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‘Lost’ and found

Maria Kelly spoke to David Hennessy ahead of her debut London show about her debut album that came from a tough few years, recording some early material in Kilburn and having her music featured on Conversations with Friends.

Westport songstress Maria Kelly plays her first London headline show this week.

She has played here before supporting Ailbhe Reddy and she has recorded here due to her producer Matt Harris being based in Kilburn for a time, and she makes her UK headline debut at The Servant Jazz Quarters this Wednesday. It comes after an Irish tour that included dates in Dublin, Galway, Limerick and Cork.

Maria released her debut album The Sum of the In-between in October last year.

The album has been well received and in the new year Maria was named in Hot Press’ Hot for 2022 list.

Maria told The Irish World ahead of her show this week: “I’m excited. It’s a nice way to end this run of dates

“It is my first (London) headliner.

“I have played in that venue before years ago with my friend Ailbhe Reddy, but I haven’t done my own show there.

“It’s exciting to get out of Ireland and just play in a new territory.

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“I did a few shows in my early days because I had met my producer Matt who was based in London at the time and I just did some very small support slots around the place.

“Matt was based there and I would go over and back. He was based in Kilburn and we recorded in his flat.

“I also have family who live over there. My older brother lives in Finsbury Park and then I have lots of aunties who are kind of dotted around the place, and cousins and stuff.

“So I have kind of been over and back a couple times, but never got the chance to stay any longer which maybe might be nice to do at some point.”

The Sum of the In-between is a personal album. Maria says it came from some tough years where she felt quite lost.

After finishing her studies at BIMM in Dublin, she would follow her producer Matt to Berlin.

Maria remembers, “I had finished college and Matt and another friend had previously moved from London to Berlin a short while before that and they had a spare room and it was just an idea to go after college and for the summer but I ended up staying for a year and a half altogether.

“The place kept getting more and more interesting and I was in that post-college ‘what am I doing?’ phase, so I decided to try and figure that out in Berlin.

“It was really great being there. I found that there was a lot more time to explore those kind of things.”

Maria would return home in August 2019 which would only give her about six months of normality before she, and everyone else, were plunged into Covid lockdown.

Did music get through this time? “Yeah, I think it did.

“The beginning of the pandemic was definitely a very confusing few months.

“I was working in my old day job.

“I worked in events and live music.

“Obviously, that was the very first thing to go so I was very quickly just left with nothing to do.

“It was strange. Me and my partner were floating about for a few months of not really knowing what to do.

“And then in the winter of 2020 we kind of had an idea, that holiday homes must be pretty empty right now across Ireland.

“We were living at my partner’s parents, as difficult as that usually is for anyone, we decided to just kind of just look into holiday homes and we found this cottage in Wexford.

“We asked the wonderful lady who ran it if we could rent it for a couple months. She thought we were crazy because it was freezing and on the seafront.

“We decided to do it. We thought we would only be there three months in but we ended up staying for eight months and it was really wonderful.

“I think I feel very lucky to have got to do that, kind of escape for a little bit and just make the world a bit smaller for a while.

“And that’s where I ended up writing my album.

“We had so much space, it was really isolated.

“I think it allowed me more time and space to explore things.

“I think it definitely helped me through a lot of it.

“Although everything I just said probably sounds very picturesque and very adventurous, I think throughout all that kind of moving around there was a lot of uncertainty and feeling quite lost after college.

“I think there’s always a next step in school, going to college, graduating college.

“There’s so much you can do after that point that it can be quite paralyzing for a lot of people.

“I think it’s a really strange time that is not talked about too much, the first time you’re really on your own after being in all these systems working your way up but it was just a strange few years of figuring that out and kind of learning about my own mental health.

“It was a time where I think I really felt, ‘I should know what I am doing now… In my mid 20s, I should figure it out’.

“I was putting a lot of pressure on myself and this album was easing that pressure and kind of learning to have a bit more compassion for myself, the situations in the world and everything in between.”

The tracks on Maria’s album are preceded and succeeded by little audio segments, like voice messages, which help to tie the album together and provide a little more context with reassurances like ‘it’s the end of the world but it’s fine’. These messages are recorded by friends of Maria.

“That kind of became an idea later in the writing process.

“During that time, I feel I was communicating with everyone through voice notes.

“You couldn’t really see people and text felt very impersonal.

“For me including them were nice reminders of the people around who are probably going through the exact same thing, and that there are people around who care.

“They kind of became just reminders through the album that those people are always there even if they’re not physically there at the moment.”

If they were nice reminders for Maria, did she think they might also be nice for listeners  who could be going through similarly isolating times? “I honestly didn’t think about how people would hear it.

“I think if I go into that while I’m writing, I won’t make anything.

“I would get very overanalytical.

“I can see that now and I have some of the voicemails included in the live show.

“It’s really nice to see them just land with people in the room and experiencing them in a group is quite nice.

“You can see the effect of them.

“That’s pretty nice to see them kind of take on another life.”

On that note, has she been pleased by the reaction to the album? “I’m very happy about it.

“I felt very proud of it when it went out into the world.

“I already loved it which was a really nice place to be at when putting it into the world.

“And it’s really good to see how far it has travelled.

“I think it’s definitely maybe brought more people into the music and I’m finding I’m reaching more people who are resonating with it.

“Getting that feeling, that’s really exciting to see, especially making something so isolated and getting to see it take on its own life.

“It’s kind of mind boggling when I think about it. It’s pretty cool.”

Releasing music since 2015, Maria’s debut EP was notes to self.

Has it felt like a massive step up to create an album? “Yeah, big time.

“It was a huge part of my life.

“I’ve always written as I’ve lived, I guess.

“My EPs or my singles are bookmarks for certain things for me.

“And then the album was a culmination of the last three years.

“I think it was a much longer period of time to try and capture and it was also really great to get to do something bigger and make it a cohesive piece of work.

“It was really important to me that there was a thread throughout the whole album and that you could listen to it start to finish as a piece.

“That’s where a lot of the transitions and voice notes came in.

“For me, there’s kind of a distinct story from beginning to end.

“If they wanted to listen to the album from beginning to end, I wanted it to kind of flow and make sense.

“You don’t really get that with EPs and singles, they’re not long enough.

“It was exciting to get to do that for the first time.”

And has the album answered some of the questions Maria had, or does she feel lost like she spoke about? “Somewhat.

“I don’t think it answered. Or I don’t even know if there were questions.

“I think my writing for me is just processing things that are happening.

“I think it definitely started in 2018 in a much more self-critical place and a much more pressurizing place.

“A lot of the same challenges are there but I think I found ways to approach things with a little bit more self-compassion and perspective.

“I often say this thing of meeting yourself where you are, rather than where you think you should be and I think that’s helped me a lot in terms of giving yourself a break and kind of accepting things as they are right now. It alleviates a lot of pressure.”

It was earlier in her career that Maria saw her music have an almost therapeutic effect on one of her fans.

Didn’t your music help one of your fans through a time when she was ill?

Maria plays this down. “Helped her through an illness sounds very big and grand.

“I got a very beautiful message from her just saying she listened to it when she was in a really difficult place and it helped her through times she was in treatment and stuff and that was just crazy to me.

“That feels so far away, for it to reach someone and for it to mark a point in their life where it’s helped them in such a profound way. I just can’t get my mind around it.

“That was really heartwarming, I’m grateful it’s reached people in that way.”

Maria has toured with Villagers, Orla Gartland, Kodaline and James Vincent McMorrow as well as the already mentioned Ailbhe Reddy.

“I loved supporting Villagers in 2018.

“I’m just such a big fan of them and it was really special to get to do that.

“I’m very excited about joining Orla for a couple shows in the summer again so I’m really looking forward to that.

“She’s amazing and always a sweetheart so really looking forward to that.”

Maria’s track someone else recently featured on the RTE trailer for Conversations with Friends, the TV adaptation of her fellow Mayo woman Sally Rooney’s novel.

Maria was delighted to see her music featured with such an eagerly anticipated show.

“That was mad,” she laughs.

“I didn’t actually know- I got an email asking if they could pop it on the trailer and I was so delighted to say yes.

“I do love Sally Rooney and I loved Normal People.

“Yeah, it was really exciting to see it part of it and I think especially because  the song they used wasn’t a single or anything, it was another track on the album but one I really love.

“It’s always really nice when those things are kind of picked up and they can have a bit of a life.

“So yeah, that was really exciting.”

Maria has been writing music since she was 10-years-old. Did she have a musical upbringing? “Yeah, I’ve always been surrounded by it.

“My parents are just big music listeners.

“They would just have stacks and stacks and stacks of CDs.

“I actually think hilariously what started me playing music was my older brother played the the keyboard, and I was very jealous of the fact that he could play the keyboard.

“I think jealousy kick started my career.

“I also wanted to play something so I started the guitar.

“I went to some lessons, I very quickly started writing and kind of did my own thing but I was always surrounded by people who encouraged it anyways, which was amazing.”

And you have hardly stopped since you were ten, have you? “I guess not,” Maria laughs.

Maria Kelly plays Servant Jazz Quarters on Wednesday 1 June.

The album the Sum of the In-between is out now.

For more information, click here.

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