April 21. Lee's Palace, Toronto. 10pm. Kelly casually takes to
the stage with a drink in hand. As soon as he puts the drink down,
Kelly and the Kellygirls belt out the first song of the evening.
The audience is captivated by Kelly's haunting baritone voice;
the rich diversity and obvious talent of the Kellygirls doesn't
seem to hurt, either. Clad in a fitted powder-blue military-inspired
shirt, low-slung white pants, and white kid gloves, Kelly prowls
the stage, straddles the speakers, and addresses the audience
with his soulful performance. With his enviable physique, high
cheekbones and intriguing tattoos, it's hard to look away. Both
queer boys and queer girls alike gush about his inherent sexiness,
his feline ways. But wait, he's talented too.
Since childhood, Kelly has been involved in the arts. After
he wrote his first play in 1990, trash (the age of consent),
he's gone on to write five more, and produce all of them. He's
an accomplished hairstylist with a reputation of having saved
many a head from L.A. to Berlin to Hogtown. He's been involved
in no less than six bands (People in Glass Houses, the existing,
My Dear Heretic, Caustic Chevy, Merkury Burn, Kelly and the Kellygirls),
and has acted alongside Kate Hudson in How to Lose a Guy
in 10 Days. Kelly's photography is eye-candy for the queer-eye.
You've probably seen his work without realizing it. One of his
photos graces the cover of the Arsenal Pulp Press anthology Brazen
Femme: Queering Femininity; he has also shot promotional
pictures for Buddies in Bad Times Theatre and for Xtra!
Magazine. Meet R. Kelly Clipperton - unstoppable arts-multitasker.
We first met at Signal to Noise recording studio where Kelly
and the Kellygirls were recording the tracks for their debut album
A week later, in the beginning of April, I met up again with
Kelly, this time at the Rivoli on Queen Street. After he rode
up on his bike, we went upstairs, had a few drinks, and talked
about his newest musical incarnation and how he would be perfectly
content to listen to Annie Lennox sing the alphabet.
TRADE: You have been described as everyone from Peter
Murphy to Iggy Pop. My favorite description of you is "Bowie,
but funnier." How do you see yourself?
KELLY: I think I'm rather like a sponge in a lot of ways.
I store what has affected me during my life. I think of my teen-hood
- I was absorbing all of the influences of people I really liked
and admired in music. It made sense to me, and probably had a
huge effect on me. So, I think I am a combination of all those
things; I think they're all accurate. Bowie is a musical genius
and I wouldn't fool myself to think that I'm nearly as talented
as him; I'm different. I think that most of the comparisons that
I get are from people who see the eclecticness...
T: And they need to define it?
K: Yeah, and they see me as an eclectic male so they
look to other eclectic males to compare me to. Peter Murphy is
just because the tone in my voice and because in bands that I've
been in before, we've performed "Bela Lugosi's Dead".
I tend to get the same ring and same tone as he does. Iggy Pop
I never really got. I've never really understood that, other than
I usually perform without a shirt on and Iggy Pop does that. Maybe
that's where that came from. But I think that I'm a better singer
than Iggy Pop - with all due respect to Iggy. How do I see myself?
Hell, I don't know anymore. I'm certainly not lost in an image
that I've created for myself; I just see myself as a passionate
person, and I think that comes across when I perform. These days,
a lot of music is watered-down with presentation, concept and
marketability. I think it really takes away from the passion,
and passion is something that has always stayed in my work. So,
whether you like or hate what I do, I think that almost anyone
would agree that I'm pretty passionate about what I'm doing.
T: How did you make the transition from the glam-punk
style of Merkury Burn, to the bluesy rock pop-style of the Kellygirls?
K: I'm happy that it happened the way it did because
I just wanted to sing. I wanted to stop shouting. There were complicated
reasons as to why Merkury Burn ended but when it did I just thought,
'I'm tired of yelling overtop of everything.' I've worked a long
time-and quite hard-to figure out what my voice does and how it
sounds good. People have always said in the past, 'I really like
that song, but it isn't the right key for you. It doesn't really
show off your voice.' There were all of these different criticisms
that I thought were totally honest, and I realized that I needed
to focus on my singing; and if that meant singing in a genre where
my voice could actually flourish a little bit more, then I wanted
to do that. I've always loved swingy, bluesy music; I just never
thought that I could do it. I sat down after I left [Merkury Burn]
and thought, 'What can I add to the mix that will really excite
me, and will flourish in a different direction?' And that was
the horns: the trumpet and the saxophone. I just didn't want the
guitar, bass, drums set-up anymore; I wanted something else. Also,
I've always been shy of playing piano and keyboards on stage because
I felt that I wanted to run around a lot-and I still do-but I'm
playing a lot more now...I'm playing live and it's great.
T: Who are the Kellygirls and how did you bring the band
together? Are they people you worked with before?
K: Yes, Amer the guitar player is an old friend of mine
who I went to university with, and he was in My Dear Heretic with
me, one of my old bands. I've known him for a long time. We've
worked together; we've written songs together. Michael J. is a
good friend of Amer's, who I met through Amer. Jen Gillmor I knew
from My Dear Heretic and Merkury Burn. She was in a band that
we played with on the same bill. Shane, the sax player, is an
old friend from Buddies in Bad Times: we worked there together.
And Jerry was in My Dear Heretic as well, at one point in time.
So, yeah, all friends. That was kind of my safety net when I left
[Merkury Burn]. I needed support around me from people that I
knew. I don't think I had the balls to go out and hire a bunch
of strangers. I didn't really feel comfortable doing that, so
I just called on my old friends; lucky for me, they said yes.
T: Is the band more of a democracy, or is it based solely
on your artistic direction?
K: Absolutely. (Laughs) The latter. Much more. Again,
that was one of the reasons for Merkury Burn's demise. I really
don't want to sound like I'm a dictator because I really don't
think that I am, but I'm a strong visionary. I think that when
I work really hard to try and achieve something, I need everyone
on my side and that wasn't happening. So I just kind of posed
it to all these people and said: 'These are my songs, how I want
them to sound, and if you're really not enjoying yourself, let
me know, and I'll find somebody else and that's cool.' And it
feels good and it's totally like that. That sort of energy is
working just fine and everyone is having a great time. Everyone
seems like they're having a lot of fun.
T: Yeah, it really seemed like that at the recording
studio; everyone seemed like they were really enjoying themselves.
K: Completely. It was an intense process too. We had
so little time to get everything done.
T: Do you have a different approach for all of your different
artistic endeavours? Are you in the same headspace when you're
writing a play, as you are when you're writing a three-minute
K: From the same place, yes. I don't think that I'm a
particularly technical person in any of the things that I do.
I mean, I apprenticed as a stylist, but there's no exam there.
It was all observing and learning and going with what felt right.
That's not too technical, is it? I'm not technical at all; I just
kind of go on an emotional bent. That's how I go about my photographs.
As much as I'm trying to teach myself more of the technical aspect
- because that's where I feel I need to learn more-I think that
the reaction that I get from my photographs is because of the
impulse - and again-the passion behind them. And it's the same
with songs. If you had asked me five years ago, I would have said
that I would have never thrown out a song. I would have worked
on a song until it was a dead fucking horse. Now, I'm able to
throw out songs that don't work. I realize that I work on a passionate
level and when something become passionate, the technical stuff
kind of suffers.
T: Do you think that this ability to throw out songs
has come with age and maturity?
K: Absolutely. Absolutely. And it comes with being able
to be self-critical, which is never easy to do. It's something
that takes almost everyone time to learn. People have to get to
a point where they can do that. Now, I get it. I know what it
is I'm trying to say. If it's not making any sense to anyone else,
what's the point of presenting it to them? That was the big lesson
I learned. If I just want to sing my songs and think they're all
great and that they don't need any work, then I should just stay
in my apartment and sing them to myself. But if I'm actually going
to have the balls to get up on stage and charge people to come
through the door and actually watch me do it, then it better make
sense to them on some level. [The songs] should translate on some
level or else it's too self- indulgent, and I hate self-indulgence.
I think it's boring-so boring. It's really contained and there's
no sharing going on.
T: While researching for information about you, I came
across a quote of yours that indicated that you were tired of
all the angst on the radio. Are you trying to move into a different
direction with Kelly and the Kellygirls? Annie Lennox once said:
"Ask yourself: Have you been kind today? Make kindness your
daily modus operandi and change your world." Are you working
along the same kind of philosophy?
K: I would just like to follow Annie Lennox and breath
in her world, frankly. (Laughter) She's so amazing. I think that's
true. I think that, again, it's that selflessness. If you get
so caught up in your own self-absorption and you don't realize
that you could make a little bit of a change here in someone else's
life by acting a different way or being a little more generous
with who you are, then what's the fucking point? I have been there.
I have been in those lonely places where you realize that you've
cut everyone out because you're so self-involved. No one wants
to do anything with you because you've made it clear that you're
all about yourself. Also, I'm a complete mannerist. I don't know
where I got that from-probably my parents, because they are incredible,
gorgeous, giving people. I hate people without manners. It takes
so little time to say 'thank you'. You know it means so much to
you, so why wouldn't someone else want to hear it? It's the small
stuff... really. It's so important.
T: On a different note, what's the strangest thing that
you've ever done for money?
K: Ha! (Laughs). I don't think that there's anything
terribly scandalous. Strangest thing I've done for money? Not
to shoot my whole rock star persona out of the water, but I have
not lived that much of a scandalous existence. I was a go-go dancer
at one point in time. That was a really poor time in my life-not
poor as in unsatisfied, but I was dead broke. It was circa 1994.
The entire summer of '94 I go-go danced in boots, which really
was kind of rough because I'm not a trained dancer. I wouldn't
really consider myself a great dancer. I was like, O.K., you're
going to pay me a really small amount of money to stand up on
a box and wear next to nothing and shimmy around to music I really
hate. I felt that to be a big compromise in who I was. But failing
that, not much. (Laughs) I haven't done that many strange things
T: Lastly, is everything - and I mean everything - about
K: That's a great question. (Pauses) No. If you don't
have all the information, or have the correct information, then
your perspective will be skewed, off.
Visit Kelly and find out more about the Kellygirls at www.kellyclipperton.com.
Dani Couture is a Toronto poet and writer.
^ Go to top of this page
© 2012 Kelly Clipperton.