Like the best musicians, Kris Kelly defies easy categorisation. At the heart of his music lies a tension between polarising forces, a tension that, it transpires, also lies in Kelly’s own heart.
Where his music walks a tightrope between the precise beauty of classical compositions and the raw emotion of Sufjan Stevens-esque indie folk, Kelly himself also admits to his own inner conflict between opposing desires for perpetual motion and the security of home.
It’s probably why Kelly fled to South America for five years and returned with a husband.
All these conflicts collide perfectly to create Kelly’s achingly beautiful debut album Runaways. Written on his travels around Argentina and recorded on his return to New York, it’s a record that takes deeply personal accounts and transforms them into something universal and relatable.
If Kelly is relatively unheralded so far, there’s an overwhelming sense that this thoughtful, eloquent songwriter won’t stay that way for long.
We spoke to Kris about the long road that led to his new record, opening up in his lyrics and life as a gay man in contemporary America.
You’re originally from Austin, right?
Yep, I was raised in Austin, Texas and moved to New York for school when I was 17, like a week before September 11th. I’ve lived here ever since, except for the time I lived in Argentina, which was about five or six years.
Between Austin, New York and Argentina, you must have experienced a lot of very different places.
Yeah, for sure. New York and Buenos Aires, they have a similar city vibe. Austin has developed a lot over the years but growing up there, it was more of a small town vibe. New York to Buenos Aires was a culture shock with the language and the people. It’s been an interesting journey. I think coming back to New York from Buenos Aires, I’d changed a lot so it was interesting to reintegrate with the city. A lot had changed while I was in Argentina, and not just politically. It’s strange to leave a place for so long and come back.
Does the wanderlust ever kick back in?
Yes [Laughs]. For sure. When I was in Argentina, I lived in Brazil for six months and I travelled a bit around South America, Europe and India, so I definitely have a wanderlust. It was definitely a conscious decision I had to make to stay put.
There are benefits to it. My instinct is to constantly be travelling, constantly be moving. But there are issues associated with that lifestyle. Making an album takes discipline and hard work. If I hadn’t decided to sit down and focus on shaping this album then I wouldn’t have gotten it done.
My husband, who I met when travelling, really values discipline and routine and that’s something I’ve always struggled with. I think that’s a part of the album, the tension between routine and freedom.
It was difficult to come back and settle down and I had a lot of resistance to it. I still do, but I’ve found ways to cope with it, like getting out of the city and going back home to Texas.
That really comes through in your song ‘Birthplace’, the idea of routine getting in the way of a more carefree version of love.
There’s a tension there between the desire to have no attachments and also to have the security of home. I went to South America to travel for six months and I didn’t really have a plan. I had my guitar and a backpack.
I started writing ‘Birthplace’ at the start of the trip. The first part of the song is celebrating that freedom of living in the moment, unburdened by the past, attachments to other people or a definition that you’ve imposed on yourself of who you are.
There was a huge freedom in that, but after a few months, I found it hard to meet people and then say goodbye.
I started to feel a desire to settle down again. I was missing home and I started to crave attachments again. Towards the end of the song, there’s a longing for home. It’s a duality that you have to balance every day.
Your debut record has a really beautiful, ornate quality to it. Was it quite an undertaking assembling all the necessary musicians to create that sound?
Yes, it was. It was a task at first to go through the songs I’d written over five years. I’d no plans to record them, they existed just for me as a chronicle of my time in Argentina. When I got back to the US and was feeling more settled, I felt like I needed to record some of them.
I went through and picked the songs that I liked the best and that also lyrically represented the journey I’d been on.
Then the question was, “What is this going to sound like? What instruments are going to be on it?” I studied music composition in college and what I really love is to mix classical with pop or alternative music.
I didn’t have a band so I was in a really unique position where I could approach some of my musical heroes who had played on albums that I’d really loved growing up. I reached out to a ton of people once I’d recorded vocals and guitar and it was through collaboration that it evolved naturally.
I’d originally planned to write the arrangements myself but I’d collaborated with so many other people by that point that I felt it was in the spirit of all this collaboration to approach John-Phillip Shenale, who had done arrangements for Tori Amos, and I’m a big fan of her work.
I just threw out the idea, like, “Hey, are you interested?” He loved it and was really enthusiastic. He ended up writing these beautiful string, horn and wind arrangements for half of the songs.
It really evolved organically and I had so many things recorded that I had to put on my producer’s hat and really strip things off, which was difficult. In the end, I really like how it ended up and I think it’s nicely balanced with the arrangements and the more traditional four-piece band style.
It feels like everything has been very delicately and judiciously placed, rather than being hit by layer after layer of instrumentation.
Yeah, I think a lot of that had to do with the mixing engineer Noah Georgeson, who I randomly ran into at a restaurant. He’s done albums for Joanna Newsome, Devendra Banhart and Andy Shauf, who I really love. He was really instrumental in ensuring that all the instruments I’d recorded didn’t overpower the songs.
Did you have ideas in your head about how the arrangements might sound, and was it hard to let go of those ideas and hand it over to John-Phillip Shenale?
I did and there are very few people who I would have trusted with that. It was really that he was going to write them or I was going to write them. I trusted his musical sensibility.
After talking to him on the phone and hearing his musical ideas, I knew intuitively that he would react to the songs in a way that I would love.
That’s the thing with this album. I collaborated with so many people that it’s really much bigger than me. With my composition background, I could just write out what I wanted everyone to play, and that’s what I did for years. This was the first time I really opened myself up to collaboration and it was a really thrilling experience.
Having listened to the record for a couple of weeks now and read some of the lyrics online, there’s definitely a sense that these songs are deeply personal. It’s one thing opening yourself up to sharing them with your collaborators, but how do you feel about sharing them with the world at large?
It’s very uncomfortable [Laughs]. I wrote the songs for me. It’s my way of processing something. I got the first shock when I presented the songs to the other musicians and I felt uncomfortable. I had to have a talk with myself and be like, “This is what you love about music, Kris.”
I love to hear songwriters bare their souls and take a human experience that you might not talk about. As a child, I felt alone in a lot of ways. I didn’t have a ton of friends, so these musicians who were baring their souls and singing honestly about their humanity were lifesavers to me.
Maybe someone will hear one of these songs and relate to it the way I’ve related to music my whole life.
But it is uncomfortable. Some of the songs are so personal that I probably won’t ever go into any depth about them because it would be inappropriate. Some of them are about people in my life. I’ve had to have some conversations with my husband and ask him how he felt about it. He understood that it’s part of my art.
The songs are personal but I did write them in a way that they can relate to other people in an archetypal way. It’s uncomfortable but I’m okay with it.
That’s just as well, otherwise touring could be a bit of a trying time for you.
Yeah. I’m doing some shows later in September for the album release and I think that’s when it’s most uncomfortable for me. It’s very intimate. They’re not really party songs.
One song that really struck me was ‘We Flew’, which deals with homophobia in a very impactful way. Does that feel to you like an important message to be sending out into the world at the moment?
That song is, in a broader sense, about being okay with yourself, even though you’re different, and finding strength in the face of other people’s judgement, ridicule and fear. I do think it deals with really important issues right now.
I wrote that song for someone who was struggling with coming out. You want to shake the person and be like, “Who cares? Who cares about what other people think? You have to live your truth.”
But you can’t force someone to feel comfortable with something like that; they have to work through it on their own. The song was my way of encouraging the person. It’s also a song to myself. In Texas, I had a lot of trouble accepting that I was gay.
Luckily it wasn’t what some of my friends have gone through, which was complete hell. I had a very supportive family and I was involved in music and theatre, which tends to be more open to people’s differences and sexuality.
I hope that song encourages other people to feel comfortable with themselves and that they can’t take on other people’s baggage. They can only stay true to themselves and their value systems. Anyone else’s reaction to who you are, as long as you’re not hurting anyone, is their deal.
That’s something we’re still dealing with on an intellectual level. I still feel uncomfortable when I take my husband’s hand when we’re walking down the street. When we walk past someone, I have this fear that the person isn’t going to like it.
There’s still a sense of shame that gay people deal with on a day-to-day basis. I look forward to a day when you don’t have to have that shadow following you around.
Do you think things have gotten worse or has the current climate made people less reticent about voicing attitudes that have always been there?
That’s a hard question to answer. I’ve lived in a bit of a bubble in New York, where people are generally more accepting. I think, in many ways, the internet and social media have brought us all together and shown us that it’s easier to communicate with someone else who’s completely different to you.
But I think we’re dealing with a reaction to that, which is that people are feeling threatened and are having to redefine their relationship with themselves and their country.
They’re trying to hold onto traditional values. It’s fear. People are scared of how they would define themselves if their country and the people around them are different than they are.
I don’t think that’s new. People have always felt threatened by people who are different to them. If that sense of “This is who I am and this is what’s right” is what gets them through their day, then someone who does things differently makes them uncomfortable.
But I have felt more acceptance as a gay person as the years have gone on. I think there are people struggling, but my personal experience is that things have improved and I’m hopeful for the future.
How would you describe your approach to style and grooming?
Launching this album has given me an opportunity to redefine myself in a way and I’ve allowed myself to experiment a bit with wearing things I wouldn’t normally wear.
Growing up, I was a bit anti-fashion; I’d wear the same 5 things over and over. I’ve definitely had periods in my life where I needed queer eye for the queer guy. I think I was anti-fashion because I’ve always disliked rules or being told what to do or in this case what to wear.
As a kid I did things to stand out and to shock people. I remember in 6th grade for like a month, my mom would drop me off for school in normal clothes and after she left, I’d put a trash bag on and wear it all day over my clothes.
I also shaved my eyebrows (which my mom didn’t notice for an entire month). I was that annoying kid trying very hard to be different, I think because I didn’t fit in and I figured I’d just accept that and own it in a way.
But now I realize there is a lot of power in choosing how you present yourself, and I’m slowly opening myself up to the world of fashion. I’m seeing it now as just another way to be creative and there are a lot of beautiful things out there that are exciting to me.
I really love wearing a variety of colors. Here in New York, I have friends who almost always only wear black, and I find that so boring. Apparently I love floral patterns because I’ve unintentionally purchased so many floral prints over the past year, it’s kind of ridiculous.
For grooming, I like to use hair and skin products that are more natural, and I also use different essential oils on my skin and as ‘cologne’. I mix in a few drops of lavender or tea tree oil into my moisturizer and I find it helps control breakouts and it keeps my skin looking healthy.