Living a musical life: Ottawa’s Kelsey Hayes is building a business one song at a time

Kelsey Hayes. Photo: Maggie Parkhill

By Maggie Parkhill

Kelsey Hayes, a 21-year-old Ottawa indie-pop artist whose second EP drops in the New Year, wrote her first song when she was she was 11. It was called I’m Not So Stereotypical.

“It was really bad, but I really wanted to express that apparently,” she laughs. “I would never release that song now, but it was my first one and that makes me laugh.”

Every singer-songwriter starts somewhere, and with her second EP, to be debuted as part of the Ottawa Jazz Festival’s winter concert weekend on Feb. 8 at the Mercury Lounge, Hayes is beginning to find her voice.

“I’m moving as an artist with my image in a direction of strength,” says Hayes. “Some things bother me and are heartbreaking, but I can be strong.”

If you want to know what hustle is, look no further. Hayes is already working on her third EP and playing gigs almost every weekend. She performs regularly with her jazz duo (Takes Two with partner Jacob Clarke, who plays guitar and double bass) at Café Cristal in Barrhaven and Nordstrom’s Bazille restaurant in the Rideau Centre, as well as at private events in ritzy hotels and artsy coffee shops around the city.

She does all her own bookings and promotion, enters song-writing competitions, teaches music lessons and goes to school full time Carleton University’s school of music.

“It’s been picking up,” she says.

Her schedule may be hectic, but she says it’s still important to take her time with writing and recording her music.

“I wanted to take my time and do it right,” she says of the new EP. Part of that meant incorporating some jazz sounds with a horn section on the track Is It like That, a song about an unusually bad date.

“It was one of those things where they sit down and tell you everything that’s wrong with you,” she says of the song’s inspiration. But she gets him back – in the track, Hayes sings, “You walk alone down someone else’s path, but I’ll let you know that this woman’s more than that.”

Her musical influences are known for their honesty. When she was 13 and her dad finally let her choose what station they listened to on the radio, Hayes found inspiration in a very similar girl-next-door.

“Taylor Swift was on,” she recalls. “I was immediately taken by the songwriting style. I mean, it’s so catchy, right? And it tells a story.”

Hayes took those notes into her own writing. Later, she discovered another storyteller known for her intense candour, though maybe not her sweetness.

“I was already into jazz, you know, the jazz standards. And I think my mom said, ‘You should listen to Amy Winehouse,’” says Hayes. “And I did, and then I was addicted. I played the CD in my car for maybe four months over and over again, and I just let it sink in.”

Resting her elbows on the table, it’s clear the Shake It Off and Rehab singers also rubbed off on Hayes’ appearance. Her red lips and striped shirt are straight out of a Taylor Swift photoshoot. Her winged eyeliner screams Amy Winehouse. It’s easy to see how these music icons might have started out just like her, an authentic dreamer trying to make it big. And Hayes says she’s fighting for those dreams.

“Between classes I’m typing up applications for festivals,” she says. She talks about going on tour when she finishes school next semester, rhymes off a few radio stations she’s been trying to get in touch with, and asks me if I know anyone in social media management.

Kelsey Hayes will be performing with her Takes Two partnerJacob Clarke at Mike’s Place on Dec. 15 from 5 to 7 p.m., and at Café Cristal on Dec. 16 from 8 to 9:30 p.m.

This story was produced in collaboration with Centretown News and Carleton University.

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