Kelly Oliver is an artist who seems to have made significant progress in a relatively short space of time. Having only started out performing as a folk singer-songwriter around eighteen months ago, last week Kelly’s debut album ‘This Land’ was included in the Telegraph’s ‘Top Folk Albums of The Year’ earning a four-star review in the process. Her stripped back approach to recording, in the main only supported by acoustic guitar and harmonica, provides the perfect platform for Kelly’s vocal tone to shine…so much so that the first single from the album (‘Diamond Girl’, a duet with Luke Jackson) has already enjoyed Radio 2 airplay from Bob Harris and Mark Radcliffe.
When the talented Folkstock Records artist visited Coventry this month to record with Big Comfy Sessions, I seized the opportunity for a few photos and a chat. I was keen to find out how Kelly had achieved so much so quickly, and where she was headed next…
FRUK: You’ve had a crazy year where so much has happened…?
“It has been a crazy year, it’s been quite non-stop actually. Obviously that’s great…it’s been very manic in a way, but an exciting manic! Now I think it’s important for me to reflect on everything. I know that maybe sounds a bit silly, but I think it’s important to actually take on board what’s happened, because a lot of things have happened that I’ve maybe…not necessarily forgotten about but I’ll remember and think “Gosh, that was a really big achievement”. Because something else came straight after, I didn’t really have the time to think “I’m really proud of that”. So now I’m taking the time to look back on the year…and obviously that helps you then make your goals for next year. I made goals for 2014 and a lot of them have been ticked off now. It’s such a great feeling to think ‘I’ve done those’. So now I’m making new goals for next year and thinking ‘where can I go from here?’ and ‘how can I improve?’. The goals obviously get bigger as well…it gives you something to aim for which is really important I think.
FRUK: A lot of people would probably see you as having achieved a lot in a short space of time…was it really like that? Were you doing a lot of stuff beforehand in preparation for your career as a folk artist, or has it literally happened that quick?
I would say yeah it has been that quick! Singing-wise…no I’ve been a singer all my life really, it’s not like I’ve only just started singing. Guitar…I’ve been playing since I was about 16. I’ve definitely improved…since I’ve done it full-time I’ve definitely improved a lot on things like harmonica, guitar, my vocals. In terms of ‘the journey’, I’ve only been doing it for a year and a half…performing live. I’ve been working with Helen Meissner (Folkstock Records) for just over a year now so it has been very quick, it’s been a quick journey. I think it’s hard for other people to take it all in as well…it’s a bit of a whirlwind!
FRUK: So why folk? You’ve been singing since you were little…weren’t you attracted to more commercial genres of music?
I’ve always loved folk music, I’ve always had this passion for it. My Grandmother was Irish, but it wasn’t until I went to Ireland for the first time four years ago…that’s when I actually heard it in the flesh. I went into pubs and saw live folk music and then that made me think “Yeah I really want to do this”. I graduated from Royal Holloway, went travelling, and I went to Brazil and Argentina. When I was out there I got this overwhelming sense of how lucky I was, just in my lifestyle…just living in England and the opportunities that I had in comparison with other people in the world. So combined with that love of live music and then this feeling where I felt like I owed it to myself to pursue what I wanted to do…that got me to decide to pursue a career in music. And folk…the spectrum is a lot broader now…there’s traditional folk, there’s contemporary, there’s indie-folk, pop-folk, alt-folk. I’m a singer/songwriter influenced by folk music…I think it leaves the spectrum very broad for me.
FRUK: Tell us about the process of making your album…how did you find that?
Very fun! I recorded it at Folkstock Records and that was great to actually work on eleven songs because I’d done my EP and that was five songs, but to actually have eleven…you then think ‘wow this really has to hang together’. Each song has to be very good…I didn’t want any fillers or any song where people would think ‘She didn’t really need that’. I wanted each song on there to be a song in its own right. And I was just extremely lucky…I got a Emerging Excellence Award from Help Musicians UK that funded the cost of recording, so that to me was just a real vote of confidence. That really helped because then I didn’t have the pressure of thinking ‘I’ve got to pay for this’. It was like having so many people helping you…so then you feel like ‘Now I really need to make this a good album!’
FRUK: Dave Swarbrick plays on the album, Luke Jackson is on there…do you enjoy the collaborative process and is that something you think you’ll continue with?
Definitely, I love it. Because I’m a solo singer, it is all down to me…which I love obviously…however in terms of music, to be able to play along with somebody who’s just as musical as you, has the same passion as you…I absolutely love that. With the album it’s very stripped back, it’s me on the guitar…Lauren Deakin-Davies who produced the album, she also plays bass on the album and even that is lovely just to have that added bass in there. So I think the idea of collaborating with somebody else is such a nice thought and I’d love to do that because you learn so much. I collaborated with Will Pound earlier in the year and he gave me a few harmonica tips, so I got a little bit from him as well! It adds a different energy I think working with someone else…
FRUK: Do you enjoy the writing and recording process…do you prefer it to playing live?
I wouldn’t say I prefer it. I like them both. Playing live you get that energy…and I enjoy playing live because sometimes you think ‘this is sounding good to me, I hope it’s sounding good to them’ and you get that ‘feel’ from it. With recording, it’s much more precise…I feel it’s more precise the way I record anyway. I’ll do hundreds of takes to get ‘the perfect take’ whereas live it’s more about getting the performance. For me with recording, I feel like I want this to be ‘perfect’, so I will want to do it over and over again…so I put a lot of pressure on myself recording the album. I think in terms of what I’m recording next I will lay off myself a little bit and get the emotion out there rather than thinking ‘this has to be perfect’. As long as the emotion’s in there, I think that’s the most important thing…whereas with this album I wanted the emotion and perfection!
FRUK: You mentioned the harmonica earlier and that’s become one of your signature things…how did you end up playing the harmonica?
I’ve been playing that for a year and half. I asked for one for Christmas, I got a harmonica, had a little play with it…and I’m influenced by people like Bob Dylan and Alanis Morissette and Steve Earle…that’s where I heard the harmonica in music. And when I was starting out I thought I need something a little bit different if I’m going to be a female singer/songwriter who plays the guitar…there are lots of them around. I thought ‘I can’t play any other instruments…what can I play that I don’t need to hold!?’ Then I thought ‘Well Ok I can play the harmonica’, and so I just taught myself. It took a while to learn to play it at the same time but it was just something I worked on. And because I liked the sound of it I improved quicker. I was even more thrilled when I got harmonica sponsorship from Hohnerwho then supplied me with my harmonicas. Obviously the harmonicas they’ve given me are really great instruments so I’ve improved even more. I just feel like a lot of people have been helping me on my journey…it’s not just me, it’s a team effort I think.
FRUK: Obviously pre and post your album release you’ve been playing a lot…gigs, sessions, doing radio…have you noticed yourself improving as a result of playing constantly?
It’s definitely helped me to improve. Practice makes perfect, definitely. I think with singing it’s a little bit different…I wouldn’t say it’s improving my singing…I think my voice has just evolved rather than improved. I listen to recordings when I was younger and my voice was very pure, almost choir-like. Now I think it’s maybe got a bit warmer…I’ve just grown up a bit in terms of my vocals. So with vocals I wouldn’t say it improves things. With guitar playing, the more you play the more you improve I think and that’s definitely the case with me I think. The more I’m exposed to new music and other guitar players…the more I try out stuff on the guitar and my guitar tastes evolve and my technique improves. If I were to put the guitar down for a few months…that would just be awful! I’d really take a step back I think…
FRUK: So who are you listening to at the moment?
Well I’m actually listening to a lot of Old Crow Medicine Show at the moment…their album Remedy is my favourite album at the moment. And that’s where the harmonica comes in…I love the harmonica on that album, so I’m starting to try and learn what they’re playing. Even though they’re like Bluegrass/Americana…it’s totally different to folk…if I can get maybe some of those harmonica techniques and maybe bring that over into a folk song…who knows what could happen! I think it’s great to listen to new stuff because you start to push boundaries…you start to think ‘this isn’t supposed to go together but maybe I can put it together and just see what happens’…
FRUK: You’ve had a lot of success relatively quickly…what do you feel is the biggest thing you’ve learned so far about being a successful singer-songwriter?
I think definitely to stay positive. I feel like I’m not the best example because so much good stuff has happened, it would be hard for me to be negative at all…but at the same time I think because the highs are so high, sometimes the lows can be very low. You can think ‘Wow this is hard’…it’s still a struggle you know? But I think staying positive and believing you can do it. I think ultimately you have to have to be positive otherwise you’ll never get anywhere…you’ll want to give up and think ‘no I can’t do this’ whereas if you keep remembering all the good stuff and remembering why you’re doing it in the first place…it gives you the confidence to carry on I think.
FRUK: So once you’ve taken some time to take stock of what’s happened this year, where does Kelly Oliver go from here?
Well I’m really excited about the New Year! I’ve got some headline gigs coming up, which is great because headline gigs are really very different to support gigs…and I love doing support slots because I learn a lot from the headline artist and that’s where I’ve learned most of my stagecraft, from watching the others. But when you do headline shows it’s your job! I really take that on, I really feel there’s a difference. One of the headline gigs is Downend Folk club over in Bristol…I can’t wait for that. And I’ve also got some good support slots coming up actually. I’m supporting Blair Dunlop at Stafford Gate House in January and also I’ve got a support slot with Tobias Ben Jacob and Lukas Drinkwater…they’re doing a tour in January so I’m going to join them on one or two dates.
FRUK: And are you writing at the moment?
Yeah there are some plans in the making! I am writing at the moment which is really exciting because it’s different to the ‘This Land’ album. The songs are getting different and that’s just the influences coming in and so I’m really excited ‘cos I think…well what I hope, whenever it comes out…I want it to be different, I want people to think ‘Yeah she’s definitely evolved, moved on and learned’. I think that’s showing in the stuff I’m writing at the moment.
FRUK: Finally, what’s on the Kelly Oliver Christmas list?
Actually, a new capo! I lost mine! And also another Old Crow Medicine Show album….all I ever ask for is things to do with my guitar and CD’s!”
Check Kelly’s website for details of her debut album and her upcoming gigs:
This is part of an ongoing new series of photo / interview features on Folk Radio UK from Rob Bridge, a photographer, writer and film-maker specialising in folk, acoustic and Americana music. You can contact him on twitter@redwoodphotos