Written by Richard Skanse--June 2014
When most artists decide it’s time to begin a bold new phase of their career, more often than not they’ll chalk it up to a need to step outside the lines of their regular comfort zone or to express a side of themselves previously muted by audience expectations or the democratic process of a band dynamic. But ask Austin’s Kelley Mickwee about the impetus for her first-ever venture into solo waters after years of being a duo and group member, and she’ll straight-up tell you it was a matter of survival. “I’m totally starting from scratch again,” says the 34-year-old singer-songwriter. “And it’s scary, starting from what’s basically a blank slate — but it was totally out of necessity.”
But as they say, “necessity is the mother of invention.” Might have been Plato who said it first, and a few other folks here and there since him, but for our purposes here, “they” would of course be the Trishas — the band of sisters (in song if not by blood) that Mickwee hooked up with a year after moving to central Texas from her native Memphis. “Mother of Invention” was the leadoff track on the Trishas’ winsome 2012 full-length debut, High, Wide and Handsome, and at the time its “make something out of nothing” message seemed to be the story of the band itself: four gifted young singers — not all of them (Mickwee included) yet songwriters or even musicians in the beginning — who somehow parlayed what was supposed to be a one-off gig at a Kevin Welch tribute concert into a life-changing adventure across the highways and byways of Americana roots music.
It was a beautiful journey, and full of promise, too, with the Trishas quickly carving out their own niche in the all-too-often male-dominated Texas music scene while simultaneously building a growing audience across the rest of the country via thousands of miles of touring in their trusty van. But alas, keeping that good thing going proved harder and harder once life (certainly not personality clashes or musical differences) scattered the four girls across Texas and as far afield as Nashville. So after five years, countless happy memories, and one last (for now) fling together on Delbert McClinton’s music cruise in January 2014, they all decided to take an open-ended break, leaving each band member free to go their own way.
With hindsight, that part of their story was hinted at in the Trishas’ “Mother of Invention” song, too: “In interesting conditions, you discover who you really are.”
Kelley Mickwee didn’t write that particular tune (fellow Trisha Jamie Wilson did), but she wasted no time in taking its challenge to heart. “When I started kind of seeing the end of the Trishas happening, or that we weren’t going to be playing again for awhile, I knew that I was going to have to start doing some shows of my own, working toward the next phase,” she says. “I realized I was basically going to be out of a job, so I needed to start getting self sufficient!”
The truth is, Mickwee’s always been more than capable of looking out for herself —and others; they didn’t call her “Finance Trish” in her last band for nothing. Her DIY work ethic (not to mention her marketing degree from the University of Memphis) came in handy throughout her Trishas tenure as well as during the seven years she spent touring and recording in the Americana duo Jed and Kelley with her ex. And of course she’s long since proven that she can sing, having taken formal voice lessons since she was 7 years old (after her piano teacher told her mother that, as a piano student, Kelley made a great singer.) After Jed and Kelley broke up and Mickwee moved to Texas, she continued singing onstage with famed songwriter Kevin Welch for a spell, and her sultry Southern drawl seasoned the Trishas’ trademark heavenly harmonies with smoke and earthy grit. She also played guitar and mandolin with the band and found her voice as a songwriter, co-writing seven songs on High, Wide and Handsome and many more since.
Still, there’s a big difference between holding one’s own as part of a group or duo and holding one’s own alone. “It’s terrifying!” Mickwee insists. “I went from never being nervous about stepping onstage — ever — to getting nervous every time now. Because it’s just me, so I’ve only got me to rely on. So I’m just now starting to trust myself up there. But I’ve really been lucky to have folks like Ray and Judy just kind of believing in me.”
“Ray and Judy” would of course be legendary Texas/Oklahoma songwriter Ray Wylie Hubbard and his manager wife, two longtime Trishas supporters who recently invited Mickwee to open a handful of shows as a solo act. “I’ve got a lot of respect for her both as a songwriter and for the way she handles herself,” says Ray Wylie. “Her soul’s in the right place as far as being a songwriter goes — and she handles herself like an old, worn-out musician like me! I’m really impressed with her abilities onstage, and our audiences love her.”
But as confident (by necessity!) as she’s slowly become at playing solo acoustic, Mickwee’s still first and foremost a team player at heart, and looks forward to “getting a little band together” to back her up going forward. And tellingly, the handful of songs she’s recorded since the Trishas hiatus are anything but solo-acoustic coffee house fare. They’re full-on band tracks that she recorded back home in her native Memphis — not for lack of capable talent and studios in Austin, but because she had a very clear idea of how she wanted her songs to sound and, more importantly, who could help her pull it off.
“There’s just something about the way those guys play, and it’s a sound that nobody here really sounds like, you know?” she says. “It’s a totally different element, and I don’t know what it is, but it’s just like all these guys grew up playing in countless different bands together, and those Memphis boys just keep it loose! And I wanted it to sound like that. The engineer, Kevin Cubbins — he’s one of the best in Memphis, and he was in a few bands back in the day that I used to go see play all the time. All these guys are people that I’ve known since I sang my first note in public, so I knew I’d be really comfortable around them.”
Mickwee and her dream band of Memphis musicians recorded seven tracks, all live, over a day and a half in a home studio set up in, of all places, the living room of a debilitated mansion formerly owned by the late Civil War historian Shelby Foote, the author of Shiloh. “The guy who owns it now turned the living room into this little studio for his private use, and he told Kevin he could bring a few projects there,” says Mickwee. “And I mean, it was trippy! The house is old and weird and funky, sort of run down and full of holes, but the studio has all this vintage, antique gear in it. The whole experience was really cool.”
And so were the songs they recorded there: five new Mickwee originals (co-written with friends Kevin Welch, Owen Temple, Phoebe Hunt, Jimmy Davis, and Johnny Burke) and two choice covers (Eliza Gilkyson’s “Dark Side of Town” and John Fullbright’s “Blameless”) rooted in Americana and the duskier, groovier side of the singer-songwriter genre but above all steeped in organic, Southern soul reminiscent of classic Stax sides. Call it “Mickwee in Memphis.” Or better yet, call it the sound of an artist pushed by necessity into reinventing herself — and coming away with the best music she’s made to date.
All she needs to do now is figure out the best way to share those tracks with the world. “I’m just going to try to be creative about it,” she says, mulling over the myriad different formats and options open to forward-thinking indie artists these days. But one way or another, rest assured those Memphis tracks — and more songs to come — will be shared. “I’ll find a way,” she promises.
“I mean, I paid for all of this on my own,” she continues. “I didn’t do Kickstarter or anything like that, because I hate that stuff. So I did it on a real shoestring budget, but I still went all the way to Memphis and gathered up the best guys that I knew in town. And the results … I’m pretty proud of ‘em.”
Kelley Mickwee never harbored any illusions about any of this “going solo” stuff being easy. But at the end of the day it all comes down to just making music and singing, and she’s been doing both long enough now to know that’s all she ever wants to do.
So far, so good.