With her textured, soulful voice and self-assured lyrics, it’s hard to believe that Ottawa, Canada proud Kelsey Hayes is crossing the stage at her university graduation a few days from our interview in a gorgeous café in the 613’s Little Italy neighbourhood.
As the indie-pop songstress faces the daunting decision of choosing which of the beautiful pastries on display to order, I almost regret putting another stress on her list. Kelsey is meeting up with me in between rehearsing her sets for RBC Bluesfest and CityFolk, preparing for her tour to China, beginning her residency in From Emerging To Export, an intense artist and manager development program organized by the Ottawa Music Industry Coalition, and after her meeting with me has a session with her onstage branding coach. One can clearly pinpoint her steadily building success to a metric ton of deliberately prioritized hard work.
Her hands around a large latte mug, she starts excitedly telling me about her plans for her RBC Bluesfest set on the Claridge Homes stage, Friday July 6th, 2018 from 6:00pm to 7:00pm. “I’m going to try new things this year because it’s a bigger stage. I’m going to hang out at the merch tent after my set, and invite my fans to hang out. I think if we play a strong enough show, people will want to come hang out with us!”
“Music festivals are so fun! You have the stage specs, so you get to have a larger area to work with and choreograph and explore with your band than a smaller club. We’ve got a really great stage; video stuff this time, lighting, great sound engineers! We’ve got an hour, and a wide variety of my stuff. High energy, but also slowing it down mid-way through. The atmosphere is very different, so you do have more audience members travelling from stage to stage, it’s a different vibe – they’re there for a full day of music, as opposed to a few hours (just there to see you). I’m more conscious of that, but I don’t let it affect my show too much (no exaggerating performance for larger stage crowd, because there are live video cameras). We really like to rock out wherever we go!” Us music fans will have to show up to find out if her band is playing a new song, however…
Not a stranger to playing summer festivals, Kelsey gives first-time performers the following solid advice: “Treat everybody really well. Don’t snub the sound guy. And I’ve had a bunch sounds guys tell us ‘it’s so cool that you guys are chatting with us because nobody does!’ People don’t acknowledge the people who booked you, there are tons of people around who have done certain jobs, and it’s really great if you can just acknowledge the job that they did, showing you appreciate them.” Also, show up prepared. Don’t just wing it.
Growing up in the south-end suburb of Barrhaven, Kelsey describes it feeling like she “rediscovered Ottawa” upon becoming a Carleton Music Student at age 17, when she starting going downtown frequently. “That’s when I discovered what Ottawa was really like.” “In Barrhaven, I really like Café Cristal. The hiking in Gatineau is really pretty. Coming downtown, I really like coming to Chinatown, I really like to bike – along the canal, or skate during the winter! I really enjoy going for a skate and then getting a beavertail, it’s kind of a classic activity.” Note for international readers: beavertails are a local pastry best served hot after an outdoor ice skate, not the actual tail of a beaver
When asked about her thoughts on the Ottawa Music Strategy recently announced by city hall, Kelsey gets even more bubbly. “I’m really excited! I’m going to stay here. People keep asking me, it’s a very common question – ‘when are you moving to Toronto?’ I’m not, right now. I really believe Ottawa has some great stuff going on, especially with the announcement of the new music strategy! There’s a lot of opportunities going on in Ottawa right now.
“I also believe that with the power of the internet right now, I can go on social media and just watch the numbers, I can see that data, and then pursue my data.” On her social media strategy: “I try to post very consistently, and update the quality of the content – better quality pictures, better quality video. It will catch people’s eyes if it’s better quality content, as opposed to a grainy video. I try to post three times a week, and sometimes I promote the post. I bring in new people every week. I’m always reading and researching social media stuff.”
When it comes to style and influences, Kelsey Hayes’ indie-pop sound is full of hooks, but with enough jazz influences to keep the melody lines from falling into conventional clichés. “[My parents are] music lovers, but they don’t play. It’s actually interesting because I started to learn guitar because my dad tried to learn guitar and gave up on it. So I picked up the guitar and said ‘dad, can I try to teach myself?’ and he said “‘sure, go for it kid!’ at around age twelve. This love for music without knowledge of theory makes her mom and dad the perfect focus group for hearing her brand new songs. The system is clearly working – her last single, Is It Like That, won the Performance category of the Canadian Songwriting Competition.
Upon being asked about her future goals in music, Kelsey’s green eyes glow bright. “I would love to translate my English songs into Chinese.” In fact, she minored in Chinese at Carleton University, and toured parts of the country while performing and studying with the Beijing University of Music. “I was able to performing Chinese classics in China with the university – and the neat thing is that my accent disappears when I’m singing in Chinese! I’ve been two times – I’ve toured Huaihua, Zhijiang and Fenghuang, and I’m going back between Bluesfest and CityFolk this year. It was definitely a culture shock, but I would love to take back some culture, the scales and incorporate some of those into my music!”
Before wrapping up, I turned the conversation a complete 180, and asked her about causes she believes in. “I’m quite into protecting the Earth, green causes. One cause I would really like to work with in Ottawa is The Snowsuit Fund. I’d like to organize shows in the future to benefit them, where the proceeds go to them.”
“It’s one of my outlooks to start with your local community. So many people try global outreach as their first thing, go to a different country and be like ‘I’m going to help those kids!’ But the thing is, there are kids right here who don’t have a snowsuit, who don’t get to eat breakfast, they don’t have access to a sport or the chance to learn to play music. I want to reach out. That’s one of the reasons that I do what I do. In my life, human connection is the most important thing, I think. It’s having real friends and family.”