much else to be learned.’
When life comes at you, that’s what you write about.
Do the people who surround you influence your songwriting process, or is that more of a solitary process?
It really depends on the song. Quicksand was all collaboratively written. With Music From The Motion Picture, I had between 10-20 ideas almost solidified and the producers took it from where I left off. With the second record, the idea was to do it together as a trio. Drew did a lot of tracks, Shannon did all the keyboard work – organs, pianos – so it was really just us sitting in Nashville, maybe at a BBQ spot writing a song for two hours.
You’re also a skilled guitarist. During our photo shoot with you, we got some shots with a particularly beat up Fender. Is there a history behind that instrument?
I kind of did my own little relic thing [laughs]. When I was a kid I literally lit it on fire. I saw Jimi Hendrix light up his Strat so I thought I’d set the thing on fire and see what happens. So all the finish came off and there are still big black spots from the fire. Gives it character, I guess [laughs].
Have you done any other mods to it other than the fire damage?
No, it’s just an American 60th Anniversary Stat in sunburst; I only changed the pickguard because I liked the red better. I kept the pickups it came with; they’re beautiful and I fell in love with them. They’re the VSN pickups they put in the American Stats; I love them because they have a little boost button, too, in the volume knob.
Those pickups in particular, for clean sounds, are tough to beat. I’ve also seen you with what looks like an Ernie Ball guitar, or at least something with a 4+2 headstock…
You got it; it’s an Ernie Ball Silhouette series with the 4+2 headstock. I actually acquired it through a sponsorship. I was working with a manager a long time ago. There were plusses and minuses to being so young working with a manger like that. But one of the plusses was he worked to get me an Ernie Ball sponsorship. They asked me what I wanted in a guitar, and they sent me this. It’s all gold and it plays incredible. It’s my go-to guitar; I love playing it. The neck just feels like butter.
What about amps and effects?
I use a ’74 MXR Distortion pedal, which gives me my overdrive. And I run through Fender Blues Deville re-issue, a 4×10; I’ve been playing through this amp for a long time. I like everything about it, and I’ve created my own tone with it. I’m kind of a creature of habit, so I’d like to get something new, but this is the only amp I’ve ever used.
As an independent artist, what have been some of the toughest challenges you’ve faced so far, and where do you see your career headed in the next few years?
I feel like working with a big-time manager out in L.A. – that whole thing – there were good things and bad things about it…
Let’s start there. What were some of the good things?
The good things are definitely getting on bigger bills. He also had the ties to get us the sponsorship, like I talked about. But for the minuses, as a smaller artist you can get put on the backburner a lot, especially if they have bigger clients. It’s really kind of grueling on your soul when they don’t call you back, when you want to do bigger shows and things like that. From that point on…
I wanted to run my own little business here and so far it’s worked out way better than going with a big-time manager. It’s really DIY, and I want to keep it that way. You can focus your direction and not have to listen when someone says, ‘You have to be more like this, or more like that.’ I just really wanted to be more like me.
So as an independent artist, I’m not saying nothing good can come from a big label [or manager]. But nowadays you can do a lot of the things they did on your own. The minute you get someone in there telling you who to be, you lose your soul…
photos by Dan Watkins
at The Foundation Room (House of Blues)
15 Landsdowne St.
7 PM Doors
Tickets available at House of Blues website and on Ticketmaster
Free Quicksand CD and t-shirt with every ticket