Phew! So this week’s post is a bit of a doozy!
Have you ever worked at something – a dream, a project, a relationship – so hard and for so long, that you start to lose track of where the thing ends and you begin?
Writing this week’s post kicked my butt in a serious way.
Last week, I walked you through the third and fourth years of Hello Kelly, which saw me rebuild the band twice and frankly get lost in the hustle of it all. Due to money problems, I had a really hard time learning to slow down and enjoy the amazing experience for what it was. Day by day, it started to fly by in a blur.
I signed to a US label in what I now know was a bit of a panic, and the stage was set for a couple very exciting but dramatic years. This week we’ll walk through the roller coaster of releasing our first full-length and realizing what it really means to be a signed band …
We were gearing up to release our debut record on 7Spin Music.
The label put us on a 60+ day tour in the USA to promote the record and our bassist James Watts had always loved touring the States – but sadly he had some family things come up that Spring that caused him to sit this one out. With Mutter having already headed off to school in Australia, we were short 2 key players and about to embark on our longest tour yet.
There was pressure coming from other sources as well. Producer Adam Smith had helped us craft what started as a disparate batch of songs into a strong, cohesive record. But when we got the mixes back from the mixer, we were shocked at how bad they sounded. The worst part was that the label stood by the mixes. Thank goodness my dad shelled out personal cash for a new mixer, or that first record would’ve sounded very different.
I remember our drummer, Josh McCabe, criticizing the label when they had us organize and pay for our own photo shoot. “We’ve always handled our own shoots,” I argued, “What’s the big deal?” McCabe and I disagreed about a lot of things in our time playing together, but I’ve realized he was right about this one. A pro shoot paid for by your label was a reasonable expectation in 2007 and, looking back, I can see that an opportunity was missed to bolster us and our record with some really strong & intentional branding. So it goes.
In April 2008, we departed for what would go down in history as Hello Kelly’s most dysfunctional tour.
I loved every band member as a close friend, it but it was ultimately just an incompatible group of guys crammed together in that van.
Benjamin Butt was a wild man on guitar and Sean “Pierre” Schwartzentruber was as solid as they come on bass. There’s a video on YouTube of us playing an Ontario festival called Pitch & Praise after returning home from tour. We sound great and the show is a frenzy – you’d never guess that some of us were barely on speaking terms!
The biggest source of conflict though came from outside the band. Our record was set to release on April 15, 2008 and we’d told all our fans across Canada and the US to raid their local Christian bookstores for it. Remember, this was back when having your record in stores meant something! We were excited to see it on shelves, so we found a Christian bookstore and … They didn’t have it. Huh? We sat in the van and called 5 different stores in the state. Then the MySpace comments started pouring in … “Tried to buy your record, but the store didn’t have it!” On and on the comments went.
The label told us they missed the release date because of a shipping delay. But that didn’t matter to us – we were so embarrassed! The record eventually did get into a few stores, but you only get to really hype up your release day once, and ours had been botched.
I spent many nights on that tour staring up at the stars after shows and connecting with God. I’d hear his still, small voice simply say “Keep moving forward,” and I did. When we finally got home to Ontario, I was ready – despite the the momentum we were beginning to build – to walk away from the band.
My dad’s pep talks really do belong in movies.
He encouraged me that despite all that had gone wrong, the band stood for something important and that people connected with its message. He assured me that if I just kept at it, things would turn around.
My decision to stick it out was immediately rewarded. After that tour, Watts was eager to jump back in on bass and Mutter, back from Australia, was chomping at the bit to play as well. It was a rainbow after a horrible storm: The well-oiled 3rd incarnation of Hello Kelly was back on the road. That summer will always be one of my favourites.
But any time we were home from tour, my brain would turn against me. I’d lose sleep to images of record contract legal babble scrolling through my head. There was no longer a place to explore the wacky and offbeat ideas that had once defined Hello Kelly. There was a committee for everything, but they’d let us down already. I started to feel like my band, my baby, my voice, had been taken away from me. It sounds melodramatic, I know but many days I would daydream about a life free from music.
It was some combination of coincidence and blessing that our manager, Vacher, introduced me to a film maker named Jonathan Steckley. Our first bro date was to see Indiana Jones: Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the terribleness of which bound us immediately as friends. We wound up in his basement apartment that night, telling each other all the ideas we’d had for movies better than the one we’d just seen. He suggested writing a screenplay together, which had been a dormant dream of mine forever. At a time when I felt I didn’t have a voice, here was a new way for me to tell stories. Not to be too mushy about it, but Steckley was truly a godsend.
Vacher had been managing us for four years.
He’d fulfilled his contract to us but had stayed on to help us navigate label life. However, he was about to become a father and knew it was time to pass us off to other management – maybe even somebody in Nashville.
I remember taking a trip with McCabe and meeting with a handful of different prospective managers in Music City. He was expertly poised in these meetings, speaking of Hello Kelly’s vision with confidence and clarity, something I’d always struggled to do due to my stutter.
But we started coming up against a problem. The music industry was rapidly changing! Writing this in 2015, it’s easy to see the seismic and permanent ways the industry has shifted. But actually living it in 2008 was different. It was a little like sailing directly into a gentle wind that grows subtly but steadily … Until you find yourself reenacting the end of The Truman Show.
Everybody we met with was beginning to brace themselves for these impending changes and didn’t want to take any risks. Management companies were clinging to their established artists, their supposed cash cows. And along comes Hello Kelly, a well-intentioned pop band based all the way in Canada, signed to a small indie label from a small town, fronted by a singer with a stutter that prevented him from doing interviews … Despite McCabe’s best efforts, it’s not hard to see why every Nashville manager couldn’t catch the vision.
Despite all this, we kept crushing it on the road. That summer saw us at festivals selling cases and cases of CDs to receptive and excited new fans! Our first single “10 Good Reasons” had broken the Top 30 on Christian US radio, and it was honestly amazing to be meeting fans who’d discovered us this way. There was one show in Welland, Ontario for one of our favourite promoters, Nicole Smith, where we’d been slotted to open for Thousand Foot Krutch who had a huge following in Ontario at the time. For reasons unknown to me, they didn’t show up and suddenly everybody was looking at us to headline. We’d played big crowds before but this was different: This kids were expecting TFK and getting us instead.
Rising to the occasion that night was a storybook moment for Hello Kelly. You know those occasions where you get to really show what you’re made of? We relished it. We weren’t trying to be rock stars; we were working hard to serve – to deliver what those kids had come expecting from someone else. It’s like we somehow leveled-up and earned the title anyway. It was so humbling to have those kids tell us how glad they were that we’d headlined. No amount of radio success, critical praise, money or industry clout has ever held a candle to that feeling! So good.
At the end of summer 2008, it was once again time for Mutter and the band to part ways.
McCabe moved from drums to lead guitar, and we brought in Ryan Donais (brother of previous guitarist Mike Donais) on drums. That Fall, we set out on the Rage Against Abuse Tour, opening for Eleventyseven.
Despite (and possibly because of) some wild and unpredictable drama with this tour’s manager, we had a blast on this run. We were all growing and maturing, and rolling with the punches bound us together. Also, I can’t write this without letting the world know that having Ryan Donais on drums behind you is an unmitigated blast.
Watts, recently married, approaching 30 and having difficult family things to tend to, made the difficult decision to leave the band. He’d always been the the wisest of us, quick to remind us of the band’s vision when we were off track. (Many times he seemed to know it better than I did.) I’m so glad he got an appropriate send-off; his last show was for hundreds of kids in Toronto. I miss that guy all the time.
All my go-to fill-in guys had moved away or were busy with other gigs, but we had a few shows left in 2008. I needed some semblance of stability and family so when I realized that my brothers, Adam & Jacob, were down to fill-in, I jumped on it. Was it the tightest iteration of Hello Kelly ever? Maybe not. But jamming in the basement with my (literal) brothers was a return to a sort of rock & roll purity, and I needed it.
Likely taking Watts’ departure as his cue, McCabe left the band that Christmas. It was New Years Eve of 2008, and I realized that Hello Kelly had had a new line-up every three months that year! Not a great way to build brand (or band) recognition! Around that time, there were quite a few artists like Dashboard Confessional or Rocket Summer – acts that boasted a full band sound but were marketed as the music of one guy. At the outset of 2009, I decided to shape Hello Kelly to fit this mold. The fourth official incarnation of Hello Kelly was set: Mat Lean on guitars and synth, Adam Goudreault on bass, Jacob Goudreault on Drums and myself, on guitars and vocals.
We built a new show and booked Hello Kelly’s first Western Canada tour.
Pulling booking contacts from friends in bands who’d made the trip before us, I booked shows all the way from Thunder Bay, Ontario to Vancouver, B.C.
I wish I could say there was an intentional plan for this undertaking, but the truth is that I was chasing my tail. The loss of so many of Hello Kelly’s mainstays – Vacher, Watts, and to a lesser degree, Mutter & McCabe – had left me aimless and staying busy was the best way I knew to keep the anxiety at bay. The band’s vision, “to challenge, encourage and empower Kelly,” had become just a catchphrase, not the guiding lamppost it had been before.
Conflicted as I was, 2009 saw me step up as a leader in new ways, taking on the jobs of booking and management. From the outside looking in, it may have seemed like Hello Kelly had taken steps backwards, but I had to grow from shipmate to Captain and my band mates truly took it on the chin. Following a young & green leader is selfless and brave. Looking back, I regret that I was too preoccupied to truly enjoy what an awesome adventure it was to cross Canada with Lean and my brothers, but I’m so grateful they had my back through it all.
Vacher was still helping line up some big picture opportunities. We worked for a few months on building a big radio campaign to push either “Simple Love Song” or “Hey Elizabeth” to Canadian mainstream radio. This was going to be a big deal – lots of people believed that if either of those songs were given the necessary push, they would catch on and the band would have an exciting future in Canada again. Sadly, none of these plans materialized because the label money we’d been relying on had run out. Another casualty of the changing music industry.
I found myself sitting with Scott Jackson, a good friend working in Christian radio. “Why aren’t you in Nashville?” he asked bluntly. It seemed crazy at first, but I couldn’t deny the allure of a fresh start. Lean and my brothers all had plans to begin college after the summer’s touring ended and then, Hello Kelly being reduced to only me, the band could be based anywhere …
We opened for Relient K that summer at Canada’s Wonderland for a huge crowd of 5000. Backstage, my brothers and I thought it was so cool how Relient K used one of those street map play mats for toy cars as their drum rug. It did my heart good to play such a big show as a send off for Lean and my brothers.
I decided to move to Nashville at the end of 2009.
“Maybe being there,” I thought, “I’ll be able to find a new line-up and a manager to help me build new vision.” My dad gave me this (great) advice: “Don’t move somewhere unless you have something to do when you get there.”
So, I planned to make a new record. Adam Smith visited Ontario for a week in September 2009, and we wrote what would become EASYFORYOUTOSAY in a week. I was void of vision – for Hello Kelly but also life in general – and all of that came across in the songs. The record was dark and heavy which, to Smith’s credit as a producer, was an honest reflection of my heart at the time.
Driving to Nashville in the big white Hello Kelly van with a suitcase and a couple guitars, I took a detour to Valparaiso, Indiana to meet with the people at 7Spin. My plan was to simply say, “We signed a deal when the industry looked like X, now it looks like Y. You no longer have money to fulfill the promises you made to us, and I need to start over.” It was naive of me, but I somehow hoped we’d shake hands and call it a day.
“If you really do make it in Nashville, then we can profit from it,” the label president said. “It doesn’t make sense to end the deal.” He reasoned that if I had the resolve and determination to move my whole operation to a new city and reboot, then I might have the resolve and determination to defy the changing industry and land a major deal, which could theoretically score him a big buy-out payday.
As I drove on to Nashville from Indiana, I could feel the walls closing in. 7Spin had tightened their grip and I was, in almost every way, starting from scratch.
I’ll be honest! When I was writing the outlines for these posts a couple months ago, these years were the hardest to mine because they’re filled with some very tough times. And writing the actual post this week, a lot of those same emotions returned. Like I’ve written in this series, it’s tough to look back and see these pains & failings your rear view!
There’s a part of me that reads this post and thinks: “OK, get over it. You got the opportunity to make music for a decade and you had some tough breaks. Big deal.” And it’s true! I have so much to be grateful for and I’ve learned to not take it for granted. There are so many bigger, deeper and more important cares in life than whether your band makes it or not.
But please notice this: The pains and struggles I’m describing don’t begin and end with “… And the band’s pursuits didn’t pan out.” Looking back now, I can see that my inner turmoil in this season was caused by a slow and subtle misplacement of identity. I became the band. There was no separation. And as the band lost focus, vision, and purpose, so did my actual literal life. I was blessed to have friends and family come alongside me for seasons, as we all do, but every one of us ultimately ends up in bed at night, staring at the ceiling, trying to reconcile who the heck we are and what we’re doing.
Something profound about robots and humanity … This is real stuff!
Hopefully some of you can relate and I’m not just talking out of my ass. Fortunately, the next post in this series sees me find a community of friends in Nashville that dramatically changed my trajectory and restored hope in a huge way, so I’m very excited to share that part of the story.
Thank you so much for joining me for this journey. Many of you have been emailing me, texting me, messaging me with your thoughts and reflections on these memories. Please keep doing that! Feel free to share in comments below as well.
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Thanks again for reading. Here’s to living like humans today and every day.