Interview: Kelley Swindall & Don Dilego talk about New York Americana

Kelley who? There is often a debate when Americana UK decides which artists we should interview. Clearly, new and emerging artists need the oxygen of publicity to help them build their career momentum, but what of our readers? New artists, at the start of their career, don’t always have an interesting enough backstory and aren’t always that intriguing to our readers, no matter the quality of their output, which is where Americana UK’s Tracks and Video features are so beneficial.

Kelley Swindall is a new artist who has just released her debut album, ‘You Can Call Me Darlin’ If You Want’, but why would AUK want to interview her?  She is a girl from the Deep South who moved to New York to become an actor. However, her involvement with the East Village, Manhattan, music scene, and a broken relationship, prompted her to become a musician. While a major influence is Dylan’s early rootsy sound, she also brings the cosmopolitan influence of East Village to her own music. The East Village music scene is small, but it is vibrant and interesting, taking in various genres and influences. Stalwart of the New York americana scene, Don Dilego, worked with Kelley Swindall at his  Velvet Elk Studios that are only 90 miles away from New York in rural Poconos, Pennsylvania, and released ‘You Can Call Me Darlin’ If You Want’ on his Velvet Elk Records. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Kelley Swindall first, and then Don Dilego, to talk about her new album, Donald Trump, the New York americana music scene and The Felice Brothers.

How are you Kelley, I hope you and your family and friends are all OK and coping with the challenges of coronavirus?
Thank you! I hope you are, too. I think I’m as good as can be expected. My family, health-wise have all been ok, thank god. Financially, I and many close to me have absolutely been affected and are doing the best we can. I think like so many of us, I’m hanging in there, trying to make the best of the current situation and adjust the best I can. The whole music world has definitely been turned upside down and live shows as we’ve known them have really been non-existent. The silver lining to this is I’ve been learning to connect virtually as I’ve never done before. This has opened my eyes to the potentials of streaming concerts and new forms of content creation to connect with music lovers. There is potential there, for sure. To say I prefer this virtual world, though, would be a lie. There is no substitute for the live music and performative experience, and I miss touring and being on the road the most. Though I’m a millennial, I really don’t identify. If I could live in a pre-internet world, I would choose to.

You moved to New York to be an actress. Is this move to music a career change or simply a detour.
I would definitely say a detour. While I have no immediate plans to get back into acting (because I’m committed to promoting this album over the next year), it’s not like I ever thought I was swearing it off or anything like that. I just got to a point where to get done what I wanted to get done, musically, I had to focus my energies and efforts entirely on my music — writing, booking, performing, etc. I would love for and plan for this detour to come full circle, at some point, to where I can happily and seamlessly do both, but I need to lay the solid musical foundations before I can turn my focus back to acting. The beauty of writing and performing my own music, though, is that I do feel like I get to experience many of the elements that drew me to acting in the first place, which is communicating a story or narrative to a live audience in an emotive, expressive, performative way. I love that I can do that by writing and performing the songs that I do.

You are clearly influenced by the great female country singers such as Lorretta Lynn, Patsy Cline and Dolly Parton, but you live in New York. Why pick country as your genre of music?
I have to honestly say I did not “pick” country. I just didn’t. I picked writing stories and songs, and I considered myself a singer-songwriter, and if anything, a folk singer, for the longest time, precisely because it was in New York City that I first started writing songs. I dove into the music of early Dylan as the song & style I was trying to emulate, which to me was pure folk singer-songwriter with a New York City edge. People kept telling me I was “country,” and I’d politely correct them. I was a southerner and living up north, so I figured anything that sounded the faintest bit “southern” to Yankees was “country” to them, so that’s why they were labeling me as such. I truly did not think I was “country” and I certainly didn’t want to be seen as “country.” To me country, at that point, was cheesy, and while I did love old country and even 90’s country, it wasn’t the kind of music I wanted to be writing. I didn’t think of it being “cool” or “art,” if that makes sense.

Coming where I come from, the Deep South, I came to New York to escape the South and forge a new path, but I learned through the years that you can’t change who you are at the core. So (long story short) eventually, after hearing over and over that the songs I was writing and singing, by purposeful design or not, were “country,”  I finally just decided to embrace it and call a spade a spade, if that makes sense. I didn’t discover Loretta Lynn until people would tell me certain songs of mine reminded them of her, so I was curious and checked her out. Patsy Cline and Dolly were absolutely artists I loved and was aware of growing up, but I would not say I consciously tried to emulate them. However, I can’t deny their influence has seeped into my sound. I will say I did consciously attempt to channel Patsy in one song I wrote, “Refuse to Be Blue,” but I didn’t write that until I had been hearing how I reminded people of Patsy in other songs of mine, so I figured, “Hey, let’s go with this! I love her; she’s great! I’m going to now consciously write a song that is a nod to her style.”

You have been classed as Outlaw Country. Do you agree with this and if so what does it mean?
I do in the most classic sense of the word, in that the original “outlaw country” singers and songwriters were called “outlaw” because they were operating outside of the commercial Nashville world and sound and culture of the time. I would absolutely say I’m doing that, and so, I am technically an “Outlaw.”  Now like my answer to the “Country” question, is this me being “outlaw” by design, no. I’m not consciously trying to push back at what’s coming out on country radio. I’m just doing my own thing musically because it’s the only way I know how to do it. Since I’m an artist in New York City, the sounds and energies of the city seep into my songs, I think, and I do have all these different artists as influences. This is why I probably don’t sound like the stuff coming out of Nashville or the mainstream “country” that’s being written today.

New York has a history of country music, going back to some of the very first recordings of country music. What is the country music scene like in New York and are you part of it?
I’m sorry to say that I’m not involved in much of a country music scene in New York, but that’s ok. I am very involved in the East Village music scene, which is a hodgepodge of rock ’n roll in all its forms, as well as Americana, if I have to choose genres. I do hear there’s something of a country scene in Brooklyn around a particular venue. However, whenever I would submit my stuff to this place over the years, I’d never heard back, so I eventually gave up on it, and just continued to play and cultivate, relationships at the spots and with the people around these East Village spots where I was welcome particularly Bowery Electric, Berlin, and Coney Island Baby (now called Lola), all clubs in which Jesse Malin is involved. He’s a musician and human I really admire, and one who’s responsible for keeping the music scene in the East Village alive and well. All of the musicians I play with I’ve met through these clubs, along with the producers for my album. I owe so much to the East Village music scene in terms of how far along I’ve come as a performer and artist. I’m very lucky and grateful to be in the scene I am.

How and where did you record ‘You Call Me Darlin’ If You Want’  and who with? Did the final result meet or exceed all your expectations?
I recorded it with Don DiLego (of Don DiLego & The Touristas; he’s also a co-owner of that music venue, Lola, I mentioned) & Mike Montali (Hollis Brown). We recorded it out in the Poconos in Pennsylvania at Don’s house and studio, called The Velvet Elk, where he also now lives. All the musicians are from the city and drove out for the sessions, which spanned a few days. It was the middle of winter and we had a crazy snowstorm, so we were completely snowed in and ate, breathed, and slept those tracks.

I had no idea what to expect, to be honest. I was terrified of the prospect that the tracks would sound “too produced” — that’s for sure. As a singer-songwriter and solo artist, I had always had a hard time whenever I tried to play with a band, as I didn’t know how to arrange the songs in such a manner that they weren’t overpowered by the other instruments. I don’t think that happened here. I think the songs all really shine, and the instruments highlight, rather than detract, from the story, which is SO important to me.

Did you have any experience as a songwriter before writing the songs for your debut album?
I had not. I had written a song once in high school, I do have to acknowledge that, but I don’t really count it because it wasn’t a whole song. It was an attempt though, but then I forgot about it. The song that I count as my “real first song” (because it was a whole idea and I completed it) I wrote in August of 2008, and that was the beginning of my journey. I remember because it was hot AF in my tenement apartment in the middle of a heatwave, and it was the month before Lehman Brothers went under, which was a big big deal, of course, especially in New York City. That was my first song, and I’ve written countless ones since then. Only a smattering of them are the ones that made it into live performances and eventually onto this album.

Which songwriters did you seek inspiration from for your own songs?
Bob Dylan. Ryan Adams. Amy Winehouse. Tom Petty. Kris Kristofferson.

Many musicians are struggling financially currently, why did you think now was the time to start a music career?
I wouldn’t say I’m starting my music career right now, per se. I’ve been touring and playing “professionally” in terms of gigging live and travelling around the country to play for pay since 2015, I just never got all “fancy” in terms of the “whole package”  until recently, if that makes sense, insofar as I went into a studio with seasoned musicians and producers and decided I wanted to take make a real record, hire PR, promote, and all that jazz, and this was all done well before the pandemic. I had originally planned to release this album in June 2020, and then corona happened and I pushed the album back to September. I’ve since been told if I was smart then I would push it back to 2021, but I can’t do that. I don’t have the resources to hold off and do another push, and I’m honestly ready to just get it out. I have so many other songs I’m working on, and I just need to get these songs into the world and move on with my creative evolution. So coronavirus be damned! I put my life on pause for it momentarily, but I can’t put it on hold indefinitely. I have to keep pushing forward, even if it’s not the ideal time to be introducing myself to the world.

How are you going to bring ‘You Can Call Me Darlin’ If You Want’ to the music-buying public now that you can’t tour?
That is an excellent question! One I ask myself everyday… ha. I’m sorry to say I don’t have a definitive answer; I’m taking this one day at a time. I’m definitely focusing on livestreams and social media as a way to connect to other humans right now, but I don’t enjoy it, I’m sorry to say. I miss and crave the human-to-human live connection. I have learned that I enjoy making music videos, so I’m going to focus on making music videos for the various songs and getting the music out that way. I also started doing a weekly livestream from my bathroom called “Bathroom Ballads” in which I talk about the history of various songs that stem from the ballad tradition in some way, form, or fashion. I really enjoy sharing the stories behind songs with those who are interested and may not know the background, and I’m hoping I’ll find an audience of like-minded spirits that will, in turn, be turned onto my music.

What is the song you are most pleased with on the album and why?
Oh, man. I’m having a very hard time with this one… I think I’m going to have to say “Meet Me Halfway.” It’s funny because it’s not one of the songs that fans or press has really picked up on, which is fine, but to me, it’s a really special song. It’s one in which I think the recording perfectly captures and exudes the spirit and energy behind the lyrics, so much so that it expresses it better than if I were to just perform it live with just myself and my guitar.

What did Kelley Swindall, actor, bring to Kelley Swindall, country music singer?
A great appreciation and passion for telling stories. At the end of the day, the story is, to me, what sets a country song apart, head and shoulders, from all other genres of songs. Country songs, in their purest and truest form, tell stories, which, of course, is rooted in the ballad tradition. As an actor, my job is to tell the story through my character the best I can and to serve the story first and foremost. As a country music singer and songwriter, I view that, too, as my primary duty.

You are now a New Yorker, what is your view of Donald Trump and what do you hope the November election will bring?
I think he is an absolutely abhorrent, despicable, waste of human flesh and spirit. He’s a con man and one thousand percent self-serving. He’s petty, mean, and a bully, and worse, he’s completely incompetent and very, very dumb. Unfortunately, the intelligence he does have is as a master of creating chaos. He’s a true idiot savant in his capacity for PR and riling up the most base emotions in the human spirit. He appeals to the spirit of fear, which is a very powerful force. I think he is the poster child for what the worst of American culture has spawned: spoiled, entitled, uneducated, and superficial humans. And finally, he’s a fraud.

I cannot begin to tell you the first-hand accounts I’ve heard from friends and fellow New Yorkers of what a horrible person he is in terms of not paying contractors or employees for work done and his shady dealings. Hardly the practices of a “great businessman.” New Yorkers have known this forever. There’s a reason the city he comes from hates him. He’s not legitimate, yet he’s conned the vast majority of United States citizens into thinking he is. It’s the consequence of this reality show/instant-famous culture we live in and have created, and it’s destroying us from the inside out.

What’s even more disgusting, though, are the countless prominent Republicans in office who despised him and openly spoke out about how incompetent and dangerous he was when he was running for office. Then, the second he got in the White House, they changed their tune because all they care about is their own political careers and maintaining power and not what’s best for the country as a whole or the people they represent.

I hope the November election will bring him out of the highest office in the land and into prison, ultimately, which is where he belongs.

What do you hope to be doing in 2021?
I hope to be touring this album in the UK and Europe. That is my goal. I had been holding off on doing any tours outside of the U.S. until I had an album like this to promote, and now that I do, that’s my number one focus. Obviously, COVID has changed things, but I do expect by the summer, and definitely the fall, that live music will be back and I want to be over there for it. In a perfect world, I hope to be able to tour as an opener with an established artist whose music and vibe are simpatico with my own and whose audience will be into what I hope to share with them.

At AUK, we like to share new music with our readers, so can you share who is currently on your top three playlist?
Taylor Swift. I think she’s just brilliant, and anyone who thinks otherwise doesn’t know a thing about songwriting or music.

Jesse Malin. He’s a superb songwriter, and I’m constantly in awe of his breadth of work. His latest album, Sunset Kids, which was produced by Lucinda Williams (whom I also adore) is just killer. It’s one of those albums I can and do listen straight through and never feel the urge to skip a song. Check out the song “Promises.” It’s exquisite.

Amy Winehouse. I’ve been on an Amy Winehouse kick recently. Just listening through Back to Black over and over. She was highly, highly influential in inspiring me to write songs in the first place, and her style of writing and delivery, though while it may not be apparent, one hundred percent inspired and inspires my approach.

Finally, do you want to say anything to our UK readers?
I just want to say how grateful I am that y’all are giving me and this album the time of day over there. I’ve never been to the UK, and it’s been at the top of my list to get over there and play and tour since I first started booking shows for myself a few years ago here in the States. I truly hear the best things about y’alls audiences and the way venues treat performers from fellow artists who come back from runs over there. As soon as I’m able, I hope to be over there to play live for y’all, and I hope anyone reading this will come out to a show and say hello. Please do! (Interview with Don Dilego continues below the video)

Don, what is the New York Americana music scene like?
It’s very unique, I think, in that it’s not that big. I always felt like a bit of the odd fish out, especially early on in the East Village music scene. But over the last few years, it feels like a lot more connections are being made and more effort to collaborate and perform together. There’s a lot of branching between the Brooklyn and East Village Americana folk going on these days, and you didn’t see that as much 5 or 6 years ago.

Why start Velvet Elk Records?
Because we are not financially prudent human beings. Also, we’re surrounded by a staggering amount of talent in New York City, and it just seems that going out to see shows, you see a band or artist every other night that just floors you. There’s so much that goes into getting “discovered” or becoming commercially successful that we lose out on a heartbreaking number of incredible bands that eventually just fade from local music scenes. We just wanted to be able to chronicle what it was we were seeing here in NYC all the time. The biggest burden is not having enough money to push more bands.

What is special about Velvet Elk Studios?
When I first moved to NYC, I fought it tooth and nail. New York came to me. I never intended on moving there. I always felt more at home in a rural/country type environment…or so I convinced myself. So when I first got there, I almost immediately started looking for a place outside of the city to work on music. My girlfriend’s family had a “cabin in the woods” in the Poconos which I knew nothing about. I was offered the opportunity to use it when they weren’t there…which turned out to be mostly all the time. The first time I arrived there, it was over. The vibe was outrageous and the air and sky were intoxicating. I’ll spare the minutia of how we ended up getting the house, but I always had plans in the back of my head to “one day” build a studio there.

So…one day…I was recording a friend of mine, and during a break, explained what I planned on doing “one day”. He literally put down his guitar right there, and started pulling down drywall from the garage ceiling. He said, “How about we start right now?” And that was it. He forced my hand, and I will be forever grateful. Now I have this cozy, boutique studio/retreat in the woods that I get to share with artists looking for a recording escape of their own. There are no real-time constraints and there’s something extra-special about being able to commune together and not have to drive away after the session. Instead, we build a fire or make a giant dinner and chill on the deck in the backyard. It’s always a nice bonding experience.

How do you juggle the label and your own career?
(Hears manager’s voice in his head saying, “He doesn’t!”) Admittedly, it’s not always convenient to be a full-time artist. I feel a tremendous responsibility to the bands and artists on our label to give them everything we can. And it’s never enough. My partners are artists as well, so we all do the best we can. But we’ve managed to divvy up responsibility and pitch in more between our own releases. In many ways, I look at our artists’ careers as my own. So when we’re deciding what to sign and release, a lot of it has to do with feeling a connection to their career, because it’s inevitably going to become a part of mine!

Is the label financially independent now or do you still have to secure additional funding?
Are you asking a small boutique indie label if they are financially independent? We’re 100% always looking for more money. None of us who own this label have made a dollar yet. Everything we make goes right back in. And we’ve had the label for almost 10 years. So…it’s basically been an unpaid full-time job. I guess you could say, yeah, we’re always looking for additional funding. But we’re lucky in that all of us are absolute music addicts and supporters. So pooling our resources has always just been what we do. Until the day we have a hit record and the in-fighting struggle for power truly begins.

How does Velvet Elk Records manage the challenges of streaming?
I wouldn’t say we so much manage as just adapt to it. I mean, is it fair? Not so much. But the market decides what they are willing to pay. For reasons I still can’t truly understand, the younger generations have decided music should be free. As an independent label trying to survive, this poses serious issues. And with Velvet Elk, we’re not signing artists to 360 deals or taking bands’ publishing. So the revenue stream for us is razor-thin. We can honestly say it’s all for the love of music at this point. But it’s not like we’re trying to not make money!

How do you find new talent and do you have a quota for new artists?
No quotas. I spoke of this in an earlier question, but we essentially live in a sea of tremendous talent. It is not hard to find records to release. So it all comes down to time and money. There’s so much more we would like to release, but in fairness to the artists we do sign, we have to pace ourselves. We rarely if ever have simultaneous releases.

Is Americana simply another term for politically correct country music?
Ha! Americana now is to what it was 10 years ago, or 50 years ago. It’s like when Nirvana was an “alternative music” band that sold 10 million records. So Americana, to me, is simply more of a catch-all for a shared musical aesthetic. One of the coolest things these days I hear in new music is the blending of genres unlike ever before. The lines are incredibly blurry.

How is the label managing the challenges of COVID?
If anything, we’ve been busier and more aggressive these days. We’ve always mostly worked from home, or on the road. So it doesn’t feel like a lot has changed for us in that regard.

Who are your top 3 Americana artists of all time?
(Attempting to answer the impossible) Wow. I can only perhaps list a few that fall either directly or indirectly under that broad umbrella. Two favourites that jump to mind immediately are Willie Nelson and Wilco. Basically, I like artists who begin with a “W.” Wilco’s ‘Being’ There changed my musical direction; it was one of the more impactful records of my lifetime in that loose genre. ‘The Red-Headed Stranger’ by Willie is another I was/am obsessed with. Since bands like Mumford and Sons and the Lumineers made the word “Americana” a household name, it made it harder to adhere to what I think the core of Americana is. But I’d say a band like The Felice Brothers have always lived and breathed that aesthetic. They’ve remained on the fringe of popular success since forever ago. But they’re brilliant.

Author: Martin Johnson

I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.

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