We all have a story to tell, and that’s what makes our art so powerful. Whether we’re channeling it into a song, film, painting, or some other creative work, the truth of our story is the power behind any project. This, beyond our skill and artistry, is what draws people to our creations—a backbone of relatable, universal human experience.
Sharing our truth not only elevates our art, it heals us. It’s cathartic. But in order to share our truth, we have to access it, believe it’s worth being heard, and get past the creative blocks that hinder us from expressing it.
In this interview, singer/songwriter Kelley McRae opens up about her songwriting process, her music (past and current), and her experiences working with underserved youth through her non-profit, Song Rise Arts.
Through this empowering organization, based in Austin, Texas, Kelley provides low-income students with music education and mentorship and provides a safe space for them to tell their story through song.
During the hour I spoke with Kelley, we explored both her music and her teaching work to mine key lessons for all creators, focusing on how we can get past our blocks and create powerful art using our own life experience.
Kelley McRae has toured extensively, selling out shows at The Bluebird Café in Nashville and The Green Note in London. Her most recent album, The Wayside, debuted at #7 on the Euro-Americana charts and hit #4 on the Roots Music Reports Top 50 Contemporary Folk chart.
2:00 What inspired the song “If You Need Me” and Kelley’s realization about the importance of connections and community after living on the road for years
5:30 Kelley explores the loss of her mother and how music offered relief from her grief
14:15 Kelley walks us through her creative process, what inspires her songwriting, and how she knows when a song is finished/ready
20:16 The curriculum Kelley developed for The School of Creative and Performing Arts in New York; why Kelly founded the nonprofit Song Rise Arts, in Austin, Texas; and how she helps her students work through creative blocks, own their stories, and use their stories in their songs
24:15 Unpacking the critical internal voice that stops us from creating—for younger people, often the belief that they’re too young and they don’t have anything worth saying. Who are the people who contributed to that voice?
29:22 How Kelley helps her students get unstuck when they’re having a hard time finishing a song, and what makes creating a lot easier
35:42 The importance of having a big win pretty quickly when you’re turning your story into art so that you feel motivated to keep going; one of Kelley’s core writing exercises for her students; and how looking out into the “middle distance” inspires Kelley’s writing
41:00 The writing exercises Kelley uses regularly, including one from Julia Cameron’s book The Artist Way; the brainstorming technique that helps her when she’s stuck with songs; and how creativity walks have helped her students find “song seeds”
47:34 Kelley’s key lesson from her time surrounded by artists and musicians in NYC; how she’s learned to invite people into their own hearts through her music; and what she believes makes a good song
51:24 What advice Kelley would give to someone who wants to be a songwriter or a musician
57:47 The lightning round! The questions aired on the show:
- How do you define creativity?
- How do you let your inner child come out and play?
- What’s the most important part of your creative routine?
- What is the most helpful thing you’ve learned or skill you’ve developed in your career?
- When the going gets tough, I ___?
(Click here to subscribe for future unaired lightning round Q&A!)
Kelley McRae Quotes Worth Remembering
“Music asks us to be present. It inherently asks us to be engaged. And I think that is so much of what life is about—to remain present to your sorrow so that you can even remain present to your joy.”
“Usually If I can find that little nugget that is the heart of something that I am struggling with, that my heart has a question about, then it can turn into something.”
“Before you can get into lyrics and chords or any of that you had to help someone do two things: 1. Break through the things that keep us creatively blocked and then 2. Help that person discover the heart of their story.”
“In order to tell our story we have to believe that our story has worth. And in order to believe our story has worth we have to unpack the things that we’ve started to internalize along the way that keep us from creating.”
“Everything you are right now is enough. Everything that you’ve already experienced and everything that you have is enough to create powerful art.”
“Essentially you have to ask people to face the things that all of us spend our whole lives trying to not face on some level… As artists it’s our job to feel our feelings because we create the art that gives people permission to feel their feelings. And so, if you want to create, you have to stay open to your own heart and you have to discover the heart of your story and have the courage to tell that story.”
“Essentially you’re trying to create a space for this kid to fall in love with music. That’s what helped me and that’s what saved me: I fell in love with music… And that’s the whole thing, that’s the whole thing—falling in love with it because then you’ll do it forever.”
“You’re a sponge, so everything you hear is affecting the music and lyrics you are writing. Listen to great music.”
Quotes from Other Artists Kelley Mentions
“Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” —Flannery O’Connor
“If you find that you start a number of stories or pieces that you don’t ever bother finishing…it may be that there is nothing at their center about which you care passionately. You need to put yourself at their center, you and what you believe to be true or right.”—Anne Lamott
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.” ~Ira Glass
Musicians/ Books/Shows/Resources Mentioned in This Episode
- Twyla Tharp and her bookThe Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life
- Julia Cameron and her book The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path for Higher Creativity
- Anne Lamott and her book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
- Ira Glass
- Bob Dylan
- Patty Griffin and her song “Useless Desires”
- Gillian Welch and her album Soul Journey
- Lucinda Williams and her songs “Concrete and Barbed Wire” and “Car Wheels On A Gravel Road”
- Hannah Gadsby: Nanette (on Netflix) (her highly shareable)
- Great British Bake Off (on Netflix) (her guilty pleasure)
- Webbing—a brainstorming technique Kelley uses when stuck with songs
Connect with Kelley
You can download The Wayside for free by signing up for Kelley’s newsletter here.