Though she shares a name (and manager) with blues pianist and vocalist Kelley Hunt, Kansas City-based singer-songwriter Kelly Hunt has a sound distinctly her own. The Tennessee native's songwriting is steeped in the Americana tradition — her songs spare and intimate, as heard on her debut album Even The Sparrow.
Released in May 2019, the record has already earned Hunt a global audience and acclaim from outlets such as Rolling Stone and PopMatters. It was selected as a finalist for the International Folk Awards Album of The Year.
Hunt performs at Barleycorn's on Thursday, Jan. 16. She spoke with KMUW from her home in Kansas City.
Tell me about the process of making Even The Sparrow. This was a little bit of a longer process?
It was my first attempt at making a record. I spent the better part of two-and-a-half to three years making it. A lot of that was just figuring out what that entailed. I was working full-time and recording piecemeal on weekends, just figuring out how to be in the studio and work with an engineer. All these technical layers that I'd never experienced before. It was a big education.
I'd been writing a lot and figuring out how to put together an album, to piece it together where there was a flow, not just a collection of 12 songs but something that had a narrative arc.
One of the things that I really love is that the record has an intimate sound. I feel like I'm in the room with you. Were you aware of that in the process of making the record?
These are simple songs that I knew I wanted to be in-the-raw, produced just enough to feel polished and engineered so that you could feel those vocals sitting really close to the ear like I was singing right into your ear. I didn't realize how to achieve that effect, how much of it is EQ-ing and mixing and mic choice. All the subtleties that go into making it feel so simple and straightforward and raw actually takes quite a bit of thought. That was my goal from the beginning: To have it be a pretty sparse and authentic album where you could sit in it and be comfortable listening from start-to-finish and keep the interest of the listener.
When did you know that "Across The Great Divide" would be the opener? Was that always on the table as the first cut?
It really wasn't. I recorded it on a whim, probably just a couple of weeks after I'd written it. I was waiting for Staś [Heaney], my co-producer and tour partner to come into the studio. The engineer was there, so I thought, "Well, let's go ahead and record a couple of solo tunes while we're both here." We recorded that one off-the-cuff, not even knowing if it was going to be on the album. Staś showed up, listened to the take and said, "I think we should not touch this again."
I honestly didn't expect that one to be singled out. It doesn't have a refrain; it's a long song, it's a challenging song for a listener because of that. Once I started playing it out in live performances, it was one that people started to request. It meant something to people. It sets the stage for an album that's a little bit outside the box and that challenges the listener. I think that may have been Staś's idea to put that first.
I'm told that your primary banjo has a little bit of history behind it.
It's a tenor banjo from the 1920s. It has the original calfskin tenor head. I found it shortly after I moved to Kansas City. Finding that banjo really changed a lot of things. It was a turning point in my songwriting. Different kinds of songs started coming to me. It was like they were coming out of the banjo. They were coming so effortlessly. It fit my voice and unlocked a lot of things.
I love history so much and stories of the past, and to have this banjo played by a man in the '20s and early '30s in a dog-and-pony show, and to be able to see the oils of hands in that calfskin head is a tremendous thing. It's amazing to be able to tell new stories on it. It has stories of its own that I'll never know. It seems like the instruments do a lot of the work.
I tour with an identical twin to that banjo.
So many times I hear musicians say, "I bought this guitar on impulse. I saw it in a window and that's the one I've written all my best songs on."
There's a synergy between the musician and their instrument. It's like when you get with people sometimes where you just click. You don't even know why. You start to figure it out after that it's attraction, that predilection toward someone or something. I had that with this banjo.
The record came out in May and picked up all this acclaim, Best of the Year, etc. That's not something you can really plan for. Were you surprised when it started taking off?
Yes! Absolutely! As an artist, you create something, it's your baby, you love it and want to be proud of it. You rear it, send it out into the world and you hope for the best but you never know. It was difficult making the album, we had to be so patient and we hit a lot of snags in the recording process, things we had to learn about and figure out. It wasn't something we could do overnight, it took time. It was a grueling and at times overwhelming process.
When we started to get those first few press pieces and reviews and distinctions, it was a very cool experience and it put my faith back in this thing we'd spent so much time on. It's amazing how quickly you can start to feel disconnected from it. Hearing someone outside your family and friends and close family tell you it's something; that it's something that's resonating is a really rewarding thing. It's been a surprise that other people value these songs.