Finding her roots

Cara Kelly, ’06, lead singer of indie roots rock band Cara Kelly & The Tell Tale, shares why life really is all about the journey

By Brigid Hamilton

Cara Kelly has been playing music her whole life. But until three years ago, she didn’t know how to make it her life’s work. “I always knew I wanted to do it in some capacity, but I didn’t know how to harness that,” she said. “I never knew how I could do music for a living. What was I going to do, start a rock band?” she laughed.

As it turns out, yes.

Kelly, the band’s lead singer who also plays guitar and mandolin, is a 2006 graduate of Loyola University Maryland and a Baltimore native. Tell Tale members include her brother Tony Kelly, who plays organ and electric piano; guitarist Tim Nodar; bassist and vox player Audrey Hamilton; and drummer Rob Parish. Tell Tale is more than “a rock band.” Their lyrically- and harmony-driven music encompasses elements of soul, indie, roots, blues—and yes, rock and roll.

Cara Kelly & The Tell Tale (from left to right): Rob Parish, Tim Nodar, Cara Kelly, Tony Kelly, and Audrey Hamilton. Photo by Crystal Whitman.

You may have seen Cara Kelly & The Tell Tale at ArtScape in Baltimore this summer, playing in the near 100-degree heat and sharing the main stage with the likes of George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic and Michael Franti & Spearhead, among other internationally-known acts. Or perhaps you’ve heard their soulful, roots rock songs on the radio.

The Baltimore-based outfit gaining acclaim has been performing at local and regional festivals—Hot August Music Festival, Lunar Bay Music & Arts Festival, and Camp Barefoot Music & Arts Festival—and live music venues from Baltimore to D.C. and Pittsburgh since 2012. They’ve played with dozens of nationally touring acts, including Grace Potter & the Nocturnals, Jessica Hernandez & the Deltas, JD McPherson, John Ginty, and John Popper. And earlier this year, they headed to the studio to begin recording their first full album.

From the growing size of the crowds at every show they put on, one might think The Tell Tale has naturally evolved from garage band to a group of talented full-time musicians who naturally made a name for themselves.

Truthfully, Cara Kelly & The Tell Tale is the result of some soul searching, an important phone call home, and many hours spent learning to play the guitar, writing songs, and walking dogs.

On the ranch

Cara Kelly. Photo by Crystal Whitman.

Kelly is the first to tell you she had no idea what she wanted to do with her life after college. She’ll also be the first to tell you her uncertainty eventually led her to find the thing she should be doing: music. That and a summer working on a ranch in Kamut, Wyoming.

Growing up in Baltimore, Kelly sang, played the piano, and was involved with musical theater throughout her education. Her parents introduced and encouraged their children to listen to a variety of artists and types of music. But after her father passed away while she was in high school, she retreated from music.

“My father was the driving force behind my music. He was a trained musician, and that love for music was instilled in us. When he died, I went through this period in which I needed to get away from all that and find my own identity. So when I went to college, I decided to do something else.”

At Loyola, Kelly studied English and loaded up on fine arts classes as electives, where she found a different outlet for her creative energy.

“The Unexpected”

With graduation approaching in May 2006, Kelly hadn’t started to look for jobs because she didn’t know what kind of jobs to look for. She was starting to feel anxious and uncertain about her next step. Kelly remembered a friend, whom she had met while studying abroad in Florence, Italy, during her junior year who talked about working on a ranch.

“I figured I’d go have a summer adventure, and then I’ll come back to Baltimore and figure things out and get the ball rolling on my career,” she said.

She moved to Kamut, Wyoming, to work on the ranch just over the Colorado border, and something unexpected happened. “I went out there and just fell in love with the way of life and how laid-back everybody was. After that summer working on the ranch, I wasn’t ready to come back to the East Coast. So I stayed.”

Kelly moved to Jackson Hole, where she would remain for the next three years, working in an art gallery and rubbing elbows with professional artists, who she learned a great deal from about the art world and was inspired by. “I met a lot of people out there who were out there doing art in some capacity, and it took living in that environment for three years for me to say ‘You know what? I can do this. I think I can do this.’”

She bought a book on guitar and taught herself to play. She began performing at local open mic nights. She met many professional musicians who were making ends meet. Kelly loved what she was doing. She had missed music. Three years after moving out West, she had a revelation.

A phone call home

One night in January 2010, Kelly picked up the phone and called her older brother Tony in Baltimore to tell him she wanted to play music for a living. Tony Kelly was an experimental musician at the time. Kelly knew if she was serious about her new vocation, she would need connections in the music scene, a network. And a band.

“Tony just said, ‘Great! When are you coming home?’ It was like he had known and was just waiting for me to realize that was what I was meant to do.”

She moved back to Baltimore in May, and she was immediately miserable.

She missed Wyoming.

One night, in an attempt to cheer her up, friends dragged Kelly to a bar in Fell’s Point. A local band called Old Man Brown was playing. Shortly after meeting and talking to the band’s front man, Kelly found herself singing Bonnie Raitt’s “Angel from Montgomery” with the band.

She would go on to sing backup vocals for Old Man Brown band for the next two years before she decided to break off and start her own project, Cara Kelly & The Tell Tale.

During this time, Kelly worked as a professional dog walker, walking dogs in Baltimore County. Today, amidst a busy schedule of promotion, practice, performing, and recording, she continues walking dogs. She said it is during these walks that she listens to music, discovers new harmonies and musical influences, and finds inspiration for her lyrics.

“I remember saying to myself every day, ‘I’m going to start a band, and I’m going to play The 8×10,’ which was the biggest thing I could fathom at that point. Again, I didn’t really play the guitar, hadn’t really ever written a song, but I felt like if I said it out loud, then I was going to make it happen.”

It did happen. The group played The 8×10 in August 2012. They released their first EP entitled, “The Unexpected,” in 2013, followed by a second EP, “Puncture,” one year later. Today Cara Kelly & The Tell Tale are busy booking regional shows and festivals, and they’re back in the studio working on their first full-length album, due out this fall.

CKTT perform at Gypsy Sally's in Georgetown. Photo by Jolie Gendler.

Tell Tale

Make no mistake; it is not easy to make a name for yourself. “There are so many awesome bands out there, even in just this little city There are a ton of talented players out there,” Kelly said, “so there’s a line between how you put yourself out there without playing too many gigs, so that nobody will come to your bigger shows, and not playing enough, so nobody knows who you are. It’s a dance.”

She maintains music isn’t a competition. “It’s too personal and so relative.” Still, when an opening act comes through town, every band is hopeful they are on someone’s radar. “We’ve gotten really lucky. We’ve had some great opportunities,” she said. Luck or no luck, the members of The Tell Tale are constantly pushing themselves and one another, on and off stage.

Cara Kelly & The Tell Tale. Photo by Crystal Whitman.

“What’s great about our band is that everyone plays multiple instruments and is always learning from one another,” said Kelly, who most recently learned to play the mandolin.

“And now I have bigger plans than playing The 8×10. I’m going to go on tour. I’m going to play big arenas and go on world-wide tours!” she smiled. “Well, we’ll see what happens. But for somebody to listen to something that you’ve created and then say, ‘I really relate to what you’re saying and it moved me in this way’ is one of the most rewarding things. If our music changes one person, if it makes their day any better—that is why people just keep doing this!”

Follow what calls you

While her path has not been what many would consider conventional, Kelly believes she is right where she is supposed to be: walking dogs, making music, and having fun. Her personal mantra conveys just that: “You can never compete with anyone who’s having more fun than you are. And we have a lot of fun.”

She credits her family, her bandmates, her fans, her friends, and her Loyola education to the success of The Tell Tale to getting her there.

“In life, every decision that you make brings you to where you are. I learned a lot about myself at Loyola, and it took a lot of going away and coming back to Baltimore and reflecting on how I had changed to learn about myself,” Kelly said. “And you’re lucky if you get a teacher like Jean Lee Cole (professor of English), who encouraged me to challenge myself to learn, force myself to think, and really learn to write. Even as a musician, I am a writer at my core. That’s why our music is lyrically-driven. So for that I am very grateful.”

Her advice for those college seniors and recent graduates who might be feeling lost?

“You have to follow whatever it is that calls you. Loyola helps you in that way, to trust yourself and to trust that all the things you learn along the way are going to get you there. You’ll get there.”

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