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Making the Connection

30 Mar 2006

Singer/songwriter Kellylee Evans

An interview with Jazz vocalist Kellylee Evans

It is a clear, sultry voice that fills the room through the speaker-phone and gives me goosebumps. Jazz vocalist Kellylee Evans is singing “Help Me, Help You” by Holly Valance from her home outside Ottawa . “I told you it [her music] was a legal drug,” she laughs.

The Toronto-born, married, mother of two is trying to explain the title of her upcoming CD “Fight or Flight.”

“When I was writing most of my songs and I was re-reading the lyrics, I realized that so many of the songs have to do with making a connection with people and kinda fighting against making that connection. It’s a theme that runs through my life where I never know whether I should fight for my ideas or just let things slide. I find it’s a constant challenge."

Her music, although classified as Jazz contains all the emotion and depth of traditional Soul along with the international influences usually expected of some Pop acts. “I Don’t Want You To Love Me” opens on a Middle-Eastern sounding beat while “Let’s Call a Truce Tonight” exhibits traces of Old School Reggae.

“There are some Reggae elements on some tracks, Calypso, and underpinnings of Calypso. I can’t escape my roots, I guess,” the daughter of Jamaican immigrants says. “So I am not trying anymore. I am just like…this is what it is. Like it or leave it.”

Although she’s been singing since kindergarten and was a member of the Toronto Mendelssohn Youth Choir as a teen, Kellylee Evans only became serious about music as a career after a difficult period in her personal life.

She was pursuing a Masters in Legal Studies at Carleton University , focusing on such abstract topics as “The philosophy of thought and how the law exists in society.” And then tragedy hit. “My Mom got sick [with cancer] and every single thing that we were talking about just seemed unimportant. I was sitting in class listening to people argue about ideas and all these theoretical things that may never become reality. But my Mom was dying.”

Later, another event forced her to confront the suppressed passions. “I got pregnant. And when you’re taking care of a baby, you’re in the real world all the time. So I had a hard time spending my time in the world of theory. It was hard to justify that that was the legitimate place for me to be when I had immediate things in the real world. So I dropped out. And the day I decided to drop out was hands down one of the happiest days of my life.”

From there on, Evans an admitted obsessive researcher pored over Jazz information about various vocalists; from Ella Fitzgerald, to Billie Holiday, to Nina Simone and Sarah Vaughan. She also started writing her own songs and performing much more regularly.

Late in 2003, Kellylee Evans took her family to New York to work with musician Lonnie Plaxico and record her CD. Some of the tracks from that recording session were to be used in the submission she made to the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Vocals Jazz Competition in 2004, judged that year by Dee Dee Bridgewater, Quincy Jones, Al Jarreau, Kurt Elling, Flora Purim and Jimmy Scott.

“I sent in my application and it was late, but they were kind enough to let me through anyway. Everything just seemed like a line was drawn for me,” Evans says. But unfortunately she did not win. She came second out of a pool of over 160 vocalists from around the world. It is a recognition that changed the way the industry viewed her. “Up to that point, there wasn’t really that much interest in me in Canada . It helps when people outside say somebody in your country is pretty good. So I am really happy about the experience. (…) It led to a lot of label interest and a lot of industry contacts.”

But the life of an independent Canadian artist is never the stuff of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” and Kellylee Evans though very ambitious in terms of her career goals, is also very realistic and humble about her work.

“I think for a lot of Canadian artists, we get help where we can get it and then we have to make our own way,” Evans says. “That’s just the state of the business. I don’t think I deserve to make art. It’s something that I don’t expect people to give me money to make. If I get some funding, that’s nice. But I wanna make it so that it’s a viable business as well. I believe in my music enough that I feel that when it gets out there it will take on a life of its own. (…) I don’t have a sense of entitlement about music. I didn’t wait around for a record label to give me money to make my CD. I found my own way to make it.”

Evans, a fan of Q-Tip and Jarvis Church of The Philosopher Kings has the same positive view about her future collaborations. “Mentally, I see myself working with these people already. Sometimes, I just forget that they don’t know that yet,” she laughs. “I just have to keep working before it becomes apparent to them.”

The CD is called “Fight or Flight” and will be released in Canada on May 5th under Kellylee Evans’ own label. The US release is scheduled for later in July with some show dates to follow.

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