Meet Kelly Hunt, local singer/songwriter
elly Hunt did not choose a career in music. Instead, it’s as if the art form haunted her until it finally grabbed ahold and wouldn’t let go.
Growing up, the now professional singer/songwriter/musician did not feel called, even though she encountered music at every turn.
“I was getting a musical education. . .shaping my musical ear. . .without even thinking about it,” she said.
Her mother, a classical-trained singer who imparted her love of voice performance, taught her daughter to use her voice as a first musical instrument. Hunt consequently sang in church and school choirs and performed musical theatre beginning in elementary school. She learned to ignore the short, original pieces she calls “little ditties” that suddenly popped into her head as a young child, taking them for granted and not even bothering to record them.
As she grew, the tunes became more complicated and persistent until she finally realized she was sad when they had escaped. That prompted her to begin writing them down. But she still did not question why.
As a young adult, she pursued careers in culinary and graphic arts, saving music for her free time. But the music relentlessly called her away from the kitchen and her computer and would not be ignored. She realized music was taking more and more of her time.
“It was like I was being split in two,” she said. Finally, she thought, ” ‘oh, this is what I’m supposed to be doing.’ ”
Today, the 32-year-old continues to learn about music even as she creates and performs. She’s learned that the writing process is tedious.
“In the beginning, it’s a burst of inspiration and I’m just trying to keep up,” she said. But, the rest of the process, the “fleshing it out,” is where the real work takes place.
Hunt is reluctant to define her music as being from one specific genre. Instead, she draws from old-fashioned country, gospel, African and folk. She finds music of the 60s and 70s especially inspirational. She grew up hearing music of that era as performed by Joanie Mitchell and Joan Baez because of her parents’ influence.
“I like to think my music is rooted in those traditional forms,” she said.
Although she grew up in Tennessee, Hunt came to Kansas City for a job (not in music) several years ago and never left. For now, she likes it as a home base, a central location from which they can leave on tour. She recently settled down in Weston and said the serene surroundings are more conducive to writing than apartment life in the city. But, she also knows, Kansas City might not be a forever home.
“A part of me always pines for the South,” she said.
Her writing has common themes: birds, reflections on life and historical events. She and her collaborator, Stas’ Heaney, who met at an open mic venue in Kansas City about six years ago, perform throughout the country and have opened for Josh Ritter and the Gibson Brothers. The transition from playing only small venues to large shows “felt like we’d finally arrived,” Hunt said.
Their first album, “Even the Sparrow,” was released independently, without a record label, but a second album, “Ozark Symphony,” due to be released this spring, will be tied to a yet-to-be-announced record label.
Hunt also sometimes performs solo and is beginning to perform with full bands.
The pair performed dozens of shows during 2019 following the release of their first album. But COVID caused 2020 shows to be canceled and Hunt took the opportunity to write more songs. The industry is slowly beginning to recover, but gigs are harder to find as the market is saturated with artists who are desperate for an audience, she said.
Heaney, 30, lives in Kansas City and grew up in Omaha, but also spent childhood years in New Orleans, Chicago, and Arkansas. He was classically trained and said he used to be prejudiced against the imprecision of folk.
“It wasn’t until I moved to Kansas City that I learned to appreciate folk music,” he said.
But after meeting Hunt and working with her, he realizes the truth-that folk music includes classical elements while still being connected to the familiarity of everyday life.
While Hunt writes most of the music they perform, she and Heaney collaborate on arrangements. He occasionally sings, but mostly accompanies on violin, accordion, piano and percussion.
Heaney was struggling to find music that excited him. But he knew Hunt’s sound was different and remembers thinking her sound was right. He said, “She doesn’t sound like anything before her and yet it’s very familiar.”