For instance, when he describes how the throbbing electric songs on his debut disc, Charming the Gods, come across live pared down to just him and a guitar, he says, "They still sound awesome!" When asked to what he attributes his edge (his press packet refers to edge and edginess more often than a Chicago Cutlery catalog), he says, "The typical singer-songwriter wouldn't put my kind of vocals on his album. I like to rock! I play as hard as I can!"
"I don't want nice instruments and a nice sound. I want sonic adventure. The ideal record for me next time will sound like a combination of Sheryl Crow and Tom Waits," Kelley explains from his Los Angeles home, headquarters to his growing self-distribution empire. (The journey of a million records begins with 60 units moved in a two-week tour.) Gods already features mandolin, squeezebox, fiddle, organ, and Kelley's guitar, which shifts easily from temperamental thrusting to back-porch ruminating. Not that the album sounds like it came out of Chicken Choke, Ark.; Kelley and indie-rock producer Chris Fuhrman gave Gods more coats of Turtle Wax than the usual folk/rock disc, and Kelley's singing voice sometimes shows his Seattle cover-band roots.
"I think of that time as my stint in community college," says Kelley of his two years fronting the band. "It was two years of hell, but I made a decent living and really strengthened my voice." It also toughened his noggin; Kelley was once knocked out by a headbanging biker chick during a performance of Metallica's "Enter Sandman." His powerful guffaw as he relates the anecdote is itself infectiously hilarious.
Kelley didn't stumble into the gig, and from the start it wasn't moonlighting. The time was a conscious decision to intern. "I'd played in original bands my whole life, starting in junior high and high school, playing school dances," Kelley says. "I'd always been the guitar player, never the singer. But I went through a period of 'What do I want to do?' and decided that I needed to go sing every night."
So he did, booking the band for up to 29 days at a stretch and honing his rhythm guitar skills. "I had to learn to play complex rhythm parts and sing over them. That's paid off for me now," he says. Kelley continues to hole up for an hour or more a day with a metronome and a songbook or a tape, learning new fingerings and chords.
During Kelley's 40 days in the desert, grunge went nova, then shrunk to a white dwarf in the rock and roll cosmology. Kelley's decision not to cast his lot with friends who ended up in Pearl Jam and Candlebox proved prescient, though with typical pep he says he never thought of himself as a grungeosaurus anyway. "The grunge was never what I wanted to be," he offers, with nothing his pals could construe as judgment or negative energy.
What he did after emerging from his internship was throw out all the songs he'd previously written and start over. "I chucked it all. If it's not standing up today, I don't want anything to do with it," Kelley says. "If it's that good, it'll come back to me."
He wrote new material through the recording of Gods, working with Fuhrman to form his work into a cohesive whole. Fuhrman's advice eased Kelley through crafting, rather than perfecting, the disc. "It took time to get over the idea of doing things over and over to get it right," he says. "But what Chris said to me was that an album is a snapshot of a particular moment. Certainly there are things you'll hear that you could have done better, but that's the way with photographs too, when you see how you looked at a certain time and realize you look better another way. But the thing is, that's the moment."
It may have been Fuhrman's concept, but Kelley spins it until it sounds Aristotelian, no longer a metaphor but a mythical allegory of record making. Such is the magnetic force of his manner, which comes through on the song's best, most literate songs.
"When I write lyrics, I don't want to insult anyone's intelligence," he says. "It's hard for me to say, 'Yeah, baby' in a song. I'm a visual person, so I want my songs to paint a vivid picture." But it's the Daniel Lanois-influenced sound of Gods that makes the disc more than a starving artist mural of parenthood, family (Kelley is a new father, and his wife manages him), and humanism. The combination of Kelley's potent nuanced vocal delivery and the dusky sonic ambience makes the self-released disc a keeper.
"A friend of mine used to work for Maverick Records," Kelley says. "And I asked him what he thought of my album when it was done. He told me to release it myself. And he was right. I get to stay hands-on rather than wait for some A&R guy to tell me the song's been delivered to radio and that's that. I have booking agents, but the radio and press I handle myself, and it's been very fulfilling. And it still leaves me time to be creative and takes away the pressure of 'When's the next album coming?' I prefer to make the effort learning about the audience and myself." (Speaking of radio, Kelley will guest on Bob McWilliams' KANU broadcast at 4 p.m. Sunday. As organized as Tony Robbins, Kelley is familiar not only with KANU but also with other local radio stations and venues.)
Kelley already knows it will be at least two years before he releases his next album. This is in part to leave him plenty of time to work Gods, but he's driven to cultivate his talent and not re-emerge until he has something new to say and a new way to say it. To feed his muse, he's spending time learning country and folk guitar fingerings that challenge him. He's reading everything he can, including Harry Potter books. He's still absorbing albums from the past two years, especially Patti Griffin's Flaming Red and the Buena Vista Social Club disc.
"Absolutely I feel anxiety about being away for more than a year. But I read that Natalie Merchant said three years is the ideal time between albums, and that sums it up. If you do it right, it will stand and have legs."
"I'm a communicator. I was put on earth to do that. Music happens to be my form," Kelley says as naturally as Tony Robbins conveys his redemption from fat slob to hypnotic multimillionaire. Believe everything Bryan Kelley tells you. You have no choice.
Bryan KelleySaturday, April 8at The Hurricane