Interview with 'San Diego Acoustic's Ken Lehnig, juts before the Timebomb" release.
To say that Astra Kelly is a musical force in San Diego would be an understatement. Since moving to San Diego and making it her home, Astra has been nominated five times for a San Diego Music Award. She’s appeared in the pages of City Beat, The San Diego Reader, The NC times, and The SD Troubadour. She’s been heard on Java Jams (CTN/Channel 4), FOX ROX (Fox Channel 6), KUSI Good Morning San Diego CW6 San Diego Living, on the air at 94/9 with Tim Pyles, on 91X with Rowley and on 102.1 KPRI where she DJ’d their Saturday night local music show, The KPRI Homegrown Hour from Jan. 2007 to May 2009. In the summer of 2008, she made her television debut as guest host for KNSD TV/NBC 7/39 and KPRI’s “Concerts on the Square. Also, her music video for “All I Got” was showcased in the 2009 San Diego Film Festival.
Ken: It’s wonderful to be able to chat with you. I’m fairly convinced there is not a musician in San Diego that does not know your name, or your music, given your commitment to local music and your own amazing performances. You came from Chicago via almost everywhere, why did you settle in San Diego?
Astra: When I left Chicago unsure of where my next home would be, I settled in Santa Fe, NM. after my two-year, 85,000 mile tour ended in a mishap with some black ice…rolled my tour van, landed on train tracks, and a train came along and hit the van. My folks owned a place there they were renting out and I found a studio to manage (Stepbridge Studios). I stayed for just over three years. I’d met Cathryn Beeks playing on the street in Boulder and she invited me out here. Loved it, was tired of living in the desert with no water and moved here a year later.
Ken: I was impressed with you bio that you had been a street musician in Chicago, busking for tips at the train station. I did that back in the 60′s and it created pretty thick skin and the ability to reach people. How was that experience for you?
Astra: I learned to play the guitar in the subway really. I’d always sung, but really needed to hone my guitar chops and learn how to sing and play at the same time. I played about 20-30 hrs a week for the first year, working through bloody fingers, a hoarse voice, the underground subculture (yes, thick skin indeed)….but had it down after that. At first, I couldn’t hold onto my pick, so I taped it to my hand for a couple of months…when I took off the tape I’d figured it out. It also taught me how to connect with people. I read body language to see who was responding to a song, and I’d try to make eye contact if I saw someone connecting. Seemed they were more apt to give me money that way. It was also really interesting to have a new audience every few minutes. During rush hour, I’d play songs I knew people would dig. Bobby McGhee always took in a big haul. Christmas time was the most profitable….you definitely made sympathy cash for enduring frozen fingers and the bitter Chicago cold.
Ken: When and what had you become a singer/songwriter?
Astra: Well, my first performance was in kindergarten as the little Billy goat in the “Three Billy Goat’s Gruff.” They let me sing my lines. I guess it all just really built from there. ;) I started writing really sappy, lovesick, teen angst filled tunes, on the piano, at about thirteen. “Lost love in the darkness, where did it go? It’s running too fast now, and I’m chasing too slow.” Oh! It was ridiculous. I used to record demos of my songs using my dual cassette player. If you put in a blank cassette and hit record, you could grab everything playing and everything a mic plugged into it will pick up, so I’d just go over and over laying down keyboard parts and backing vocals….a drum beat from my casio. It was rad. Once my Dad gave me a guitar and I started writing on that, it really dialed it in for me.
Ken: You are a music person who does it all, you write, perform, record, produce CDs, promote yourself, and book your own shows. I see more and more of this, is that the way any artist must do it these days?
Astra: Yeah. I’ve just always done it. As an independent artist, you can’t afford to hire someone and a lot of folks can’t do a better job than you can do yourself, since you are the most passionate, and knowledgeable, about what you do.
Ken: It shows in your work. You spent a lot of time and energy learning the music business, where do you think the business aspect of music is heading?
Astra: I spent a lot of time learning how the music business works, because I was managing my own career. At least now I can share some of that experience with other people and it has value enough to generate income to help pay the bills. I really don’t know where the industry is heading. It’s been baffling me for years.
Ken: You hosted San Diego’s KPRI Homegrown Hour for almost three years, and hosted shows for singer/songwriters and local acts. You work with local talent, with your own company, and still write, record, and perform. How does that affect your music and your view the local music scene? How do you find the time?
Astra: As with many, I’m sure, I have to wear a lot of hats to make my living in the music industry. Currently, I don’t have to have a gig outside of the industry, so I feel fortunate. I find the time, because I have to, and I’m passionate about what I do.
Ken: You were aggressive in getting you and your music out there before 2006 –then you had that terrible accident, a crash. You were quoted as saying it was a life-changing event. Would you tell us about it? How is Astra Kelly pre-2006 different from Astra Kelly now?
Astra: I realized as the van was rolling that if I’d wanted to die, I could have. I didn’t. I wanted to live, and thrive, and become the person that I was supposed to become. It erased my fear of death and thus gave me a freedom beyond words.
Ken: I was engrossed in your music when I was researching for the interview, and looking for that ‘thing’ that makes for a good sound. Your band numbers are skillfully arranged, the genre mix is eclectic – jazzy, rock, funk and blues and powerfully performed. There is a no nonsense feel to music. How about introducing the band on your posted music?
Astra: Thank you!
Mike Monsivaiz - Drums (he’s currently in Afghanistan as a hired gun for the military) we miss him.
Tony Swanson – is my current bass player: (He does sound all around town, but regularly for Anthology and Fluxx, and fronts another band called ‘Medicine for Madison’).
Sam Johnson – (jazz extraordinaire) played bass for last year’s Battling the Sun EP release.
Chris Wilson – (Endoxi) played guitar for last year’s release.
Mike Chartrand – plays everything on the new record.
Marta Zaludova – (Transfer, Republic of Letters) sits in on strings and backing vocals for this CD’s version of Battling the Sun.
Ken: Who arranges your music?
Astra: I do.
Ken: I love that you play rock with the band, but also play solo – both incredibly well. There are two distinct voices in the two. Your rock ‘voice ‘is strong and intense, while your ‘voice’ in your solo performance is gentle and accessible. Are there two performers in Astra Kelly?
Astra: Absolutely. I’ve always tried to deliver an equal balance of both.
Ken: You do it well. Your songs are delightful; there is an accessible vulnerability, but a clear confident defiance in the lyrics. What inspires you to write?
Astra: It usually starts with a thought, emotion, or experience that becomes larger and relate-able as the songs are written.
Ken: As a songwriter do you write from personal experience, or do you take an idea worth exploring and tell a story?
Astra: Yes, but I’ve recently been writing songs for a new project called “Harlequin” in which each of the songs are stories about a fictitious character. Because I do usually write from an experience based place, it has been a wonderful experiment to write story tunes.
Ken: There is a difference between the way you write the harder band pieces and the acoustic pieces. Do you mentally don another hat when you write for a different type of performance?
Astra: No. It all starts on acoustic, and almost all of the songs have been easy to translate into a band performance.
Ken: “My pain became – my rhythm, my music, my passion. I’ll give to you everything.”
My favorite song of yours (Everyone else’s as well!) is ‘All I Got’ a little edgy and funky, with nice rock guitar work, amazing vocals and terrific lyrics. There has to be a story behind this song – would you share it with us?
Astra: I was in the studio in Santa Fe getting ready to start recording vocals on another track and we stumbled across a mysterious song file. We couldn’t remember what it was, we opened it up and there was this instrumental track of the band just messing around in the studio that we had put a beat to. I started humming a melody and the lyrics started to come to me….I went outside, sat in the sun and scratched those lyrics on a piece of paper. It’s about being a musician/artist and having to give everything to your cause, because you simply have to, it is your rhythm and passion…your condition, your ambition. It’s trusting, believing, and staying on course, even after a fall.
Ken: ‘Battle the Sun’ has that solo voice I mentioned. Would you give us a little workshop on the writing – to the final cut for the new EP?
Astra: Honestly, that was one of those really easy songs to write that seemed to just slip out. The piano parts developed in the studio. It was the first time in years I had touched a piano. When I brought the tune to the band, it just clicked and we’ve been playing it live for over a year, just like it is on the new EP.
Ken: “The sun is a metaphor for our personal power and confidence, and how it’s a waste of time to battle ourselves – it’s a battle that is impossible to win.”
This is a bit of a quote from you in an article I had read. Would you expand on that thought for us?
Astra: The seat of our physical, spiritual, and emotional power lies in our core…that spot just below the ribs and above the belly. In Eastern Philosophy, the symbol for that is a sun. Many people carry stress and anxiety there, and it weakens the mind and soul. A lot of us beat ourselves up when things don’t go well, or we’re not feeling as strong as we usually do. We hold on so tight to the drama of unfruitful experiences. ‘Battling the Sun’ is a call to lighten up on ourselves. “This dream is not only mine…” this life is shared by us all. We are not alone. And how do we stop the battle? “With eyes, see the truth. With heart, feel the love. With mind, know no fear. With my time, I am finally here.”
Ken: ‘Just Fine’ is wonderful – another song where you offer a gentle and compassionate ‘voice’ and an almost conversational lyric. How did this song come to be written?
Astra: I wrote this a couple of months after my move to San Diego. I was down to my last $20, with no income on the horizon. I went out on my beautiful balcony, overlooking downtown San Diego, and wrote this “ode” to our fine city.
Ken: Let’s go back to ‘Harlequin’– please tell us about the project.
Astra: Yes. It will be my chance to write songs about the characters I imagine, to create a clear visual element on stage, for a band image, and stage set up. I’ve always felt like, as a solo artist, I should stick with what came natural. This will be my chance to create something very specific.
Ken: We look forward to experiencing that. You have many creative expressions. You are also an artist, something I heard and could find little about. Tell us about this other facet to the talented Astra Kelly?
Astra: I’ve always done occasional art pieces, as the inspiration arose, but recently stumbled upon a style I call “Broken Record” art where I break vinyl records, by hand, and then reassemble the shards onto the canvas, in some sort of pattern. The first one was made for Capricorn Studios downtown and was nothing in particular, the 2nd is Broken Record: Helix, the 3rd is Broken Record: The Sun, etc. As soon as I finished the first one, I was commissioned for another. I’ll have 3-5 pieces on display at my CD release party.
Ken: Cool, we’ll be there! The new EP ‘Timebomb’ is wonderful. ‘These Days’ – rock and roll done sooo well! Love the reverb on your voice, when it hangs out there by itself. Flawless vocal, great guitar work, and a sticky bass riff.
Astra: Thanks! This was my favorite to record in the studio. It wasn’t even supposed to be on this EP and was one of those last minute, “C’mon guys, I know it’s late, let’s just lay this down real quick so we have it.”
Ken: ‘Time Bomb’ – I like the feel of the acoustic guitar in the mix and the big refrain. Slick vocals. Cool!
‘Like Never Before’ - Torchy vocals – catchy hook – a nice light hand on production. Very clean live sound – the drums give it an old-time feel.
‘Music’ The lyrics are fantastic - your vocals just blaze in this one - I like the instrumental aspect of the vocals in the refrain.
Astra: I had been singing the lead (in ‘Music’) completely different, since I wrote the tune, and on the last day of recording, Josh and I (Josh Mallit, engineer), worked out this new vocal melody for the chorus. It was almost jarring, at first, and then quickly turned epic.
Ken: Tell us about this terrific new EP ‘Timebomb’
Astra: I feel like it’s better than anything I’ve recorded before, it took less time, and less scrutinizing than other productions I’ve done. I let it be effortless, and easy to make, and I think because of that it’s also pretty easy to love.
Ken: Your fans are no doubt waiting to get a copy. Is there anything you want your fans, and new fans, to know about Astra Kelly that they don’t and should know?
Astra: Gosh, I’ve already said so much…just that I am grateful.
Ken: Thank you Astra for your generosity and your commitment. Dave and I know we will see you around.
Astra: Thank YOU!