The Happy Songwriter

An Interview with Kelley Stoltz

by Jennifer Kelly


In the closet in Kelley Stoltz’s San Francisco apartment, there are boxes of tapes, the result of countless hours alone with the eight-track, just a man, his guitar, a rickety upright piano, and the music that keeps playing in his head. Stoltz says that he has hundreds of songs in there, some good, some not so good, some finished, some waiting for the final touches that will bring them into focus. So, when you ask Stoltz how he came up with the material not just for this year’s full-length Below the Branches but also last year’s Sun Comes Through EP, he has a hard time keeping a note of disbelief out of his voice.

Antique Glow I finished in 2001,” he said of his underground breakthrough album, which began life as a self-release with individually painted covers (to save production costs), and ended by earning a 4-star review in Mojo and ranking in that magazine’s top 24 albums of 2004. “That’s four and a half, five years in between and I was writing songs that whole time. I have lots. I’ve got hundreds of songs… at least a hundred or so,” he added. “So those songs that went on the EP… there were two or three on there that I really liked and I didn’t want them to sit on a reel of tape in my closet for the rest of their lives.”

Writing songs is what Stoltz does, what makes him happy and, with the advent of his Sub Pop debut this February, it is also likely to make him a lot better known. Still, you get the sense that Stoltz would be cranking out his euphoric brand of psychedelic pop, hour after hour, day after day, even if no one else were listening. “Writing songs is one of the few things in life that I can do for six hours and it seems like I was working on it for half an hour,” he said, in a recent phone interview. “You know, it’s kind of like, I can do it for six hours and then I told my girlfriend I’d go to dinner. And I’m thinking, oh, if only I had an hour more to do this backing vocal, you know? And so everything kind of creeps in on my time doing that. That’s when I’m happiest, so I try to do it as much as I can.”

Wandering beginnings

Stoltz grew up in suburban Detroit, casually picking up the guitar in his teens, but not really getting serious. Then, in his early 20s, he relocated to New York City, where he worked as an intern for Jeff Buckley, right around the time that that singer’s landmark Grace came out. Stoltz never got a chance to talk to Buckley about music, he said, because the boss was touring most of the time, and anyway, his job was strictly administrative. “I I realized that I was living vicariously through Jeff,” he said. “I didn’t want to be back here scheduling and answering phones and organizing the food backstage, I wanted to be writing songs. So that internship was really valuable to me in learning what I wanted to do.”

He went back to Detroit and lived with his grandmother for a few years, booking bands at a club called The Magic Bag. The club was dark on Monday nights, so Stoltz and his friends began playing impromptu concerts there. “It was kind of like living the fantasy without having anybody out in the crowd,” he recalled, of nights spent playing to an empty house. Then one February in the mid-1990s, Stoltz decided he’d had enough of Detroit and set off with a friend for the West Coast. The travel money ran out in San Francisco and Stoltz settled into that city’s eccentric music scene.

One of his first breaks came from playing a show with Chuck Prophet, a night that started out inauspiciously but ultimately led to a record deal. The show was at The Eagle Tavern, according to Stoltz “kind of a gay biker bar with great shows on Thursday nights.” Originally slotted for 10 p.m., Stoltz got bumped by the headliner to 11 pm. “Then, Chuck played an insanely long set and then invited this legendary street musician called Guitarlos on stage and they played Chuck Berry covers until about one in the morning,” Stoltz remembered. “So I was really pissed at Chuck. All my friends were like, ‘Sorry, man, I’ve got to work tomorrow.’ So by the time we got on stage there were like nine people at the club.”

Still, Prophet was one of them, and after seeing the set and listening to Stoltz’s record (an early version of Antique Glow), he promised to do whatever he could for the songwriter. It was through Prophet that Stoltz got his first recording contract, with Australian Corduroy Records in 2002. The record got a five-star review in The Melbourne Age, winning Stoltz big shows down under, and eventually, attention in the US and UK. Jackpine Social Club picked up Antique Glow in the US in 2003 and reissued the older The Past Was Faster as well. Stoltz was signed by Sub Pop in 2005, and released Sun Comes Through that year, followed by this year’s full-length Below the Branches.

Kelley Stoltz
“Memory Collector”: MP3
“The Sun Comes Through”: MP3

Coming into his own

Stoltz’s latest is a trippy, happy, slapdash sprint through pop history, nodding to paisley-clad influences like later Beatles, Beach Boys, Syd Barrett, and Nick Drake. Written mostly on an aging upright piano that came with Stoltz’s apartment, the album is less fuzzy, less garage-y and more lyrical than Antique Glow, and, according to the author, more himself and less a direct result of his influences. “For one thing, on this album, I’ve successfully gotten rid of my English accent,” cracks Stoltz, a good-natured jab at critics who heard a little too much 1960s in his earlier work.

Yet Stoltz is the first to admit that he was a music fan first, and that his admiration for certain classic rock styles sometimes seeps through into the writing process. “Part of it is growing up as an only child, I was always a good mimic and a goofball in class and stuff. That somehow went from when I was 10 pretending I was a baseball announcer to pretending I could play instruments,” he said. He added, though, that with Below the Branches he felt that he had gotten beyond mimicking his heroes to creating his own distinct sound. “In the majority of songs, I’m getting better at just being myself. I told somebody else that if anybody gets mad about it, it’s like the Beatles sounded like Chuck Berry for their first four records. You’ve got to learn how to do your thing.”

The album is bookended by two very sweet and upbeat songs, which seem to express Stoltz’s infectious optimism. “Wave Goodbye” urges people to “Find the thing that makes you happy / Find the thing that gets you high / Pack your worries in a suitcase / Send them off and say goodbye” while the closer “No World Like the World,” observes that there “ain’t no world like the world we got here / ain’t no place I’d rather go.” It’s the kind of record that makes even the most cynical and soured types feel like spring is just around the corner, which is, it turns out, just the way Stoltz intended it to be.

“I think it’s a pretty hopeful record. There’s plenty of problems and things that bug you or relationships falling apart or dark nights in the middle of winter and all taht stuff,” he said. “But I think generally it’s a positive album, which is basically probably how I feel about life in general.”

Even his break-up songs, he admits, tend not to be mean-spirited. For example, “Winter Girl” is about an ex-girlfriend who moved away, yet it has very gentle lyrics about a girl with a snowflake on her cheek. “I remember playing that song for somebody,” he said. “They were like, ‘Well, why is the chorus all about the weather and you’re still worried about her and everything’s okay? You should really let her have it.’ I’m not capable of that. I don’t think that way.”

Like Sun Comes Through, Below the Branches makes heavy use of a piano, the one that appears on the album art, front removed to reveal the hammers inside. The piano, like many of the turns and twists in Stoltz’s story, was a bit of a happy accident. Upon moving to a new apartment a couple of years ago, Stoltz found the piano already there. It was nothing very special in itself, he said, just an old upright from the 1960s or 1970s, but its distinctive sound can be heard on nearly every track. “I didn’t even get it tuned until after the record was done,” Stoltz said. “There are some songs on that record that if you tried to learn them on piano… it would be impossible. The piano was a half-step out of tune.” He added, “But I like Bob Dylan’s records that are all out of tune, so that’s fine.”

Below the Branches is unusual for Stoltz in that he recorded it with a band and in a studio, as opposed to laying down all the tracks himself in his apartment. “Basically, I got into home recording because I think at the onset of it, I was a little shy about presenting my songs to people. I didn’t want to waste their time. I grew up listening to so much good music that I didn’t want to be the guy that was making bad music and sharing it with other people,” he said. But touring with Antique Glow he began playing with a band and wanted to include them in the process of making his next album. That shift, from self-sufficient home-recorder to frontman has been a bit of a challenge, he said.

“In recording, I generally try to strike when the idea’s hot. I’ll sit at the piano and play something and all the sudeen, usually, I’ll hear all the parts in my head… for a brief minute, you can hear the whole thing, and that’s when I hit record and try to at least get a general sketch of the sound,” he explained. With a band, though, you may need to wait until everyone is available—and then you need to explain what you want. “With a band, you’ve got to tell them what you need and sometimes you have to play through things three or four times, and you’re like ‘That’s what I’m talking about.’ That’s kind of a skill to learn.”

And, in at least one case, he not only had to convey his ideas to a seasoned group of musicians, but also his mom, Patricia Stoltz, who appears briefly on the song “Memory Collector”, with the line “Dinner’s ready.”

Stoltz said that his mother was visiting him in San Francisco and wanted to know what her son did all day in his recording studio. “So I kind of put the headphones on her and showed her some of the songs, and talked about the way I work and stuff,” he said, all the while thinking about “Memory Collector”, a song he’d been working on that was about growing up. “I thought it would be cool to have her say, ‘Dinner’s ready’ like when I was 14 and she was yelling at me down the hall to come to the table, you know?” he said. “We did seven or eight takes of her doing it. She was really nervous… it was really cute. But it sounds pretty much the way it did when I was a kid. I said, ‘Mom, just pretend it’s 1986 and I just got home from ninth grade and I’m down in my room listening a Joy Division album and you’re yelling at me.’”

Stoltz is about to head out on his first full-band tour, travelling the US with a five-piece that includes Kevin Ink and Sean Coleman on guitar, Shayde Sartin on bass and Warren Huegel on drums. They’ll be playing throughout the south, east, and midwest, stopping at SXSW, then heading to the West Coast in the late spring. Meanwhile, Stoltz continues writing songs whenever he can. “Every day I try to go in there and do something. I’m kind of the Isaac Asimov of rock,” he said. “It’s the rule. It’s your job. It’s not even a job. It’s fun. It’s what I want to do.” He added that he feels like he’s still getting better at songwriting, putting more interesting structure into his newer work and varying the drums and arrangements more.

“The other thing you should know is that my album was recorded with 100% renewable energy,” he volunteered near the end of our interview, explaining that he bought renewable energy credits for the entire recording process. Basically I can say that all the power in my record came from a clean source, like wind or solar power. I think I’m the first one to do that. So as much as somebody says they’ve heard my songs before, no one has ever done that before.”

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