When making a list of possessions to take in a fire, it’s safe to say that Jenn Kelly would take her guitar, an assumption made based solely on the fact that it has been her constant companion since 2009.
Kelly, a 33-year-old singer-songwriter from the states, could be described a nomad of sorts, and it is evident in the number of trips she has taken across the Atlantic. Always shifting between being a Berliner and being a former Berliner, every time Kelly returns, she returns with her guitar, and little else.
Though she currently resides in Oakland, Calif., the East Coast native has been calling Berlin her home on and off for the last few years. In fact, it’s where she got her start as a musician, first by borrowing the guitar of a flatmate who was never home, and then responding to a friend who suggested she play at an open mic.
“So I did it,” she said, explaining that it was part experiment, part challenge. “I got inspired, I wrote a song, and then I went and I played it, and there was just this sort of instantaneous feeling of, ‘Oh, I’m really doing what I feel is right now.’ There’s a click. It’s really just like an ‘A-ha.’ But I didn’t really know what I was doing, and I guess the biggest change is that I’m starting to have more of a sense of what I’m doing musically.”
To date, Kelly has six releases available on Bandcamp, the most recent of which is this year’s “Fervent,” recorded in Oakland. Before that, Kelly also dabbled in crowd funding, putting out “Hard Up Collisions with Substances Your Lips and Anything You Forgiven at the Corner of Textual Desperation I Sing aka New York Broke My Eardrum” via a Kickstarter project and “Stake Yr Heart” via an IndieGoGo project.
However, though both projects were successful, Kelly is reluctant to repeat the process in the future.
“Honestly, I don’t think I’m going to do it again, because it was so much stress, and like, I’m kind of sick of putting myself under that kind of stress,” she said. “I’m happy that I made something that’s really really professional, that’s polished…I’m just really lucky to have support, but I’d like to kind of take things slower.”
But slowing down isn’t the same as staying put for Kelly. Case in point: when heading to the U.S. last summer for a five-week tour, Kelly ended up abandoning her plans and staying indefinitely, first in New Mexico and then in Northern California. Instead, her version of slowing down still involves moving forward, but trying not to bite off more than she can chew.
In fact, as far as musical development is concerned, Kelly’s interests change as quickly as her hair color.
“I’m always trying to do something I don’t know,” she said, sharing that she is interested in expanding her repertoire to include keyboard, drums, and electronic looping. “I guess I have a lot more musical possibility…I would like to get better with rhythm. That’s like my Achilles Heel.”
Rhythm aside, she admitted that her guitar playing has improved over the past five years, though naturally that increased skill brings its own challenges.
“It’s harder actually…the limitations are amazing. Limitations mean that, like, OK, you just like do this basic strumming pattern and like put some lyrics with it. And now. it’s like ‘OK, do I finger-pick this song? Do I, like, play these power chords?’ Like, there [are] so many more options that sometimes it takes forever to write a song,” Kelly explained.
Yet this new-found freedom in limitless songwriting has also allowed Kelly to evolve, to the point where she struggles describing what it is she does. However, that uncertain nature of her music can be useful, particularly in the live environment, as Kelly adapts to various situations and audiences. In particular, she often finds herself at odds with the part of her that wants to please people, and the part of her that doesn’t.
“How much do I please the audience and how much do I actually like push them?” she wondered out loud. “I’m not gonna entertain them. I don’t want to…I mean, in a way, I’m still walking around with the same sensibility I had when I was a poet or a dancer, but it’s just a different medium…[but] I like it best when it’s real, when it’s intimate, and when I feel like I can be like most myself.”
And part of being herself means feeling free to cater to that spontaneous nature inside.
“I always try to do one thing that scares me at every show,” Kelly said. “I surprise myself all the time.”
Jenn Kelly plays Thursday at Schokoladen in Berlin. The show begins at 20.00.