I recently interviewed Kelly Conelly Eisenhour. I knew her in Las Vegas and was so impressed, her being able to sing R&B and jazz unbelievably well. She is a consummate professional, as you will discover as you read.
An Interview With Kelly Conelly Eisenhour
It's October 30th, 2013, almost Halloween.
Chuck Stewart: Do you do anything special for Halloween?
Kelly Conelly Eisenhour: No, nothing more than the usual handing out candy and getting my daughter ready for trick or treating. She is 12 now and wanting to go with her big group of friends and not mom anymore. Haha so I'm relegated to pass out candy. But it's fun and it always reminds me of my own childhood and the great memories of the excitement of Halloween.
Chuck Stewart: When did you start singing?
Kelly Conelly Eisenhour: I started singing at a young age. I would say about 8 years old when I first started piano lessons (that I continued until age 18) I discovered that I could sing and had a little more control over my voice than my friends. I remember in 2nd grade doing a full play where we made a "road" out of a long piece from a spool of poster paper my teacher had, and we made little stops along the way where we sang specific songs (pop songs of the day). I sang a lot of the songs and I was hooked! I also had a father who was a jazz aficionado and listened to jazz in our home hours and hours a day, so I grew up listening to jazz. Quite an education.
Chuck Stewart: I first heard you in Las Vegas, where we met. Where did you perform there? Weren't you singing with a group prior to that? Who was that?
Kelly Conelly Eisenhour: Yes, I started singing professionally in jazz clubs at 19 in my hometown of Tucson. I remember learning a couple of jazz standards and then going to an audition for a piano bar gig. The pianist used different singers each night of the weekend. It was a Tuesday, and I did the audition singing the two standards I knew. He said great! You start on Friday. Have about 30 songs ready to go with a list of your keys. I was panicked! I ended up learning about 25 songs in 3 days (you can only do that when you are young) and made it through the first gig okay! I continued to sing Friday nights for about a year. I was also going to school and in the jazz choir at the University of Arizona. The director of that group was a well respected pianist, and I worked with him on occasion. He allowed me to be featured quite often in jazz choir and gave me fake books so I was able to learn lots of jazz standards. I was very much a jazz "snob" at the time, and was immersed in jazz, not wanting to listen to or sing anything else. I opened up a little more to other music later on, but am glad that I did this "immersion" of jazz in the beginning. It was great for my creativity and musicality in all music genres I would sing later.
Chuck Stewart: You sing R&B as well as anyone I've heard. How did you get so good at that?
Kelly Conelly Eisenhour: I can only attribute it to my jazz background. When I started singing pop or top 40 music at about 22 (mostly because I could make more money!) I was able to sing that style immediately but also made it my own. I loved many singers who were iconic, such as Aretha and Chaka Khan, and listened to them. They interested me because they also had a jazz background. Later, when I sang back up with Gladys Knight and had to "prove" myself with the all African-American band in those first rehearsals, they later told me that what was different about me is that I didn't sound like I was white TRYING to sound black, that I had a very authentic sound that came from the heart. That was a great compliment. I just had that soulful style in me, and I'm not sure how it got there. I grew up in a very middle class mostly white area in Tucson, Arizona. But again, I had an extensive jazz "education" so I can only attribute it to that (or something more mystical was going on!)
Chuck Stewart: Do you practice singing every day? How much time do you put in?
Kelly Conelly Eisenhour: Currently I'm doing much more teaching than singing, and so I'm not as active in my practice either. I tended to practice over the years more out of necessity (learning tunes, working songs to "fit" in my voice meaning getting comfortable with a song, practice for shows or concerts) and didn't really have a more structured daily practice. Knowing what I know now, I wish I had a really good vocal teacher when I was young to guide me in that. I never had a solid voice teacher who really knew what they were doing (particularly with contemporary music) and it wasn't until I was in my 30's that I took a couple lessons from a teacher that turned my head around. As I have gained more knowledge in this area over the years since, I am determined to help young singers understand what I didn't. That it is so important to have knowledge of how the voice works and to be training to keep your voice from taking a left and creating limitations at the least and real damage at the most.
Chuck Stewart: I have heard you sing several styles of music and they are all quite phenomenal. How did you learn to do that or was it from listening to many singers and being able to capture a style, so to speak?
Kelly Conelly Eisenhour: Again, I would say that it is from my jazz background that I'm able to do that. Jazz music requires you to be your own singer and not an imitation of others, so you have to really think outside of the box. It also gives you more control and musicality. Singing as a studio session singer for many years also helped me to have more control and be a vocal "technician," doing what was required for that session quickly. I would say the hardest style I had to master was country. That was so out of my norm. It was a great experience to learn how to do it because I've been able to use the experience to help others learn styles that they may be unfamiliar with. What I discovered is that if you get the "feel" of the music, or the overall style begins to seep into your bones (through much listening), you begin to be able to imitate it without having to think of every nuance and ornament. Those just come out naturally because you have the overall "feel" right. So, to answer your question, I really try to understand the music first. What is that style trying to "say?" What is it's authenticity? And then really studying or listening until I "get" it.
Chuck Stewart: What have you been doing with music in the last few years?
Kelly Conelly Eisenhour: As you know, I moved to the Seattle area after I finished my masters degree in jazz studies, performance and composition, and took a job at Green River Community College in Auburn, Wa. I began my position in 2008 and so am in my 6th year as Choral Director and Music Instructor. I have received tenure and absolutely love my job. I direct two choirs, Concert Choir and Jazz Voices, and teach music theory, music appreciation, piano class, and others, depending on the quarter. Jazz Voices is my "baby." I hire a professional rhythm section to play for them and they do some pretty difficult music and grow immensely musically. I also like to write for them. I get a lot of satisfaction out of my work with the students. In my personal career, my last album came out in 2007 and went to number 14 on the national jazz charts. It was very well received by the jazz community and that gave me a lot of satisfaction as well. We all want to feel like we are contributing and what we do is valid. I was able to get that through this album. I have been singing periodically in Seattle jazz clubs, with a highlight of winning the Seattle-Kobe Vocal Jazz Competition and getting a trip to Kobe, Japan to sing there in 2010. I also sang with the award winning vocal group Groove For Thought for a year (you may have seen them on the second season of NBC's "The Sing Off" before I joined the group). Though the pace of that group was a little more than I was ready to do on a permanent basis, I learned a lot about group singing that I apply to my teaching. It's great to be on the other side as the singer in a group rather than the director, and I learned a lot about what my student singers need as I direct my groups. I am interested in recording another album soon, but I admit that I am a little less involved with my personal singing and am more involved with my students. I also am very active in my daughter's life, and there is only so much time! So for now I am content to do more teaching and parenting, and will do things with my singing as they come along. I've had a long career of singing already and am content with that.
Chuck Stewart: You went to Berklee School of Music? Did I get that right? What was that like?
Kelly Conelly Eisenhour: Yes, I got my undergrad degree from Berklee back in 1986. Berklee was an amazing experience that I treasure. I went there after being disillusioned with the music program at the University of Arizona. Back then there was not much for a jazz singer to be able to study! Berklee was the right place for me and I really appreciated all that it had to offer and took advantage of it in a big way. It is so expensive today though, that I wouldn't necessarily recommend it to others. If you want to go there, really weigh out what it will cost particularly if you have to take out student loans, and what you will get in return for that investment. But it is a fantastic school and experience if you can afford to go (it was much more affordable back then!).
Chuck Stewart: Do you have an album out currently? Where can people buy your music?
Kelly Conelly Eisenhour: I have two albums, Kelly Eisenhour, Now You Know, and Kelly Eisenhour Seek and Find, featuring Bob Mintzer. Both are available on iTunes, Amazon, CDBaby, and other similar sites. There are also other albums that I'm featured on that are not my own. Albums by the group Q'd Up, the BYU faculty jazz band. Also, Steve Lindeman's Day After Yesterday. This one just won the first round of the Grammy award voting for best large ensemble album and best vocal arrangement and performance of the song I sang and co-wrote "Maravillas, Take Me To Wonderland Right Away." Not sure if it will go much farther but that was exciting.
Chuck Stewart: Thank you so much for doing this interview. Is there anything you would like to add, regarding being a singer?
Kelly Conelly Eisenhour: I think that what students of singing should know is that it is important to study your instrument and study music just as instrumentalists do. There are many singers out there who give singers a bad name among instrumentalists because they don't take their craft seriously. Yes, we have the advantage of being able to get up and running and sing by ear in the way instrumentalists can't do. But to really be a professional and be respected amongst your peers, put time into developing your craft, including how to read music. All singers should be able to at least play the piano, not necessarily to perform as a pianist, but to have musical knowledge.