[Editor’s note: This is a re-post of an article originally published on April 8, 2013. Because Kelley McRae will be giving another house show in Fort Lauderdale tomorrow, we decided to bring this to the attention of our new readers. If you only do one thing this weekend, make sure it is to listen to this girl sing. She’s amazing.]
I’ve been listening to a lot of Kelley McRae these past few months, for several reasons. The normal reason one would do this: I like her music. She has all the traits of a great artist and musician: she has a beautiful voice that exudes nostalgia and heartbreak, her lyrics interact in a profound way with the big philosophical issues of our modern existence — identity and meaning, memory and being — and her stage presence, with its sweetness and charm, captures and delights audiences.
There’s another reason, though, another reason I have found myself gravitating increasingly toward her new “Brighter Than the Blues” album: Kelley McRae is doing something that I would never have the courage to do, and her music reminds me that there really are those who choose a life apart from social convention, and that the rest of the world is better off because of people like her.
It’s taken me too long to write this interview, mainly because I can’t figure out how to do justice to either her music or her choices. At long last though, after two months of brainstorming and staring at a blank Word document, here is Kelley McRae as I know her.
I met McRae at a house show in late January 2013. She and her
husband/guitarist/producer/driver Matt Castelein came down to South Florida to play; she has family down here, or at least I met someone who claimed to be her cousin, but one can never be sure. The show lasted about two hours, including an intermission. I ran the sales table and sat amongst an antique-looking leather suitcase displaying CDs and t-shirts with birds on them. Her musicianship is astounding, captivating. She tells jokes and stories in between tunes. Her husband stands next to her, looking every bit of Eric Clapton from the “Derek and the Dominos” days. He is a highly-skilled guitarist and adept vocalist.
So these adjectives that I’ve used — they can be used for a vast number of professional musicians and singers, as well as for many amateurs who don’t choose to pursue music as a career. What is far less common is to find musicians who sell almost all of their worldly goods to buy a VW van. It’s less common to find ones who drive this van around America playing bars, clubs, house shows. Challenging the low incidence rate of this occurrence are Kelley McRae and Matt Castelein, and we should all be thankful that they are.
When I speak with McRae on the phone several weeks after the Fort Lauderdale show, I am mainly interested in hearing about the experience of not going home to a regular house every night at 6. To my fearful and controlling self, this is a drastic decision. I am shocked by her preference for uncertainty over a methodical and predictable life. I want to know what precipitated it, and she answers simply: “I was pretty exhausted.” She had been working a series of daytime jobs — waitressing, receptionist— and nighttime jobs — singing, playing.
She tells me about the moment that this decision to go on the road occurred. She and Castelein were playing music in the Catskills, taking a break from the city (“I know it sounds ridiculous,” she says). There was a moment of careful recognition, a sort of timorous maybe-we-can-do-this kind of attitude. McRae recounts it like this: “I was like: ‘holy crap, like this sounds really good, like we could do this.’ I think I even said, ‘you know, what if we just went on tour? What if we like quit our jobs and sold everything and went on tour like hippies in a van?’”
And so they did. She defies my expectations when she tells me that this decision, this selling everything and heading off with almost no plans was “really empowering and really freeing and exciting.” With everything she sold, the decision to sell more and leave became easier and easier. When I ask her about where she would like to be in 5 years (like I’m some kind of HR rep hiring for a job), she tells me, “there isn’t really necessarily a grand plan…. Part of what makes what we’re doing kind of insane is that we don’t really have that 5-year plan.”
Insane? Maybe. Probably. Beautiful? Most emphatically, yes.
In so many ways, McRae’s decision to sell everything and go on the road represents so much of what so many in my generation are feeling: a discontent with the world around us, a feeling of uncertainty about the future, and a desire for a world better than the one we’ve inherited. We’ve been promised good jobs and stable careers and financial security, but all too often we are graduating college with nowhere to go but back home. There are no jobs, and, as the news media constantly reminds us, the economic future is helplessly bleak. And while most of us (especially people like me) are not going to take the same kinds of risks that McRae and Castelein have taken, we long for something better, something more fulfilling than the lot we have been granted. Like McRae, we are exhausted by the rat race (already) and desire something “empowering and really freeing.” If only we could all find creative outlets similar to the one McRae has found, ones that would satisfy these desires, the world might by a more beautiful place.
Previously from Laura Creel:
♦ Morning Radio Surprisingly Insightful in Wake of Mike Rice Scandal
♦ Remembering Trololos
♦ A Beatles’ Album Cover Gives Us Pause
♦ Found Canaletto = Treasure Story Surprise!
♦ “Your video sucks, US Magazine”