Kelaska, born Kelli Wright, is a Connecticut-based singer/songwriter who has been very active online for several years and built up not only a streaming following but a multi-media following as fans tuned into Instagram, Youtube, and Twitch to watch her prolific cover versions, and later her original music being performed acoustically. Creating her own music eventually led to her 2021 six song EP, Nostalgia and that was followed by three more stand-alone singles, “High & Low”, “Old Ghosts”, and “September”.
Now, Kelaska has started on a path of new releases, kicking off with the “dark dreamy Pop” of “Long Way Home”, with more in store collaborating with Producer Mackenzie Christensen. In fact, this new path has a lot to do with sound and with Kelaska carving out her own preferred multi-genre direction. She feels she’s finally combined her two big enthusiasms, darker Pop, with lighter dreamier Pop, with “Long Way Home”. The video which recently arrived for the single also confirms this interesting interweaving of elements, where a lighter sound combined with heavier themes is really brought home by some of the personal and hopeful elements, all shot on a cold winter’s night in her hometown.
I spoke with Kelaska about this journey into finding her own sound, how “Long Way Home” reflects that movement, her experiences streaming online, and her love for vintage aesthetics and classic Rock.
Hannah Means-Shannon: I’ve heard some hints that “Long Way Home” shows a new musical direction for you in terms of sound. It does seem a little different from your 2021 singles.
Kelaska: When I first started making my own music back in 2019, I really liked the Dark Pop, Billy Eilish type music. But I also really liked the dreamy, light upbeat music of Maggie Rogers or Kacey Musgrave. I had a really hard time deciding which direction I wanted to go, and I think you can see that in my previous work. My first couple singles, like “Smother Me” or “Bridges” are a little bit darker, but then my EP is very different, along the lighter lines.
Last year, with the singles, I was still in that zone of not being sure where to go. I think we got closer with “High and Low” and “Ghosts”, but then “September” went back to that dreamy Pop place. Since “September” came out, I had a clearer idea of what I liked about both directions and how I might find a middle ground. That’s where “Long Way Home” came from, and it feels good. It feels like I’ve finally found a sound that I can stick with.
HMS: I know that is not an easy journey. Sometimes after many years, musicians are still on that road. From a fan perspective, there is so much out there and you can be a fan of something without creating in that style, as well.
Kelaska: That’s hard too. I think when you’re first starting, every day you’re changing. You can be so sure one day about what you’ll be, and the next day, you hear a song and think, “I want to make that!” A year from now, maybe I’ll be inspired to take things in another direction, but I want to build some consistency for my fans.
HMS: With “Long Way Home”, I can see heavier, more introspective themes, but I don’t think the sound is as heavy as it could be when dealing with those themes. There’s an interwoven feeling.
Kelaska: I’m a big fan of sad songs disguised as happy songs. Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own” was a big reference that we threw around when we were creating this track. In general, I tend to write sad themes, and I don’t want to bring my fans down all the time, so it’s fun to mix it up with upbeat, dancier tones.
HMS: It’s a great space for thinking about heavier themes while feeling a sense of energy.
Kelaska: I also think that when you create a song like that, it works on two levels, because it depends on what headspace you’re in when you hear it. You might not be going through a breakup when you hear “Long Way Home”, but you hear it and are excited because it’s upbeat and fun. Then, two months later, you’re going through a break up and you hear it differently than you did the first time.
HMS: Does that also happen to you, in terms of hearing your own songs differently? I know you’ve had this song done for a while now and it deals with very personal themes.
Kelaska: I was actually in a good relationship when I wrote the song, but with a lot of songs that I write, I look back on previous situations. I keep an ongoing theme note on my phone where I’ll just write down ideas that I like that I can come back to. For this one, I had thought of this idea, based on something personal that truly happened to me.
I would spend so long in my car avoiding driving home, and the easiest thing would be to take the wrong way home, but I would weigh the options, wondering if it was late enough. Then I’d drive that way, and sure enough, I’d see them and then be devastated the whole night because I wasn’t over it. I wrote that idea down a couple of years ago, and then when I sat down to write it, the melody came to me last summer. That’s when I hashed out a lot of it.
HMS: It makes sense with intense emotions to wait a while and get a different kind of handle on them when it comes to songwriting.
Kelaska: I feel like when I first had the idea, I was still in the mindset of being so angry. I think if I had written it then, it might have come out less happy sounding. I think that the waiting period allowed me to look at the experience as a whole and write from that. I don’t know which experience would have been better necessarily, but I do think that it helps me to take some time and really dissect what my feelings were.
HMS: Do you ever think about the idea, when you’re writing a song, that you may have to spend a lot of time with it, recording it, and possibly singing it over and over in future?
Kelaska: [Laughs] I’m getting more aware of that recently. When I wrote “September”, I was really excited about it. Then, after it came out, I livestream a lot on Twitch, and so many people wanted me to play that one. I really found that I hated playing that one live! I even took it off my song list. Now, when I’m going into the studio, I’m thinking, “This song has to be one that I want to play live, otherwise, what’s the point?” Sometimes when you’re writing or recording, you just want to create something fun, and you don’t think about it from the performance side, just the production side.
HMS: You seem to have always been someone who was comfortable playing things acoustically online. A lot of people would find that scary to play a stripped down version of a song.
Kelaska: It’s definitely second nature now to me. I hadn’t really thought about it being scary. Maybe I should think more about how I should play my songs acoustically, but I just play it.
HMS: Are the acoustic versions of your songs which you’ve played online close to the version you first wrote?
Kelaska: Yes, the way I play things acoustically is exactly how I wrote them, but I think the produced version, with extra backing, sounds much better. Sometimes it’s about nailing how to play the songs acoustically, though. Sometimes I get discouraged if I’m not impressed by how I’m playing it acoustically. I am brutal about myself when I play.
A lot of people think that after doing it for a while, you lose that, but for me, that’s still not true. I think I’ve let go of the perfectionism in order to post things, but I still often think it’s god-awful. I used to not post things until they were perfect! Now I condense the takes down and just put one up. I do find live shows and playing on Twitch easier, because you’re not so worried about making it perfect. But when you’re putting it on Instagram or Youtube, you think, “This is the only version people will get, so it has to be perfect.”
HMS: How long have you been working with Mackenzie Christensen as Producer?
Kelaska: I have been working with him since the end of 2020, right after my EP came out. I kind of knew him through friends since he lived in my town, so I contacted him. Immediately, I felt like we had this really great connection musically, and on a friendship level. I’m solely working with him at the moment because I think we work really well together. He’s amazing.
HMS: That’s great news. I know it can make a big difference in peoples’ lives whether they find the right Producer. Did you have conversations about these different sound directions?
Kelaska: It’s such a blessing. A lot of times when Mackenzie and I meet, we just talk for hours. I would say to him over and over, “It’s frustrating. I don’t know what sound I want.” We’d dissect songs and talk about what parts we liked about one song, and what parts we liked about others. We’d listen to other people a lot, wondering what we could incorporate from different sounds. We spent at least a couple of months figuring out this sound and where we wanted to take it.
HMS: Did you use any particular language to describe the sound you’ve found?
Kelaska: I haven’t really, and I have a hard time listing genres on song sites. I’ve actually asked fans on Instagram to help me out, but that didn’t really help. The other day, I said, “dark dreamy Pop”, which sounds like a nice mixture of both. I think sometimes I have a hard time communicating with language about what I want things to be, so I’ll show an example, and say, “I really like the bends of this guitar…” I actually have synesthesia, and Mackenzie is so great. With “September”, I would tell him, “I want this to be more pink!” He wouldn’t know what I meant, but he’d figure out what that meant.
HMS: That’s amazing! I tend to think visually about music and helps when talking about music, especially. I know a little bit about the video for “Long Way Home”, and I think it was filmed all in one night.
Kelaska: It was so cold! My fingers were about to fall off by the end. But I also have ADHD, so sometimes when I’m very invested in something, especially with music, I want to keep going. By the end of it, it felt like we were just getting going, but everyone else was like, “We got it!” They had to pull the plug on it.
HMS: Did you know the story that the video would tell ahead of time?
Kelaska: I knew, for the most part, what it would be. I wanted it to be very home video, raw, indie, and nothing crazy. I wanted it to be like where the song began, just driving home in my car. That felt very intimate and right. I have a 98 Camry, so it’s very beat-up with paint chipping off of it. While we were doing it, little things would pop up, for instance, it cuts out when I’m going through the McDonald’s drive-through.
HMS: Yes, the sound actually stops, then resumes later, which surprised me. I haven’t seen many videos that do that.
Kelaska: Yes! That was something Mackenzie had come up with on the day. Then the gazebo at the end was unplanned. That was just by luck that we stumbled upon that.
HMS: That’s funny because I think those are the two things that help contribute to understanding that the song has lighter elements to it.
Kelaska: One hundred percent!
HMS: I guess filming in winter, at night, it could have had a darker feeling. I can’t believe the gazebo thing because the white lights are so pretty, and the circular set up has a certain feeling to it, too.
Kelaska: Luckily, we shot it two days after Christmas, so they had it set up there, and it’s only ten minutes from my house. It was perfect. You can and can’t tell that it’s Christmas, depending on if you’re thinking about it.
HMS: It really gives the option of experiencing the song as a development, or a process that the speaker could move out of by looking back.
Kelaska: I agree. At first, we were just going to end the song, too, with me driving around. And I feel like that would not have has as much of an “ending” feel to it. That made it feel like a new scene, coming to a close, at the height of the video. It worked really well.
HMS: Your old car reminds me that you have an interest in retro stuff and look towards older traditions for inspiration in music, too. Do you feel that many others of your generation are doing that, or do you feel more like an outlier?
Kelaska: I feel like it’s a mix of both. Even when I was in high school, I really liked older music like The Beatles, Queen, or Bruce Springsteen. Back then, people were like, “What are you listening to??” They didn’t care to dive in. Strangely, over the last few years, there has been a shift in the media where younger kids were listening to that stuff more.
When that happened, I saw a lot more of my friends dive in. I still have a mix of that with my friends. If I post something by Billy Joel, who isn’t even that old, one of my friends will say, “You’re so old!” But they are so good. We have to pay our respect to them. But even in terms of imagery, I love retro things. My favorite thing at my house is a Tandberg [record player] that my grandmother got from Norway in the 1960s.
HMS: There’s a timeless quality to a lot of this great music, so it’s not just about being steeped in the past.
Kelaska: There are so many great songs. A lot of times musicians will cover songs from the 60s, 70s, and 80s, and there’s a reason that they can still do that. It’s because the songs were written so well.
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