Q&A with singer Kelly Zirbes - West Coast Soul with a Texas Heart, speaks to the audience about her feelings

"Sad but true. I think the blues genre is a world of opportunity for women. Even older artists. It’s about Soul, you know. Just wear your heart on your sleeve and don’t worry so much about the wrinkles."

Kelly Zirbes: Heart of Love, Soul of Blues

Kelly’s Lot was formed in 1994 by Kelly Zirbes (likes to go by Kelly Z), a folk singer & songwriter with a heart for the blues. With 14 albums and lots of touring in the USA and Europe, the band will celebrate 25 years since the first night they hit the stage at the Roxy in Hollywood. Kelly Z met soundman, Perry Robertson, in 1996 who soon produced their “Live At The Troubadour” album. Within a year he joined the band, started writing songs with Kelly Z and added the Southern Rock and Texas influences that have shaped their sound. As a duo or band, they have played coffee shops, theaters, festivals, clubs, house concerts and a variety of events. In the last 15 years they have created a 5 to 8-piece band that is well respected on the American blues scene. Some of the larger festivals they have played are Waterfront Blues, Simi Valley Cajun and Blues Festival, Ventura County Blues Festival, Lavaudieu Music Festival, to name just a few. In France, Jean Francois Thomas joined Kelly’s Lot to play in front of 18,000 for the Nuits De Sologne Festival.                     (Kelly Zirbes, Roots & Showcase 2020 / Photo by Sweet Music Chica)

Their songs have been heard in movies and television and covered by other artists. Kelly Z is currently working on songs for a couple film projects while still grabbing some inspiration from her fans on Facebook. Challenging them to look in their hearts and share just one word, she then challenges herself to choose a word and write a song in two hours. Perry Robertson, who shares the band leader title with Kelly Z, has recorded and produced their new album "Where And When" on June 11, 2021. In 2020 Kelly Z and Perry teamed up with Doug Pettibone to record a selection of contemporary folk and roots/rock songs named 'Another Sky' which led to their teaming up again on the upcoming release, a 'live to tape' acoustic Blues presentation recorded with Royer and Mojave mics. It includes six original songs and five traditional blues covers (Howlin' Wolf, Ma Rainey, Robert Johnson and Lovie Austin). Arranged in a circle, they recorded the 11 songs in 7 hours with David Grover added on upright bass. Kelly and Perry wrote the original songs with Perry and Doug producing the album. Evie Cook came on board again for the graphics and Mike Milchner mastered the tracks. Kelly and her band have opened for Tommy Castro, Shemekia Copeland, Marcia Ball, John Mayall, Curtis Salgado, Coco Montoya, to name just a few, and have hosted blues events for charities and for fellow blues musicians. With the support of European fans, the band toured across Belgium, France, Germany, England, Scotland, and The Netherlands.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What characterize your music philosophy, sound and songbook? What does the blues mean to you?

Music and blues for me is a release of your inner demons and pain. I really don’t care about the genre as much as the feeling. But the blues is the music I heard late at night growing up. My mother would sing along with records and cry herself to sleep many a night. She was a single mother of 5.

How has the Blues and Rock Counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

I am proud to be a part of that counterculture these days. It’s a happier and more of a family type feeling compared to the solitude I felt in the folk rock and singer songwriter world. I think it’s because of the jamming. The ability to just sit in with another blues artist. I need the solitude to keep writing songs but I have really needed to learn to play and sing with others which I am trying to do everyday. There are so many personality types in that counterculture as well and I really enjoy that journey.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your paths in music and the Blues people?

Through the Blues I have learned to be stronger than I thought I was. To be brave and to sing from deep within. And that it's okay to express things simply but to always have conviction in what you sing and feel. I have seen and heard so much power in the women of the Blues that it gave me permission to express my own feelings. Music in general has taught me to be myself and to trust in that. When you are on stage you are naked and if you are not yourself you don't feel right. So, you strip down all the walls that surround the real stuff and you learn to love what you are, even if it's just while you are on stage. And somedays you can take that with you off stage and do things you never thought you would do.                                      (Kelly Zirbes / Photo by Amanda Peacock)

"Music and blues for me is a release of your inner demons and pain. I really don’t care about the genre as much as the feeling. But the blues is the music I heard late at night growing up. My mother would sing along with records and cry herself to sleep many a night. She was a single mother of 5."

How do you think that you have grown as an artist since you first started making music? What has remained the same about your music-making process?

I have grown as a songwriter to not be afraid and as a performer to respect myself. Excited to have these tools moving forward. Perry (Robertson) has grown on the recording end these past few years and found different ways to present Kelly's Lot. To create from empathy and embrace the dance between the heart and the mind. And never be afraid to let the buried voices inside my head give me words and ideas. And always embrace that writing with Perry is the constant and the blessing!

How do you describe new album "Where And When" sound and songbook?

"Where and When" is a homage to Classic and Traditional Blues in an acoustic form. It honors the old style way of recording, 'live to tape'. And most importantly it's a love letter to the artists who gave us a style of music that still lives on and influences our songwriting and performances.

Do you have anymore interesting stories about the making of the new album?

Besides singing, playing and recording LIVE in a circle of love? I think Perry's part is the most interesting. He engineered, played guitar and made sure we captured it all on video. He tells me it was challenging but exciting. At times it was like a runaway train that still had brakes. At any moment we could push on the brakes but didn't need to because we were in all sync with each other. During the 'soundcheck, we discovered the magic from the Mojave and Royer microphones and it gave us all a little more courage to just play and sing.

What touched you from Howlin' Wolf, Robert Johnson, Lovin Austin and Ma Rainey's song?

These artists have slowly changed me as I have slowly discovered them even more. Howlin Wolf has played in my ears off and on for a long time but now he is in my brain and circling in my soul everyday. Bessie Smith and Ella Fitzgerald whispered to me for years, but it was Ma Rainey who woke me up to go back and listen and learn from the female singers of that time. Lovie Austin's support of so many of these female singers earned her all my respect. And I am just getting started with Robert Johnson even though I have been singing 'Crossroads' for 15 years. What touches me about each of them is how genuine they are and their music and how important truth is in songwriting. Plus knowing their struggles throws me into an ocean of empathy as I sing their songs. Nothing like empathy for a singer.

"I think it was and is a passion thing. Traditional blues really was more laid back in a way even though it came from a very deep place. As they sang the blues more I think musicians and singers needed to let loose and feel everything they had. Some felt funky, some wanted more rhythm and some wanted to rock the blues so hard until it hurt. And it is blues if you feel it, if it hurts." (Kelly L & Perry Robertson, Roots & Showcase 2020 / Photo by Sweet Music Chica)

Where does your creative drive come from? What do you hope people continue to take away from your songs?

Sharing a song that someone relates to. That is the #1 reason I am driven to do what I do. I hope the listeners that come upon our music and those who already know it can find themselves in our songs. Perry is on the same page but thankfully pushes the idea of 'having fun' too.

What were the reasons that you started the Blues researches? Where does your creative drive come from?

I watched my mother listening to the Blues as a very young child. It tore her up but also healed her. This experience still connects me with my mother when I sing the Blues. I really started singing and writing songs for her and also to connect to her because she had wanted to be a professional singer. Having 6 kids, she never did get to do that. The Blues opened my heart to other genres and I went down different paths but it was always still about 'the song'. It's always been about the song and not the style. But I do really love writing a Blues song!

How do you describe previous album 'Can't Take My Soul' songbook and sound? What has made you laugh from album's sessions?

'Can't take my Soul' is a mix of songs that came to Perry Robertson and I in the past couple years. It is Blues, Roots/Rock and Folk. The title really speaks to the message of the CD and to all the songs. I believe that taking ownership of your soul gives you the strength to do anything. You are the master of your own soul and no one can take that from you. Sure, they can try and 'suck your soul' but they cannot steal it. For me the most fun part of recording this album was on the song 'Woe Is Me'. We had asked Eddie Baytos to come in and play the accordion on the song and he nailed it! I really enjoyed watching Perry dance like a kid at the control booth. We both didn't stop dancing until the following week. Of course, I laughed a lot when I was trying to whistle on 'Mon Ami' still not sure why I was laughing. Probably because you can't whistle and laugh (or smile) at the same time.

Are there any memories from your experience in Europe? What are the differences between European and US scene?    (Perry Robertson & Kelly Z / Photo by Amanda Peacock)

I really still need to explore Europe more because I have mostly only been playing music in France and Belgium in the past 11 years. But the people I have met and played music with in Germany, Spain, The Netherlands and Switzerland have given me the desire to return to those places and play more. But France, especially the Auvergne region, really feels like another home to me. The language has been difficult to learn but the people are genuine, passionate and very generous. I am excited to return there in July 2019 and play with my close friend Jean Francois Thomas (Jeff Toto Blues). The differences between USA and Europe are as individual as each person. How can you compare one person to another, you cannot. Each person is a different experience and those experiences add up to the full experience. I love them both so much. I love them all so much.

Do you consider the Blues a specific music genre and artistic movement or do you think it’s a state of mind?

I believe Blues is a genre and a state of mind. It is the combination of both. The genre helps to explain a little of what the experience will be. That you will want to dance and applaud great musicians and you will enjoy being with a family! But the state of mind guarantees that you will feel something sad but uplifting all at the same time. You will connect with those who sit around you and those on stage. It is a combination of both yet so much more.

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Perry Robertson, Alex Rylance, Ernie Payne and Teresa James. Perry and Alex pushed me hard and sacrificed their time and energy to keep me going. Ernie and Teresa inspired me with their voices and their music. They gave me their love and respect and told me to be myself. Be yourself in the music. All of this gave me strength to battle the constant doubts that plague an artist. All of this gave me the platform to sing my songs.

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

At gigs stick out me at this moment. My first time playing a gig with a band was at The Roxy. I thought I was going to die but I didn’t. I really had no idea what I was doing but I knew I could do it from that moment on. And just recently I played for over 18,000 people at a fireworks festival in French. It was their final festival and the first time they had a band before the fireworks. It was an honor and a privilege to celebrate 15 years of hard work and community with folks from another country. So, through all this, I learned to just say yes and dive in. If you feel the music you will survive.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

Back to the 50’s to see Billie Holiday and Patsy Cline sing! If I can do that maybe I can also see them sing together?

"That it’s really okay to play music as a hobby. That it doesn’t have to be a career. That a young girl can sing like Etta and not have the pressure that she has to make a living doing it. That we can enjoy and create music just for the feeling it brings to our heart and souls." (Kelly Z / Photo by Sweet Music Chica)

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I miss my mother’s voice more than anything. I hope and dream of the younger generation being able to understand the blues. That’s it not just old folks music. To be able to be silent and listen. For me I want to keep learning and keep being inspired by old traditional blues. It’s so simple sometimes that if you are not careful you could get bored and stop listening. But Blues is only as boring as your own imagination.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

That it’s really okay to play music as a hobby. That it doesn’t have to be a career. That a young girl can sing like Etta and not have the pressure that she has to make a living doing it. That we can enjoy and create music just for the feeling it brings to our heart and souls.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues from 60s Funk and Rock to R&B, Soul and beyond?

I think it was and is a passion thing. Traditional blues really was more laid back in a way even though it came from a very deep place. As they sang the blues more I think musicians and singers needed to let loose and feel everything they had. Some felt funky, some wanted more rhythm and some wanted to rock the blues so hard until it hurt. And it is blues if you feel it, if it hurts.

What does to be a female artist in a “Man’s World” as James Brown says? What is the status of women in music?

It’s hard to answer that because I don’t see myself as a woman in this. I’m a soul just like the boys are. But I believe there is always a need for a woman’s voice. Sometimes it takes a night or a day at a festival of only male voices to realize that. Absence always makes the heart grow fonder. Sad but true. I think the blues genre is a world of opportunity for women. Even older artists. It’s about Soul, you know. Just wear your heart on your sleeve and don’t worry so much about the wrinkles.

"I watched my mother listening to the Blues as a very young child. It tore her up but also healed her. This experience still connects me with my mother when I sing the Blues. I really started singing and writing songs for her and also to connect to her because she had wanted to be a professional singer. Having 6 kids, she never did get to do that. The Blues opened my heart to other genres and I went down different paths but it was always still about 'the song'. It's always been about the song and not the style. But I do really love writing a Blues song!(Photo: Perry Robertson & Kelly Zirbes on stage)

What is the impact of Blues and Rock music on the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

Like all music it’s what you say and how you say it. You can really touch folks with the blues and you can also bring folks together with all the danceable rhythms of contemporary blues. We all know that the old stuff is being mixed in with a lot of the newer stuff to create the different types of blues. So really, it’s a melting pot just like people. Bringing music lovers together. And bringing people together is the key to understanding.

What would you say characterizes California blues scene in comparison to other local US scenes?

The Blues scene in California is the only one I have really experienced for more than a short period of time. But I must say that in our scene there are people from everywhere. They are musicians and singers here who are trying to play and honor the blues, but they bring it from so many different corners of the world and so many different mindsets. Because of the variety it sometimes feels lost in all the other genres, but I can hear the blues in any form. And it grows in the sunshine of California.

What touched (emotionally) you from "All Hope Ain't Lost" & "Alyssa"? How do you want it to affect people?

'All Hope Ain't Lost' started as a very simple song with call and response lyrics. But I had changed these lyrics as I watched things happening to our country. Matt McFadden liked the original lyrics but Perry was sold on the new ones. Two producers with two very different opinions. I was torn but decided to honor Perry and his deeper feelings about what he wanted to see expressed in this song. Through these lyrics I have found hope in our country. Hope that if we just don't 'GIVE UP', we can be better. 'Alyssa' took me to a place of sadness but also pure peace. It was hard to write this song for a family that lost their daughter and their sister at such a young age but I felt her spirit and needed to do it. It has healed me in the process. People like Alyssa Mushin are needed in this world to remind us of the good things and the strengths we all have.

Kelly's Lot - Home

(Photo: Kelly Zirbes)

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