It’s Tough Out Here for a Rock Star: A Conversation with Kelsy Karter

© Kelsy Karter 2018
© Kelsy Karter 2018

Kelsy Karter Talks Making Music on Her Terms and Giving Naysayers the Finger

In an industry less and less interested in breaking new rock artists, Australian singer/songwriter Kelsy Karter is carving out her own path and refusing to take no for an answer.

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It’s a Sunday evening just outside Downtown Los Angeles. The sun paints the skyline red as lights poke one hole after another in the distant buildings. The Arts District sits at the edge of the LA River’s concrete basin, a haven for hipsters and young creatives in the re-purposed husks of old shipping warehouses. My night takes me to one such place — the Moorish-accented Moroccan Lounge. It seems out of place smashed against the For Lease brick edifices, but it supposedly predates the whole neighborhood. If you believe the rumors, it used to be a bordello and has a liquor license dating back to 1895. These are funny considering it only opened in its current iteration two years ago.

That intersection of old and new makes it perhaps the perfect setting for tonight’s event. The line is already long when I arrive. A woman in a fishnet outfit squeezes into the queue behind me with her friends and immediately tears into a frantic speech. “We’re catching her early,” she exclaims. “Six months from now she’s gonna Billie Eilish herself into stadiums. You have no idea how lucky we are.”

I get the feeling she might be right.

Kelsy Karter © 2019
Kelsy Karter © 2019

Two weeks ago I hadn’t even heard of Kelsy Karter. Now I’m bordering on obsessed. After Atwood featured her latest single “What U,” I did a deep dive into Karter’s discography. I wasn’t ready for the treasure trove I found. Her songs immediately recall the girl groups of the Motown ’60s, but with a rock and roll kick in the teeth. Imagine Amy Winehouse on a rocket ship to Mars and you get pretty close to the sonic treats Kelsy cooks up.

She’s in it to bring her trademark brand of rock, which is by no means an easy task in 2019. As young listeners turn more and more to bedroom MCs cranking out jams on Soundcloud, the mainstream rock pool slowly dries up. She isn’t letting that stop her though.

Looking at the line to the Moroccan pour into the street, it’s clear that her blend of rock and soul is connecting. But how did a twenty-four-year-old blue-eyed rocker sell out her first LA show in an era when new guitar music is a tough sell? The answer may have a lot to do with that exact era.

Her songs immediately recall the girl groups of the Motown ’60s, but with a rock and roll kick in the teeth.

© Kelsy Karter 2018
Kelsy Karter ©  2018

It Came from the Internet

Even if you haven’t heard of Kelsy Karter, chances are you’ve seen her face in passing. And there was probably something distinct about it.

Album art for “Harry” – Kelsy Karter, 2018

In support of her single “Harry,” a ’60s pop rock hybrid about her all-consuming love of former One Direction-er Harry Styles, she dropped some album art worthy of TMZ. Coincidentally, that’s where it ended up. An indie pop no-name was suddenly buzzing all over the planet. It’s a story that could have only originated in this cultural moment.

“I couldn’t have done it without social media,” she admits. I’ve snagged her during soundcheck for a casual chat on her quick and deserved rise. “When you’re doing what I’m doing and a million other people are doing it as well, you have to find your own entry point.” For her, that entry point was tattooing Harry Styles’ face on her face. Well, pretending to to it. But in the half-life of the internet, the subterfuge almost doesn’t matter. It was a statement heard loud and clear.

“I wanted to fuck shit up a little bit,” she says with a laugh. “I wanted to do something no one else did and no one would expect.” Say what you want. It worked. The stunt drummed up a lot of buzz, which catapulted her onto a UK tour with the Struts — one of her favorite bands and coincidentally close friends of hers for quite a while beforehand. And the Kelsy Karter rocket ship only goes up from there.

If “Harry” was just an attention-grabber, she would probably be sitting in a pile of disregarded memes by now. What separates her from most of the News Feed onslaught though is that she’s good. Really good. Her art reinforces the theater.

Kelsy Karter and band © 2019
Kelsy Karter and band © 2019

“I wouldn’t have done the [“Harry”] stunt if I didn’t believe in the art. I had a theater background and I was such a rebellious kid. It was essentially a theatrical prank I pulled on the world with a great song and video behind it.”

Living in the social media age grants artists like her a lot of liberty to make their statement and put their stamp on the world in the way they choose. It isn’t purely about the music, but then again the music industry has always thrived on image. It’s the same world with new tools.

It’s kind of a double-edged sword,” says Kelsy on the topic of using social media as an emerging artist. “I go between loving having the resource at my disposal, but also hate how the digital age in general has taken away the romantic side of life.”

She knows that a lot of “Harry’s” success hinges on the prevalence of platforms like Instagram and Twitter though, so she’s careful not to knock them. She calls herself an old soul, inspired as she is by the culture, fashion, and music of the 60’s and 70’s. “I think there was a kind of innocence back then that we don’t have anymore, but in the digital age, we have great tools for anyone (young, old, or whoever) to create their own legacy.”

Is it required for artists nowadays to utilize those tools? To hear Kelsy tell it, not necessarily. “I don’t think there’s any one way,” she says. “There’s a hundred million different avenues. Whether you’re a band, artist, songwriter, or musician, you have to tailor your own path. That may be through one great song or getting a tattoo of Harry Style’s face on your face. Whatever it is, you have to figure it out for yourself.”

Blue-Eyed Rock & Roll

The stage at the Moroccan is way in the back through a set of double doors at the end of the bar. It’s a tightly-packed black box. From the far wall, you still feel like you’re in the splash zone of the glistening bodies prancing about the stage. Somehow Kelsy makes this intimate setting feel like a sold out arena. Her backing band — the aptly named Boys with Long Hair — shine in sequined jackets and glittered face paint, the perfect copilots for her glam rock expedition. The tiny room shutters from wall-to-wall guitar and the raspy wail of her voice. Shut your eyes and you can almost imagine yourself in the throng of a Runaways concert circa 1978. It says a lot that hearing breakaway garage rock in 2019 feels like time traveling.

Doing rock is going against the grain.

If you grew up in a rock and roll oasis as late as the alt-boom of the 90’s, that sentence may feel like a hammer to the chest. But this is the new reality for artists trying to break through the clutter. All too often, up-and-comers are willing to fall in with the times for a taste of success. Kelsy isn’t one of them. “There’s a difference between conforming and being fresh,” she explains. “It’s not about falling in line to be up with the times. It’s about creating something that can influence the times we’re in.”

For her, that means pursuing a sound as familiar as it is fresh and unexpected. Her goody bag of songs run the gamut between neo-soul crooning (“Out of Drugs”), to garage-revival sneering (“What U”), to indie pop sugar (“Easy Tiger”). She isn’t easy to put in a box, which is probably why music critics have fallen over themselves trying. She’s pop! She’s Motown! She’s garage! They’re not wrong, but they’re only partially right.

Kelsy Karter © 2019
Kelsy Karter © 2019

“You’ve heard all those styles because you’re hearing the evolution of me,” she explains. In addition to her background in theater, Kelsy also grew up listening to and performing jazz and blues. Her early work reflects these influences and drips with 60’s pop earnestness. “Too Many Hearts to Break” could have easily been a summer smash straight from the Motor City, its singer decked out in a shimmering dress and elbow-high evening gloves. That version of Kelsy gave way to another.

After weathering an upside down 2018, she decided to pursue a different path. Her spirit, she says, is rock and roll. She wanted to finally make music that connected to who she was deep down. In the past, she hit roadblock after roadblock with managers and label bigwigs saying “no” to rock. Especially as a female artist, they warned, rock and roll was out of the question.

I was listening to all these opinions and people who I thought knew better than me, and I finally was like ‘fuck this!’ I’m not here to be miserable. I want to make this. If it’s a hit, then sweet. If it’s not, at least I’m happy and I’m true to myself.

“God Knows I’ve Tried” was her first rock song, an emotionally raw slow burn that blooms into one hell of a guitar solo. She hasn’t looked back since.

Kelsy Karter at the Moroccan - © Kelsy Karter, 2019
Kelsy Karter at the Moroccan © 2019

The Kelsy Karter Rocket Ship to Mars

For a solid hour, Kelsy and her band of merry men shake the foundation of the Moroccan, shooting pure adrenaline into the supposed corpse of rock and roll. The bangers are plenty, but the ballads are perhaps more invigorating. Halfway through her set, she strips it all down to a lone guitar, breaking into an earth-shattering rendition of “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” Hearing the King’s words stream smokily from her lips is perhaps the perfect embodiment of the Kelsy Karter mission statement.

As the pop landscape embraces more slick studio beats, R&B snaps, and ticking hi hats, rock can feel like a lumbering beast at the end of its life. But from the deep past, new artists like Kelsy are mining inspiration from the greats and spinning it into a vibrant tapestry.

She talks at length about teaming up with her mates the Struts, whom she admires for their similar “no fucks given” ethos. “The first time I saw them, I was like ‘yes!'” she exclaims. Fans of Queen may find their spiritual successors in the UK glam outfit. High energy and theatrics are staples of a Struts performance, all bolstered by melodies more decadent than a chocolate fountain. “They don’t give a fuck about conforming,” she continues. “Everyone is so depressed and sad and cool for things today. The Struts want rock and roll to be fun, and that’s what I want to do with my music as well. I want to toughen these kids up and bring some life to them, not feed the depressed generation.”

Some of the kids she speaks of haven’t even heard these sounds before. Bring up Bowie or the Rolling Stones and they’ll say “who?” Kelsy knows the way forward isn’t about looking back longingly. It’s about blasting off with new sounds and fresh perspective. Inspired as she is by the legends, her brand of rock and roll bringing down the Moroccan on a Sunday night is nobody else’s but hers.

As her rocket ship blasts off, it’s just a matter of seeing how high it will travel. Don’t be surprised if it speeds all the way to Mars.

And for fans of Tunes & Tumblers, Kelsy would describe her music as “a shot of Jameson and a cigarette.”

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