Interview by Heather Riske.
Despite being just 27 years old, singer-songwriter Gabriel Kelley had no shortage of material to use for his debut album, “It Don’t Come Easy.” As a kid, he learned to play guitar around a campfire at a community in rural Georgia, realized his passion studying at a music conservatory in Sweden as a teen, and spent his early 20s in Guatemala creating a music education program for orphans. Just in time for his concert at The Pageant’s Halo Bar on August 18, ALIVE chatted with the folk singer about vagabonding through the country in his van, writing songs for Tim McGraw, and how he came to record an album with some of the biggest names in American folk music.
ALIVE: How did you get your start in music?
Gabriel Kelley: I grew up playing music in rural Athens, Georgia, where there’s a pretty big music scene. My parents played music and there was a big community of people that all played, sitting around circles at “pickin parties” playing old-time string music. I heard a lot of Cat Stevens, Neil Young and that old folk from the ‘60s and ‘70s. I’d just grab an instrument and watch everyone else and try to figure it out for myself.
ALIVE: Between studying in Sweden and creating a music education program in Guatemala, it sounds like you had a pretty interesting young adulthood. Which experience do you think most significantly impacted your songwriting?
GK: Really, it all kind of clumps together—you learn something from every experience. It’s about endless education wherever you go. When I was at the music conservatory in Sweden I was so young—I was only 16—and I was living on my own and studying. Over there is when I really had the realization that this was something I wanted to do with my life. I was learning a lot about myself. I had to grow up kind of quickly because I was on my own in a new country with a new culture, a new language. There was a lot of growth at that time. It solidified my foundation of my feelings about everything from music to life in general.
ALIVE: What made you want to give up your songwriting career—in which you wrote for stars like Tim McGraw—and hit the road to write and record for yourself?
GK: I was about 20 when I actually moved to Nashville with the songwriting deal. For a while after Sweden I had been traveling the country, just kind of floating from spot to spot driving around in a Chevy Astro van. Then I came back to Athens and started a band, and ended up signing a deal to move up to Nashville to write for a while. I did that for about 2½ years before realizing that it just didn’t work for me. I had spent most of my life playing music because I needed to—it was honest and about real life experiences. All of the sudden, it had become about writing commercial stuff for a demographic. I was taking my music and editing it for a commercial audience. I was dumbing down the poetry and the language of things to make it into a simpler form. It got to the point where I was just bummed out about being stripped of my own creativity. The “songwriting factory” thing in Nashville didn’t really gel with me.
When I left the publishing company, I sold all my stuff and bought an old ‘77 Dodge Mobile Traveler that I started living out of. I only took what I could fit in there. It was about getting back down to my roots and writing about real life experiences and things I really cared about. It was almost a rebirth in a sense. I started writing for myself again and pushing my own career. It was a time of touring, traveling, and building my own base as an artist.
ALIVE: Can you tell us a little about the album, “It Don’t Come Easy?”
GK: Well, it’s certainly called “It Don’t Come Easy” for a reason. Basically that whole concept is one where you really want to dig in and get to places of more honest creation and start pushing yourself—and it makes things more difficult. It’s about hard work and plowing your way through things. The record is probably about four years in the making, but it’s my first official record and I guess I’m a bit of a perfectionist. I wanted to really do it right in the right environment with the right people. We decided not to edit a bunch of stuff so it would stay honest. We had some of my favorite musicians—there were three generations of musicians in one room. The oldest was Reggie Young, and I was the youngest.
Everyone that was involved came to the same place at the same time and wanted to create for the sake of creating art that we all enjoy, and hopefully it means something to everybody involved. It was kind of a family vibe recording that record. It was about creating with people I felt close with. Up until making the record, it was a big DIY process, and I had raised close to $30,000 on a Kickstarter campaign. It took a long time and a lot of effort to get the funding. It was a lot of fun to make the record. It’s something that I can actually feel good about for my first release on a national level. I can sleep at night knowing that I made something with integrity.
ALIVE: It sounds like you worked with a lot of legendary musicians on this album. Is there anyone that made you a little starstruck to work with?
GK: Honestly, almost all of those guys. We handpicked everybody that was on the record based on their style. Brad Pemberton is literally my favorite drummer on the planet. When I was writing songs on the record, and even just growing up, a lot of the stuff he played on was something that inspired me. To be able to play with him was incredible—when you’ve listened to someone’s work for so long, it’s so incredible when you get to play with them and you just kind of synch up automatically.
Reggie Young is a legendary guitar player—he’s had about a hundred #1’s. He’s played with Elvis, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson…the list just goes on. Everyone was in awe around him. It was a huge honor for everyone involved. We also had a couple of the guys from the Cardinals that used to back up Ryan Adams, including Brad Pemberton and Jon Graboff, and they added a lot to what we were doing. Gabe Dixon is an awesome singer-songwriter and piano player that’s an absolutely brilliant performer. Bekka Bramlett, who has sung with Elton John and Joe Cocker, did some backup vocals.
ALIVE: How would you describe your sound to someone that’s never heard it?
GK: At the end of the day, I feel like I’m just kind of a folky guy—that’s probably the best way to describe it. Hopefully, it’s true to form like the old guys were. I’m just trying to write about real life, and I try to keep it simple. I don’t tend to make anything too flashy or put any sparkles on it. I try to keep things basic and hopefully just try to write a good song. If I had to describe myself to someone I’d probably say “ early ‘70s folk singer guy.”
ALIVE: Who are some of your biggest musical influences?
GK: Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, and Joe Cocker top the list. There’s one guy that no one seems to have heard of named Willis Alan Ramsey who made one record in the early ‘70s. Especially for this record, he was someone I listened to a lot. He put out one record that was amazing, but just a couple months after it was out he became really frustrated with the music business and quit it altogether.
ALIVE: In addition to touring to support your album, what are your future plans?
GK: In the immediate future, I’ll probably spend the next year pushing this record on the road and just plugging away promoting it with the PR, radio promos, etc. The main goal is to get as many people to hear it as possible. After we’ve done that for a while, the focus will be on the next record. I’m pretty much always writing, so I have a lot of material ready.
Check out Gabriel Kelley on August 18 when he performs a free acoustic set in the Halo Bar at The Pageant, limited to the first 150 people. For more information, visit gabrielkelley.com.