Kelly Jean Caldwell’s songs glide between the twang of country, the swagger and snarl of psychedelic rock, and the earworm melodies of bubblegum pop. And her lyrics tend to complement this signature tendency for variation.
“Typically,” says Caldwell, “I’ll start a song about one thing or one person, and then I want to bring something else into it, whether It’s a dream or something else, just to not make it too one-note.”
She wrote the song “Meatloaf,” a genre-splicing track depicting the birth of her daughter, Birdie, and it wound up sounding like an epic “science fiction tale,” according to Caldwell. The song, which premieres this week, opens with a chiming piano, overlaid by a surreal interplay between an acoustic and an electric guitar, while Caldwell croons with her almost-haunting, but utterly enchanting, lullaby. An emphatic organ joins the skyrocketing guitars just as Caldwell’s lyrics start to conjure metaphorical “aliens.” After the second chorus, things accelerate with “a huge, honking saxophone,” Caldwell excitedly details, and the listener feels like they’ve entered a new song altogether.
Named for her aforementioned daughter, Caldwell’s forthcoming album “Birdie,“ out Friday, December 18, was recorded by John Szymanski and engineered by Kirk Scarborough. The group utilized the studio space inside the Outer Limits Lounge in Hamtramck to lay down most of the tracks.
“It feels like we made it a long time ago,” says Caldwell. “We started in the fall (of 2019) and it’s been done for a while… It’s just been such a crazy year. It was like, ‘Okay, maybe we’ll release it next month…Or, maybe NEXT month…’ Now it’s the last month of the year, we couldn’t not release it. It still feels weird; it’s a terrible time for self-promotion.”
Caldwell and her husband John Szymanski co-own the Outer Limits Lounge, which has been closed to the public since March. Over its three-year history, the couple started their own record label, Outer Limits Lounge Records, often featuring bands that have recorded inside the venue.
Caldwell says that if anyone out there is eager to support the bar during the COVID closure, an easy and effective way would be to buy any of the records. “Birdie” is the second album to be released on the label in 2020; Loose Koozies, another band that leans into the country genre, released a full-length album in April.
“The shutdown has been terrible, but that’s another reason we wanted to put this out this year, is just to remind people we’re still here; we’re doing something! We don’t want people to forget about (Outer Limits).”
Caldwell says she’s had to withstand the elevated anxieties of 2020 on three fronts: As a parent, as a part-business owner, and as an independent musician. She’s the first to classify herself as an anxious person, but in a year that has raised everyone’s collective angst, music can still be an outlet. “The only thing I know that can deal with something that’s bothering me is to write a song about it,” says Caldwell.
But back to that “being an independent musician” part? She says if she’s thankful for anything this year, besides her kids and husband, it’s her dedicated bandmates. Caldwell’s band has been on the scene for more than a decade and she’s been performing in other groups, including WICCANS, since the late 2000s. Todd McNulty is on drums, Brian Blair is on bass, and husband John, also a member of The Hentchmen, runs the soundboard inside the bar for recordings like “Birdie,” but also adds organ to Caldwell’s songs. “He’s such an incredible musician—to not utilize his talents would be a mistake.” Rounding out the band is Craig Brown on lead guitar, whom Caldwell refers to as “…my Slash… my Jimmy Page.”
Of her band, even after a year such as 2020, Caldwell says “…we’re ALL IN at this point, together.”
Meanwhile, Caldwell says that Outer Limits was able to successfully coordinate safe outdoor gatherings during the summertime. The few events they were able to host reminded her “that there are new rock ‘n’ roll fans being made every minute. And, when this is all over, they’re gonna be ready to party. And (Outer Limits Lounge) will be here for that!”