Kelly Hunt. Photo credit: Jenny Wheat Photography
Kelly Hunt makes the kind of music that will strike you as instantly familiar yet strangely new and vital. Her voice and banjo are perfectly suited for her stunning brand of Americana/roots music. She recorded her first album, Even the Sparrow, over the course of two years, a period of time she describes requiring "a great deal of patience and perseverance and growth" and that she is "proud of the grit it has taken to make this album a reality." We are honored to share an interview with Kelly Hunt, along with her book, music and movie recommendations.
Tell us about your new upcoming debut album, Even the Sparrow. What have you learned from this process that you’ll take to future recordings?
This album has been over two years in the making, but it’s finally complete and available exclusively on my website, www.kellyhuntmusic.com, until its official release in December 2018! This being my first album, I have had so much to learn. Along with my duo partner/co-producer, Staś Heaney, I’ve immersed myself in every phase of album production—from writing and producing to recording, mixing, and mastering. It took me months just to figure out how to effectively be in the studio. It requires a very different kind of focus and skillset than live performance. And I had to develop an ear for mixing and mastering, which are a science and art unto themselves. It is such a nuanced process, but being a part of it every step of the way has given me a lot of confidence moving forward.
What’s one thing you’re especially proud of with Even the Sparrow?
Well this album has been a long time coming. The title track is a song I wrote seven years ago. So it’s fulfilling to see it all finally come to fruition. It has required a great deal of patience and perseverance and growth. So I guess more than anything, I am proud of the grit it has taken to make this album a reality— not just my own, but that of the many remarkably talented folks who have had a hand in its crafting.
Describe your songwriting process. How often are you writing songs? What’s the most challenging part of this process for you?
The songwriting process for me is equal parts mystery and discipline. There seems to be a cyclical nature to it. There are days when I’m inundated with ideas—little melodic phrases, lyrical fragments, narrative concepts. That’s the mysterious part, the stuff that just seems to come out of nowhere. I have hundreds of voice memos on my phone. That’s my primary way of recording ideas when they come to me. I just try to preserve the raw idea in the moment to be hashed out later. I think of those as my “fire-starting” days.
And then there are days when I’m not really feeling inspired to start anything new, but I am focused enough to start methodically taming the fires I’ve already started. That’s where the discipline comes in—actually sitting down and workshopping a song. I develop most song ideas in my head first and then go to an instrument (usually banjo but sometimes guitar or piano) to flesh them out. But every now and then, a song will spring from just playing around with a chord progression or scale.
Unless I am completely mentally absorbed in some other activity, I am usually fiddling with a song idea in the back of my mind—when I’m driving on the highway, when I’m doing methodical tasks that don’t require thought, in all those in-between moments of life, I’m usually working on a song in one way or another. But then a very important part of the creative cycle too is just letting the field lie fallow—not attempting to do anything creative, just letting the mind rest. That’s probably the hardest part of the process really, but it’s an indispensable one, and sometimes the most productive.
The most challenging part of the process for me is just being patient with it. Some songs take 10 minutes to write—others, 10 years. There are plenty of songs I have been sitting on for years, waiting for them to be ready, or for me to be ready for them maybe. Sometimes you do have to grow into a song. For example, there’s a song that I started almost two years ago and labored over for months but could never get right. I got so frustrated with it that I just filed it away. But a couple weeks ago, it popped back to mind and within 10 minutes, it was finished. It’s a mystery. A song matures in its own time, and you just have to be open to that notion, meet it where it is and not get bent out of shape when you can’t figure it out right away.
Who do you look to for musical inspiration these days?
Lately, I’ve been digging deep into the canon of old-time music and country blues—folks like Norman Blake, Doc Watson, Ola Belle Reed, Elizabeth Cotton, Mississippi John Hurt. I’ve started playing around with guitar, finger-picking mainly, so that’s kind of the direction my songwriting is taking at the moment.
What are you looking forward to in 2018?
I’m looking forward to finally giving music the cream of my energy this year. Staś and I will be heading out on our first tour later this month and plan to do quite a bit of regional and national touring this year. I’ve been laying the groundwork for this moment over the past couple years, so this is a very exciting time. I’m excited for all the new challenges and experiences that will come with this phase—the folks we’ll meet, the many cultures and communities we’ll encounter, the music we’ll hear and make along the way. I think this will be a very memorable year for me.
What inspires you the most about original music in Kansas City?
I had no idea when I moved to Kansas City three years ago what a vibrant and generous music community I would find here. I moved here for a job in graphic design. I had never gigged before I moved here, and I certainly didn’t have intentions of recording an album. But I had been writing songs for years and it was starting to become a bigger part of my daily life. I was hungry in ways I didn’t understand yet. And this city just kind of woke me up, brought the music out of me, gave me a reason to put myself out there. It changed my whole trajectory really. I really can’t imagine a better place to have been incubated as a burgeoning singer-songwriter.