Saturday, September 18, 2010

Awesome Louisvillager: Brigid Kaelin

Wow!  This installment of Awesome Louisvillagers?  You decide: one of the best Awesome Louisvillagers interview or THE BEST?  

I know I always hyperbolize about all of my Awesome Louisvillagers, but this is truly an amazingly fun and interesting experiment.  And it's proof positive that MY answer to my usual "Why Louisville?" question is a solid one: it's the people, silly.

Well, I imagine if you haven't heard of Brigid Kaelin, you've been living with Fairdale Bigfoot under a rock in Jefferson Memorial Forest.  We haven't actually met-met, although we HAVE hugged; that's just the kind of person Brigid is, I'm thinking. She's a singer/songwriter of self-described "alt-country cabaret music with Kentucky Roots."  She yodels, she plays the accordion, she's been on "A Prairie Home Companion," she's recorded an album of Chanukah songs, she plays the fricking SAW, folks.  This is a woman with a heavy dose of quirk, and all of my favorite people in the world are quirky people.  If I didn't already dig her for the quirk factor, well she's also a really sweet and interesting interview subject.  I challenge you NOT to want to hug Brigid after you read this!

Another Awesome Louisvillager we're lucky to have: Brigid Kaelin!

LOU: Brigid, I've been a fan of your work ever since I saw the "Dreidel's Day Out" (Note to Readers: if you haven't already seen it, stop now and watch!  Instant smile.  I promise.) video on You Tube a few years ago.  Then you went on to perform on "A Prairie Home Companion," so you're Louisville music royalty in my mind.  I've made two pilgrimages to St. Paul to see Keillor's show and have seen "Prairie Home" in almost every city I've ever lived in (and have met him a couple of times).  What was that experience like for you?  Is Mr. Red Shoes himself worthy of my undying, wish-he-were-my-dad, love?
Aw, thanks!  And yes, being on APHC, being backstage, hanging with the cast, and watching Garrison Keillor rehearse was unbelievable.  When the talent booker first called me, she scheduled me to perform on a regular broadcast in St. Paul at The Fitzgerald.  A few days later, she asked if I could play the newly-announced Louisville show instead.  I was actually kind of bummed (for about two minutes) because I really wanted to play The Fitzgerald.  Then, of course, I smacked myself and thought about how awesome playing in front of hometown crowd would be.  It definitely worked out for the best, and my family was able to be there in the audience. The whole crowd was great that night, and it felt so good to represent Louisville on the show.

As for Garrison Keillor, he was absolutely deserving of your worship. He was gracious and smart and kind and just how you’d think he would be.  My first interaction with him wasn’t until about 30 minutes before broadcast. I was hanging out with Guy’s All-Star Shoe Band before the show, talking about mutual friends, my Chanukah songs, living in NYC, and such.  They didn’t know that I played the saw, so I went and got it out of my car (there’s always a saw in my car).  Rich Dworsky and I were playing around with piano/saw duets when Garrison Keillor floated by, not even really looking at me, and said, “Yes, I think we’ll do that on the show,” and then walked right on past.  That’s how we met.

The next thing I knew, the production manager said I needed to cut my 4 songs down to 3 because the musical saw was now in the script.  It’s funny, I figured he knew I played the saw all along and that was maybe why they booked me, but apparently they just liked my music.  That felt good, so I was happy to provide a little more goofiness to the show with the saw.

It was really a cool night to be in Louisville.  The cast and I all went to the BBC afterwards (well, not Mr. Red Shoes … he went back to his pedestal, I presume!), and Fred Newman the sound effects guy graciously did imitations that my friends threw at him.  My friend Beth said, “Okay, okay, a cat and a pickle jar going through a woodchipper,” and Fred made bizarre sounds that sounded just like what you’d imagine.  It was really surreal. 

LOU: I don't know how old you are, but I imagine we're within a few years of each other, so you graduated from NYU summa cum laude probably around the same-ish time that I was plugging away at Columbia.  What was your college experience in New York like?  What were some of the venues that you loved to play or at which you loved to take in a show?  Any notable musicians you saw in their early years who later went on to make it big?
I keep meeting more and more people who lived in New York around that time.  I had a great time at NYU (and I lived in for two years after graduation, until Fall 2001), but my “college experience” was definitely different than most of my friends who went elsewhere. NYU doesn’t have a campus in the same way that most colleges do, so really, I was on my own to explore and find things to do.  That’s not hard in New York, but it definitely forced me to become an extrovert when I wasn’t really comfortable doing that.  The dorms just don’t have social events the same way that small liberal arts schools do.  At the same time, I remember my very first day at NYU, I walked through Washington Square Park. There was a crowd gathered around a guy at a piano.  It was Herbie Hancock.  That is why living in New York was awesome.

I didn’t get to see as much live music as you’d think, mostly because 1) I was in college with zero money and 2) I was underage most of the time I lived in NYC.

My piano professor (I was a politics major, but a jazz piano minor) would put me on the guest list at his gigs sometimes, which was great because when you’re on the guest list, they don’t check IDs.  He’d play at the Blue Note or the Sweet Basil, these famous clubs I’d read about in liner notes for years.

NYU also had a great program board and brought folks like Liz Phair and Yo La Tengo to school functions. I saw Modest Mouse a lot. That was back before they signed with Geffen.

Once I was old enough and had a real job with some disposable income, I would go to bluegrass jams on Sunday evenings at place in the East Village called 9C.  My Kentucky ID usually got me a free bourbon. I never sat in and jammed though, which is weird to think about now, seeing as my favorite thing in the world is jamming with other musicians.

Oddly, the only performing I did was playing piano in some cabaret clubs in the Village for extra money and accompanying the musical theater students on auditions and in their little Off-Off-Off-Off-Off Broadway shoes.  After college, I played guitar and sang in a traditional Irish ceili band, mostly just playing Irish pubs and Renaissance Faires.  I can’t even remember how I ended up in that band, but I learned a lot of tunes and had a lot of fun. 

And for the record, I turned 32 in July (that’s 27 in Nashville Years, ha) … Atherton Class of 1996, NYU Class of 1999.

LOU: In the years that I've been following your career, you've played at big music festivals, in the Bahamas (it was the Bahamas, right?) , in the British Isles, and of course, locally and on US tour.  Can you compare and contrast the two most different experiences you've had as a performer recently?  I'm sure your show is not the same no matter the venue.  What are the two most different performances you've given over the past year or two?
I’ve made a deal with myself that when I can, I bring the entire show, no matter how lazy I’m feeling.  My keyboard is 90 pounds, my accordions are 20-40lbs, then there’s a guitar, and the musical saw, plus all the cables, stands and merchandise (and that’s just for a solo show), so it’s a lot of work to load-in and out.  My US show is big, fun, and if you’ve seen it, you know I show off a bit.  It’s a “show” after all, right?

Overseas, unfortunately, I can’t bring the whole show out, so I end up playing just accordion or guitar.  That puts me on the spot because, though I’ve played guitar since I was 9, it’s the piano that’s my main instrument.  In some ways, it’s actually kind of refreshing, especially when the audience still responds to my songs.  I know that I get press as a novelty act or isn’t-it-crazy-she-plays-the-accordion, so it’s nice when the audience buys CDs even without the gimmick.  

One of my favorite gigs of the past year was at the Islay Whisky Festival, where I sang at the Laphroaig Scotch Distillery in the remote Hebrides Isles of West Scotland.  It was just me and a guitar for the most part.  My Louisville audience might not even recognize me, but I tell you, I sold more CDs at that venue than any other I’ve ever played.

The audiences in the UK are also unbelievably respectful.  You don’t even realize that American crowds are generally rowdy until you play in the UK, where everyone in a crowded bar just shuts up at the first “check-check-one-two.”  I’m not one of those artists who gets upset when people talk over my songs, and I definitely like performing in the US. But there’s something about the folks in the UK – they treat musicians like royalty. I think maybe it’s the whole history of traveling troubadours and storytelling, but it amazes me every time.

LOU:  I'm kind of a late-comer to your fabulous blog, The Red Accordion Diaries, but for the past few months I've been an avid reader.  Loads of people musicians have blogs, but few update theirs as regularly as you do.  Your blog is so personal and charming that I feel like when I finally meet you in person, I'll want to give you a hug.  Is the blog for you or for promotion? Has the blog furthered your career?  
Thank you so much.   It’s funny, I think more people read my blog now than own my records.  Who would’ve thought?  I kept a blog on my MySpace page, but I only ever posted maybe once a month when I had something music-related to talk about.  I would occasionally post funny stories from the road, and I started getting messages from people asking me to post more.

It was really Rob Carpenter from the now-defunct Louisville band The Muckrakers, who inspired my blogging. He challenged himself to a blog-a-day New Year’s Resolution (his is at, and it was so entertaining and fun that I decided to try it myself.  
I wasn’t 100% successful at blogging daily, but I still managed to get in at least 300 that year. Now I try to blog 4-5 days a week.  I think it started because I needed a routine, and I wasn’t feeling much like songwriting.  A typical artist fear is that you’ll forget how to do your art one day, and being self-employed makes it hard to maintain a creative schedule.  I forced myself to blog everyday so that at least I was writing, even if it wasn’t songwriting.  I honestly had no idea how many people read it, until I’d start running into people in coffee shops who confessed to being daily readers. Then I started getting messages from folks around the world who had no idea I was a musician, but were fans of my blog. 
Once I realized that I didn’t have to write about music – and that my growing audience seemed to prefer my rants and raves and stories from the road more than my thoughts on the new Lucinda album – then it became even more important to me. 

Really, I think I just enjoy storytelling.  And since making a new record is a lot more complex than writing an essay, at least I’ve got this regular outlet.  I do hope that soon I’ll get to blog about a new record, but in the mean time, it’s nice to know I’ve got a support staff when I’m feeling tortured.

LOU: In the immortal words of our fabulous local store/boosters/cheerleaders: Why Louisville, Brigid?  Why not New York or Nashville or Memphis or LA?  What keeps you in this city?  What are your favorite venues to play?
I’ve lived in New York, and I’ve dappled in Nashville, but, yeah, I keep coming back home.  Logistically, I couldn’t afford to be a self-employed musician if I lived in NYC.  In Nashville, where I’d make more money than here, I wouldn’t be able to earn that money doing my own art.  The money I made when I was in Nashville was all because of playing accordion or piano or saw on other people’s records – working as a session player.  Don’t get me wrong, I looooove doing session work, but right now, I’m not ready to give up my own songwriting and performing career.  My show is too quirky for mainstream Nashville, so I’m not going to try to go that route.   Louisville is a great home for all kinds of art that isn’t mainstream enough for commercial routes, but is still good, innovative, and meaningful.  And we’ve got appreciative audiences who are loyal and probably the most important part of all. 

As for venues, now that is something our town is seriously lacking.  Nashville definitely has us beat on that end, in that even the crappiest, tiniest room, has a great sound system.  I do like the Zanzabar in Louisville. It’s got a good sound system and a nice vibe.  The Rudyard Kipling is a nice room, but it’s hard for me to get a crowd in Old Louisville.  I adore the Monkey Wrench, but that’s mostly for location and an arts-lovin’ owner.  Shows are always fun there, and it’s probably my favorite place to play in town.   I do wish that perfect venue would open, but it seems that’s been Louisville’s challenge since long before I first started performing.

Louisville’s been really good to me, and it’s a sensible place to make a home. Its location is central enough that I can tour on weekends and be back home on off-nights.  We’ve got a great radio station in WFPK, that nurtures and supports local artists, and we get a lot of good national touring acts.  Plus, my family is here.  If I truly wanted stardom, I’d probably have to move to Nashville or LA.  But here I’m able to make a living doing what I love. I can tour when I want or need, but I’ve got a great place to call home.

Visit Brigid at:  Brigid Kaelin


M said...

As APHC fan you probably know that Brigid is the 3rd musical saw player to perform on APHC. The first was David Weiss, then the 'Saw Lady' (a.k.a. Natalia Paruz) became their "official" saw player (they said so because she played on the show a few times) and now Brigid.
I wonder if she learned to play the saw while in NYC, influenced by the annual NYC Musical Saw Festival ( )?

brigidkaelin said...

Cool, M. I didn't know about David Weiss, but I've heard Natalie on there before. She and I have been in contact for years, and she's really good about inviting me to the festival each summer. Unfortunately, haven't been able to yet. Someday ...

And I did learn the saw in NYC, but it was via an Austin, Texas, musician. Guy Forsyth of the Asylum Street Spankers would come through town on tour and give me pointers. His sister was my NYU roommate, so we kept a saw in the dorm. She was actually the first one to show me how it works. I kind of took over the saw that semester ... what a forgiving roomie she was!