It's Dark Down by the River: Kelly Jean Caldwell Band's cutting alt-country odes


Kelly Jean Caldwell

The Kelly Jean Caldwell Band makes you laugh to slow down the crying. Photo by Michelle McNulty via the band's Facebook page.

The leader of the Kelly Jean Caldwell Band is constantly juggling creative endeavors, be it leading the alt-country band behind her name, playing in the occult-metal group The Wiccans, or raising two little ones.

“My kids are going crazy right now,” Caldwell wrote in an email to Pulp. “I have a 1-year-old and a 3-year-old and they are freaks.”

Caldwell was fending off the kids while answering questions to preview her concert at the Elks Pratt Lodge in Ann Arbor on Friday, January 27. Her third album, Downriver, was recorded six years ago, but it finally came out late last year on The Outer Limits Lounge, a new label run by her husband, John Szymanski (vocalist Johnny Hentch from long-running garage-rockers The Hentchmen).

The album’s delay was due to a number of reasons, not the least of which is Caldwell and band bassist Brian Blair divorced, then she got remarried to Szymanski, with whom she has the two rugrats who helped her with this interview. After a break that allowed Caldwell to focus on family life, she eventually called up her old bandmates -- including her ex -- and the Kelly Jean Caldwell Band was born again.

On the surface, Downriver’s music sounds familiar enough to label it alt-country, but underneath the twangs are dark and humorous lyrics delivered by Caldwell’s powerful voice. She brings real personality and presence to the songs, elevating them above their rootsy origins. The tunes were written when former Ann Arborite Caldwell was living downriver with Blair, and the album is a chronicle of their time together and the eventual dissolution of their marriage.

Q: You released your first album in 2002. And this new one was recorded 6 years ago. How have you changed/evolved as a songwriter since 2002 and even since 2011 considering you’ve had so many life changes in that period?
A: I think it's hard to quantify change or evolution as a songwriter or even as a human. There was a time that I listened to my first record, Septembre Girl [2002], and was just completely embarrassed -- thinking that my voice sounded like a deformed dog and that the songs were all dumb as hell -- and then, maybe a handful of years later, revisiting it and being like, “OH MY GOD THIS WAS MY MASTERPIECE I WILL NEVER BE SO INNOCENT AND BABY-VOICED AGAIN.” When I recorded my second album [Banner of a Hundred Hearts, 2005] I thought it was thee best and now ... meh. Basically, the same boat with my newly released record, Downriver. Though maybe don't spread that around. ...I MEAN IT'S GREAT JAJAJA!

Q: Because the Downriver songs are so personal and so specific to a certain time in your life, does it feel strange to revisit them so many years later and after so many life changes? Do you even relate to the person who wrote them?
A: It's true though, some of those songs I've been singing for a long, long time. Maybe so long that it doesn't even feel like "revisiting." The songs are just me. It's just a more amped up way of telling the same old stories -- the way everybody does. I don't ever feel like I can't relate to those experiences. Part of me will always be there!

Q: Do you have a whole new set of songs ready to record? I read that you wrote one about the fear of SIDS. What are some of the newer songs about now that you’re a happily married mom of two?
A: I do have a whole new set of songs to record, and they are indeed about family life. When my son Saxon was born I was so paranoid about SIDS that I did what I always do with my most fervent fears and I wrote a song about it. Most of the songs I've written in the last few years are about the weird dream of being a parent and sometimes feeling like I took a beautiful turn into an alternate dimension, but the real Kelly may still be out there somewhere laying on the floor at some party that should have ended before the sun came up. But every day I wake up and I'm still here with these miraculous people.

Q: You also have a lot of humor in your words -- sometimes dark, sometimes cutting. Is that a conscious thing, or is it just how you write even when dealing with emotional topics?
A: I guess I have a tendency to make jokes in darker moments in general -- by no means a unique or honorable habit, but I guess somewhere down the line it transferred into my music. I mean, it must have because people keep asking me about it. It's still a rather mysterious process to me and I don't want to dissect it too much, but thinking about it now, I recently wrote a song and even went as far to say, "MAKE FUN OF THE THINGS YOU’RE AFRAID OF." So, I guess it's both conscious and unconscious. I have a longstanding dream of being a stand-up comic, but I still only have like one good joke about a spider riding on a cockroach.

Q: Who are your favorite lyricists?
A: My favorite lyricists are Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Fred Thomas [who recorded her first two records]. All of them are genuine wordsmiths who also weigh the humor with the PAIN.

Q: You have another band, The Wiccans, which has gone from small-scale bongo jams to a full-on doom-rock band. How did this transformation occur and where did you develop an interest in the occult? And I hear you’re also going keep doing the acoustic version of the band, too?
A: So, Aran [Ruth] and I had been playing acoustically together for years and we both realized the potential power of doing electric witch rock almost from the beginning. I've been interested in the occult since I was a very young child. I remember seeking out the occult section in the school library in 3rd grade. I also subscribed to those Time-Life Mysteries of the Unknown books! When I met Aran, we shared a fascination with '70s coven life and basically started singing about it ASAP. We're both a couple of metalheads, so the transition was natch to the rock set. We're recording an electric album right now!

➥ “Singer-songwriter Kelly Jean Caldwell wants to destroy you” (Metro Times)
➥ “Kelly Jean Caldwell Band (Interview)” (Deep Cutz)

Christopher Porter is a Library Technician and editor of Pulp.

The Kelly Jean Caldwell Band plays the Elks Lodge, 220 W. Sunset Rd., Ann Arbor, on Friday, January 27. Doors open at 9 pm, tickets cost $5, and you have to be 21+ to enter. Loose Koozies and Autumn Nicole are the opening acts, joined by DJs Shells and Ryan Cady.