Like a turtle from it’s shell, or a snake from one of those things that a snake charmer keeps a snake in, sometimes creative talent just takes a little coaxing to come out into the open. In the case of Kelsey Mader, it didn’t take much to unveil something truly remarkable.
One of my girlfriend Theresa’s closest friends from college, I first met Kelsey a few years ago. Kelsey and Theresa both attended Marquette University in beautiful and historic Milwaukee, WI; Theresa a PR major (now a teacher), Kelsey a Pre-Law student (now finishing law school).
I got to know Kelsey as any reasonable boyfriend would. We chatted. We hung. We small talked and celebrated now mutual friend-oriented holidays and birthdays. But it wasn’t until after a long day of fun and libations courtesy of my friends at the American Beer Classic that she found herself center stage with a couchful of eager fans demanding she share her talents. Apparently Kelsey had a tremendous singing voice that I had never heard.
A few renditions from the RENT catalogue, some Motown classics, and a late night taco or two later, Kelsey had a gleefully captive audience throwing requests at her like circus juggling balls. Her voice was as soulful and smooth as it was seemingly effortless, and it was clear that she truly loved to sing. She just didn’t always have the outlets she used to. Kelsey spent years singing in church and other ensembles, however as the years went on those opportunities became eclipsed by allegedly time consuming activities like going to law school. As this was back in May of 2014, and I was about to publish my second piece for this very project, my ears perked up like a pup-dog. Maybe I could give her that outlet.
But first, another taco and WAIT HAVE WE DONE MIDNIGHT TRAIN TO GEORGIA YET??
Fast forward a few months to the 4th of July. Theresa and I were again Milwaukee-bound to join the Marquette crew in celebration of America’s big 2-3-8. Something something beers something something America, and again - the night ended with Kelsey serenading everyone into a peaceful state of sunburned patriotic bliss.
This time it wasn’t Motown. No showtunes. Kelsey picked one of her absolute favorites: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s 1970 classic “Our House.”
“Holy shit.” I said.
“Right?” they said.
Those closest to Kelsey over the years had heard it many times, each time as good as the first.
This was very different than the raucous late night karaoke singalong session of months ago. She sang alone, accompanied only by the crackling of the fire beside her. Her rendition was one part Blossom Dearie, one part lullaby, and all parts incredible.
I felt like I had seen the Lochness monster. It must be captured.
The next several months saw plenty of “No, I know, I know, we totally should, it would be so fun” conversations between the two of us about recording a song or two the next time she was in Chicago.
Finally one night, the iPhone calendars came out, and a date was set. As was Kelsey’s mind about song choice long before I even asked her.
“So what song do you think we should - ”
Well alright then.
When Kelsey arrived for our session, it was clear she didn’t really know what to expect. In her years in church choir and other vocal groups, she had certainly had the spotlight on her before, but never in a solo recording experience.
I didn’t have any sort of state-of-the-art setup. Just my laptop, a single microphone, amp, and guitar arranged at my kitchen table. I had been noodling with how to best arrange the song for just the two of us. “Let’s just try it once, and we can keep messing with it,” I told her, anticipating a bit of workshopping to be necessary.
As soon as I began to strum, Kelsey’s voice brought a smile to my face. It was clear this would be as effortless as we could have imagined. A few takes and level adjustments later, we had our winner. A few hours after we began, we had tracked “Our House” as well as a cover of a John Martyn song called “Over the Hill” (to be shared later).
Kelsey maintained a certain amount of apprehension about what the final product would sound like until I gave her the headphones to hear for herself.
Kelsey was skipping through the hallways of my apartment, she was so thrilled.
The joy that hearing her own voice brought her was more than enough reward for the time spent shining the spotlight her way. It was as if she’d finally been able to capture the part of her that had only existed in the live moment for so long; the magic she had never put to tape to be listened to and shared. The song she had sang thousands of times to herself in her car, the song that her father loved so dearly and used to sing for her when she was young - she had made it her own.
Hear for yourself here:
It has been some time since I’ve published a Headlight Harbor entry. The beauty of this particular one from my end was in how absolutely painless and delightful the process was. All it took was the initial exposure, some beer-fueled conversations of encouragement, and that final little extra push to coax out something that was so desperately wanting to be shared. It just needed the right stage.
All this is to say, make things.
Paint. Draw. Sing. Find, create, and share something that doesn’t yet exist. Because nothing existed until someone’s imagination allowed it to. The world might just be a better place if we all put a little more of ourselves and our own expression out into it for others to interact with.
Kelsey’s recording of “Our House” won’t put a dime in either of our pockets, but I’ll be damned if we both didn’t feel like we walked away with a little something extra that day.