Caro Kelley is one of these rare gems with a set of profound musical skills that are second to none! The singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist from Dayton/Ohio now resides in Munich/Germany and has just released her debut EP „Another Thing Dear“. The EP is a collection of songs ranging from Folk and Americana to Rock and Jazzy Pop, featuring her iconic piano and banjo sounds. But what strikes us the most is Caroline´s beautiful soothing vocals that sound like a mix of Lady Gaga and Adele with some soulful Etta James twists mingling in.
We talked to Caro Kelley about her musical upbringing, her job as an artist and vocal coach and the inspirations behind her songs.
Caro, congrats on your beautiful EP „Another Thing Dear“. Tell us a bit about the 5 songs that you wrote for this debut release. What inspired you and what are you most proud of?
Thank you, I am incredibly proud of it! I think the five songs show a progression in musical styles that really reflects me as an artist. I love folk and acoustic music, I love jazzy, close-knit, almost naked vocal harmonies, and I love indie rock and girl pop. So I tried to make the EP a progression through those genres in a way that manages to still hold together as one coherent piece. I tried to write songs with lyrics that grapple with self-identity and longing whilst also being reasonably optimistic and upbeat. My favorite of the bunch is “Honey, I,” which to me is a song about bad influences and vices, and how we cling to them as if they were a lover. I love the way the song builds and how vulnerable I feel singing it. As to what I am most proud of, “I Know a Bird” has some pretty great vocals and I love how it turned out.
„I Know a Bird“ was also your first single off the EP. It shines with multiple layered harmonies that you all sang yourself. What brought up the cool arrangement ideas and how hard was it to sing the many variations in the studio?
I wrote the song in 2012 or 2013 on the ukulele by piecing together a few poems I had written in my college creative writing courses. I recorded it briefly on my phone a few years ago so I wouldn’t forget it, but then I pretty much put it in a drawer and left it there. When I was writing the EP last fall I decided I wanted one song to focus on my vocals a little more, and I had been really inspired by Fiona Apple’s 2020 album “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” where she uses really fantastic choir arrangements to create a huge vocal sound. I popped out “I Know A Bird” because it was already written and had a simple melody, and so I sat down in front of a computer, played a relatively uncomplicated bass line, and simply sang over it.
Once in the studio, I got the melody nice and solid and then I just one by one added a line below and two above, matching all of the rhythms I had already done. Once all the lines were recorded, I sang some solo lines over the end, improvising 2 or 3 different ideas, and then we stuck them all together! I consider myself to be a harmony nut – I sang in and arranged music for a cappella groups for a few years and enjoy singing harmonies almost more than the melody, so I’m quick. In all, it was the fastest song to record, taking about an hour.
I do have to say, what I love even more about “I Know A Bird” is the amazing bass playing from Mark Keane. I just gave him the chords and the basic bass line and told him to do whatever he wanted. As the song progresses, the bass playing opens up more and more, just as the vocals do. It is such impressive playing.
Wow, I can tell you put a lot of dedication into all those building blocks and that clearly paid off. The song is an outstanding piece on the EP! You are a musician to the bones – a trained piano player with a background in classical and jazz piano as well as an unbelievable vocalist who growing up sang in choirs as well. Additionally, you are a self-taught banjo player. What is your favorite instrument to play (and why) and which one came easiest to you?
The piano will always be my primary instrument and my favorite to play, because it is nearly as natural as breathing by this point. I started in Kindergarten and don’t remember a time when I couldn’t play, so I would be tempted to say that it came easy to me. That isn’t true though, it of course took many years for me to get to a level where I could play whatever I wanted. So although I love it and consider myself a pianist through and through, I would confidently say that singing came the most easily to me. I sang in choirs all my life so I did have some background in proper vocal technique, but I didn’t sing on my own until I was probably 15 or 16 and I have always joked that after all that time practicing piano, it was actually singing that turned out to be where I had some natural talent.
As for the banjo, one of my dearest college friends was a fabulous banjo player and I just became a bit smitten with the instrument. I picked it up out of boredom two years ago and have really enjoyed teaching myself to play! It is way more difficult than I would have expected, especially because I have no background in guitar, but I love the sound. So currently, with all the practice time I am getting in due to Covid, banjo has been my quarantine instrument of choice!
That´s very impressive! Your EP was recorded at Munich Sessions Studio and produced by Patrick Thompson (aka P.R. Thompson), who also played guitars on the songs. Due to the COVID situation some of the instruments had to be recorded from remote places. Did you embrace these new conditions from the start or did you struggle with the situation? What advantages and disadvantages do you think the pandemic will have on the way we produce and consume music in the future?
I actually only decide to pursue recording my own music because of the pandemic, so I never even considered recording without all the restrictions being in place. I am always so busy with all my different musical projects that I had never had my own music on the radar. Despite the hit on my income and my ability to play live music, I had a lot more free time than usual this year and I decided it might be nice to emerge from the pandemic with music under my belt and something I could point to as an achievement as opposed to just feeling like I missed out on a year of my musical life. And yeah, despite the restrictions, we made it work! I do have to say, I am incredibly lucky to have some amazing musician friends who are so talented at what they do that they did not need lots of direction or meetings. I mentioned Mark already, and as you said, Patrick was there to play guitar for me and do all of the heavy lifting from the recording side. My drummer Joel Moser recorded the drums in Australia with engineering help from his brother Kurt, and they sound incredible!
The Covid pandemic has been really difficult for musicians and artists especially, but I think people will always be thirsty for art and for music and these days it really shows. If anything, I think people have been even more supportive and very receptive to hearing new music because they need something to brighten up the unfortunately rather dim world. Don’t get me wrong, I’m dying for some live gigs, but I hope that this really intimate relationship between artists, art, and their audience stay around. I think it’s refreshing.
Aside from being a solo artist, you also form part of two local bands (Malon Way and Peter and the Lost Boys) as well as being associated with various other musical projects. How does releasing your solo music differ from the band projects?
I absolutely adore playing with other musicians. I like bouncing off of them, I like the skill needed to make changes on the fly, I like feeling the buzz of live performing with other people, I like feeling like you’re “in the band.” So I miss it a lot! I miss my band mates and I really cannot wait to get back on stage with them! Again, I really feel like Covid forced me into trying my hand as a solo musician. What has been exciting is making my own decisions about what musical things I like the sound of. I can have the final say and sort of be like a film director, deciding what goes where and how it should sound. It’s a little scary when you have to make all the decisions, but I am learning to trust my gut. People have been pestering me for years to put out solo music, and I am glad I have had the chance to do it! It feels so much more personal. What will be really interesting is finding out how to navigate performing them when the time comes.
Let´s talk songwriting a bit, shall we? When writing songs, how do you usually go about it? Do you write on the piano mostly? We´d love for you to fill us in on your approach.
I do not usually write on the piano, because I think my extensive music theory knowledge gets in the way. Most (and of course I do not mean all) good songs do not have a million complicated chords, and at the piano I sometimes get over-excited. So I usually write on the banjo or ukulele. It is so much easier to get myself more oriented around a more sensible chord structure that way. If I feel inspired, I will then take the song to the piano to flesh out where I want something a bit more exciting. I just find that it works better for me that way. I also keep loads of notes in my phone of lyric ideas, pieces of songs. I keep them all on one page, so that I can move them around and combine them in different ways.
That´s interesting and sort of relatable. I guess sometimes in art you have to stray away from the oh so well-known realms and go to places that have more room for you to explore. And like you said, not overdoing things in the beginning and keeping things simple is often key. When you feel stuck in the creative process, what do you do to unblock?
I tend to take stock of what I have already done, get it written down, quickly record bits and bobs on my phone, and then I go do something else that gets my musical juices flowing. I listen to songs I would like to emulate; I just go practice that piano lick I have been wanting to try, I work on an old bluegrass song on the banjo. I try not to think about it too much. If I can improve in other ways, it could be that something I learn gives me inspiration down the line.
I love that! Trust the process, right? I think it takes courage to step away from the creative process and come back later. Sometimes we´re so consumed by it, that we lose ourselves in it, wanting too much too soon. Taking time to evolve as an artist during the writing process is something no one ever mentioned on the blog before and I love that you did! It´s an eyeopener! Thanks for sharing! I´m curious, Caroline, which artists inspire you or have inspired you growing up and why?
I was a bit of a weird kid musically. I played classical piano, loved Jim Croce and The Goo Goo Dolls, and then drove around in my car listening to jazz. So I really have such a wide taste in music. I love classic rock, I love folk music, I love Chopin, I love Dave Brubeck. And I think that makes my life now as a professional musician really fun, because I can function well in a lot of different musical spaces.
Variety is probably a blessing! At the end of the day it´s all music! Who are some vocalists you look up to?
I am a massive fan of Adele, especially her first album which has some incredible jazzy vocals. I basically learned to sing by imitating Adele, Amy Winehouse, Norah Jones, and Billie Holiday while driving around in my car as a teenager. Norah Jones’s album “Come Away With Me” was the first CD I ever bought myself. I love the way these women can make jazz seem so accessible to pop music. Recently I have been getting into Lianne La Havas and Rachel Price from the band Lake Street Dive. They have huge voices and an amazing sense of rhythm!
You are a vocal coach and piano teacher yourself. What is one general rule of thumb everyone should know when wanting to learn a new skill in music?
Everything takes practice. Slow, methodical, intentional practice. You won’t become good overnight, as I have learned while teaching myself the banjo! People often seem to think it is magic, and will ask me “how long until I can play this particular piece?” The answer always depends on how much time you are willing to devote to listening, learning and practicing. This includes singing! So many people mistakenly believe that singing is some sort of “gift.” Of course, everyone comes at it from a different level of talent and experience, but singing well takes just as much practice and discipline as any other instrument. The only difference is that your instrument is inside your body and therefore different than everyone else’s. That being said, I really do believe that anyone can do it if they work hard. There are so many niches, so many different styles, so many different ways to get to enjoy making music.
That sounds so encouraging! Due to COVID, you also offer vocal lessons on zoom. So that means you can take on international students. When booking a lesson with you, is there a special skill level people should bring or do you teach any levels from total beginners to professionals?
I do offer vocal lessons on zoom! It’s a bit of a weird experience, because I cannot play piano accompaniment like I usually do due to the serious lag. That means it’s all a cappella, but as always, we make it work! I teach all levels, though I prefer to steer away from anyone hoping to learn a classical vocal style. While I always base my lessons in a classical technique as it is essential to becoming the best singer you can be, classical voice really isn’t my expertise and there are much better teachers out there for that! Other than that, all I ask of students is to know what their goals are for themselves. I really enjoy helping people build confidence and learn how to discern what kind of singer they want to be. It’s great fun.
What is one thing you still want to learn yourself?
I’m always looking to improve my piano playing! I grew up playing classical piano, so I am a great sight-reader, but I am always trying to improve my improvisation, especially since jazz is my favorite piano to play. I am currently working on learning some funk riffs, because that is another thing I have never officially learned, just dabbled in over the years. There is absolutely always room for growth!
I’d like to learn to play the accordion and the harmonica. I have both at home and they are keyboard and chord based so it should be easy enough, but they are so loud! I need a sort of underground bunker so that my neighbors don’t kill me. One day I will get to it.
Haha! Yeah, tolerant neighbors are essential for musicians living in the city 😉 With regard to 2021…what are your next plans with your EP and further music?
The plan for my EP was always to record all five songs again as acoustic piano versions. I really hope we can still follow through on that, as I wrote the songs with minimal piano with those recordings in mind! We are working on getting a setup with a grand piano for recording. If we can get it to work out, you can expect a print version of the EP with an acoustic B-side! I might not even release them on Spotify, so it could be an exciting little bonus for anyone who buys the print version.
Other than that, I would really love to release a cover as my next single, and then there is another EP or even album in the works! I have 3 songs written already, so I guess you could say I officially have the bug. I enjoyed the process so much that I cannot wait to do it again. In fact, I have another studio session this week, so I promise more music is on the way!
Thank you so much Caroline for this great chat and best of success to you!
Cover Image credit: Alex Keogh for Munich Sessions
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