by Tate Kamish
Taylor Kelly was born and raised in the suburbs of Rochester, NY and currently resides in Philadelphia, PA where she is further discovering herself as an artist. She has a voice that blends both the smoothness and rhythmic nature of jazz, soul and funk.
She leads an 8-piece group, and was recently awarded an Akademia Award for Best R&B/Soul EP and was a finalist in the PHL LIVE Center Stage for R&B. Aside from performing, Taylor teaches voice, piano, songwriting and trumpet lessons.
What brought you from Rochester, NY to Philadelphia?
I actually spent five years in Boston between Rochester and Philadelphia. I spent two years in Boston after graduating from Berklee College of Music and I was getting pretty eager to get out of the city but didn’t have a plan. During my last year in Boston, my roommate talked me into auditioning for The Voice and the closest city that was doing auditions was Philadelphia. I so vividly remember driving into Philly and quickly realizing that this is where I wanted to be. The audition was a bust but as soon as I got back to Boston, I started looking for a place to live and a job in Philly and moved 6 months later. I couldn’t be happier to have moved here.
How did you assemble your current, 8-piece band?
I hadn’t even written a song before I attended Berklee in the fall of 2011. By the end of my first year, I had begun to write songs with my roommate who was a tremendous pianist and barely spoke a lick of English. To be cliché, music was the way we communicated and I started to realize my potential as a songwriter.
Around the same time, I was privileged to have met my biggest mentor in music, a fellow student and jazz composition major named Jonah Francese, who took me under his wing and basically told me I needed a band and that my music needed to be heard. I’d show him my songs and he’d arrange them for an 8-piece band and by the fall of 2012, I had assembled a band of friends from school (including my pianist roommate) and we played our first show and recorded our first album within the first few months of bringing my music to life. It’s still kind of crazy to think about.
Can you tell us more about your Jay-Z/Beyonce tribute band, and opening for Salt N’ Pepa in 2014?
Haha, yes, this is another one of those things that’s crazy to think about. Jonah actually played trumpet in a Boston-based Justin Timberlake tribute band called The Timberfakes and they were putting on a huge show at the Middle East Downstairs (a venue in Cambridge, MA) and they wanted to recreate the Jay-Z / JT tour experience since the two were touring together at the time. Jonah was the only musician in the band that was at Berklee and had a lot of musical connections so he reached out to a few of his friends, me included, and we put together a set for a Jay-Z/Beyoncê thing (since we thought the Beyoncé addition would be better received than playing Jay-Z covers for an entire hour). I think we rehearsed once and we really weren’t sure what we were getting ourselves into but man.. these people went NUTS! We were a HUGE hit.
We continued to play a lot of shows with The Timberfakes which is how we got the opening slot for Salt N Pepa. All I can remember is watching Salt and Pepa walk on stage for sound check in velour two-pieces while eating corn on the cob vertically… like a popsicle. It was wild. That’s honestly all I remember because I entirely blacked out from the hype. I think that night was the closest I’ve ever felt to being a superstar.
You just released your album, “DO U FEEL ME,” in June 2017. What would you say is the central theme of that record?
Most of my songs are about love and loss and, well, just men. They can actually be very inspiring! (That’s facetious sarcasm.) I try to put the track lists of my records in chronological order to tell some kind of story. It’s not a very cohesive story but it makes sense to me and it’s kind of the way I digest and remember what I’ve been through.
I think “DO U FEEL ME” is a series of experiences that I had that were profound enough for me to write songs about them. They’re a little less intense than my previous record, much more playful- and that’s kind of the content, too. I’m very playful about these men that I’m singing about and my intentions are way less heavy than a lot of the songs I’ve written in the past about certain romantic endeavors. The title track is a little different than the others because that came from a very dark and frustrated place.
I was smack dab in the middle of wedding season and, being a wedding singer, I’ve experienced being treated like a second-class citizen that’s forced to eat bandwiches in the kitchen of the venue and everyone treats you like you’re a karaoke machine that knows every song ever written and get angry with you when you don’t. Then I thought about the times that people get confused that music is my profession and don’t take me seriously. Then I thought about the times that I’m treated like I’m some kind of divine breed- someone to be praised (like I’m Beyoncé or something!). That song came from that place of “why do I even do this?” There’s no normalcy, no middle ground. Then I remember halfway through the song why I do and that’s because art and music are so relatable and I’m really reaching people when I do what I do. I think it’s a great closer to the album because all of the songs are so me, so true and so real and that song just asks the ultimate question which is, of course, DO YOU FEEL ME??????
It is clear that you have been passionate about music since a young age. Do you recall when you first realized you wanted to seriously pursue music?
I can’t remember ever not being drawn to music. I started dancing at age 5 and was probably putting on shows (likely naked) in my living room even younger than that but I have a terrible memory and my parents probably remember the weirder things that I did. I started playing trumpet in 4th grade because my dad played and I wanted to follow in his footsteps. I started singing in the elementary school choir that same year. I did a really fun play that same year, too where I played Miss Valentine in February On Trial and wore a pleather red dress and a huge curly blonde wig. I was hilarious. I saw my first off-broadway musical in 5th grade and I turned to my mom and asked, “when can I do this?” during the show. Weirdly enough, I was set on pursuing musical theater from that moment on. I even wrote papers about it all through middle school and high school. I was so passionate about musical theater and was heavily involved in our school’s program as well as our show choir, which was nationally-known.
My senior year, my world kind of did a 90 (I’d say a 180 but it wasn’t). My jazz band director asked me to put my horn down and sing a song with the band. I sight-read a Michael Buble tune in a rehearsal and I was completely rocked. I had already applied to a few colleges with the intention of auditioning for their musical theater program but I just felt so strongly that I needed to be singing jazz. So, I went home and applied to Berklee that night. It took me 6 hours to complete the app, and I ate dinner in my room. I auditioned the next month and found out I got in a month or two after that. That was a serious moment for me and just another reminder that some of the best things happen so unexpectedly. I’ve stopped really planning for anything at all.
What do you think is most important about teaching music?
The relationships. Teaching doesn’t mean anything if you can’t connect with your students on a personal level. That is so much more important than any “thing” you can teach them. They might not remember every little thing you teach them, but they will remember how they felt learning those things and being with a teacher that they felt truly understood them and cared for them. To instill confidence in my students and see growth as living, breathing human beings is greater than anything. The getting better part comes with being confident in yourself and not holding back. If you can’t get out of your own head, you won’t be able to do the things you want to do. I had one of my students audition for The Voice this year and I know he gets extremely anxious presenting himself like that in front of strangers and it’s an incredible feeling knowing that he had the confidence to go in there and do that. OK, NOW I’M GETTING EMOTIONAL.