NewTracks New Artist: Leah Kelsey

NewTracks New Artist: Leah Kelsey

Introducing Leah Kelsey, a fine new Ōtautahi singer-songwriter who seems to be fearlessly embracing the challenges of early-stage career development having studied music at uni – to the extent that she has set herself a song-a-month goal in 2023. Written and sung with a bestie but wholly recorded, produced and mixed by herself, First Tooth gently takes listeners on a journey from the beginning of your life to the end. NZ On Air Music added the song to their NewTracks compilation this April.

What’s your full name, where are you from and what instruments do you play?

Leah Brearn Pearl Valentina Kelsey. I am a singer and I play guitar.

Was any high school or other music training especially important to you?

In high school, we had the school production Grease and I somehow managed to land the role of Sandy! The audition was my first time ever singing in front of people, so from then onwards I never looked back. Studying music at Ara is also a huge one. I would not be the person I am today without the friendships, tools and connections I gained there.

Any other projects that we might know you from?

I’m currently working on a project where I write, record and release one song per month during 2023! At this point in time, I have released three of these ‘one-a-month’ songs.

What’s the background story of how this project under your own name came to be? 

Studying songwriting at Ara really opened up my eyes and made me realise that it is actually possible to write your OWN music. You don’t have to be famous or known to try something new and scary and being surrounded by so many incredible like-minded musicians is constantly inspiring.

No one else is directly involved, I always liked the idea of doing things on my own, it gives me a sense of independence and proves to myself that I am capable of accomplishing tasks that I put my mind to. I do find myself asking friends and family for their opinions and advice on certain songs because everyone has different ideas on sounds or compositions, and it is incredibly valuable to take anything on board.

How has your writing evolved from your beginnings in songwriting to now?

Before studying I had never actually written a full song before, so the start was definitely subpar lyrically, but my peers were always so supportive. My songwriting has thankfully improved since then and I know that I connect with a song more that I’ve written, if I can relate to it. I am starting to experiment more with upbeat tunes when the song feels right, but I’ll always be a lover of soft acoustic songs with lush vocals.

What made you decide to go with your name as your artist name?

I think I always wanted to release music under my own name. When I was younger I really liked that Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift, and John Mayer did it, I think it helped me connect to them as people more. Your name is kind of like your legacy in a way, so it feels special to take that with me through my art.

Aside from this release, what’s been the highlight to date?

Last year I started playing music with my incredible band, made up of Amy Claire, Alice Tozer and Shaun Malloch. Our first gig together was the Spring Equinox at Dux Central in Christchurch. It was such a good night and I felt so welcomed and excited to branch away from playing as just a solo artist.

What makes First Tooth stand out for you as a single?

First Tooth is such a beautiful song. I wrote it with one of my closest friends Josette Klausen, and we just let it all out, getting goosebumps as we wrote new lines. It has the ability to affect you if you let it, and has such a relatable, aching story to it.

What’s the (root!) story to First Tooth?

First Tooth takes you on a journey from the beginning of your life to the end. Starting off by reminiscing about the younger days, when life was so simple. Filled with imagination and hope. Yet, when we get to Josette’s verse, we learn more about the heartaches of life and the painful side effects of growing up. We are then met with looking towards our future, the feeling of longing to be at peace and to relish in the successes of our life, but realising that we aren’t quite there yet and that we need to live more in the moment. The last line ties it all together and preempts our emotions for how life may look as we get closer to the end.

What’s your favourite moment, musical or lyrical, of the single?

My favourite part would be the lyrical call and response that this song has. In the beginning, it says:
Last week, feels like only last week
When I lost my first tooth
Gave it to my mum.

…and the song ends with:
Oh it will be someday
When I lose my last tooth
I will miss my mum.

It hits me every time and feels so close to home. My dad recently had his teeth removed to get false ones and he misses his mum every day.

Who did you record/produce the single with and where?

Josette and I wrote this tune in our own homes together over a couple of separate sessions. We had such a great time writing it and it flowed pretty naturally. We only had a small moment where we got stuck, but we ended up scrapping the idea that was causing us trouble and then it all came together!

I recorded almost everything in the spare bedroom of my home, with the exception of Shaun Malloch adding the bass, and Johan Hendrik Vermeer adding the viola and cello. Everything was produced and mixed myself and Ash Topp did the master!

After recording Josette’s vocals we decided we needed the cover art for the song. With this Song a Month project, I’m using a film photo taken during the month as the cover. Josette and I set up the point-and-shoot camera on the fence and took some of the goofiest photos ever, with all of them having some sort of emphasis on our teeth. We were laughing hysterically the whole time and the photos turned out great!

What would you like listeners to take away from hearing this song?

I would love for the listeners to let themselves take the lyrics in, and if the words we sing make them feel a certain way I want them to embrace that. Emotions are a beautiful thing and are so important for us to let in and out.

How do you generally work out what would make a good single?

I find if I write a song or even just a phrase, I want it to be memorable. I want there to be something in there that catches on. If I write a song and the next day I can’t remember the melody at all, that’s when I know I need to change something.

Anyone else in your team?

Honestly, it’s just me. I do my best to produce and mix everything myself, and I’m lucky enough to have my friend Ash willing to help out with any production questions that I might have when I get really stuck. The biggest workaround for me has been doing the recording and production on my own. That way I just invest in quality recording equipment and devote as many hours as I can to get better.

I do all the social media, emails and everything like that on my own too. Sometimes making the music itself feels like less than half of the work attached to being a musician.

Are there any other musical endeavours you’re working on that we should keep an eye out for?

My ‘Song a Month’ project! It’s a bold goal that is way out of my league but when I tell people I’m going to do something, I don’t tend to back out. Now here I am with three songs already completed! I never thought I would be able to physically put this much time and energy into music as I currently am but I knew I needed to make some sort of deadline in order to achieve my goals.

Can you please name three other local tunes that would fit well on a playlist alongside your song? 

Have any previous NZOA applications not been included on NewTracks? Got any advice for others?

Yes! I have five other songs that were released before First Tooth and I applied for NewTracks for every single one. This is the first song to succeed in the application! My advice is to not let rejection get you down. Your time will come, you just have to keep trying.

Are there any musical blogs, Youtube channels or podcasts you’re super into?

‘Welcome to the Gig’ is an amazing Christchurch-based music blog that features local artists and is a great way to discover new songs. Always so beautifully written and genuine. I also love ‘Mixing with the Masters’ on Youtube, and the podcast ‘Tape Notes’ on Spotify. Both of these break down different producers’ and mixers’ approaches, and you get a little more insight on why they do certain things.

Any closing words?

Starting off is so hard. Please don’t get discouraged. There are people out there that want to hear your music, they just don’t know you exist yet! The world is unfair and it’s so hard to break through, but if you keep going you’re only going to get better and noticed by more and more people.

support nzm