Hello Kelly Retrospective Part 5: Identity

I’ll be honest, this week’s blog post was hard to write!

If you’ve ever been so driven, so dedicated, so desperate to see something pay off that you started to see the core of who you are change in order to make it happen, then you’ll probably relate to this post!

This one brought up some pretty raw memories!


Last week, we talked about the fifth and sixth years of Hello Kelly, which saw me learning what it meant to be a signed band and dealing with some major growing pains. The music industry began shifting in real & seismic ways, and I lost track of the band’s vision as we fought to stay afloat.

At the end of 2009, I made the decision to reboot Hello Kelly in Nashville, TN. This adventure rocked me to my core as I wrestled with inner demons and rebuilt the band a final time …


I listened to Paramore’s 2009 live record on-repeat for the entire drive to Nashville.

By the time I arrived, I’d convinced myself that my career needed to look like theirs. The stadiums, the thousands of fans, the staggering record sales. Problem is that any time you’re saying “I want to be the next X” and X is an extremely successful thing, you’re setting yourself up for an incredibly steep climb.

But that didn’t matter to me. I was literally desperate for success and I’d convinced myself that I’d have an easier climb without any band mates in tow. Ironically, I really needed a band but I was petrified of actually speaking to any of the thousands of musicians in the city so I turned to Craigslist.

I’d joined forces with ToTell, an Ontario band led by Zach Havens, to book what we called The Intensity in Ten Cities tour. The plan was for the newly rebooted Hello Kelly to drive up north to play 10 dates across Ontario in March 2010. I wanted the new guys to get a taste for what Hello Kelly had built in Ontario before we tried to build something in Tennessee.

I met George Wong, a fellow Canadian and Berklee Music grad, in a Starbucks. Days later, I met up with Benjamin Mahaffey and we talked for hours about our mutual love for Our Lady Peace. After only two 10-hour long rehearsals, the three of us plus guitarist Travis Wilbourn got in my van and left for Ontario.

The tour was trial by fire. We may have confused some fans as it took us a handful of shows to get our feet under us. But when we weren’t out playing, we were staying in my hometown, Orangeville, Ontario, at an empty apartment my dad owned. We bonded by cooking each other Kraft Mac & Cheese and playing Wayne Gretzky’s 3D Hockey on Nintendo 64. A few days after we’d returned to Nashville, they all took me out for a drink and said “We’re in!” The fifth & final official incarnation of Hello Kelly was born: Travis Wilbourn on guitar, George Wong on bass, Ben Mahaffey on drums and myself on guitar & vocals.

We rehearsed more than I ever have.

Starting in a rehearsal facility and moving to a storage unit when money got tight, there was a point when I think we were putting in 30 hours/week. It was challenging to re-arrange the new material for our 4 piece unit – the songs had been recorded in the studio with dozens of tracks. But what made it all worth it were those moments when somebody had an idea that made everything else fall into place. The show we crafted that Spring was one of the best Hello Kelly had ever had.

As fondly as I look back on those rehearsals, I still felt cripplingly homesick most nights. It’s hard to be motivated and focused in a new place. I spent a lot of time wondering why I’d moved in the first place. Is a shot at “fame” and “success” really worth feeling this way?

At first, I medicated by going to movies alone, which was innocent enough, and then there was some drinking too. None of it felt very self-destructive at the time, but it was. Thankfully, I wasn’t allowed to wallow in this state very long. Why? I asked to vacate my apartment one morning without warning. The landlord had found somebody willing to pay him more for the room.

I think I only lived in my van for a week. I’m not proud of it, but I do have to admit I felt clever pretending to be a hotel guest and scoring free continental breakfasts on occasion. I know, I know. Don’t judge!

During that week in the van, a friend invited me to The Anchor Fellowship, a small church downtown. I stayed in my seat for both evening services that night. Weeping, I had never encountered the Holy Spirit in such a personal & intimate way. I was in a dark place so this sliver of light was cause for hope.

Corey Pigg, a musician I’d met at the church, invited me to crash on the couch at his place. This house was shared by 5 dudes; it had crooked ceilings & floors, and smelled like hookah. At church one night, Brian Ban, one of the pastors, told me that my identity wasn’t Hello Kelly. This, as the Anchor’s congregants often said back then, “wrecked me” and was the beginning of a massive & profound paradigm shift in my life.

Weeks later, pastor Josh Stump pointed at me from the pulpit and shared these words of prophecy: “I don’t know your name but you’ve been doing things one way for a long time, and it’s not working. It’s not working and the Lord says a new way is coming.”

I took this and ran with it, full speed ahead.

I still had never learned what it meant to slow down, to wait. I also didn’t know then that when God says these kinds of things, he’s often not in the hurry that we’re in.

If you’re reading this and don’t buy that we’re able to hear God’s voice, I get it. This retrospective exists to tell my story and, at this point, God became a bigger, more real part of that story. I won’t try to convince you it’s real but it was and still is very real to me.

I had convinced myself that I was meant to quit Hello Kelly but stay in Nashville and await whatever this “new thing” was. I wondered what it could be. A new band? Maybe something I wasn’t expecting at all. I now see that I was like a kid on a sugar high, running around frantically. But the point was that for the first time ever, I was willing to lay the band down, for real. Not because I was sick of it but because I was secure with myself. This is called “surrender,” and it’s powerful stuff.

So imagine my confusion when opportunities started to line up for us in Nashville. We were discovered by Shawn Carnes, who offered to manage the band. He loved the new, as-of-yet unreleased record and was intrigued by my story. He brought in a co-manager named Mike Baker, who was very confident that he could get us signed to a major label with a six figure advance, which would effectively end our frustrating relationship with 7Spin Music.

At this point, I told my band mates that I had been seriously considering folding up the band. Their response was pragmatic: “There are significant & exciting offers on the table, are you sure you don’t want to see them through?”

This began a season that was both exciting and exhausting.

I became very spiritual – studying scripture, learning contemplative mediation, and participating at church. This was a deeper, more authentic & life-changing pursuit than I’d ever heard preached in any CCM music. But at the same time, the band continued in a sort of limbo – me with one foot out the door but sticking around to see what might happen.

I think my devil-may-care attitude frustrated my band mates and managers, because they were used to the relentless and obsessive Francy, but I’d turned away from being that guy. My identity had been separated from Hello Kelly for the first time: I felt whole as Francy and the band was merely a thing I did.

That doesn’t mean I wasn’t enjoying it & learning. Unlike previous years where I’d played mostly conferences, church events and festivals, we were playing mainly bars & venues now. I learned quickly that these audiences weren’t responding to the tested Hello Kelly theatrics and flair. “Less show, make it about the music,” I learned. I resisted at first, but we’d later find a balance that caused local pros to tell us we had one of the best original music shows in the city!

The new record, EASYFORYOUTOSAY, was mastered and ready to release, but Baker advised us to wait. “If you release it on 7Spin,” he said, “you’ll be less attractive to the major labels I want to pitch you to.” This was discouraging because we were creeping up on 2011, and I hadn’t released new music since 2008. I’d told our fans to expect new music and now had to stall, find ways to explain without explaining. Our authenticity with fans crumbled quickly. Worse was that Baker couldn’t approach these major labels until he’d worked out a buyout agreement with 7Spin. This took months. He told us often about the phone calls he was having with 7Spin’s people, about the delays. Still, he always assured us that he’d get to the bottom of it – and we trusted him with everything.

It was early 2011 and Baker was reportedly very close to finalizing the buyout agreement with 7Spin.

Then one day, out of the blue, I received an email from Baker: “I’m done,” he said, “Good luck with all your endeavors.” With him, Baker took all the negotiations and progress he’d made with 7Spin, sending us back to square one. It felt like being near the end of a difficult video game only for the console to freeze and restart you at the beginning.

This hit me like a ton of bricks. Carnes, the other half of our management team, became our sole manager. He was great at communicating our story, but lacked Baker’s focus and precision and that’s what we needed.

My band mates, wanting to understand our dilemma for themselves, asked me to take them to Indiana so they could meet with 7Spin. We made the trip and the label’s president did what he’d always done best – he made a compelling and complicated argument (he was also a lawyer after all) for how his label was still crucial to the band’s success. Thinking I was asleep on the drive home, my band mates spoke vitriolically about how I’d been lying to them, hiding from them this amazing label we could’ve been benefiting from all along.

Naturally, I found myself talking to my dad. “I just don’t want to do this band anymore if it’s not making a difference for people!” I told him. “Wow,” he answered, “I haven’t heard you say that in years.”

We finally released EASYFORYOUTOSAY that summer.

There was no promotion or publicity from the label, and they even managed to put the wrong artwork on iTunes. There’s a great story of how they sent us a box of CDs with severely pixelated printing and asked us to sell them anyway. As discouraging as these things were, I felt strangely vindicated as my band mates started to see 7Spin in the same light I did.

I don’t like how easily the label comes across as the villain in these posts. They’d invested a big sum of money into Hello Kelly’s first record and nobody can blame them for wanting to make that money back. At the time, I thought them cruel for holding so tightly to our band when it was clear (to me at least) that the partnership was a failed experiment and losses needed to be cut. It’s true that being signed caused us to miss a handful of exciting opportunities, but who’s to say where any of it might have led? Success is a mountain with no summit, after all. Looking back, I can see their logic in holding onto me “just in case” – but it was hugely disheartening at the time.

If I had a time machine, I’d go back and take the label president out for a beer (or ten.) I often wonder how things might have been different if I’d leveled with him in blunt honesty. So it goes.

That conversation with my dad was ringing in my ears and I spent my mornings on tour scribbling in ratty journals. I was searching for how this band could once again have vision and purpose. How do you create brutally honest art but also be true to your blossoming faith at the same time?

I found a special book in my church’s library.

It was called “Hurt: Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers” by Chap Clark and I devoured it. I found that I was reading about “Kelly.” The band’s vision – “To encourage, empower and challenge Kelly” – had turned into a cheap catchphrase over the years and had been gathering dust – but this book reminded me of its vitality & relevance. I became passionate about the potential that might still lie in Hello Kelly – the idea, not necessarily just the band. My creativity began firing in new ways …

Here in 2015, our culture’s fascination with zombies and the apocalypse has mostly come and gone, but back in mid-2011, the craze was just beginning! As the tour van hauled from Calgary to Nashville that summer, I was feverishly developing an ambitious idea to write & record an intricate concept record about navigating a zombie apocalypse. I wanted to write about the dark & dead world and the spark of life that can come from loving each other and building community. There would be a chilling story about a lover turned zombie, all bolstered by narrative tracks with voice actors and sound effects. We made plans for a new elaborate live show, costumes, and videos. Again, at the time, the zeitgeist wasn’t yet full of zombie fever so this idea felt fresh!

We loved our precious little idea and didn’t want 7Spin Music to mess it up or delay it. So, I’m not proud of the devious little plan we cooked up on that long van ride, but here’s what it was: I’d been writing a string of deeply spiritual songs on the side, songs that didn’t fit Hello Kelly at all. “Let’s call in favors,” we brainstormed, “and throw those songs together as a crappy record for 7Spin.” We reasoned that they’d be more interested in a spiritual record anyway, since they were a Christian label. “At the same time, we’ll actually be spending our time and money on making our zombie concept record the best it can be. Having given 7Spin the fake-out crap record, we’ll have fulfilled our contract with them and will be free to shop & license our awesome zombie record without them!”


 

It was a strange plan: Disconcertingly dishonest, and very convoluted. I mean, did we actually think it was going to work?

As we began to set it into motion, I was often reminded of that moment in church: “Your way isn’t working, but a new way is coming.” I was conflicted … I’d come to Nashville desperate for success and willing to do just about anything to get it, but I’d learned such profound lessons in faith, patience, joy, and having an identity outside of the band …

Yet here I was, hypnotized again by the idea of fame. That new passion & freedom I’d found? Twisted up in a heartbeat! After spending many aimless years without a plan, it was eerily easy to shut up my conscience and charge forward with our sneaky scheme. I’d lay in bed at night and ask myself, “Is this the new way? Really? Really?


 

This week’s post was the hardest to write so far because this stuff isn’t buried in the past. It’s fresh! It wasn’t that long ago! It’s different to recount things that feel like they happened yesterday. They’re not in the rear view anymore; more like the back seat.

If you’ve been around my website or if you’ve seen my show, The Robot Speaks, then you know that the robot vs. human thing is big to my brand. But it’s also big to me – it’s not just a gimmick.

In writing this week’s post, I thought about the movie The Iron Giant. Near the end, this lovable giant robot is triggered by a toy gun and suddenly transforms into a ruthless, invincible war machine with red eyes. He loses sight of who he is, and tears a peaceful little snowy town to shreds.

None of us are giant robots (that I know of), but we can all relate to feeling that twitch! It sucks big-time when life overrides you and takes you down a road, like you’re a passenger. It’s easy to forget that we all have identities besides our jobs, our dreams, our families – but we do! Did you know that you’re enough? That can be hard to hear because it goes against what the world screams at us every day.

I’ll say it again – we’re not robots! We get to slow down and decide how to respond. The more I write about my time in Hello Kelly, the more I realize that my ongoing struggle was that I’d react quickly … Instead of responding slowly. There’s such a big difference.


I’m going to be wrapping up this retrospective next week with one final post. I can’t wait to share not only how the Hello Kelly story unfolded, but more importantly, what came after. This “new thing” I’d been waiting for hadn’t even crested the horizon yet! The whole story caps off with some really cool redemption and I’m really looking forward to telling you about it.

Thanks again for joining me. Please keep emailing me and messaging with your thoughts about the stories I’m telling. I want to hear from you. Share in the comments as well!

ALSO! I’m sending an exclusive sneak peek of my upcoming record, The Robot Speaks, to my mailing list this week! Be sure to sign up below so you don’t miss it!!

Thanks again for reading. Here’s to living like humans today and every day.
Francy
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