It’s hard to get a read on Ian Kelly. And that, if you didn’t already guess, is a good thing. But let’s give it the old college try.
First-off, you might say that he’s the big guy with that unique voice – an unusual fellow who makes music that you can’t quite pigeonhole. It takes a while but eventually the intriguing arrangements, lyrics that stick with you and compelling melodies win you over. That’s what happened with his previous album Speak Your Mind. It was a real slow-burner, continuing to shift units more than two years after its release, going gold in Canada -– marking 40,000 copies sold -– just weeks before the launch of his brand-new third album, Diamonds & Plastic.
Ian has always done it his way. He’s from Montreal’s west end, with an anglo mom and a franco dad, but he grew up mostly en français, yet – just to keep us a little off-balance – he’s always written and performed in the language of Dylan. He says that’s just the way the songs come out. If you know Ian at all, you know full well the language choice was anything but a careerist move.
To muddy the waters further, he was actually born Ian Couture but took his mom’s last name early-on when he learned there was another singer sporting the same name. He started playing music as a teenager on his older brother's drums and quickly moved to belting out Pearl Jam chestnuts with his first band, Jim Bob and the flying chickens. A few years later, now out of school and working as a soundtech at Spectrum in Montreal, he bought a computer and started doing his own home recordings, a do-it-yourself approach that he’s never truly abandoned. He learned to play a bunch of instruments, not that he claims to be all that great on any of them, and he wrote, recorded and produced his first album, Insecurity, entirely at home on his own, playing every note on the disc.
Once he did that, he figured he might as well put it out himself, on his own label, appropriately named Me, Myself and I Music. The first proverbial big break came one night at Théâtre St. Denis when Ian was working on the local sound crew at an Alanis Morissette show. They were short an opening act and Ian volunteered. Soon enough, he was on stage and he suddenly realized – ‘Hey I can entertain 2,500 people. Maybe there’s a full-time gig for me in this biz.’
The second break came courtesy of the long-running Télé-Québec music show Belle et Bum, where he played shortly after the release of the first album. Audiogram head honcho Michel Bélanger happened to see the performance and he was mighty intrigued. He sensed an uncanny determination in this young man.
With his first real record deal in his back-pocket, Ian in typical fashion went and made another pretty-well do-it-yourself album – the difference was that it was DIY with more financial resources than the first time around. The result was Speak Your Mind, the ultimate sleeper hit, slowly but surely sneaking its way into our consciousness (and album collections).
Diamonds & Plastic certainly doesn’t mark a radical break with Speak Your Mind. Both showcase Ian’s knack for nifty arrangements, including some top-drawer strings, and his unique blend of ethereal pop and down-home rootsy fare. But this one is the closest thing to a real band thing for Ian. He and his group knocked off over 100 concerts on the Speak Your Mind tour. While still on tour on weekends, they were holed up in a rented cottage literally right next to Ian's home up north for most of the recording. It was an old-school rock-band trip à la the Stones in Keith Richards’ Riviera villa laying down Exile on Main Street or The Band recording in the Big Pink house in upstate New York. Ian did most of the cooking – adding to the homespun groove. There are a lot fewer electronic effects this time ‘round. Mostly it’s the sound of real live humans playing real live instruments.
Jon Day, who toured with Kelly for the past 2 and a half years, took care of the elaborate string arrangements on Diamonds & Plastic, booking two string quartets to be recorded at the McGill music department’s state-of-the-art studio, which you can hear to best effect on the gorgeous Eleanor Rigby-esque Workday. Ian was so impressed by Jon's work, which he hadn't heard before the session, he had to step out of the studio to get himself together. He got teary eyed from the beauty of what he was hearing.
The songs found on Diamonds & Plastic still have the trademark moodiness. Ian may be taking even more of a critical look at the world around him, wondering where we’re headed; just the kind of questions that go through the head of any father of two young children. The songs are also, naturally enough, influenced by the trials, tribulations and mostly joys of raising a family with his wife. “I think we’re living through some scary times,” says Ian. “Sometimes I just sit down and I’m mesmerized. Kids put things in a different perspective. It makes me think about the future and not just my own future.”
That’s the one constant with Ian. He does it all intuitively. The formula is that there’s no formula.