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Michael Kelsey: A band unto himself



Michael Kelsey has spent his lifetime exploring the limits of the guitar.

The Lafayette-bred musician got his start as an ensemble player, but he's made his mark as a solo artist. Beginning with 1996's Gruvency, Kelsey has effortlessly crafted polyrhythmic songs using only an acoustic guitar and whatever objects happen to be handy when performing live. Often that can make Kelsey sound like a band unto himself.

His goal isn't necessarily to achieve guitar god status, though Kelsey once won a national guitar competition and performed in the 2004 of Eric Clapton's Crossroads Guitar Festival. Rather, it's about summoning a storm of emotions through lush, heartfelt performance.

This Sunday at Birdy's, Kelsey will premiere his sixth studio album and first in four years, Submerged. He recently talked with NUVO about all things guitar.

NUVO: When did you start playing guitar and what attracted you to the instrument?

Michael Kelsey: When I was eight, I realized I wanted to play music. Drums were my first love. My mother always played guitar. I wanted to make chords and write songs, so she started teaching me. She soon found a guitar teacher for me who showed me all the fun stuff to play and that just kept it going. The guitar always felt natural in my hands. I like playing many different instruments. The guitar makes me understand those instruments better and those instruments make me understand the guitar better.

NUVO: How did your unique style of playing come about?

Kelsey: I am constantly curious about the instrument. If I were a piano player I would be doing the same thing — just stepping back and thinking about the possibilities. I don't know what I would do with a piano, but it would probably include duct tape, wind chimes and a strong sense of adventure. When someone has that state of mind they thrive on finding new ways to an old idea. I just happen to play guitar. I discovered [pioneering finger-style guitarist] Michael Hedges about 18 years ago. He woke me up. Not so much his music as much as his approach to music and his spirit in making music.

NUVO: Why do you draw from so many different genres?

Kelsey: I always admired people that locked into a style of music so passionately. It never struck me that way. I am listening for expression in sound — not so much a style. So I could be drawn to a [Robert] Fripp and [Brian] Eno soundtrack that someone might consider background noise, and then turn around and love some '80s pop song because of the clever melody line — and then I could be lost in the story of a folk song. I like bringing a variety of styles to a live performance, but when I make a recording that variety could be distracting. So I try to have a focus for each project. This latest project satisfied the guitar instrumentalist in me. Not technical playing, just a moody acoustic guitar telling some melody stories with some atmospheric enhancements. The next project will be more of one-man, one-guitar, singer-songwriter CD, maybe a live recording. That kind of variety is great for my music inner world and terrible for the business outer world.

NUVO: Have you always had a magnetic stage presence?

Kelsey: I was always on the shy side of interacting with people as I grew up. Expressing through sound is the one place where I felt at home. I like making musical discoveries in my alone time and then being able to go out and share them with an audience. I get kind of excited about that. That excitement hasn't faded at all over the years. I think it just gets more intense.

NUVO: How important is audience interaction to your shows?

Kelsey: I strive to create a moment that the audience and I can call our own. I like to stay open to the things around me and weave them in and out throughout the night. If I don't, then I almost feel guilty that we had an opportunity to make an authentic moment, but instead I just stuck to the program. There is that balance of opening yourself up to the moment, but also sharing something that you brought from home. I don't have it perfected yet, but I am always trying.

NUVO: Why are you taking longer to release new material now?

Kelsey: Hmm...I don't know. I tend to let things take their natural course, even if that means the scenic route. Maybe I need some anxious band mates or more pushy friends. I do have the next project mapped out in my mind. I tell myself I will have it completed within six months, but then that is what I always tell myself after each project.

NUVO: At this point in your career, do you feel you've learned and manipulated as much as you can out of the guitar?

Kelsey: It has always felt like an infinite instrument. It never bores me. When the day comes that I am one with the instrument, and can evoke more emotion and speak clearer than any other form of communication, then I will try that piano, wind-chime thingy.


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