FEATURED ARTIST – Kelsey Montanez
Dennis: Good day Kelsey, Happy New Year! How are you?
Kelsey: Hi Dennis! Thank you so much for having me for the artist spotlight! Honestly, 2023 has been off to a strange start. I’ve spent most of it sick at home, which is lame, but it’s also been awesome because I started the year off releasing music and booking lots of shows and fun events.
Dennis: I am so sorry to hear that Kelsey, I hope you feel better soon! I’m definitely looking forward to hearing a lot from you this year! One song that you released, was a new (old) song, called “I Sold My Soul”. I understand this was written while you were in High School, and that it has outshined (for you) a lot of your other songs and stuck with you. Why did you decide to release it now?
Kelsey: In the last few years, I’ve gone through a (sort of) a writing surge. It started in 2020 and just continued to grow from there.
Dennis: Unfortunately, everyone had a mandatory writing surge whether they wanted to or not.
Kelsey: I think all the isolation and massive amounts of downtime opened this vault of creativity in me and I started to toy with the idea of making an album. It occurred to me that I’ve been a songwriter my entire life and I’ve never actually officially released a full album. I’ve released demo’s, singles and EPs and worked on various projects, but I never actually made a full album of my music.
Dennis: I was wondering about that, and was going to ask you about it, in fact.
Kelsey: Even when I wasn’t playing shows or recording, I was always rushing home from places to record “secret” ideas in my phone that I never thought anyone would hear. But as I started gathering these ideas and recording them, the possibility of making an album started to become more of a reality and I started thinking about which songs should be on it.
“I Sold My Soul” has always been a really popular one at the live shows and it’s always meant a lot to me. It was one of the first songs I wrote and it just reminds me of the feeling I had when I first discovered the art of songwriting. It felt like magic.
In high school, I would anxiously watch the clock all day so I could rush back home to play guitar and write more songs. The creative possibilities felt endless and I had never felt anything so freeing before. Because this album is the first, I decided it had to be on there. This album is going to be a mix of mostly new songs but a few older ones as well that I didn’t want to forget about. I intend to make many more albums after this, but there are a few songs I didn’t want to leave behind forever and “I Sold My Soul” is one of them.
Dennis: Who designed the artwork for it?
Kelsey: The artwork was done by an artist named Ann Ahoy who is based in Mexico City. I randomly stumbled across her work on Instagram and when I saw it, it was like a light went off in my head. I really liked her style, the vibrant colors and the feminist undertones and messages of empowerment in her work.
I messaged her to see if she would be open to collaborating on some album artwork and I was thrilled when she said yes. We set up a meeting on zoom and had an awesome conversation about art and music and creativity and it seemed like a really good fit. I’m really excited to have her on this project and I can’t wait to see how she interprets my music through her art!
Dennis: She does have some very inspirational work! What have been some of the more memorable responses to your songs and have those responses influenced any of your songwriting?
Kelsey: I’m always amazed when people reach out to tell me how they connect with my music. Throughout the years I have received heartfelt letters, messages, people at shows saying how a particular line resonated with them or helped them through a hard time. I’ve even had a couple people infuse my lyrics into tattoo art they’ve gotten done. I can’t even begin to express what this means to me.
I’ve always felt like a bit of a loner my entire life. That’s not to say I don’t have an incredibly supportive group of family and friends who I’d be totally lost without. But for whatever reason, I’ve always struggled with a sense of belonging since I was a kid. Music has always been a safe place to escape to.
I tend to go into writing assuming I’m alone or that this is only healing for me or that it’s all in my head. But then it always catches me by surprise when I notice someone is there with me and they’re feeling it too. It reminds me that music is universal and it’s bigger than us, and chances are if I’m feeling something, there are others who can feel it too.
Dennis: I am right there with you too! You’ve had quite the music career and honestly, I am glad to see you didn’t shuffle off to L.A. or something like that. Tell me about your career and how Chicago plays into your career.
Kelsey: I love Chicago! Chicago is my home. This is where my family is from and where I grew up. There is a certain flavor to Chicago and Chicago music that I can’t imagine my life without. There is something so real and raw about it; a sense of honesty, grit and hard work (without the pretension) that I really admire.
I know that nobody likes the harsh weather conditions, even true blue Chicagoans hate it at times (I don’t care what you say!), but I think being raised with such erratic and often harsh conditions in the midwest instills a sense of perseverance and steadfastness and it shows in the art and music scene. In all honesty, I wouldn’t mind moving somewhere warmer one day, but Chicago is where my heart is. And I feel like the local music scene is continuously blooming with new talent and creative genius and I think it’s important to nurture the arts here rather than abandon it for cities with an already booming industry.
Dennis: How would you rate Chicago as a music city?
Kelsey: 10 out of 10!! The level of talent and hard work I see in this city is second to none. I know Chicago has a reputation for not having as much of an established industry as LA or New York but I don’t see any reason why it can’t become a heavy hitter in the music industry. The talent is here. The work ethic is here. The support is here. And I’m seeing it grow and expand in new ways all the time, so I have every reason to believe it will continue to do so.
Dennis: What were some of your earliest influences in life (anything) that inspired you to sing, play guitar and aspire to be a full time musician?
Kelsey: I come from a very musical and artistic family, and I think that had a lot to do with it. I was raised around various forms of creative expression and I think I soaked all of that in from an early age. I was like a sponge in my younger years. I was always very quiet and introspective, but I paid very close attention to my dad’s music when he played in bands, or the paintings my grandma created, or the meticulously cared for and organized blues vinyl collection my grandfather maintained throughout his whole life. I was always obsessed with music for as far back as I can remember and it took root in my younger years and never stopped growing.
Dennis: Was there ever any difficulties with school and music for you?
Kelsey: Absolutely. School was basically just one big difficulty for me. Not because I didn’t like learning though. I’ve always loved reading and writing and learning about any and all subjects. But I was pretty adamant and obsessed with making music as soon as I started writing and it’s all I wanted to do. By high school, I was playing in bars and venues and had late night shows and band practices and it took a toll on “normal” high school activities.
I faced a lot of resistance and criticism from teachers, counselors and people around me, but I’m really grateful my dad understood it and helped me book shows and took the time to learn recording and helped me record my songs. We always had so much fun recording my music and that’s where I learned so much about the recording process and found my voice.
Dennis: Do you play any other instruments aside from guitar?
Kelsey: No, I’ve pretty much stuck to guitar. I can play piano extremely poorly. I wouldn’t even say I play it, but use it more as a writing tool. I’m completely self taught when it comes to guitar. I think I took a beginners guitar class at Old Town School of Folk Music when I was in high school, but outside of that, I’ve never had any formal music training.
I’ve always wanted to become more technically sound at guitar but every time I sit down to focus on skill or technique, I get swept up in a creative idea and I start writing. One of my goals has been to start experimenting with writing on a different instrument to see how that changes my style. In fact, I think I might sit down at the keyboard after this interview.
Dennis: Awesome! I hope so! I would love to hear how it goes for you. Aside from your 2013 EP, “A Delightful Sadness” and your singles for “Let Me Love You” and “Everything Is Fine”, do you have other releases out there?
Kelsey: There are definitely old recordings and cd’s of mine floating around out there! Back when Myspace was popular I had a few recordings on there that gained a bit of a following and I would sell hand burned cd’s at all my shows. The original recording of “I Sold My Soul” was on there, as well as a song called “Burnout’s Lovesong” that seemed to be pretty popular.
But those CD’s were self-recorded and self released before Spotify and all the other streaming services got popular, and it would be hard to find those recordings on the internet now. Hence why I wanted to record an official album so all these songs had an official place to live instead of being scattered across the internet or on random hand burned CD’s or hidden away in my phone recordings or old computers and iPods. (Remember those?!)
Dennis: I never had one, but I have essentially turned my current iPhone into an iPod with over 27,000 mp3s on it and growing. I am not a fan of subscription services, especially with how they treat the artists. How has it been releasing singles every couple months?
Kelsey: Releasing music again has been amazing, fun, terrifying, scary, rewarding, challenging and basically all of these things wrapped into one. I had to face a lot of my fears in order to get to the point of making music again. I stopped making music for quite a number of years for several different reasons. But the main one being that making art sometimes feels like war.
You have to face a lot of your own resistance, insecurities, your own thoughts (and even other people) telling you you’re not good enough, you need to be better, it’s pointless, it’s risky, it’s unrealistic, people won’t like it, etc. The list goes on of all the creative and inventive ways resistance and self doubt kick in when embarking on any creative endeavor. And let me tell you, after some painful experiences in the music industry in my younger years, my resistance was STRONG.
But I’ve finally gotten to a place where I have accepted that life is better with music in it, and this is just something I have to do for better or worse. And yes, the singles are going to be a part of an album! I don’t have an exact date of when it will be done but I’ve been working on it faithfully every week with my engineer, Bill, and I’m really excited by the shape it’s starting to take! It’s really starting to take on a life of its own and it’s been really cool to see it evolve into what it’s becoming.
Dennis: Well, I am very proud of you! Good for you! I share many of the same challenges personally as well, so, I know how the struggle is difficult every single day. Tell me about your experiences and views on the music industry as a whole?
Kelsey: I have a really weird, complicated relationship with the music industry. It’s been the source of a lot of pain and frustration for me throughout the years if I’m being honest. Historically, it’s always been an industry that has thrived on sexism, queer-phobia, racism, gate-keeping and capitalism and being a woman and a member of the LGBTQ community, it was brutal.
I can’t tell you how much toxic and damaging messaging I received when I was a young girl entering the music industry. I went into it naively, just wanting to make good music and do the thing I love most and it was like I was instantly bombarded (usually by old men) that I needed to be sexier, I needed to lose weight, I needed to be more feminine, needed to sing more love songs, needed to switch over to dance music, needed to wear more makeup and tighter clothes, etc.
I was even told once when I was a teenager by a music exec that I should stop playing guitar because it’s intimidating to men and it made me seem too dominant and powerful. I was also told to go back into the closet because I could never make it as a queer musician. It’s honestly a major reason I pulled back from music for so many years.
But to the contrary, I have nothing but love for the music community, not to be confused for the music industry. Respectfully, the music industry can kiss my ass. But the music community is where it’s at. The true music community could care less about any of that toxic, sexist, queer-phobic, elitist crap and will really show up and turn up for good music despite what the industry gatekeeper dinosaurs have to say about it.
I have found a lot of healing and growth by immersing myself in all the amazing music and art being created at a local level and creating things with people out of pure love for the craft. And on a positive note- it is now easier than ever to make music independently which has opened the door to a lot of amazing work that would have otherwise been stifled or ignored even a few short years ago!
Dennis: How has the industry changed over this past decade based on your observations?
Kelsey: The industry is still not perfect by any means, but I really do think it’s gotten a lot better over the last decade or so as far as more people having access to music making tools regardless of age, race, orientation, social class or location. I know there are a lot of mixed opinions about what this accessibility has done to the music industry.
I’ve heard many people say it has downgraded the quality of music because anyone can record anything and put it on the internet regardless of quality or skill level. This might be true, but in the big picture I think it’s a beautiful thing that more people have access to creative tools.
It might take more time to sift through music and art to find what really resonates with you on a personal level, but I think the range and diversity of what’s being created now is inspiring and necessary. I personally find it refreshing to listen to music being made from people of all walks of life regardless of age, background or economic status.
It opens the door to wider perception about the way life really is, and not just some hyper-fantasized version of reality from some out of touch industry executive.
Dennis: What have been some of your favorite venues that you’ve performed at?
Kelsey: I think some highlights for me have been performing at historic Chicago music venues like The Metro or headlining House of Blues. I grew up seeing my favorite bands play at those venues so it was really cool standing on those stages and playing my songs.
Dennis: What have been the most powerful tools that helped boost your career for you? (social media, live shows, management, etc.)
Kelsey: As difficult as navigating the world of social media can be, I’ve found it to be a useful tool. I have found so many great connections and collaborations through social media and so many people have found their way to my music or heard about my shows through social media.
But I have found the best way to make connections is to get out there in the world and meet people, shake peoples hands, go to their shows and events and get inspired by the things going on around you. One of my major goals in 2023 is to go to as many local shows and events and support other people’s work as much as I can.
Dennis: What have been some of the best lessons you’ve learned in the music industry?
Kelsey: I think the best lesson I’ve learned is stay true to yourself and work hard. And don’t let your inner critic win! Keep creating even when the self doubt kicks in.
Dennis: Outside of music, what are your favorite things you like to do?
Kelsey: I’m a really big reader. I love reading a good book in my downtime. I also like going on super long walks to clear my head and get inspired.
Dennis: What are the most important (world) issues for you, and how would you like to see them change?
Kelsey: I’d really like to see systemic racism, sexism, homophobia and classism be addressed on a deep, societal level. It’s not working- the way society has been set up. Something really needs to change in a powerful way to make the system fair and just for all.
Dennis: I see you’ll be performing on The Bunker in February, what else can we look forward to seeing from you this year?
Kelsey: I’ll be performing with my full band at Reggie’s in Chicago on January 21st with The Vultures and fellow singer songwriter Arreis and then again February 9th at The Cubby Bear!
Dennis: Is there anything else you’d like to share with us today?
Kelsey: I’d just like to thank you for your support and all you do for the Chicago music scene! I really appreciate you having me in for an interview today!
Dennis: I am so happy to have been able to chat with you today Kelsey, I really appreciate your time!
Dennis: I wish you all the best in 2023 and beyond!
Kelsey: It’s been a pleasure and an honor! I hope you have an incredible 2023 as well!
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Kelsey Montanez is one of Chicago’s best kept secrets. Both intimate and ecstatic, smokey and scorching, her potent blend of blues, pop, and psychedelia has been turning heads for over a decade. Among the singer-songwriter’s many talents, it’s Montanez’s arresting voice that has captured a devoted fanbase.
It comes as no surprise that her visceral 2013 EP “A Delightful Sadness” scored her a record contract and music video with Chance the Rapper on lead single “Out of Sight.” True to her strong sense of independence, Montanez subsequently opted to pursue her own uncompromising artistic vision. It took a pandemic worth of isolation and heartbreak to transform that raw power into the refined spectacle that is her first record in over a decade.
Bolstered by the pristine production of Bill Karambelas and internationally acclaimed session musicians, her music is both transcendent and catchy, demonstrating the songwriter’s range and ability to transform deeply personal lyrics into searing and seductive rock. While conjuring vocalists like Amy Winehouse and Lauryn Hill, Montanez possesses her own unmistakable voice.
Kelsey Montanez has been listed in the Chicago REDEYE as “15 artists to Watch” and celebrated in the Chicago Reader and Chicago Tribune. Montanez has headlined prominent Chicago venues such as the Metro, House of Blues, as well as festivals such as SXSW. Recently, Montanez was awarded the 2020 Magellan Musician in Residence at the historic Aqua Building.