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Conversations: Michael Kelsey

by Donovan Wheeler
photos courtesy of Michael Kelsey

Most of us—the casual listeners for sure—accept the notion that acoustic guitars follow a set of preordained expectations: a coffee house vibe…a folk tune from the ‘60’s…a smidge of percussive banging on the body, just a little southwest of the pick-guard…soft vocals.  That exceptions to the rules exist…we get that.  Sometimes a ballsy rocker would bang out a passably pop Michael Jackson.  One friend of mine completely pulls off The Freddy Jones Band’s “In a Daydream.”  A lot of people belt out classic rock standing next to electrics and drums. But it’s hard to “know” something different until you’ve seen it.  Consequently, when we sit down over our Friday evening porterhouse and turn our gazes to a silent Gibson taking a pregame nap on its rack, the old rules apply.

When you get online and watch clips of Michael Kelsey—who appears at this year’s Blues at the Crossroads in Terre Haute—those rules wither away.  When he hoists his six-string to his shoulders, when he sets both his hands along the neck and starts flitting on the “low E” with something like half of those fingertips…you marvel at the sight.

Imagine a pasta chef making a bowl of vermicelli put on a Viennese Waltz…that’s Michael Kelsey working his guitar.

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Donovan Wheeler:  What I find most interesting is that you tackle several classic tunes originally built around electric guitars.  Normally, when I hear an electric song played acoustically, I hear tonal, volume, and even structural changes. But my sense is that you go after a song like “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” with the same vigor as someone holding an electric would.  What pushes you to go after a song like that rather than approach it as so many acoustic players do?         

Michael Kelsey:  “That is the wonderful thing about music. There are no rules. You can do whatever you want. Why be predictable? I would prefer to hear Elton John songs played by a heavy metal band and Metallica songs from an orchestra. Life is too short to replicate. More fun to innovate.”

Wheeler: Since recently taking guitar lessons myself, I’ve found that acoustic guitars “fight back” a little bit whereas electric instruments are strangely more forgiving.  Given what I asked in the above question, what is it about the acoustic guitar that you prefer over the electric version?             

Kelsey:  “For playing solo the acoustic has a wider variety of sounds and textures. It punches when you want to groove, and it whispers when you want say something sweet.”

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“I am rhythm kind of guy. Even when I sing I find the syncopation of words more interesting than melody. The acoustic guitar is a perfect instrument to make beats.”

Wheeler:  As a youngster, you first learned music playing drums.  How much of an impact does your percussive personal history have on the way you play the guitar?

Kelsey:  “I am rhythm kind of guy. Even when I sing I find the syncopation of words more interesting than melody. The acoustic guitar is a perfect instrument to make beats.”

Wheeler:  Your more recent work conveys a seasoned, more mature voice which is really captivating.  But I’m still astounded when I watch that ’04 clip of you playing at Guitarmageddon.  If you could hop in a time-machine and talk to that younger version of yourself right after that event, what would say to him?

Kelsey:  “There is just as much that is interesting about not knowing as knowing. You get older and trade one for the other.  Being naive can take you to some interesting places where you wouldn’t have gone with wisdom. It’s all good.”

Wheeler:  Do you consider yourself a songwriter in the lyrical sense, or do you think that your musical composition and improvisation is at the heart of your songwriting?

Kelsey:  “I like playing with words, but I don’t take it too seriously. I enjoy the feel of a song more than the message. I like using words to set up a question that the guitar has to answer.”

Wheeler:  In your old NUVO interview you said that the late guitarist Michael Hedges, “He woke me up. Not so much his music as much as his approach to music and his spirit in making music.”  I’m wondering what you mean when you talk about that “spirit” to making music.

Kelsey:  “The creativity of Michael Hedges is what I related to. He would have made compositions with pop bottles if no guitars existed.”

Wheeler:  When you perform a song like The Beatles’ “Rain” with bb’s, pot lids, and drum covers…is that something you enjoy because it’s similar to things you do with a guitar or different from working a guitar?   

Kelsey:  “Whatever seems interesting is the direction I will always take. Guitar or drums with bb’s rolling around. I like making a variety of experiences.”

Wheeler:  Does the Spotify-Pandora element in the music world upset you? Do you look at as an opportunity, or is it all something else to you?

Kelsey:  “You trade one for the other. What you lose in sales you make up for in exposure.”

Wheeler:  To what degree do you see yourself as an artist using his talent to comment on the world?  To what degree do you see yourself as an entertainer working a crowd and pleasing an audience?  I guess this would be your “mission-statement” question.                                         

Kelsey:  “I am mesmerized by the magic and mystery of creativity that is in us all. I enjoy sharing my creative adventures with others to entertain and inspire.”

Kesley will take the Blues at the Crossroads’ main stage at 3:45 Saturday September 15.

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About Donovan Wheeler

Wheeler proudly teaches AP Language to some bright and lovably obnoxious kids in a small college town. He also contributes to the craft beer website Indiana on Tap and writes for other publications. He started learning to play guitar last fall, but he remains terrible at it.

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