By Laura J Collins
Photo by Jessica White
The Ottawa singer-songwriter Kelsey Hayes is a CBC Searchlight contestant for the second year in a row. Searchlight is an annual competition where Canadian artists all over the country compete for audience and judge votes to move onto the regional rounds, and ultimately to national finals to find the best new Canadian talent.
Hayes’ unique style, which she describes as jazz influenced indie pop, has drawn a lot of attention locally. She won the MusicOttawa Singer-Songwriter competition in 2015, performed at multiple venues associated with RBC Bluesfest and CityFolk festivals last summer, and toured and performed at several universities in China last year.
Hayes said she was very shy growing up, and after starting singing lessons, she discovered that singing gave her a voice, on and off stage.
“I could be a lot more outgoing on stage than in my everyday life. So I just got more and more involved with music as I discovered that it was giving me a sense of passion and purpose that I hadn’t had before. So I started playing guitar and piano on top of singing,” she said.
Hayes’ family was not musical but she listened to a lot of her father’s records in the house, such as AC/DC and U2, as well as singer-songwriters like John Hyatt, Bruce Springsteen, and Tom Petty.
When she was 11, she started exploring what her own music would sound like, and through radio, found artists like Adele, Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran, and Amy Winehouse, who have been her biggest influences ever since.
“I love Amy Winehouse’s voice, but I mainly love the feel of the writing, and the groove that she created in every single song,” Hayes said. “Also her writing style, the lyrics, they are very conversational, and that is really interesting to me as a lyricist. They allow the listener to feel that they are included in the moment of the song.”
Hayes herself has a very unusual songwriting style, where she builds the melody first and writes the lyrics into the melody.
“Often times I’ll sit down with a piano or the guitar, and I’ll be in a certain state of mind or in a mood, and I know that I want to communicate that mood into a song. So I’ll find a chord position that I like, and start building a melody on top of it, and once I’ll find what I like, I’ll start bringing lyrics into the song that reflect the mood that I’m trying to get out there”, she said. “A lot of people don’t write like that, but I just go straight with the musical feeling and the mood, and then try to put lyrics in. When I’m writing I really like to create a heavy groove if I can, and I really like to write really strong hooks that turn into catchy pop music. So it’s a mix of genres.”
Hayes said her writing has been progressing a lot as she gets older. When she first started writing, she was mainly writing about her own experiences but has recently been writing more about other people’s experiences, and stories she has heard from others, or even catchphrases that she says have started some creative ideas.
“I took a songwriting course with the Canadian folk singer-songwriter Ian Tamblyn at school recently, and on the first class he wrote down 10 things on the board he had heard people say that morning, and we had to write a song based off one of those 10 ideas and it was awesome. So I took that idea from that class and started to pull from what I was hearing around me,” she said.
Hayes has been in studio for the past couple of months working on tracks for a new EP, and is hoping to bridge out to Montreal and Toronto for more shows on top of her Ottawa gigs.
She is also dreaming of someday working with Diana Krall and Kathleen Edwards. Hayes is also participating in the “Keys to the JUNOs” songwriter contest, which she hopes will bring more recognition on top of the potential CBC Searchlight success.
“Last year I didn’t make it past the regional rounds on Searchlight, and I’m hoping this year that I will. My recognition level is starting to increase, which feels amazing as an artist because our whole purpose is to try to get our stuff out there. To create and to hope that content flies. So to be recognized on more regional or national level would feel really fulfilling,” she said. “But regardless of what happens, I will keep on going and writing.” •