Kelly Jean Caldwell has been a brilliant lyricist and powerful singer for decades. Her lurid, magical songs marry the heartbreaking and the hilarious, which is perhaps why she's so many local musicians' favorite area songwriter. Though Caldwell works in the vernacular of Joni Mitchell or even Bob Dylan, and there's certainly a strong country influence — her songs vividly contrast twisted imagery with abstract imagery and deeply personal words.
Until now, in order to hear this work, you'd have to see Caldwell perform live. But she's about to release her first full-length album in 11 years (and the first with her longstanding backing band). It's called Downriver (Outer Limits). Since the release of her last album, Banner of a Hundred Hearts (Ypsilanti) in 2005, a lot has happened in Caldwell's life. She got married, got divorced, remarried, formed a band, relocated several times, and had two children. And through it all, she's kept writing.
The songs themselves may be traditional, but the lyrics are not: "Graveyards filled with babies/ Shadows made from sound." "Underneath the microscope, I'd recognize your blood." "Do you think it is fucked up that every day I imagine you doing some terrible thing to me/ Something you aren't even capable of/ Like carving your favorite band's name into my coffin/ Thin Lizzy rules."
Caldwell was born in Manistique, and spent much of her childhood in the Upper Peninsula. "My parents got divorced when I was in second grade so then I split my time between wherever my mom lived and where my dad lived," Caldwell says. "I always went back to the UP. I very much consider that to be my home. The water, and the woods obviously — I go there in all my songs. That's my home.
"When I was a kid, I started making up songs really, really early and I started my first band, which was an a cappella band, Savacald, with my childhood best friend Tara and her sister Tanya, who was my baby sitter. I wrote all these songs that were modeled after the songs of the day, which were hair band songs. It was the summer before fourth grade. I made fliers and put them in the woods and stuff."
Luckily, they had the foresight to record the Savacald songs on cassette. "Somebody who I lived with [as an adult] heard it and they were like, 'Why is this not out?'" she says. "At the time, it was still embarrassing to me. I made up songs and my brother would play maracas and maybe a little bit of piano. No one really knew how to play anything. It was an a cappella hair metal thing. All the songs are about like cheating and being bad. It was written from the perspective of a little girl who watches soap operas."
Caldwell says after that, she didn't really make any music until she was 20. "I lived with my best friend's boyfriend and he played a lot of music and wrote poetry," she says. "At the time, I wrote a lot of poetry and was like, 'Hmm.' He helped me get my first guitar, and once I got the guitar I wrote my first song. I was living in Westland and my first show that I ever played was at the Plymouth Coffee Bean."
Downriver opens with the call-and-response singalong "16 Days," which dates back to the days of Caldwell's band And Spiders that was formed with her housemates after moving to Ann Arbor in 1999.
"The reason it's on here is that I feel indebted to the And Spiders guys," Caldwell says. "I just happened to live in this house with musicians and they sort of coaxed me out of my room. I think they literally heard me singing and playing guitar in my room and my friend Ben was like, 'Uh, would you want to sing on this track?' And little by little we formed a band, and that was the first band that I was ever in and it's an ode to them: Thanks for coaxing me out of my room."
In the early mid-2000s, Caldwell became a frequent performer in the acoustic house show scene then prevalent in Ann Arbor. She also performed with the bands Showdown at the Equator and Saturday Looks Good to Me. She also released two full lengths, Septembre Girl in 2002 and Banner of a Hundred Hearts in 2005, both recorded by Fred Thomas and released as CDs on his label Ypsilanti.
Shortly after Banner's release, she met bassist Brian Blair, and started making music with him and his friend Craig Brown, who now plays guitar in Caldwell's band under the name Magic Family Mountain Band. Caldwell and Blair got married and moved to Nashville.
"We had an incarnation of this band in Nashville," Caldwell says. "We had my friends Ben and Steve playing with us and I remember them being like, 'Yeah, this is some Detroit country soul!' They were really stoked. But something about living in Nashville didn't sit right with me. I didn't do well there. I didn't write any music. Partially because there were no seasons — I think I really depend on seasons. In Nashville it was like the longest, hottest summer ever followed by no winter, no fall. It's just rainy and a little bit colder. It didn't suit me."
After about a year down South, they moved back to Michigan and started playing with rhythm guitarist Kevin Sullivan and drummer Todd McNulty. "When we moved back, we started really playing," Caldwell says. "We call it our 'Lager House days' 'cause we played at Lager House twice or three times a month. We got really good, and we were really good when we went to record this record. We were kind of a well-oiled machine by the time we went in to record, we just kind of banged it out in a couple days.
"Other than '16 Days', all the songs [on the record] I wrote when I was married to Brian, while we were living Downriver. That's why we decided to call it Downriver. But it's crazy, 'cause a lot has happened since then. The house we used to practice in burned down. The fire started in our practice room; it was like an electrical thing. Me and Brian aren't married anymore. But it's made me even more like, 'But we're still a band!'"
Derek Stanton recorded the album at Molten Sound Studios in 2011, back when it was based in Ypsilanti (it's in Southwest Detroit). "Derek did a really good job; he was a great producer," Caldwell says. "He had really great ideas and played some really weird things himself. He played a lot of guitar on it, he sang on it. He definitely got the best out of us."
"Chemicals" is the second song on the album, and the refrain goes, "Let's hear it for the chemicals, the ones that really work/ Let's hear it for the chemical reactions." "[That's] one I wrote in the house that burned down, in the kitchen," Caldwell says. "A lot of these songs are about me and Brian, and Brian having his battles with drugs, and me with alcohol, and just thinking about our relationship and the past and the future. I'm very autobiographical."
Caldwell describes fan favorite "Destroyer," with its Calypso drumbeat, as being "one of the stars of the album." It opens with the line "We might go to hell for this/ But I just want another kiss."
"The first line I'd had for a long time," she says. "Sometimes you write a song and the whole thing just comes out. A lot of weird imagery in it. The day after I wrote it I was so excited about it that I brought my guitar to work with me; I worked at Brian's parents store the Modern Exchange at the time. This guy came in and was like, 'Oh you play guitar, play me a song.' And I was like, 'I got one' and I played it, and he was like, 'Why did you just do that? That is the most disturbing thing that I've ever heard! I feel worse now that you played that.' I knew for that guy to be that offended, that it was compelling [enough] that he listened to every single word. I knew it must be powerful, otherwise that guy wouldn't feel like that.
"'Hatchet Man' is definitely straight-up thinking about loving someone and not wanting them to die. I feel like that's what my whole life is about, but specifically that song."
Album closer "Water" gets into introspective territory, and is the only song on the album whose recording is reminiscent of Pink Floyd. Caldwell says it dates back to the "2009 Woodbridge hippie phase." "Water inside, water outside/ We are not different from each other/ We are not different from the sky" is the song's refrain.
Caldwell is married to John Szymanski, aka Johnny Hentch of the Hentchmen. They live in Hamtramck with their two children. Their bands practice and record at Outer Limits Lounge, a former bar that they now own. They've launched a record label under the same name to release Downriver, and they already have releases planned for a second Kelly Jean Caldwell record, a new Hentchmen record, and the electric Wiccans record.
Wiccans is Caldwell's band with Aran Ruth, in which they both write and sing songs about the practice of Wicca. Originally they performed as a trio, with Ruth on guitar, Caldwell on flute, and a rotating cast of bongo players, which made their sound reminiscent of Tyrannosaurus rex. After a few years, they morphed into a heavier, Sabbath-y, full band.
"If I was able to play electric Wiccans for 10-year-old Kelly I would've been like, 'Everything is gonna work out exactly as I wanted it to!'" Caldwell says.
The Kelly Jean Caldwell band is ready to record their second record, and Caldwell is thinking about recording and performing solo as well.
"I am a person who writes a lot of songs," Caldwell says. "When I moved from Ann Arbor to Detroit, it was really hard to do my house party folk thing 'cause nobody around here was doing that at that time. I pretty much had to get a band cause it was so different. But I have a whole other set of songs [than I play with the band]. Right now I'm starting to figure out what makes sense."
Until recently, Kevin Sullivan was playing rhythm guitar in the band. "After I had my second kid, for some reason I felt like I really had to take back the guitar," Caldwell says. "I feel indebted to Kevin that he enabled me to do something that I really wanted to do: to be a dancing frontwoman. You really can sing better if you don't have to worry about the guitar. I wanted that. I was like, 'I want to write the songs, but I wanna be able to throw myself on the ground.' And I did! But now I feel like I'm in a different place."
Kelly Jean Caldwell Band performs with the Drinkard Sisters and Michael Hurtt and His Haunted Hearts on Friday, Dec. 9 at the Outer Limits Lounge, 5507 Caniff St., Hamtramck; Doors at 9 p.m.; the event is free.