The phrase “music to my ears” perfectly describes the sound of Pittsburgh native KELS. Kelsey Hillock, better known by her stage name, KELS is poised for a breakout year. Her jazz-influenced style, mixed with a melodic R&B sound, and pop-star look, has superstar written all over it.
Her new EP, “Slow Ryde,” provides a sneak peek at the 26-year-old’s talent. KELS hopes to hit her musical stride this year, and “Slow Ryde” appears to be the first of many installments in her catalog. Her covers and live performances posted on social media continue to bring a new audience to her music.
Her sound is influenced by the greats, and her management, Roc Artist Management, helps provide balance to her career.
Zenger gets to know more about KELS during a recent conversation about her music, her influences, and much more.
Percy Crawford interviewed KELS for Zenger.
Zenger: How has the first two weeks of 2022 treated you?
KELS: I actually had COVID for the first week of 2022 (laughing).
Zenger: Goodness. I had it for the last week of 2021.
KELS: I don’t want to dwell on that week of ’22 and say that that’s a foreshadowing for the rest of the year, but I’ll just say it was restful. A lot of rest all week.
Zenger: We will just view it as, you got it out of the way.
KELS: Yeah. It’s been going around for two years, and I have been lucky to not have caught it until now.
Zenger: How did you squeeze such a big voice into such a small body?
KELS: (Laughing). That is the science experiment everyone wants to know about. I don’t know. I guess I come off as introverted, but when I sing, I definitely let all that go. That’s kind of a release for me. Letting all my emotions out when I sing has always been like something that I’ve done. S, I don’t know if it’s that I’m so introverted I keep everything bottled up and then it comes out later. That’s the only explanation.
Zenger: I hear so many musical influences in your voice and your style. Who are some of your musical influences?
KELS: I would say, first and foremost, I was trained as a jazz vocalist So, Sarah Vaughan, Etta James, Diana Krall. Those were three really big influences early on. I had a vocal coach starting at 13, and he wanted me to learn the basics on opera. So, I sing in French, Italian, Spanish. But then he wanted me to decide on a genre. Once I started singing jazz, I felt like it really matched my voice.
But from there, after singing jazz… I don’t know, I would say I have so many from so many different genres. Erykah Badu, Jazmine Sullivan, Ms. Lauryn Hill, those are three influences that aren’t necessarily jazz, but have roots in jazz. So, it all kind of makes sense. But I also grew up singing pop.
Zenger: I clicked on Instagram and without looking at my phone, when I heard you sing, I thought it was Amy Winehouse.
KELS: I meant to mention Amy too. I can’t believe I didn’t mention her. I don’t know why I left her out. She was a huge influence on me at a young age. I just knew she had something special in that she could write jazz-influenced music but still have it be mainstream. That’s always been something that I really respected about her. She never dulled her edge, but she was able to put it on mainstream, which was amazing. But that’s a compliment, so thank you (laughing).
Zenger: Absolutely! You recently released your first EP, “Slow Ryde.” Were you nervous, anxious… what was the feeling of releasing your first project?
KELS: It depends on the stage. In terms of my music, I actually did this EP release a little bit different than I’ve done before. I typically will write a ton of unreleased music, I will feel it out in private, sing it a few times, show it to a few producers, and then record it and release it. But with the EP, I decided to actually sing the EP tracks live all summer because I was getting booked locally for a lot of festivals in Pittsburgh. I just tried them out and every time I would try them out, sometimes it would be with different musicians, so it would always come out a little bit different, and that actually really helped me musically.
Once I was in studio, I had this idea, “Oh, I did this and this performance and that matched really well with the intro of this song.” All of that led into my studio sessions being way more productive. I felt more confident than ever doing these EP tracks than I have ever felt releasing.
The anxiety really came from the marketing and content side that I don’t personally love doing. But I’m still small enough to where I have to be the jack of all trades. That’s where my anxiety comes from a lot. I know the story that I want to tell with my lyrics and my music. I think a lot of people who are big on lyrics will kind of piece together what I’m trying to say, but overarching and making that into a visual story is tough for me. The singles… it’s a little bit easier because you can be more straightforward.
Zenger: If used correctly, I think social media is a remarkable tool for artists to be seen, heard and discovered. Has that been a key source for you?
KELS: It’s helped a lot. I know a lot of people say that you can fake it on social media, but my benefit has been posting my live performances on social media, because you can’t fake that. And posting covers or me covering different songs from different artists, that has helped me a lot in terms of my original music getting picked up. It kind of gets picked up after the fact, of me posting a live performance of me singing my song or someone else’s song. So I’m trying to work on putting out videos and content that pushes my own music.
I’m trying to do it in a roundabout way right now, which I think works because people typically want to hear stuff that they have already heard. That gets a little frustrating sometimes. It’s like, “I want to sing my stuff (laughing).” But I do understand, it’s like you said, people want to know your influences. If I cover a Jazmine Sullivan song or Amy Winehouse song, people will understand that that is where my voice is coming from.
Once I release original stuff, it will all make more sense. So, I would say, definitely in terms of getting people to know where I come from, social media has been key.
Zenger: What are the determining factors of the songs you cover?
KELS: I’m in the process right now with coming up with a Spotify playlist of all my main influences and songs that really taught me how to sing and taught me my weaknesses early on. It’s like, “I want to be able to sing, “Bust Your Windows,” by Jazmine Sullivan, but I’m 11 years old and I don’t have the range yet. But if I sing it 20 times, maybe I will.”
I want to get a Spotify playlist together so people can see what songs really made my voice what it is. I’m trying to do that right now, and then I will be mirroring that on social media. But typically, it will be like, “Oh, I remember that song,” or “I really want to sing, “Rehab,’ by Amy Winehouse today.
Zenger: Do you view this year as your introduction year?
KELS: Absolutely! I feel like, I trust myself now more than ever. I underestimated how important that is. In the past, I didn’t know what kind of benchmarks to be setting. But 2020 was kind of a year for me where I was like, “OK, what do I want people to hear as my story, my sound, my look?” I doubled down on that in 2021. I had a goal to play every major music festival in Pittsburgh. And that came true, and it’s like, why didn’t I think I could do that?
It surprised me, but at the same time once you start to realize that, if you put in the work… which before this summer I was singing live a lot, but it was like small restaurants. It’s like, of course you’re going to move on to the next level if you put in the work. Now that that’s happened, I’ve had a lot of artists on the local circuit reach out to me and they’re like, “How did you get that gig?” And I tell them, “You take a lot of gigs that you didn’t necessarily want so that people can see your face, see your name, and you can experiment with a lot of things until you get to a festival setting.”
Just trusting myself and knowing what benchmarks to set, I feel it’s really going to take off in 2022.
Zenger: What role has Roc Artist Management played in pushing your career forward and doing the things that any artist at this stage needs?
KELS: I would say, structure. I have so many ideas for my music because I know where it can go, you have all these visions, and I think with Roc Management, it’s just structure that I need to help me figure out, how realistic each step is going to be and more of a timeline. If you say, “Hey, I want to play Madison Square Garden.” But how do you get there?
It will be so much more beneficial to me moral-wise to advance in small steps and see the progress than just want to do this crazy thing with no idea how to get there. They have been beneficial in helping me figure out the steps to get where I want to go. Also, just different avenues in music that I didn’t know about, like sync, getting my music on TV and radio… I had no idea that there was a way to do that just from an independent artist standpoint, so all of that has really helped me out.
Zenger: Will you be dropping another EP this year, or can we expect a full album?
KELS: Definitely, within the year, a huge goal of mine is to release a full project. I do want to keep releasing singles because I feel it’s important… again, going back to trust, I want to trust myself. I have a ton of music that I haven’t released yet. I want to start putting out stuff that makes sense as a single, but also kind of lay low and write a full album. That is a huge goal of mine this year.
Zenger: When the market is saturated with so much music, how important is it for you to just stay in the studio and continue to work?
KELS: Oh my gosh, it’s crazy pressure. It’s this weird thing of, I don’t want to be forgotten. I want people to hear my music. And I think that’s the benefit to releasing an EP is, people can listen to it for a little while. But for me, I just need to keep being myself because I know that I’m not trying to sound like whoever is big. I’m not a trend chaser. I’m going to stick to what I know, and I know that people hear my foundation in what I do and my work. I think it’s refreshing to have a new voice on that foundation. I want to keep doubling down on that.
Zenger: What will eventually separate you from the pack?
KELS: I think the fact that I write all of my own stuff. I don’t have anybody writing for me. The same thing with live, I think the benefit for me is, my favorite thing about this whole thing is performing my music live. There are some artists that love the performance aspect in the music video, they do the dance with their music, but for me, singing live in front of people and making that connection is why I do this.
I think I have an advantage in that space because I really try to create a new experience when you hear my stuff live than if you heard it on Spotify. Anybody can go listen to me on Spotify, but I want to create a new higher experience when they hear me live.
Zenger: I appreciate your time, I love your voice, and looking forward to hearing more from you. Is there anything else you would like to add?
KELS: Thank you so much! I just dropped my music video for, “Just Let Me Go,” on my YouTube channel. I’m really excited about it. I filmed it at a local GetGo station. Anyone familiar with GetGo in Western Pennsylvania, it’s a very prominent gas station, and at a carwash.
Edited by Kristen Butler and Judith Isacoff
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