Author: Sam Seliger
It took Kris Kelly a long time to get here. His journey to releasing his debut album “Runaways,” out later this summer, took him across the country and across the western hemisphere, in a process of self-discovery that took over half a decade.
The Austin, Texas-born singer-songwriter moved to New York in 2001 to study classical vocal performance and music composition at NYU. After making the rounds as a performer and working on a few albums, he traveled to South America for what was supposed to be only a few months. But after he met his future husband in Argentina, he ended up staying for nearly six years, waiting for the U.S. government to allow citizens to sponsor same-sex spouses for immigration, which did not occur until the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013.
Living in what he described as “a suspended state,” with only his guitar and his suitcase, Kelly wrote with a newfound freedom: “I wasn’t focused on writing songs with a goal in mind, like ‘Oh, I’m gonna write these songs and release them on my next album.’ It was more about writing songs for me, and in that way I kind of, over the course of the years I was there, documented my time over there through song,” he explained.
When Kelly finally returned, he had an abundance of new material. Some of those songs feature on “Runaways.”
“We moved to the United States, and at that point, I realized ‘Wow, I have a ton of songs here, I kind of want to get my life back on track, you know, start performing, start recording,’” Kelly said. “I had a ton of songs to choose from, so I kind of went through and I picked the ones obviously that I liked the best musically, but also the ones that told the story of my journey of the years I’d been living in Argentina.”
As a result, the songwriting is personal and intimate, and “Runaways” is a gentle and beautiful album. On the opener “Birthplace,” Kelly’s voice floats angelically over fingerpicked guitar, as understated strings swell with the ebb and flow of his voice. On the nine-minute “Brothers,” Kelly paints beautiful portraits: “Sat on a tree stump, swayed in the wind, I can feel you. Uncoupled, size doubled, dreams halved, but all the same, can you feel me?” Kelly’s voice soars in quiet harmony with itself, and quiet drums lull in the background. A grand string section builds into a new movement before falling away into acoustic guitar.
Much of this warm sound and intimate aesthetic can be owed to Kelly’s team of A-list creative collaborators, including Noah Georgeson (Joanna Newsom, Devendra Banhart), who mixed the album, and helped him maintain the natural feeling of his songwriting. As a producer, Kelly worked consciously to make sure that songs were not “overloaded with too much information.” This minimalism keeps the songwriting at the forefront, so lyrics and melodies can shine.
Kelly draws inspiration from the first generation of singer-songwriters, whose music was deep and personal. “I love a lot of the ‘60s and ‘70s, when this whole singer-songwriter phenomenon came about, with really honest lyrics that delve into inner conflict,” he said. “They weren’t necessarily fun party songs. It was more about the inner experience, and that’s what’s always excited me.”
That emotional honesty is present is Kelly’s work. On a recent single “Cracked Porcelain,” he explores ways in which LGBTQ partners can define their relationships in new ways, but also the potential danger that it brings, as a couple fulfils their personal desires but ultimately neglect the needs of their relationship.
His lyricism is detailed yet abstract - “While we were spinning wild and knocking over everything, we’d built a wall between us higher than that Cristo Redentor” - with music to match. Soaring violins swoop down and let Kelly’s leaping voice enchant the listener, but the melody becomes melancholy, and the relationship turns sour.
Kelly also emulates his idols through instrumentation. Most of the songs on “Runaways” use acoustic guitar, acoustic bass, piano and no electronics. “I wanted to keep it very natural-sounding. Everything that’s on it is how it could have been recorded 20 or 30 years ago,” Kelly said.
What does set him apart, however, is his frequent, yet always tasteful, use of strings. At NYU, Kelly explored the intersection of pop songwriting and classical instrumentation, and his experience helped him avoid the lavish excess that has often plagued singer-songwriters when working with a string section.
In the future, Kelly would be open to going in a different direction. He is exploring the use of electronic beat-making and vocal sampling as tools for future projects. But for the time being, he is primarily focusing on the release of his album and a tour he hopes to embark on this fall.
Kelly plans to release “Runaways” independently in late August. His latest single “Crack Porcelain” is on streaming services now.