Q&A with Kellin Watson

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Daring, sassy, and cute unravels with jazz infused folk pop from up and coming Singer Songwriter Kellin Watson. Coming off the release of her latest album “Halo of Blue”, Watson launches into the mainstream with music featured in television shows andcommercial ads around the world. Kellin talks to Songwriters Marketplace, interviewed by Ashley Davis, about the feelings surrounding recent successes, musical collaborations, her new album and more! 

Born to a musical family in the mountains of North Carolina, and composing original songs beginning at 13, Kellin believed a life in the arts was the norm. Harnessing the early artistic nature, and after much touring, while putting herself out there in the musical wonderland for the masses, Watson shares inspirations from her musical upbringing to the major musical moments falling into place with great excitement.

Kellin you have been performing since a young age, what was it like growing up in a musical family from Appalachia?

At first, I never really thought much about it because it was the norm. Singing and dancing seemed to be the same as eating and sleeping, it was just part of our everyday activities. When I was about 7 or 8 though, I remember my Dad coming to my primary school and performing mountain traditional songs for the entire school in the gym.

For some reason, I was really embarrassed! I remember hiding my head while they sang this one song, Old Joe Clark. I didn’t get it yet.

Instinctively I tended to gravitate more towards jazz and R&B music as a kid. My mom, Bebe Watson, who grew up as a dancer, attending North Carolina School Of The Arts for Ballet, etc., had enrolled me in dance classes from a very young age of 2 or 3. I took ballet, tap, and jazz dance classes, and the Jazz dance classes were my favorite, because they were the most free form and funky, hence why I might have gravitated towards R&B more as a child.

As I grew older and began to realize the history of music on both sides of my family, and started to truly understand the tradition of how it was passed down, I developed a much deeper respect and acknowledgment of my family’s musical roots, and the influence they had on me growing up. My Grandfather spoke with the most mountain accent, as did my Grandma, however, my Grandfather played a style far from Mountain Music.

He played in several Jazz groups in the southeast. He never did it as a full time thing, but more of his night thing. He would probably try to disagree with me if he were still here today, but I believe he probably could easily have done it full time professionally.

Then my mom was a vocalist, and played a little bit of guitar as well. She’s always been far more shy about her talents compared to the rest of my family though. My Grandma on my dad’s side of the family was a piano player, as was my Aunt (Dad’s sister).

Again, they didn’t so much play the music of Appalachia, as much as they did classical piano pieces. However, my Dad chose to travel the world, and perform traditional music, and the music of Appalachia. My Dad had such a enormous amount of love and admiration for Appalachian music, that he immersed himself in the music and culture.

He played fiddle, guitar, banjo, bass, mandolin, pretty much anything you put in his hands on, he would figure out, however, he tended to enjoy playing stringed instruments best. So to bring it back around to your original question…it never really phased me that I was “growing up in a musical family from Appalachia” until I started to make music professionally. It was a blessing to be surrounded by people who understood the need and hunger to play music and be expressive in that way.

It was inspiring and encouraging to see them perform and have fun doing it.

Where do your writing inspirations come from, and how much time do you spend scribbling?

My writing inspirations literally come from everywhere…so it’s hard to name just one thing. A lot of the time, it’ll just float into my brain while I’m driving somewhere. I have hundreds of minute musical thoughts or phrases recorded on my phone, from a moment while driving.

I tend to be heavily influenced and inspired by intense emotions of any kind, whether it be my own, or witnessing someone else’s. But sometimes the melody of something will inspire me a lot. When I try to write something without feeling involved, I don’t usually get very far on my own.

Writing with other people can also be very inspiring. It offers different angles that you might not be able to acknowledge on your own, which is always inspiring. There have been times where I’ve had a super intense and vivid dream, and wake up immediately out of the dream thinking about it’s meaning all day, and before you know it, I’ve written three verses for a song.

The dream inspired songs always take me a few rough drafts to perfect , because it’s always a matter of tweeking the song so that it makes sense to people listening, since they, of course, weren’t having the same dream themselves. But the dream inspired songs always seem magical in a way, because it feels like a direct line to your third eye – or something!

You’ve already garnered some major success with two songs being featured on Canadian teen drama, Degrassi the Next Generation, another being featured on the CMT show, Big Break with Sara Evans, and an honorable mention nod from Billboard Magazine’s, top 100 pop songs written for 2007 off your album “No Static”. What kind of impact did these have on you and your music?

The Degrassi thing was great. It really brought in a ton of new fans that might have otherwise never known about me. A lot of kids decided to post their own versions of the song that was on Degrassi, “Ship”.

Some kids covered the song and posted it, and some made their own little music videos and posted them. It’s flattering and encouraging to know that I am inspiring others, especially teenagers. More recently, I had one of my new songs off of my new album “Halo Of Blue”, featured on CBS’s The Good Wife.

The song was called “Give Up The Ghost”. Having my songs featured and acknowledged on such prestigious and popular shows and networks is definitely encouraging.  It makes me feel like I must be on the right track in that way. 

I also had another new song featured in The Gospel Music Channel’s TV movie, Trinity Goodheart, starring Eric Benet, Erica Gluck, James Hong, & Mark La Mura. In addition to using one of my songs, I was also asked to play one of the roles. The story was about a girl who had been raised by her father, because her musician mother (ie: me) decided to run away to tour with her band.

As a result, the girl never knew her mother. You know what, in fact, here’s a link to tell you more about it: Trinity Goodheart. It has apparently received 5 Dove awards.

When you watched the show with your music playing in the background, what did you feel?

When I heard my song, “Ship” on Degrassi, I actually had to find it online at the time because I didn’t have cable at the house I was living in. Plus, I wasn’t really sure when it would be airing, I only knew the name of the episode. When I finally was able to find it online and watch, it was really exciting, because they put it at an emotional high moment of the story line for not only that episode, but for the entire season, so I knew it would impact the emotion of the moment, and catch a few folks ears.

Plus it was featured, so it was mixed pretty high volume wise, as this cute little teen couple had their first kiss and slow danced at their high school dance. The funny part though…is that the song actually talks about a couple splitting up to find themselves and grow…and it’s kind of a heavy tune. That just goes to show how differently songs can be interpreted from person to person though, which is the whole point I guess.

With the more recent stuff, like The Trinity Goodheart movie, and The Good Wife, it definitely felt more exciting because not only was my song going to be played, but I was making my first TV acting debut, which makes me laugh to even say. I was also able to go over to a friends house who had the Gospel Music Channel, and we were able to all watch the movie together.

With The Good Wife, it was very exciting too, though, because I found out literally the day before it was going to air, so it was a bit of a frantic scramble at first. When the song FINALLY came on, it was a relief at first because we didn’t know where they were going to play the song, only that it was during a bar scene. And their had already been two bar scenes, so I was beginning to worry if it wasn’t actually going to be in the episode because – of course – my proud papa doesn’t know how to not tell everyone he knows news like that when I tell him…so I knew all of my friends and family were probably watching, and wondering the same thing I was…did I miss it somehow? 

When they finally played the song, it was at the very end, and the song was somewhat low in the mix. So relief would definitely be a better adjective than anything else for that one. In a nutshell, it’s always exciting to hear your music on a soundtrack to a story, especially on TV or a movie.

You get to see your story accent or contrast another story, and there’s something rare and special about that sense of accomplishment as an independent artist.

You’re latest album “Halo of Blue” was released in 2011, what was your focus on this album as the follow-up to “No Static”?

My focus was to try and keep the album consistent and organic as a whole, while still remaining true to the songs and the places they wanted to go. I had been listening to a lot of old soul records from the Stax and Motown era right before heading back into the studio. I had been rediscovering my love for that music, and all the greats that had contributed to that time.

The obvious ones like Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, & Al Green, and some of the southern legends that not as many people seem to know about like, Lee Dorsey, Allen Toussaint, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Mississippi John Hurt (this list really goes on forever), all were making me long for that old sound and approach. My producer, Michael Bellar decided the best way to accomplish all of these things would be to put out a Lo-Fi record, and keep the arrangements as simple and as close to the original form as possible. “No Static” was far more produced and sonically hot.

We wanted to try and change tracks in that regard and dig down to a more rootsy footing.

Where did you record & who did you record this album with?

I recorded at a few different places. We started in Pomfret Connecticut at a place called Signature Sounds. It’s a cool little Americana studio out in the sticks of Connecticut.

We did four tunes there. We then went on to a studio located in Union City, New Jersey (which is basically a 15 min. drive from Manhattan) at a studio called Kaleidoscope Sound Studios where we recorded 8 tracks.  And then we recorded the remaining two tracks at my favorite southeastern studio (and my favorite studio out of all the places we recorded for this album as well!), Echo Mountain Recording.

The two tracks we recorded there were” Rise”, and “Sittin’ On Top Of The World”, and then we also did a few overdubs on “Halo Of Blue” there as well. The core musicians that played on this record were part of Michael’s group, The As-Is Ensemble. Brad Wentworth on Drums, Rene Hart on Standup bass, Jonti Simon on electric bass, Michael Bellar on Keys and other things, and myself on acoustic guitar and vocals obviously.

Then from there, we had a wide range of guests come in. Sarah & Christian Dugas (The Duhks, Zach Brown Band) on vocals and percussion on “Sittin’ On Top Of The World”, Oliver Wood on the slide guitar (The Wood Brothers) on “Sittin’ On Top Of The World” & “Fire”, Rob Reich on electric guitar throughout the album, Ben Russel on Violin and Viola on “Give Up The Ghost”, “Threw It Away” and “Want To Believe”, Ward Williams (Jump Little Children) on Cello on “Give Up The Ghost”, “Threw It Away” and “Want To Believe” as well. Then locally, I had friends of mine come in.

Matt Smith added some Pedal Steel to “Halo Of Blue”, and Tom Leiner added some electric guitar to “Rise”. Then we did more vocal overdubs and harmonies at the producers home studio in Manhattan, which we like to call, Kitchen and couch studios.

We mixed and mastered the record with Gene Paul in Union City, New Jersey, and Gene and his engineers really had a gift for blending and bringing a consistency to tracks sonically. Gene Paul has worked as an engineer on some of my favorite artists albums, including Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, and Nina Simone. So I was honored to have the chance to mix and master my album with him and his staff.

How much touring are you currently doing?

I’m keeping my touring to a minimum at this moment. I recently started working with a great Americana guy named Al Moss as my publicist and manager, and we’re in the process of re-outfitting my brand and game plan. However, that doesn’t mean that I’m never touring again, just taking a brief moment to re-route. I’ll be sure to keep you posted on updates though.

Recall one of your favorite musical moments for us.

Maybe it’s because it’s so recent, but definitely my Music City Roots set this past month. On June 6th I played with a group of Nashville folks for this really cool old-school style Americana radio show that is streamed live on the internet and aired on Lightning 100 in Nashville TN. Jim Lauderdale hosts it and is an extremely accomplished and hard working Nashville singer/songwriter.

The reason it’s one of my favorite moments to date is for several reasons. First, my dear friends and soul mate siblings Sarah & Christian Dugas offered to put together a Nashville band for me so that I didn’t have to hire a huge cast of Asheville folks to schlep five hours, feed pay and house while we were in Nashville. Funds have been very tight for me since releasing my new album, Halo Of Blue, so I was extremely grateful and honored that Christian and Sarah were willing to help me out in that juncture.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my Asheville musicians, and I feel that they’re just as good as Nashville players! But if I can’t afford to pay them and take care of them on the road, I don’t feel right asking them, or pushing them to come along.

The thing about being on stage with Sarah and Christian for me, is that it always feels magical every time. And that really is a rare thing in this world. The musicians they brought in for the show were great and top notch too.

It felt so good on that stage, and I also got to bring along my soul brother friend Zach Blew who I have played music with for some time now. He had moved to Chicago a couple years back, and decided to move back to Asheville this past March. Since he’s been back, we’ve made it a point to get together once a week to play songs and shoot the shit and be silly.

Just have fun with music. So I asked him to come along to sing background vocals alongside Sarah Dugas. So I had three of my best friends on stage with me, which was uplifting and powerful.

Then I had this group of Nashville cats that were just doing it right…and with only one rehearsal at that! It was just so much fun. The audience at Music City Roots was so warm and loving too…I just couldn’t stop smiling all night. it’s been a long time since I’ve felt that great about a show.

I can’t really think of any moment where I got stressed that night, which is another rarity for me before important shows like that. Thinking further back though- every time I got to sit in my grandparents living room while visiting them, and sing jazz songs with my Granddaddy (aka Pops) was always so much fun …that will always be one of my top cherished musical moments. Anytime I get to perform, or sing with any of my family members…as cheesy as it may sound, it’s always a special moment for me.

You’d think that we just sit around performing together all the time…but oddly enough, we don’t get those moments now as much as we used to when I was younger…so I cherish those times.

As you’ve mentioned, you perform with Canadian band The Duhks quite a bit, how did the relationship begin and how does it continue?

I met the Duhks in 2003, right after they had formed and put out their first album. They were coming to Jack Of The Wood to play, and someone contacted my Dad and asked if the group could stay with him. We always joke that my Dad is like the Canadian Embassy of the South, because when he was younger and performed all over Canada with different groups, Canadians always took him in, and were incredibly warm and welcoming to him when he needed it most.

Hence, he has made it a vow to always take care of fellow Canadian musicians when in need, now that he has the ability to do so. So – as soon as my Dad heard that The Duhks were Canadian, he opened his arms and bought a big giant ham and told them to come on! The Duhks and my folks fell in love immediately, and the love affair blossomed from there.

Every time the Duhks came into town, they would always stay at my parents – no matter what. We would have little music sessions on the porch, and every time they would come into town, we’d always song swap “Got any new tunes? Let me hear ’em!”. It was really a beautiful thing, because we both were growing alongside of each other. I had just released my new album, at the same time they had released theirs.

We remained close over the last decade, and both have 4 albums out to date. During the making of my third album, the band was going through some changes, and the lead singer, Jessee Havey, and percussionist Scott Senor chose to move on from The Duhks and pursue other opportunities. Sarah Dugas and her brother Christian Dugas took their places.

They were amazingly talented, and great big love machines, so we of course loved them like they’d always been there as well. Sarah came in while I was making “No Static” and laid down a French rap, and blew my mind because she did it so fast and proficiently! Over the years to follow, I opened quite a bit at various venues along the southeast – big and small and we had a lot of fun traveling together.

More recently, The Duhks began to slow down, and Sarah and Christian Dugas started working on several side projects, which have transformed into pretty regular and major projects of their own. So when Leonard (the bands creator and banjo player) got an offer to re-assemble the original line up of the Duhks for a reunion show in Raleigh and Spindale NC, sadly everyone was available except for Jessee Havey (the original singer) because she was wrapped up in a production in Winnipeg that she couldn’t find a sub for. So Leonard then asked Sarah if she could do the date, unfortunately, she too was unavailable due to being on the road with Zach Brown Band as a back up singer.

At a loss for what to do, Jessee I think it was gave Leonard the idea to ask me. I was practically a Duhk anyhow since we’d known one another for so long, and I knew almost all the songs pretty well anyway. So he called me up and asked me to fill in for Jessee.

I was flattered and thrilled to take on the challenge. I was very nervous mind you – they sing several different songs in French, because they’re all bi-lingual up there of course, however me…I took Spanish all through high school and college…French was a just a beautiful sounding jibber jabber to me. However, I pulled it off, and had a great time doing it.

It was so wild to be up there with them, but at the same time felt completely natural. That was probably a favorite musical moment too – come to think of it…it was magic.  The band isn’t touring and has no plans to record anytime soon.

So I have no plans with them right now.

What are you listening to right now, and what artists are inspiring you?

Let’s see…Jamie Lidell, Shovels & Rope, Cee-Lo, Electric Guest, Seth Walker, Alabama Shakes, Mavis Staples, Chic Gamine, Imaginary Cities, I recently just caught a set from a local band called The Critters, and I thought they were really fun and high energy, definitely inspiring to smile and be silly. Sarah and Christian Dugas are also in the process of preproduction for their first solo full length record follow up to their EP release last year. I’m telling you…their new songs are pretty sick and nasty…they always inspire me because they work really hard at what they do, and they really love it.

Nothing is more inspiring than seeing your friends grow and love their craft. I have so much respect for those two. Then I just got a record player and my bf and I have been getting into records a lot, so we’ve been listening to a lot of Stevie Wonder, Jack White, Ricki Lee Jones, Neil Young, The Who, Ella Fitzgerald, The Beatles, Fatz Domino, Blue Oyster Cult, Violent Femmes, Tal Farlow, etc. on vinyl.

There’s really nothing like listening to records. You can’t really skip a track if you don’t want to listen to it, or if you get bored. I mean you can, but it’s more of a hassle. Records are better for my ADD mind…they make me want to try and appreciate each track they way it was intended.

It slows you down a bit, which is a great thing in this day and age.

We met working for a charity event raising money for the Asheville Art Council in North Carolina, where you reside. How important is it for you to give back to your community and what are some of your favorite philanthropic ventures?

I feel like without community, you have nothing. Thus, being there for each other, and rooting each other on is critical. Aside from trying to buy local and doing the farmers market regularly, I also locally support and have ties with The Literacy Council of Buncombe County, Leaf In Schools And Streets, The WILD Foundation, Manna Foodbank, Joyful Noise, etc.

On a more national level, I am tied in a couple different Veterans programs called Operation Music Aid, and Soldiers Angels. Operation Music Aid is a really cool program that donates instruments to wounded soldiers to aid in the rehabilitation process.

I am not a fan of war, and I’m definitely not a fan of the effects it has on human beings who are thrown back into society after serving time for our country in brutal war zones. I feel that music not only can help in aiding the physical healing process, but most importantly, the mental healing process.

Music is based on feeling and emotion for me personally. I appreciate what Operation Music Aid is trying to do for our wounded soldiers and veterans of war. Soldiers Angels is really cool because it’s ongoing, and gives people the option to adopt a soldier, send care packages and letters, etc. There are plenty of soldiers who don’t have a family at home to remind them that they are loved and appreciated. Soldiers Angels remedies that.

Not only that, I think it is a beautiful thing to send words of encouragement to soldiers far from home, to make them feel that what they’re doing is not in vain, and appreciated. Another organization I support is Music programs for kids in public schools. There has been so many funding cuts, that I almost find it hard to believe.

Kids need and deserve music and the arts in their lives just as much as they need math and science in my opinion. A friend of mine works for a group called The Intonation Music Workshop, based in Chicago. I wish I had been able to have something like this at my school when I was in middle school!

They do great things. I think that the music community is vast and special, and I feel blessed to be a part of it.

You have been a touring musician for sometime, what advice do have for up and coming singer songwriters?

To educate themselves on the business side. It’s one thing to be a truly talented wordsmith/singer that makes good music, it’s a whole different thing to be able to have a clear and focused understanding of how the industry and business sides operate and function. You really have to be a proactive person, willing to “Do it Yourself”. If you can be good at both, you are half-way there.

The rest depends on timing and luck in my opinion. For some people, luck is everything. And good for those people. But to be successful at what you do, you have to assume that you have no luck, thus hopefully making yourself earn your keep, and hold your own amongst a sea full of people trying to do the exact same thing.

The music industry has definitely shifted, and “DIY” has taken over. Thus if you’re not willing to do things yourself, and remain as consistent as you can, you might as well accept it as a hobby instead of a career. It’s a hard road, and you never really realize how hard until you are already half-way down the road I guess.

I guess it just depends on how hungry you are. Patience, hard work, and showing respect for your fellow musicians are three good things to remember in general. Keeping a thick skin is good, as long as you don’t lose site of your own joy.

If you know it’s what you’re meant to do, don’t give up on it, but at the same time, don’t try to force it. Trust in the universe if it’s something you know you’re meant to do. And be willing to shift and move with the journey it takes you on.

That’s probably the best advice I could pass on.

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