Kelsey Keith: Singer, Songwriter, and Student Extraordinaire

I had the pleasure of interviewing Kelsey Keith, a Commercial Songwriting major in her Freshman year at Middle Tennessee State University. She is a Buchanan Fellow, a member of AMP Entertainment, has previously served as a member of the Literature Review Staff for Collage, MTSU’s Honors College arts magazine, and she volunteers with the Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Center. I’ve known Kelsey for a few years now, and at 18 years old she is one of the wisest people I’ve ever encountered. I gleaned her insights about music, songwriting, and artistry.

When did you first start pursuing music?

I suppose my active pursuit of music began around the time I was fourteen, though I certainly go through both very busy phases and quite slow phases. Currently, I’m taking time away from performing to really delve into my craft and voice as a songwriter, due in part to encouragement from Brad Wilson who’s actually a Belmont professor. If you ever find yourself in the midst of some musical soul-searching, he gives sage advice.

What’s an instrument you would like to learn how to play?

Electric bass. Or even upright bass. There are some serious grooves to be had there, and I would love to be able to add a new texture to my songs. Admittedly, I’d also just like to be half as cool as the lead singer of A Taste of Honey.

What format or platform do you listen to music on?

Streaming-wise, I have traditionally used Spotify, though I’ve read recently that Apple Music pays a better royalty rate (though still so little!). I’m currently deliberating on a switch, but I’m torn because I love the Spotify format. That being said, I am very much a CD person; I taught myself to sing by playing a CD on my stereo and reading the lyrics from the lyric book. There is something undeniably satisfying about the tangibility of it and the artwork and just being able to pop it in the car and drive. I can dig vinyl too, but I definitely buy less of it.

If you could only listen to one album for the rest of your life, which album would it be?

The Phosphorescent Blues by Punch Brothers. Absolutely brilliant. I have three years’ worth of commentary on it, so I’ll save the details for another time.

What can you not stop listening to right now?

The Call Me By Your Name soundtrack. The film is absolutely beautiful, and the soundtrack really captures the full range of emotion in the movie and somehow fits together seamlessly while still being so eclectic. The Sufjan Stevens song “Mystery of Love” that’s nominated for an Oscar is one of the most enchanting songs I’ve heard in a long while.

Who is one artist or band you think everyone should listen to right now?

Bahamas is doing some really groovy stuff on his new album Earthtones. We’re getting to hear this awesome new sound from him, but he also has some other incredibly beautiful albums. I think his music has wide appeal. My friends O Summer are also putting out a new EP come March 8th, and I’m really proud of how far they’ve come as musicians and people. I’ve heard most of the new EP, and there are some really good tunes happening there.

Which musician has influenced you the most?

Influence is so difficult for me to pinpoint because I listen to everything I can. I suppose, though, it’s been the songwriting of Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes) that has completely changed the way I approach the craft. Never have I been so fascinated with someone’s body of work. Breathtaking writing, time and time again. I have to cheat a little, though, and add in Joni Mitchell. I’m still making my way through her catalogue, but there is an undeniable beauty to everything she’s created. I’m so entranced with her story and her presence and her style. Lately, I can definitely hear her influence seeping into my own writing. Also, Blue is just one of the most important records of all time.

To what extent has your taste in music influenced your songwriting?

I love so many different artists, all of whom have their own specific characteristics, and I believe I subconsciously absorb my favorite things that they do and somehow filter them through my own artistry. When my taste changes, my music changes. There was a point in my life when I knew every single word to every single Sugarland song. The songs I wrote then are very different from what I write now.

What inspires your songwriting?

I’m inspired by personal experience, of course, but more than anything, I’m fascinated by stories, whether it be my own or someone else’s or one I’ve imagined. To me, human existence is this culmination of stories: the beautiful, the devastating, and the in-between. Songwriting is this channel through which I am able to tell a handful of them.

What’s the hardest part about sharing something so personal in a song?

Oftentimes, I fear I’m not doing justice to the emotion and feeling behind a song. There can be something I so desperately want to express yet never seem to fully encompass, which is infuriating but also something very special. I’d almost say it’s what keeps songwriting new, this idea that you can express similar sentiments but always embody different facets of it.

Do you think music has made you more confident?

I like to think that my music is an extension of myself, so it isn’t so much that my music can make me more confident, but that confidence must manifest within me. Then, perhaps, that confidence will show through in my music.

What do you feel is your responsibility as a songwriter and musician?  

The simplest answer to this, I suppose, is to give expression to human existence. I think more than that, though, we as artists have to use our platform to tell stories that are otherwise left untold. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out myself in my songwriting, and I know I’ll always continue to do that to some degree, but there are a lot of people whose voices are not being heard right now. Though their stories are not mine to tell, I want to use my privilege to bring them to the forefront of the conversation. There’s a certain balance to strike between personal exploration and expression and political/ social advocacy. I’m certainly learning.

Which is more meaningful to you, lyrics or the actual music?

I fell in love with words at a very young age. I have always been fascinated with the way in which people have created languages to communicate, so in that way, I’m a lyrics gal. But I also recognize the limitations of songwriting vernacular, and I think that’s where instrumentation and musicality play their hands in expressing that otherwise inexplicable sentiment.

How does music influence other aspects in your life?

All my memories are tethered to songs and albums, which can sometimes be difficult to accept when good songs are attached to painful memories. I’ve also had to learn to just appreciate silence. I used to think I had to fill every moment with sound, but I’ve come to appreciate a comfortable silence with someone or even just myself.

How has college influenced your music?

I have completely re-evaluated what I want out of my music. I pigeon-holed myself during high school to be this very specific type of writer and performer, and there was a point where that persona, so to speak, was accurate, but I’d lived a lot of life and didn’t let my music account for that. While I am certainly proud of my younger self for what I accomplished then, I feel quite distant from that now. Even most of the music I have online currently feels very much like that of a stranger. College has allowed me to embrace both the woman and musician into which I’ve grown.

Five years ago, did you think you would be where you are now?

Oh, absolutely not. If I had the ability to see the future, life would become terribly boring, I think.

Do you have any musical projects coming up?

Right now, I’m busy writing, but I hope to put some new music out into the world within the near future. I’ve outgrown a lot of the music I have out right now, and I want to send a more honest representation of myself and my perspectives when the time is right. That being said, there is no specific timeline in place right now, but I’ll be sure to spread word when there is.

What are your plans for the future?

My mind is constantly flooded with ideas for the future. Some days I want to be a singer-songwriter who travels the world playing gigs; other days I want to be a park ranger for the National Park Service. I’ve also recently become interested in music supervision for television and film. I love a good number of things in this life, and I’m trying to allow myself the space to let my passions guide my heart in whatever direction. Maybe I’ll have multiple careers! Who knows? I’m doing my best to take care of my body and mind right now, so that I can fill my future with as many wonderful adventures as possible.


You can check Kelsey out on Instagram (kelseygkeith), Twitter (@kelseygkeith), and Facebook (Kelsey Keith)

To listen to her music, search for Kelsey Keith on SoundCloud and YouTube

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