Exposure: Nic Dawson Kelly
In an industry that is currently saturated with bland singer/songwriters that all seem to sound disarmingly similar, Nic Dawson Kelly is refreshingly distinctive. His debut album Old Valentine is a collection of frank observations about life that features collaborations with highly influential musicians including Portishead’s Jim Barr, Primal Scream’s Marco Nelson and Donovan’s Tom Mansi. That is a pretty stellar line up when you consider that Kelly is a complete unknown.
The influence of folk heroes Bob Dylan and Tom Waits are undeniable, but the Brighton-based musician has fused this with country blues rhythms to create something that - love it or hate it - is truly unique. Kelly’s deep, quivering vocals are going to divide opinions like Marmite but his emotional storytelling is destined to land him a slot on Jools Holland. Kelly is currently touring the UK and winning over fans one city at a time with his captivating live performances. It is a pretty safe bet that you are soon going to hear Old Valentine in every hip coffee shop and bohemian bar you frequent over the next few months.
Can you tell us about your debut album?
Some of it was recorded in a small room in Borough, London and some of it was recorded in a bigger room in Bristol. I think this played a major part in how the songs sound. In the smaller room, with six musicians squeezed in, you shared each other’s breath and you didn’t have to listen to hear what was being played. I think that made it easier for the others to fit in with songs I’d got gathered together. There are only so many notes you can play when someone else is sitting on your elbows. In the bigger room, there was more breathing space and you had to start paying more attention to pick out what everyone else was doing. The change kept me on my toes, but I forget which songs were recorded where.
What musicians have influenced your style?
Looking back there have been plenty. Recently I’ve tended to appreciate artists who release music with mistakes. As a child, most of the stuff I heard was from the back of a car. My parents did a lot of moving around and had a whole collection of cassette tapes for each journey - mainly old folk, soul and blues. Having said this, Buddy Holly was my first tape shortly followed by an Everly Brothers compilation. Waits, Dylan and Sam Cooke have been cemented onto my playlists for a long time, but, like anyone, I go through changes of what I can enjoy. I always start listening to swing at the end of autumn. Stephane Grappelli is good for this time of year.
You have a very distinctive singing voice. Does it ever catch people off guard?
Sometimes. I’ve had shows where I start to play and I can see a member of the audience hold a look that says, “That’s not supposed to happen.” I try not to think about it too much though. They’ll either like it or they won’t and I can’t decide that. I think, in some cases, that the voice is just a way of getting across what’s written down. I care about the songs more.
How did you get signed to Runners Club Records?
It’s a self-named label. The record was funded by Universal and it was decided that we put it out under this name as we didn’t want to give it too much push and profile on release. Runners Club was an old band name I had that never really got into use so it felt right to finally let it go with a different purpose.
How did you get the opportunity to work with members of Portishead and Primal Scream?
The producer, Rory, knew them and thought he’d give them a call. It wasn’t so much who they’d worked with before, just that they are talented musicians and he thought they’d enjoy what I was trying to do. It turned out they got it straight away and sat in – a time and place thing I suppose. If you’re ever in Borough, sit awhile in The Gladstone. You can’t not make music of some kind there.
You describe yourself as a "polite tearaway that spent enough times in courtrooms to thankfully grow out of it." Can you give us some examples of trouble that has landed you in court?
For my sake, I’ll give you one of the lighter examples. One of the earlier times I’d ended up in court was because I’d been caught stealing. Somehow I got it into my head that because I was only taking from large companies nothing would go amiss. Anyway, I’d been followed from one store to another grabbing what I wanted until I was rugby tackled in the shopping mall and taken back to the last place I’d visited. The police held me at the back of the shop until transport arrived. During this time, the store manager proceeded to lecture me on the rights and wrongs of a civil society. Letting me know, not holding back, where she thought I fit in to that. I felt it was within her right to. I was sentenced and banned from the store for life. After the hearing, and a few months later when my hair had grown longer, I was in desperate need of a job and I applied there. The same store manager interviewed me, unknowingly, and gave me a full time sales position. I regret what I’d done before but I regret taking the job more.
You have played live with Adele, Jamie T and Laura Marling in the past. What has been your most memorable live experience so far?
Some of the open mic nights I played will stay with me for a long time. I remember one in which I’d played a short set to a largely disinterested audience. The act after was a well dressed elder gentleman. He had no instrument, no poetry and no one else was with him. He sat in front of the microphone, introduced himself and paused for what felt like an eternity. He then went on to recreate the noises of all the farmyard animals he could think of. It brought the house down. It made me try a little harder. The chicken was my favourite.
What are you doing for the rest of the year?
There’s a tour set for February. Until then I’m ice skating, buying tinsel and waiting till Christmas.
Old Valentine is out now via The Runners Club.
Nic Dawson Kelly plays Queens Hall, Edinburgh (supporting Gomez) Fri 27 Nov.