In January, Gabriel Kelley was one of about 120 songwriters who participated in the 30A Songwriters Festival in Destin, Fla. While at the three-day festival, the 27-year-old mingled with artists such as Lucinda Williams and Tift Merritt, swapping songs and stories during a late-night Saturday jam session after everyone in the audience had gone home.
“We were sitting around together at a beach house, just a bunch of artists together sitting in a circle, and all the musicians pulled out instruments, and we started just having a big hang, swapping songs,” Kelley said while driving through New Mexico. “At that festival, that moment ended up being the most exciting part of the whole thing, and it kind of got me thinking — it was a very intimate setting, and it was very nice, but no fans at all were there to experience it. My favorite moment of the whole thing was kind of off the radar and no one got to see it.”
At that point, Kelley had been out on the road for a good year and a half in support of his debut album, “It Don’t Come Easy,” playing theaters and opening for groups such as The Black Crowes. But the Nashville singer-songwriter, originally from Georgia, was beginning to grow weary of the impersonal nature of the larger shows.
Gabriel Kelley, with MaryLeigh Roohan
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: The Linda, WAMC’s Performing Arts Studio, 339 Central Ave., Albany
How Much: $15
More Info: 465-5233 ext. 4, www.wamcarts.org
Hence, Kelley spent March and April playing house shows around the country in a stripped-down, solo setting on his Simple Truth tour. He was doing that through Wednesday; he will return Friday to playing more traditional venues with a stop at The Linda.
“I was playing for at least a few thousand people, but after doing enough of that for a year or so, it started getting a little impersonal,” Kelley said. “So for this tour, in March and April, I basically reached out to fans. ‘If you’re interested, I’ll come to your house, I’ll come play a show right in your living room.’ I had way more responses than I could actually handle.”
Less is more
Kelly will be utilizing the same stripped-down setup at The Linda, playing acoustic guitar and harmonica while occasionally banging out a rhythm with a tambourine at his foot. It will be his first show in Albany, other than a radio session he did with WEXT-FM shortly after the release of “It Don’t Come Easy.”
“I do what I do because I want to have a connection with people,” Kelley said. “I’m trying to just do something honest, and a lot of times that’s smaller settings — even if it’s someone’s living room. Sometimes venues don’t tend to lend themselves to that environment. It’s a real experience; I sit and talk with people, and we spend time to get to know each other, versus signing hundreds of CDs at the end of the show. It’s a little more holistic, in my opinion.”
Kelley has spent his musical career searching for honest moments. This drive is what led him to leave his first job in Nashville as a staff songwriter for a country music publishing company, move into an RV just outside of town and spend a year woodshedding and writing songs.
Prior to that, Kelley spent many of his formative years on the road. He grew up in rural Georgia, where he first began playing at open mic nights in Athens. After studying abroad in Sweden at age 16, he briefly attended the University of Georgia before hitting the road in a van for two years. After settling down once again, he landed the job in Nashville, which ended up being a disillusioning experience.
“I don’t know what I was anticipating per se,” Kelley said. “The feeling I had was, I was kind of under the assumption that I would be writing and working on some stuff, but I’d have my own career that I’d be focused on a good bit, as well. I had the anticipation of doing that in a 50-50 manner, or maybe 60-40 writing stuff. It ended up being much more like 90 percent writing for others.
“It was just a bit of a shock to me, and it was a shock, just the motive people had for writing. I’d always — and I still do at this point now — I’ve always written about my own life, the experiences going on, the personal, things that were close to the heart, things I feel like are worth saying or talking about. I had never, ever, prior to Nashville, gone into a room and thought about, let’s write something really clever, or, let’s write something that this specific demographic can really connect to. I felt like those are strange reasons to write songs.”
His search for honesty in music also led him to launch a Kickstarter project to fund “It Don’t Come Easy,” released in 2011, rather than go the traditional route with a major record label financing the project. He eventually raised more than $25,000 for the album’s recording.
“I kind of tend to be a perfectionist a little bit — I waited about five years to make my first record, from the time I started really working on my solo stuff,” Kelley said. “But I was out touring the country, spending a lot of time on the road for years without any product, without any records to sell, so I kind of developed a fan base. And then I saw Kickstarter, and it seemed perfect for an artist like me who already had a fan base.”
Doing it his way
The extremely prolific Kelley ended up writing more than 120 songs for the album, but only recorded 10 with producer Neal Cappellino, finishing basic tracks with a core band of Nashville musicians over the course of four or five days. The deeply personal material ranges from upbeat country and funk-inflected rockers “How Come” and lead single “Only Thing To Do” to the piano-driven ballad “When is Enough,” written during his self-imposed isolation after leaving his songwriting job.
“After leaving the commercial music world, after doing that whole thing and leaving — I sold everything I had, and I kind of got off the grid,” Kelley said. “Part of that whole process was learning how to live real bare and figure out where my values come from, and plenty of that comes with a lot of struggle. There’s good and bad with that, but the struggle I think is a great character builder. It makes you think about, in every situation, is this really worth it? Is this whole thing I’m trying to do real?”
Naturally, Kelley has written enough material on the road for two more albums, which he’s hoping to begin work on soon. The first would be a produced affair similar to the lush arrangements on “It Don’t Come Easy,” with lyrics inspired by “the state of the world, things going on, a bit less about me.” The second project stems from his stripped-down solo performances.
“The way I’ve been traveling around, I’m hitting on more of a sense or a feel for kind of that real old school, folky, traveling the country with an acoustic guitar, kind of thing,” Kelley said. “I consider myself shifting more and more towards that very specific folk world or folk genre. My favorite stuff these days is Cat Stevens, John Prine, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, that whole era of time — a lot of the new material is definitely kind of in that world, and it tends to lend itself a little more towards meaning what you’re saying, and less about production, less about bigger arrangements. I’m just trying to keep it honest.”
Reach Gazette reporter Brian McElhiney at 395-3111 or firstname.lastname@example.org.