A Conversation with Rorie Kelly
by Erel Pilo[dropcap background="no" color="#333333"]T[/dropcap]he first time I met fellow singer-songwriter, Rorie Kelly, was at a GoGirls concert at The Branded Saloon, a Western themed bar in Brooklyn. When I walked in, Rorie — whose stature may be on the petite side, but her voice is anything but — was onstage, belting out her songs amidst a swirling mass of hair. Fiery and red-headed, she is reminiscent of a certain Disney mermaid, only you get the feeling that if she had gotten to play the role, Ariel would never have given up her voice to the sea witch, still would have negotiated herself a strong pair of legs and had Prince Eric chasing after her the remainder of the movie, trying to keep pace. Rorie recently created Songs to Start a Fire, a vehicle to empower women through music. I met up with Rorie to learn about her new program.
[divider type="dashed" spacing="10"] One thing I was curious about is how you got started with music? My parents are both musicians so there was always music in my house.
What kind of musicians were they? Really different. My mom was like a club date musician so she did jazz and pop and all the type of stuff you’d see at a supper club or a wedding or whatever. And she was in the big bands and an amazing guitar player. She was touring? No, she was local – she did the high quality billed gigs that you can do locally. And my dad owned a studio, so I grew up in a studio. And he performed too – he’s more of a behind-the-scenes guy – that’s his comfort level. So I had a really musical background and for a while I didn’t want to get into it cause it was like – my parents are doing that. Family stuff. Yeah, I wanted to do my own thing. Like that’s not cool. Right, exactly. That’s what Mom and Dad do. Yeah, I was like I’ll just be a writer and then I found that songwriting and music was more – I think I was just better at it. I could never finish anything that was fiction or longer form, like an essay. But three minutes, I can do.
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[pullquote align="right" size="small"]What I want to do is I want to help put women in touch with the fact that their pain and their experiences doesn’t have to be the baggage that they carry around with them. Instead it can be beautiful, creative power – turning it into something beautiful[/pullquote]
So I want to hear about Songs to Start a Fire – what it is and what inspired it. Okay – so second question first… I’ve been playing music out for the last ten years, like nonstop and it was always just an outlet for me – like really personal, everything I wrote was really personal and it was like therapy. I sing about a lot of dark stuff, more so than I have ever tried to be empowering. And then a few years ago, someone came up to me after a gig and she was like, ‘Your music is really healing.’ And I said, ‘But I just throw tantrums onstage and she was like ‘No, that’s the point. That’s why it’s healing, because it validates what I’ve been through.’ I’m like, oh, and then I wrote this song that was accidentally an inspiring song – “If You Teach a Bird to Sing,” and I wasn’t trying to write anything inspiring. I was listening to – do you know Brandi Carlile? Yes, a little She’s like amazing and the backstory with her is that she was a child musician – she was singing at the Grand Ole Opry when she was ten years old. Oh my God… And so she was a showbiz kid and she was doing country and doing standards and then she started wanting to do more original music. She was in our generation too – she was into Radiohead – she wanted to be a singer-songwriter, she was really excited about those kinds of acts and her parents were these country-type conservative people, and they were like that’s not a good path for you Brandi, and so I was reading this interview with her about this. She was like, ‘As far as everyone around me was concerned, it was like the devil to be doing this original music and following my path.’ And then I listened to her live album and she has this voice – it’s like this big beautiful Liberty Bell – it’s just like amazing. And so I came up with this kind of silly line which is “If you teach a bird to sing, she’s gonna learn how to fly” and the whole thing was just about her, and she just took her gift and did whatever with it. That makes sense. I was wondering – I listened to that song. It doesn’t actually make sense right? Well, I wasn’t sure what it meant because most birds know how to sing… Right, I know So that’s why I was a little stumped, honestly. That’s okay. I’ve been surprised – partly because of that, because it’s not a logical song, that it resonates with people. And I sent it to my dad right after I wrote it and he texted me and he’s like “If I was a bird and some dummy tried to give me singing lessons, I’d fly away too.” Your dad got it. Yeah. That does make sense. Yeah, so that’s what it was about. And then it just started – I played it out a couple of times and I didn’t expect anyone to like it and then people started really connecting with it. Like one-on-one, women were coming up to me after shows and being like, ‘Oh that song is amazing! I’ve just been through something and I’m trying to change my life right now and that song is about me.’ And I was like cool. I didn’t know I could do that. Isn’t that the best? Yeah, it feels so special to connect with someone that way. Yeah, because you were just writing it from your own vantage point. I was just like – here’s this thing that’s important to me and to have it actually mean something to other people is beautiful. And I made this one particular friend. She was in an abusive relationship for a lot of her life. She had PTSD. She was going through a lot and she broke herself out. I met her months after she left this horrible situation she was in and she was like ‘Your music is helping me heal.’ And we became really good friends, so then it started being that I wasn’t just like writing for nothing, I was thinking of her and getting inspired to write. So suddenly I had this new focus of writing not patronizing inspiring music but like the real stuff – you know, like there’s dark stuff going on and you’re bigger than it, and it can help you grow and it can be your strength later in life. So that was the inspiration.[divider type="thin" spacing="10"]
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So that’s where some of the inspiration came from. But now you’re doing a bigger project. Right, so that was what inspired me and the backstory to this is I’ve also been working with a coach for the last year to help me with music career stuff. Her name is Wendy Kheelan. So her whole process is like what group of people do you want to connect to with your art, and not who do you think will like it or who comes to your shows, but who do you really want to connect to. And so when she was asking me that I thought of my friend, Michelle, her – I want to connect with all the hers. So that was what started Songs to Start a Fire. I said okay, how can I find women like this – strong, smart women who have been told that they’re not smart or told that they’re not worth something, but who are trying to make a life of their own and find their own energy. They’re struggling with a false identity – a disempowered identity. Yes exactly. So Songs to Start a Fire is really about that. It’s about me trying to connect with those women and with girls. Because especially since I started doing this, I learned that there are so many teenage and college-aged girls – and I don’t know why it surprised me, because I was one – who feel completely worthless and they’re actually so creative and so smart and so passionate and I just want to lift them up, because the only thing missing is a belief in themselves. So that’s what I’m doing. I hand-picked a hundred women who I thought would be right and I emailed every single one individually and I said ‘Would you like to help me name this?’ So it’s a very personal project It is. And from there I looked into Songs to Start a Fire gigs. You’re in the process now of building it. Yeah, it’s gonna be part-performance, part-workshop. There will be songs, there will be performing, but I’m going to try to get everyone singing and making sure there are simple parts that they can sing so they feel really involved and a lot of talking about the individual songs. So are you thinking of this project as also – the workshop element – is that going to have songwriting for others? What I want to do is I want to help put women in touch with the fact that their pain and their experiences doesn’t have to be the baggage that they carry around with them.
Instead it can be beautiful, creative power – turning it into something beautiful.
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