Monday, 6 May 2019

SelfMade - Mind YourSelf: Maria Kelly Interview

Maria Kelly Interview - SelfMade - Remy Connolly

On Saturday May 25th, SelfMade will run a two-part event, Mind YourSelf: Mental Health and Music, sponsored by IMRO, looking at mental health in the Irish music scene and in particular the challenges affecting developing musicians in their professional and personal lives. There has been a huge step-up in the level of conversation on mental health in recent years and we’re proud to use our next event to encourage conversation, break the stigma, and facilitate a route to a healthier music industry. 

In advance of the event REMY chats to Mayo alternative folk artist Maria Kelly about her musical journey; early successes, re-locating to Berlin, and the importance of learning to listen to both your head and body when they're trying to get you to hit the pause button and slow down.

REMY: Can you indulge us a little as to when it dawned on you that music was a source of wonder whose path you wanted to wander above all others?

Maria: I don’t think I had a defining moment of ‘this is what I want to do’. It was always something I had been involved in since I was about ten, and it was what I had always been drawn to throughout my school years. I did consider studying languages in my final year, but it felt quite natural to just keep pursing music for as long as I could, as it excited me more than anything else.

REMY: You've always been very upfront that one of the deepest wells of inspiration for your songs has come from anxiety; over-thought interactions with other people, finding yourself in a place of darkness or strain over over-expectation. Has dealing with these topics in your songwriting brought much relief and enlightenment over the past 4 years?

Maria: I think it definitely has. Enlightenment for sure, as I think songwriting has been a way for me to learn about my own mental health, it allows me to take a closer look at what I am actually thinking and feeling. But it has also been very relieving, as sharing very personal experiences in a tangible way has created an external connection for me, to other people who are experiencing similar things.

REMY: Things moved quite suddenly after the release of your debut EP The Things I Should, multiple festival slots, being included in The Irish Times '50 Best Tracks of 2016', and a support slot with KT Tunstall in London. In retrospect, did it all feel a bit out of control and overwhelming at this point?

Maria: On reflection, yes it feels a little overwhelming to think about. I was actually quite out of touch with myself through a lot of that, just kind of floating along. That gave way to bouts of depression and anxiety for sure. I don’t feel like it felt out of control though – I was very lucky to have a great group of people around me (my lovely fam at Veta Records) from the beginning of the project, and they really helped to guide me through any difficult or overwhelming patches. I think having a strong team around you is pretty vital in the music industry as it gives you people to lean on. You don’t have to do everything yourself! 

Maria Kelly - 'June' (Live at Other Voices 2018)

REMY: In June of last year you moved to Berlin, and were also back and forth to Ireland for festivals such as Other Voices, whilst also recording your second EP, notes to self. How did that change in environment affect you most musically, i.e. in terms of conjuring up the songs for the EP?

Maria: I didn’t expect to write a whole lot when I first moved, I made a decision to just put a pin in music and live a bit, try other things. I had just studied music for four years, and I felt a bit tired of certain aspects of it to be honest. But I spent a lot of time alone when I first got to Berlin and had a lot to mull over, and songs sort of fell out of me – it’s a thing I always come back to I realise, to connect to myself again, even when I try to escape it! And having that time and space to concentrate on this new flow of songs, I think it added to them sounding a bit more honed and polished than what I’d released before. I had time to think about it in a more conceptual way, and to test out new ideas. 

REMY: Speaking of Berlin, there’s a very strong Irish music community in the city who help each other out, what has the feedback been like from the indigenous music-goers in Berlin to Irish talent?

Maria: Yes, there is, it’s been great – a home away from home of sorts. In general, I’ve only had a positive experience with music-goers. People are very willing to actively listen here, and will make a point of coming up to you after the show to thank you for your music. They also are very supportive in buying merch/staying in touch – it’s a nice place to grow an authentic community I feel. We’ve seen that a lot through shows that I run with Veta Sessions – a branch off of our label, where we host house concerts every month. It’s been a fantastic way to get familiar with the scene here, and to discover new music in our own living rooms. 

REMY: In February this year you shared that you were going to have to cancel your Irish tour dates, you mentioned creative burnout as a factor in this tough decision, and that you were looking to delve back into the 'song-writing cave' as you put it. Did this feel like a very low point for you, or was it a bit liberating to finally be able to say to yourself that your health, physical and mental well-being were going to take number one priority for the first time with no preconditions attached? It must have been incredibly difficult in the weeks preceding that decision?

Maria: It felt like a low point at first. I hadn't cancelled anything before, and it felt AWFUL to feel like I couldn’t do something that I had planned to do. Since the beginning of the project, I had just hopped from thing to thing, full steam ahead. And when I initially booked the tour, I had the same mind set – 'ok so what’s the next thing'. But the closer it got to the date, the more I realised how detrimental the shows would be to me. Not just the shows themselves, but the months of promo, ticket pushes, rehearsals, costs, keeping the buzz up, there was so much to do and I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind to do it successfully. 

I hated posting that update, but in the end I thought about the fact that I wouldn’t want to go see a musician play who didn’t want to be there, or felt like they couldn’t give their best performance. That would be so disheartening to watch! The response online was nothing but lovely, supportive and completely understanding. Kind of like a "well duh…why would you do a tour if you are not in the right mind set to do it?" 

It was a relief, as I instantly knew I had made the right decision, and had been putting a lot of pressure on myself to do otherwise. It made me think about our tendency to overlook emotional / mental signs of exhaustion. Or not even exhaustion, just overlooking the fact that you're not feeling the way that you know you should. I completely overlooked my own needs in favour of just not 'giving up' or 'trying hard enough'. It made me reevaluate my own mind set when it came to how I approach my mental health. 

Maria Kelly - Remy Connolly
Photo: Remy Connolly

REMY: How does the ideal 2019 end for Maria Kelly? What do you hope to achieve most in life and music between now and December?

Maria: I'd like to have a big bulk of unreleased material behind me by the end of this year. I’ve been spending more time writing and honing in on what I’d like a body of work to sound like. But honestly, I have more personal goals this year than musical ones – I’m trying to learn how to look after myself at the minute, all the boring stuff like healthy eating and exercise! And I want to look after my head in a more productive way – I think good work will naturally follow that. 

REMY: You’ll be joining a really great panel for Mind YourSelf: Mental Health and Music on the 25th of May organised by SelfMade, joined by fellow-musicians Paddy Hanna, members of Wyvern Lingo and LeGalaxie among others! Despite great strides being made to make the public more aware, and remove the stigma of the past attached to people who suffer from mental health issues, what would you identify as the biggest obstacle that we still have to overcome here in Ireland?

Maria: Long-term, more available and more affordable resources. Getting to a place where it doesn’t cost a bomb to go to your GP, then to a psychiatrist of psychologist, a therapist, a councillor – whatever you need. That it isn’t this massive, impossible, privileged mountain to climb, whether your problem is big or small. 

And short term, talking. I know it’s almost cliché at the stage, but continuing an uncomfortable conversation is effective. Asking your friends how their head is, no matter how much you think they have their shit together. Just opening up a conversation, not aiming to solve it, but aiming to lend an ear is a very powerful thing to do. 

For more information and to book tickets to SelfMade's upcoming event, Mind YourSelf: Mental Health and Music, head over to the event page here

Mind Yourlself - SelfMade - IMRO