Indie songstress Kelley McRae ditches 9 to 5, buys VW bus

She drinks, she curses, she curtsies and winks five minutes before she steps up to the stage. With the energy of an amped-up racing pony, she bounds over to the mic and greets the crowd, a twinkle in her eye and that Southern twang trickling down her spine. Kelley McRae is following her dreams of being a folk music star and her husband, Matt, is right by her side.

“One day we just sold everything we owned, bought a VW bus and hit the road,” McRae said, hands fluttering gracefully apart and coming back together as she spoke. “It’s been really hard, but I don’t regret it. This has been the most strange and wonderful experience of my life,” she said.

kelley mcrae

“I will say that the hardest thing by far is to be away from family and friends and community for so long. That’s the thing that I can’t quite work through. It feels like an awfully big sacrifice and it’s one I still haven’t worked out for myself.”

McRae grew up, having learned to play the piano, but it wasn’t until college she discovered a deep-seated love for the guitar.

“I fell into it, sort of by accident, in college. I was pursuing a degree in acting at the time and I thought it would be fun. Once they taught us three chords, I was hooked. It felt like falling in love with the right person,” she said.

Her lifelong friend, Sarah Gregory, wrote in an email that McRae’s union with music was more like a nuptial.

“I think she was saying she wanted to commit to music in a life long, monogamous way,” Gregory said. “Living in the city can be like having a dozen mistresses, and Kelley was ready to settle down with just music. And watching her write and play over the past twelve years has been like watching a relationship develop.

With theater, she mentioned, there is always the nagging script actors have to follow. With musicians, on the other hand, the unexpected tends to occur. Just as when Jehn Hovsepian offered to sing with her on stage one night at a club in Winter Park.

“[Jehn’s] voice is so ridiculous,” McRae said. “You live for these kind of moments.”

She shakes her head, a cascade of musical tinkling erupting minutely from her wind chime earrings, a secret smile played across her face. She was a dainty figure in stark contrast with the din of the dark gloom of the Peacock Room where we talked.kelley mcrae

People filed in and out of the room, a drink in one hand, partners’ waists clasped in the other. Nicolas Sellitto, the promoter for her first Orlando show, glows in awed appreciation of her performance.

“She just blows me away,” he said, his shoulders thrust backward for emphasis, “She’s so talented. It’s a shame more people don’t know about her, but, you know. Fuck them.”

There is a small Facebook and Twitter following for the duo. Kelley and Matt McRae both get a lot of support from social media, which doesn’t exactly translate into attendance at shows.

“We could be sleeping in a cabin, under the stars, or squeezing our two bodies onto a friend’s couch. It’s totally worth it, though…”

Some say the motivation behind going to see local, up-and-coming bands is dwindling, as fans are likely to listen to pre-recorded music on their iPods rather than at a live venue.

Matt mentioned that living on the road is hard. He said you never know if your work is going to pay off, if you’re reaching the right audience, or even where your next shower or meal is coming from, but that’s part of the adventure.

“We could be sleeping in a cabin, under the stars, or squeezing our two bodies onto a friend’s couch. It’s totally worth it, though. I’m still head over heels for Kelley and I’d go anywhere with her,” he said, arms cradling his chest, as his eyes began scanning the crowd for his wife.

“We’ve definitely had struggles along the way. We had plenty of nights sleeping in Walmart parking lots and weeks of eating terrible road food or  sneaking into state parks to shower! These times do not feel like a glamorous adventure, needless to say,” McRae said in an email.

“Or when the van breaks down in the far corner of Washington state and you’re broke and tired. There’s plenty of struggles for a touring musician, but it’s one of those things that you can’t really complain about because you’re choosing it. Sure, it feels shitty in the moment, but at the end of the day it’s the nature of life on the road, and the pay-off is huge! To spend my time working hard for something I love is a huge privilege. And to get to do it with Matt is incredible.”

She takes the plunge and buys a VW bus

Before they set off for the road, Matt kept busy making props for TV and Broadway shows, maintaining a metal shop while she was stuck in the 9-to-5 circuit.

Going from being caged in an office in New York City, to flying wildly overseas and visiting different countries, she finally feels like she has a place to call home and she’s discovered who she really is inside.

“I didn’t feel like I was growing, I reached this point where I didn’t like myself anymore. We’re wired as human being to evolve and challenge ourselves, so that’s what Matt and I did,” McRae said.”

“I didn’t feel like I was growing, I reached this point where I didn’t like myself anymore. We’re wired as human being to evolve and challenge ourselves, so that’s what Matt and I did,” McRae said.”

Gregory, her friend of 12 years, wrote that McRae never works without sincere emotion.

“I used to sing back up for Kelley from 2004 to 2006. She’d bring a new song to me and say she’s not quite done with it, something isn’t sitting right. She’d work on it for a few more weeks, bring me the changes. I couldn’t believe it, but it was even better. I used to think this was perfectionism, but I think it’s more artistic than that,” Gregory said.

kelley mcrae

It’s been three years since she packed her bags and set out for the trip of a lifetime. McRae said she thinks she has enough material to release an EP or an album, her third full-length record from Fancy Studios, but there is no real time frame for it.

Matt engineered all of her songs, and she’d be nothing without him, she said.

After everything she and her husband have been through, from the exhausted van to their sporadic bouts without knowing where they might shower or eat the next day, McRae has the support of her friends and family to get her through the hard times.

And her friend Sarah Gregory still looks forward to every show Kelley McRae puts on.

“I think that’s why she’s so thrilling to watch on stage,” she said. “Every time she comes through town, I want to see how the relationship between her and her guitar, her words, her music has evolved or shifted. It’s very much a living thing.”


(Photos from The DuckDuck CollectiveNo Surf Music and Grass Clippings)

Published on HeadBang ‘n


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s