With a background in Jazz and an affinity for neo-soul music, KELS is an Atlanta-based female artist who appeared on the scene in 2020. Despite starting without industry support or major label assistance, she's built up a considerable following through self-released EPs, live shows across the US, and a steady presence on TikTok. Adding to her resume is the release of an album on APM's Kinetik library for indie artists.
We chatted with KELS about her journey thus far, from her start as a Jazz singer to her latest musical achievements and how production music has helped her career.
Hi KELS. A pleasure to be speaking with you about your music career. Can you talk about how you got started in this business and what your early years were like?
KELS: Sure. I got started thanks to my dad - he was a gifted singer, even if he never pursued a music career. I've always been singing because of him, and I started taking vocal lessons at thirteen. My teacher was very strict about me learning classic songs before picking what genre to focus on, and I eventually decided on jazz in high school. I sang in choirs and open jam sessions, and the genre helped me improve my writing skills and become comfortable with improvising.
I gigged a lot as a teenager, whether at weddings or informal events, and later attended Capital University to major in Music Industry Studies with a minor in jazz. Unfortunately, I felt burnt out after a year and dropped out to do a business degree back home in Pittsburgh. After that, I became a director at a local non-profit and made music as a hobby until 2020, when I started writing songs and finding my sound. That's when I began releasing music as KELS, a nickname I had growing up.
How do you operate when it comes to writing and producing your music? Do you handle that alone or with collaborators?
KELS: I've always written my own songs, though I occasionally co-write. I have some friends that I work with on the production side, and I was also connected to different producers by my manager, Shannon Roc. So I'll typically write to random beats on SoundCloud or YouTube and send it over to a producer to help create the vibe that I'm going for.
What was your strategy when you started releasing music in 2020? Were you just uploading tracks and hoping for the best?
KELS: Shannon and I met in October 2021 and started working together in April 2022, but I didn't have any business partners prior to that. I had to rely on YouTube to figure out the business and marketing side of things, and I ended up choosing Distrokid as a distributor. My girlfriend helped on the content side since she's a videographer/photographer, and I used my existing network to source producers and recording engineers.
What's been your roadmap since 2020, and how did that evolve in 2021 and 2022?
KELS: 2020 was pretty slow in terms of releasing music. I put out three songs but was still trying to figure out a strategy for releasing either singles or EPs. The only upside was that it afforded me time to write a lot and create the strongest demos possible.
2021 was more of the same, but I dropped the "Slow Ryde "EP towards the end of that year, which was a great learning experience on how to market and build a fanbase. My expectations were low, so I feel the release did well, and I also got positive feedback from local newspapers.
2022 was more about execution and growing my community, which was helped by TikTok. "KELS:" got 600,000 views on there, so it helped raise my profile as well as secure me live shows in different cities.
I also decided to move to Atlanta in 2022, which is where I live now. It's allowed me to attend jam sessions and meet new artists in a city where the music industry is very competitive, and that's been good for me. I also did shows in Oklahoma City, Nashville, LA, and New York City.
It seems like most of your releases are on your own label. Is that correct?
KELS: Yes, all my music is self-released. I'm not opposed to signing a record deal, but I'd rather wait until I have leverage. My focus at the moment is on building my fanbase and presence at shows and festivals in 2023. A record deal would probably make sense when I'm more known rather than being a new artist with just a few songs out.
That makes sense. But you do have a deal with Cage Riot, correct?
KELS: Yes, I signed a deal with them in 2022. They do distribution, as well as blog and playlist pitching. I do some pitching myself by looking up independent curators and sending them cold emails or DMs. For example, I found a guy who owns a vintage clothing shop that my music would do well in, so I DM'd him, and now he plays my music in his store.
Who have been your most frequent collaborators as you've built yourself up?
KELS: Jacob Spitzer has been my most consistent producer friend. We met in 2020 when I was just starting out, and he's produced a lot of my stuff. I also get to bounce ideas off of him. He lives in LA, so we don't really work face-to-face, but Shannon connected me with two other producers who understand my vision, and they produced my most recent stuff like "Just In Love," and "By The Christmas Tree."
Let's talk about your work with APM. How did that relationship come about, and what's it been like writing production music?
KELS: That came about through Shannon. She mentioned APM after we started writing together, and we thought it'd be a great fit since we're both songwriters. They also liked what we wrote, so I didn't have to change my style to please them, and that made things easy.
In terms of workflow, Shannon and I both handle the writing, with me on vocals and her friend Andrew on production; he's the one who produced "Just In Love". So Andrew will come up with some beats based on the vibe we ask him for, and Shannon and I will write over Zoom since she's in LA. Andrew will then mix the vocals after we send him stems.
Since your relationship with APM began, has working with production music produced any positive results for you?
KELS: It's challenged me as a songwriter, particularly the things Shannon's having me do. She'll say, "We need this type of song for a scene in a TV show" or she'll come up with creative scenarios that we can write to, which pushes me as a writer. So I definitely want to do more of it, and we're currently working on more tracks for APM.
One of the things I've learned from this is that every song can have a home as long as you're intentional with what you're creating, whether it's for TV or in a commercial. It's great because I like writing, and production music allows me to write as someone else other than KELS, which is refreshing.
It's been great chatting with you, KELS, as well as learning about your career. What do you have coming up in the rest of 2023?
KELS: I have a number of demos that I've finished, so I'm still deciding what the next release strategy is in terms of singles or another EP. I prefer to release more than one song at a time, but we'll see. I also plan to grow my live show presence, whether through festivals or gigs in other cities.
Check out KELS' self-titled release on Kinetik for APM