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Kelly Paige is a boot-stomping, twang-romping singer with more than a hint of soul. But that’s just the start of it.
The Nashville-turned-big-city-starlet has a way of making hurt sound like powerful redemption. Through pop-glazed hooks and rollicking verses, Paige pries open the darkest regions of experience yet manages to do so with a wink in her eye. She’s tough and honest, but never at the expense of a good steel string groove.
BTRtoday talks with Paige about her creative process and unique upbringing.
BTRtoday (BTR): You were born to immigrants from Zimbabwe who separated when you were only six years old, and you’ve spent much of your early years traveling across the country. Would you say that this kind of nomadic upbringing has shaped your identity as an artist?
Kelly Paige (KP): I think it absolutely has! I was exposed to lots of different genres early on and grew to love them all… But I think it impacted my relationship with music itself in a much bigger way. Music was a home that I could take with me wherever I went. It was my safe place. I had a CD case that held like 300 CDs and it came everywhere with me. I spent all of my spare time studying the lyrics printed in the cover inserts that I kept in each sleeve with its corresponding CD–everything from Allison Krauss to Sum 41.
I miss those things. It was great when music was a little more tangible.
BTR: By the time you were 16 you were already playing cover gigs in bars. Did you already know that live performance was what you wanted to do?
KP: Not really… I loved performing, but I always wanted to be a songwriter. I started writing songs at 13 and I liked to throw in my originals with the covers to see how people responded. I never really felt like I was a good enough singer to do the whole artist thing, but I knew I wanted to communicate and connect with people. I think live music is the most powerful form of communication in the world, so it seemed sort of obvious to me that I should give it a try. I’m still my toughest critic.
BTR: You’ve spent a lot of time divided between LA and Nashville before deciding to make NYC your home. What are some of the most important things you’ve learned from each city’s music community, and why did you ultimately decide on New York?
KP: Oh, man. Nashville. I have so much love for that place and so much hurt from it. That whole town really revolves around music in a big way, which is so cool, but the industry that dominates it just didn’t get me. I had shady record deals and dealt with creepy dudes, and musical politics, and all of the worst things that you imagine when you set out to follow your dream. I just got so sick of it. It’s a small town and it acted like one.
I lived in London in 2011, and after that it was hard to go back. I needed a big city. I was going back and forth from Nashville and LA for a while and realized LA just wasn’t for me, so I figured I’d give NYC a shot. I actually got offered a deal here, and that motivated me to come visit. I turned down the deal but fell in love with the city, and I’m still in love with it today. You’ve got to be somewhere that agrees with you artistically. New York just works for me.
BTR: Tell me about some of your biggest creative inspirations, musical or otherwise. What inspires you most to write a song?
KP: Inspiration is fickle bitch. Occasionally I’m inspired by a live show… But I don’t remember the last band I saw that really inspired me, especially since these days it’s mostly hipsters with laptops and shit. Sometimes I write songs on the subway–inspired by the rhythm of the city I guess. Other times, it’s when I’m low and home alone, being emo [laughs].
I just listened to something I recorded on my phone when I was drunk in a bar the other night. Sometimes it’s a walk in the park, sometimes it’s “Blue Eyes Cryin’ In The Rain.” None of these moments are guaranteed to inspire a song, but every once in a while they do. Writing is a compulsive act. None of us really understand why we do it, but it’s like Bukowski said, “You either get it down on paper, or you jump off a bridge.”
Courtesy of Kelly Paige.
BTR: Do you ever find yourself returning to any recurring themes or ideas?
KP: Not intentionally, but I suppose I write about the things that affect me the most. Relationships, patriarchy, women I don’t like, unrequited love, being insecure, hope, vengeance, daddy issues… all the dark parts of life that shape my character. Music is a way to talk about uncomfortable things.
BTR: The song “Get You Down” is definitely a powerhouse, with strong notions of resilience that ring true. Could you talk a little bit about the writing and recording of that one?
KP: Well, first off, thank you. I wrote that refrain in the back of a taxi. It was partially inspired by listening to my friends’ experiences at work or in relationships and seeing them feel sort of defeated. Dealing with things like sexism in the workplace, sexual harassment or assault, abuse… really big issues that were all too often written off as “nbd” because it is so damn common. I wanted to tell them that everything was going to be okay and that they would be fine, but then I was like, “Wait, oh my god, no. It’s not fine. This is covert, systemic oppression being aided and abetted by cultural norms and passive institutions.” And I got really angry.
When I sing about the “voices in my head” in the first verse, I’m talking about institutions that are constantly telling women how they should look and act. I’m talking about political rhetoric that is anti-gay or racist. I’m talking about the things we hear on a regular basis from influential people and organizations that make us feel like we are not allowed to be ourselves, and that because of who we are, bad things are allowed to happen to us. I know that’s a lot, but that’s where it came from.
Recording it with my producer was awesome because he really helped me give the song it’s structure and turned it into the foot-stomping anthem that it is. I get so emotional about my writing that sometimes it’s hard to focus it into a three minute pop-song, and he really helped me craft it into something that works for today’s music.
BTR: What’s in store for 2016?
KP: Oh, geez. Who really knows? I’m releasing another single soon, and I’ve been working on an EP for what feels like forever, but the plan is to get it out this year, and hopefully start touring. That’s really all I want–to be out on the road playing music for my people.
There’s just so much other stuff that needs to happen first… for example, you need to follow me on social media (@kellypaigemusic) and Bands In Town… Was that subtle? Self promotion makes me uncomfortable. But yeah, working on that this year so that I can get out and play more. That’s where the magic happens.
To hear more from Kelly Paige, check out her official site or tune into BTRtoday’s very own In the Den.