by Michael McCarthy
all photos by: Bryan Downey except where noted
When many people think of indie music, the artists they often think of are artists who are actually on record labels, just small ones outside of the major label scene. Which is entirely cool, of course. Most of my favorite artists are on indie labels like Sub Pop and Polyvinyl. But in the case of Rorie Kelly, she’s entirely indie, not signed to any record label, just releasing things on her own, embracing the DIY ethic. And, no, she’s not looking for a major label deal and won’t be tricked into signing any contract that would be prohibitive to her making and releasing her music. As you’re about to discover, she’s a strong woman and feminist of the most intelligent variety, qualities that are reflected in the lyrics of her amazing new album Rising, Rising, Rising. That said, much of the album is actually about you, as it’s meant to make the listener feel good about themselves and, hopefully, inspire them to be the best versions of themselves that they can be. If smart but catchy alternative rock or singer/songwriter fare is your thing, you’re about to meet your favorite new artist.
MM: Your bio on bandcamp mentions that you’ve been playing music since you were a teenager. Do you remember how old you were when you wrote your first song and what it was called?
RK: Actually, yes! The first song I wrote was with my cousin Delia Stanley when we were both about 9 years old. We wrote it on her Yamaha keyboard. I didn’t play any instruments yet though I think we had both taken a piano lesson or two! I don’t think we had a title for it but I do remember the chorus: “Come on, come on, come back to me love!”
We wrote it in an afternoon and forgot about it, but now we are both gigging musicians and play together quite a lot!
MM: How old were you when you started playing guitar? Were you self-taught or did someone teach you?
RK: I taught myself to play the guitar the summer I turned 13. I had tried lessons for both guitar & piano before but both times, I had ended up quitting pretty early on. It turned out the self directed thing worked better for me.
MM: Do you come from a musical family?
RK: Yep! My dad is a bass player and also owned a recording studio during my childhood. My mom sings and plays guitar, like me. It was really nice to grow up in a family where making music was seen as natural and important. I have more than a few friends whose parents treated their musical endeavors like a waste of time.
MM: Do you play any instruments aside from guitar?
RK: My own vocal cords. 🙂
MM: You co-produced Rising Rising Rising. Was this your first time producing? If not, have you always produced your albums? Would you ever consider producing other artists?
RK: I consider it to be my first time producing. My first studio album, Wish Upon a Bottlecap, I was lucky enough to have Kevin Kelly’s experience and wisdom to guide me through most of it. I was essentially a lucky artist with some amazing musicians, though I had a lot of ideas about the direction I wanted tracks to take, and vocal arrangements. This was the first album I really took charge of from start to finish — found the money, booked the sessions, really played more of a leadership role in the
songs’ instrumentation than I had in the past. Of course — I was lucky enough to be working with amazing musicians and amazing engineers/co-producers. I know my strengths and limitations here – I’m good at arrangements, good at the organization that has to occur to get an album made, good at finding the right people and communicating my ideas to them. I’m not as good at the minutiae of mixing — for example, more than once I watched Peter at Ocean Analog Studios go through 16 drum tracks, piece by piece, and EQ each one to perfection. I felt impressed with his skill level and experience, and thrilled that I was not the one doing that task! So I don’t think producing for others is in my future. I look forward to expanding my skills to do more on my own tracks, though. It’s a
MM: Do you headline your own shows up there in Canada now? [Editor’s Note: I mistakenly thought Rorie was from Canada.] If so, how long have you been doing so?
RK: I love the indie scene in Canada but I’m not too well known in the area, so when I do get up there I try to co-bill! I really love networking with musicians in other communities and trading gigs and sharing fans – this is one way we indies can take charge of our careers.
MM: Did you start off doing open mic nights?
RK: yes! I played my first open mic when I was 13. I gigged a little bit as a teenager but I got really serious around the age of 20 and started going to every open mic I could find, learning and playing and listening and meeting people within the scene. I highly recommend it as a way for new artists to get started. Don’t expect someone to discover you — just go out and meet people, build your community and learn the ropes.
MM: Have you ever experienced stage fright?
RK: Absolutely, when I first started performing–or if I have recently taken a break from gigging (which I did during some of the time I was recording). When I’m gigging regularly I’m not worried about it at all, and once I get on stage my anxiety always evaporates. Time and experience really have solved that problem for me.
MM: Do you prefer to perform acoustically or with a full band?
RK: I love both! I love the freedom of being a solo performer and I do most of my gigs that way. Scheduling is easier, money is easier (I don’t like to use a band unless I know I can afford to pay each musician fairly for that particular gig), and I can completely change my set on a whim if I feel like it. I also think that in some ways I can connect better with my audience as a solo performer — it feels more intimate, like a one on one conversation. But, I love the energy of playing with a live band and I’m hoping that I get to do a lot more of it in 2016. I’ve got some amazing musicians that I work with, and every gig I play with them rocks my world.
MM: What are your plans, if any, to tour behind the new album?
RK: I will definitely be doing tourdates in the northeast region–NY, MA, PA, CT, DC, etc! I am hoping I can expand my reach further but as an indie I have to think about everything being cost effective before I jump in the car. However I am trying to do monthly shows on Concertwindow.com now so I can play for my fans around the world–I love performing and I don’t want them to miss out. www.concertwindow.com/roriekelly is the best link to subscribe to those shows!
MM: Will you be making any videos for songs off of the album? I think “The Weather” should be a single/video.
RK: I would really like to! It’s all about finding a way to do it affordably right now. My husband Alex agrees with you about the Weather and actually has a whole high concept video planned out in the event we figure out a way to afford it! One way or another in 2016 it is a goal of mine to get more video happening.
MM: Your new album was crowd funded. Did you reach your goal? What site did you use? Can you tell us what the experience was like? Would you do it again?
RK: I did reach my goal — on the very last day of a campaign!! It was a real nail-biter but my community came thorugh. 🙂 I used Rockethub.com and I would absolutely use them again–they were so helpful. I probably will crowdfund again in the future though I’ll do it differently now that I’ve had the experience. It truly is a full time job to run a campaign right and I would do a lot of preparation and allocate more time. It is so rewarding though to know that people truly believe in you enough to collaborate on a project with you. It has brought me closer to my community and I am grateful for that.
MM: What were some of the goodies you offered to funders? Have all of the rewards been dished out now or are you still making some of them?
RK: Apart from a few different versions of the album (digital, physical CD, and a deluxe edition which includes a homemade CD of acoustic demos for each song) I also offered some other perks like getting your name in the liner notes, hand drawn dinosaur pictures and youtube cover videos. Everything is done except the cover videos — I really wanted to finish them during the recording process but I found I was spreading myself too thin and did not want to do crappy work. So they’re coming up over the next few months!
MM: I was under the impression that you were Canadian, but I just saw that you’re in Long Island/Brooklyn on your Facebook page. And in “Supermoon” you sing, “I am such an American.” Where were you born? How long and where did you live in Canada?
RK: Well I actually have been in the US this whole time — born and raised on Long Island in NY. I “imported” Alex, so to speak, last year. While we were dating (for about 5 years) I made frequent trips up to Montreal and Ottawa, about once a month, and I did get into the folk scene there a little bit. It’s a really great community.
MM: How long did Rising Rising Rising take to write? What songs were the easiest and most difficult?
RK: I didn’t write it all at once — I’m a very lucky songwriter because songs just flow out of me. Some people say “creativity is not like turning on a faucet, you have to work on it.” For me it really is like turning on a faucet. I write about whatever is going on in my life and mind. It is my way of communicating, even more so than speaking or writing. So I wrote the songs along the way between the last album and this one. Whenever I make an album I have a “rooting out” process where I have to get the number down to fit on a CD. With Rising Rising Rising it was a little easier because I had a theme — I had decided I wanted to make an album about being your own hero and rising from the darkness so songs that did not fit that theme got the axe.
Most of the songs on the album came pretty quickly–I tend to write a song in one session or two at most. If You Teach a Bird to Sing I think I wrote in about an hour for example. I Got This was a little bit trickier because the verse and chorus feel is so different. I was having a tough time gluing them together and I had to play it a lot and try different things before I felt satisfied with the flow.
MM: I’m assuming that your song “The Weather” is at least partially about drug companies and anti-depressants. Could you elaborate on your perspective on that? Do you think it’s wrong for anyone to take psyche meds?
RK: Thanks for asking because this is a nuanced topic and it’s nice to get a chance to talk about it in depth. I definitely don’t think it’s wrong for people to take psychiatric medicine if it benefits them. But, I do feel that there is a big push by pharmaceutical companies to market these medicines (and others) in a way that is a little bit deceptive. These commercials that say “Talk to your doctor if you experience…” and then list somewhat generic symptoms that anyone may wonder if they have, are kind of pushy and manipulative in my view. I am concerned too, with how readily we diagnose and medicate people in recent years. I have a history of mental illness in my family and people close to me have been empowered to live a better life through medication. Yet, I have also seen people close to me really lose quality of life due to side effects and drug interactions, and still suffer from the same symptoms that the drugs are supposed to treat. I am concerned that we have too much of a “take a pill and stop worrying about it” attitude. I am hoping that culturally, we can learn to take a step back and analyze a situation more thoroughly before leaping to a diagnosis and a prescription. People’s lives, happiness and health are at stake and in my opinion that deserves more consideration than a 5 minute consultation with a GP.
MM: “Don’t Give In” would seem to be about how everyone’s beautiful and not giving in to any type of societal pressures. One of the lyrics is “I’m not buying your white suburban boys club just because you’re a democrat.” Just out of curiosity, what do you think about our current presidental candidates? If Trump gets elected, will you move back to Canada?
RK: I like Bernie! I’d vote for Hillary too if she wins the Dem primary. The republicans all scare me. Cruz scares me a little more than Trump because he seems a little less absurd and therefore perhaps more electable. If one of the awful ones get elected… well… I’ll evaluate then. It’s nice to have moving to Canada as a viable option!
MM: In “Face Not in the Crowd,” you sing, “must be kind, must be feminist, must be smart & engaging like you.” I interpted the song to be about being yourself, not fitting into a mold, not being just another face in the crowd. But I was surprised by the lyric about being feminist. What do your mean by that? What does the word feminist mean to you?
RK: I love the way that the meanings of songs can be so different from person to person. I am one of those people who thinks any interpretation of art is valid–it doesn’t have to mean the same thing to you that it means to me. I actually wrote that song about a new relationship and those lyrics were a reference to a real list I had written about the qualities I hoped I would find in my next lover. I have a strict “I only sleep with feminists” policy because I’m into dating people who value me as an equal.
Personally, I have been a feminist as long as I understood what the word meant. Feminism is an equality movement. In my view it’s important to keep the word “feminism” rather than something more generic like “equalism” because we need to be honest with ourselves–we are not at a place where
men and women are treated equally, and women in particular are still getting the short end of the stick. So the word “feminism” is important because it reminds us that we must focus on addressing the unique inequalities that women face in particular.
MM: Although the lyrics aren’t difficult to understand, I’m baffled about the title of “Less Than 3.” What do you mean by that?
RK: It’s a play on internet culture. 🙂 To make a heart in plain text you type <3 (less than sign + 3).
MM: You mention animals frequently in your lyrics. What do you think about animals being kept in zoos? Do you have any pets? If so, what kind of animals are they? What are their names?
RK: I have mixed feelings, I know some zoos do good work to keep up animal habitats or try to help endangered species. I think that’s positive. But I do think it’s cruel to keep wild animals caged in general.
I have a cat whose name is Mama. Her name was not my idea (she already knew it when I got her and I was not going to change it on her). I do wonder sometimes what my neighbors think when they hear me say things like “Mama! You know you’re not allowed on the couch!”
MM: What do you think about people keeping birds as pets? Do you feel that it’s wrong to keep them caged up?
RK: Hmm, I have mixed feelings on that too! I grew up with a cockatiel and he was well cared for and we frequently let him fly around the house. He seemed happy and healthy and lived to a nice old age in bird years. I don’t feel like that was wrong. Yet I do see larger birds with health issues and stress issues that I wonder if they would get in the wild. I guess I don’t have enough information to have a solid opinion on it! If I were considering getting a bird (or any other pet) I would do some research before I did though — I would not want to keep a pet that would ultimately be happier and healthier in the wild.
MM: I know you’ve released Rising Rising Rising independently. But if you were offered a record deal, would you consider it or do you prefer to be entirely independent? If you do want a record deal, is that something you’re actively pursuing right now?
RK: I definitely have a strong preference for being independent but I would consider a deal if the situation was right. It’s too easy as an artist to see stars or dollar signs and sign your rights away–and I’m not just talking about your creative say, but often your ability to release another record if the label decides they don’t want to promote you at all, and possibly even your ability to make money performing. The major labels have decades of experience at making contracts that are strongly in their favor, and most artists do not have the legal expertise to know they’re signing a bad deal (or many choose to sign a bad deal because they feel it is still their best shot, and they have no negotiating leverage.) I have gotten good at knowing what works for me and my fans and I’d be very hesitant to sign a deal with anyone who limited my ability to make those choices! I never say never though. 🙂
RK: I think in my perfect life I’d be doing a little bit of both. I love the studio and I really love honoring my songwriting and trying to create the perfect arrangement and production for a song. I want to spend more time honoring that side of my craft, because although I am constantly writing, most of my professional career has centered around performing. I also love performing, love the energy and connection and I get down when I don’t have that in my life regularly. I am hoping that sometime in the next few years I can find a way to hit the right combination so that I am doing a balanced amount of both!
MM: If you could do a duet with anyone alive right now, who would be your top three choices?
RK: Ben Folds, Jukebox the Ghost, and Kate Miller-Heidke.
MM: Are there any artists in Brooklyn that you would recommend?
Erel Pilo – she’s got a sweet voice and arty but catchy songs. http://erelpilo.com/
Honeybird – she’s a fellow bi musician with songs that make you sing along and also promote activism & equality. http://www.honeybird.net/
Lisa Brigantino – she is a smart musician with great instincts, my favorite song by her is “Cookies and Whiskey.” http://lisabrigantino.com/
MM: Who are your influences?
RK: As a teenager I was listening to indie bands like Ben Folds Five and Jump Little Children, and singer songwriters like Joni Mitchell, Alanis Morissette, and Sheila Nicholls. In more recent years, anyone who pushes the envelope and makes pop/rock songs a little more weird has influenced me–like Amanda Palmer, Kate Miller-Heidke and Jukebox the Ghost. But mostly these days, I’m listening to music from my fellow indie and local acts. People who complain about “music today” really need to look further than their radio dial–there is such a beautiful diverse community of independent musicians who would honestly love some attention, and probably feel similarly about what’s on the radio today! Some great fellow Long Islanders that influence me musically as well as personally: Iridesense
(http://www.iridesense.com/), Kirsten Maxwell (http://www.kirstenmaxwell.com/) and Toby Tobias (http://www.tobytoby.com/).
RK: Yes, I have heard a variety of opinions too! As an artist I have mixed feelings. I get why these services are appealing to some listeners so I make sure my music is there for them to find. Yet more than one service–Spotify in particular–pushes the limits on how much they can legally exploit artists with what basically equates to no pay. When someone streams a song on Spotify the artist gets paid a
fraction of a penny for that play–and that basically translates to nothing for us indies, because you have to have quite a large number of plays before you end up with any kind of real money. Buying a digital track is much better for the artist than streaming it.
Personally I don’t use Spotify. I’m actually oldschool and prefer to listen to physical albums, but I will do the next best thing and buy digital tracks if I have to! I have discovered some great music on last.fm
and soundcloud (and promptly gone out and bought the music from those artists so I could actually support their careers!)
MM: Vinyl has been gradually making a comeback during recent years. Are you releasing Rising Rising Rising on vinyl? Are you a fan of vinyl? What format of music do you listen to most?
RK: I do like vinyl, though not as much as my husband Alex who has an epic vinyl collection that takes up a full fifth of our apartment. I usually listen to CDs or digital these days. I would love to release everything on vinyl eventually but right now it’s a choice dictated by budget to just release on CD & digital outlets.
MM: At the end of our interviews, we always ask some random questions. Here are yours:
MM: What’s your ideal night at home?
RK: Some musicmaking, wine, and either video games with my husband or Xena Warrior-Princess on Netflix with me myself and I. 🙂
MM: What’s your ideal night out?
RK: I have to be honest and say my favorite nights out are nights I get to perform! Ideally cobilling with a few other artists so I can enjoy playing music, and hearing it in one fell swoop. Also, ideally I play first so that then I can have a nice glass of wine. (I don’t drink before I perform.)
MM: What’s your favorite movie soundtrack?
RK: Here’s a generational answer: I really liked the City of Angels soundtrack back in the 90s. 🙂
MM: Do you still work a day job? If so, what do you do? If not, what was your last day job?
RK: I do, although every year I get closer to not having to. (Not coincidentally I also seem to sleep less.) I work in web design and development during the day.
MM: Who do you think is the most revolutionary person, dead or alive?
RK: Malala Yousafzai. She has already changed the world and I think she will continue to do so throughout her life. There is no human on this planet that I admire more.
Buy Rorie’s music on Bandcamp: http://roriekelly.bandcamp.com