By Jenny Neyman
The seeds of music have been rooted in Kasilof’s Kelsey Shields her entire life. That they’d sprout into something was as inevitable as a willow tree sending up runners or dandelions turning from viscid yellow tendrils to achromatic airborne fluff.
This is a kid who could plunk out a tune she’d hear by ear on her toy piano, and retained that ability with guitar, banjo and grown-up piano as she also learned the technical aspects of written notation. She learned to read at 3 years old, and as words traveled from her eyes through her brain to her mouth, they picked up a tune along the way, so that whatever popped into, then out of, her head was more often than not delivered via some kind of singsong melody.
“I can’t remember a time when she wasn’t singing,” said Lea Shields, Kelsey’s mom. “From the time she was really little she would sing her books. We made up songs to nursery rhymes, to storybooks, to her favorite books, and she would sing those. We’d sing Bible songs, all kinds of children’s tapes. My husband’s pretty creative and he would tell stories and sing songs and she would mimic those. So she was always singing, sometimes to the annoyance of her brothers.”
She’s loved music as long as she can remember, and even earlier than her unaided memory stretches, as evidenced by family videos showing a toddler Kelsey standing in the dining room singing whatever randomness occurred to her.
“There’s these ridiculous home videos of me making up songs. Those embarrassing things that your parents do — like, ‘Why did you spend so much time taping this?’” Shields said. “I think I just always loved music.”
What was undetermined, however, is what form that musical bloom would take. Were it sprouted somewhere in the Lower 48, it might have turned out something like a rose, with its sweetness and beauty manicured into the cultural cache of mass-produced popularity, arranged with sprays of ferns and baby’s breath and gilded in shiny cellophane to a ribbon-wrapped, $19.95, perfect-to-the-point-of-plastic-looking dozen.
But she was planted in Alaska, and the influence of her environment has had a Mount McKinley-sized stamp on her songwriting. What results is more authentic than manicured, with a little dirt in the delicacy, more fireweed alongside a glacial-fed salmon stream than the easily replicable bouquets of 1-800 Flowers.
“Mud boots on a girl are pretty and the boys smell of oil and spruce trees,” she sings in “Take Me There.” “City lights are bright and pretty but the frost on my window in the morning shines too.”
The combination of her natural talent with how it’s been grown won her dual honors in
the 2012 Alaska Song of the Year competition, announced May 19 in Seward. Shields won Best Folk Song for “Flat Lands,” and Best Alaskana song for “Take Me There.”
“It was really exciting. I was feeling honored, the songs that I was up against I thought were well-written. And it was actually my birthday (May 19), so I was thinking it was a very cool birthday present,” Shields said.
Both songs are off her full-length album “Stories,” released in September 2011. Really, though, she could have submitted most any of her songs in either category.
“I entered a couple into the folk category and one in Alaskana, which could have been almost everything that I write. I write a lot of songs about this place,” Shields said.
“I think my songs, to an extent, always reflect where I am in life. I tend to write autobiographically. Lately a lot of them have been about kind of the magic of Alaska, in certain ways, because of the other places I’ve seen. The world is an amazing place, but it’s also the contrast of how nowhere is quite like the Kenai Peninsula,” Shields said.
Like these lyrics, from “Flat Lands:”
“Take me to the wilderness where I can’t see other people. You, me, dear, and the midnight sun — I can see you, until winter. We’ll find a cave in the mountains and get snowed in until spring.”
Shields grew up in Kasilof with her parents — Pat and Lea Shields, and two older brothers, Joel and Kaleb. She went through a combination of Tustumena Elementary, home schooling, Soldotna Middle School and Skyview High School, graduating in 2006. Throughout she did band, choir and created her own music.
“There’s something really magical about performing a piece with a group of musicians, and I love that and I miss that, but playing my own songs kind of fulfills a different need. I’ve always scribbled poems and songs and stuff in my journals. I guess it’s just the easiest way I have of saying something,” she said.
Shields was exposed to music in a variety of ways. Her dad is musical and the family participated in music at Kasilof Community Church. Shields also grew up with close family friend Shannon Darling, who was Shields’ “musical mom,” Lea Shields said.
Her early tastes were largely shaped by the music around her — folk, Bible songs from church, “and also a little bit of Jed Clampett thrown in there for flavor,” Lea Shields said. Her first solo performance was at Tustumena Elementary, singing “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.”
Shields taught herself to play guitar in middle school, which launched her into more earnestly writing her own music. It tended toward a decidedly 1970s-ish flare at first.
“They were a bunch of protest songs, basically. About things that could be made better. I was a freshman. And I grew up listening to oldies with my dad, so that didn’t help,” Shields joked.
Eventually she started morphing more of her own experiences and perspectives into her music. Currently she’s been writing songs inspired by her family history — such as the story of her great grandparents meeting and writing love letters to each other. One of which, “Opal,” is on her “Stories” album.
She recorded her first EP, “Flannel,” while in college, at Corbin University in Salem, Ore.
“I had done a little demo before that but this was my first real experience having to translate what I’d written into a recordable, full-band piece. That was a growing experience and really a lot of fun,” Shields said.
She started out majoring in music but switched to English.
“It’s a really small private school so all it had to offer was, like, ‘Learn how to sing Italian songs.’ It just wasn’t really fitting, so I switched to English and read a lot of books and wrote lot of papers and loved it,” she said.
She graduated and moved back to the Kenai Peninsula in December 2009, when she began recording her second EP, “Tidewater,” with local producer James Glaves.
“It’s kind of a more stripped-down CD, I guess, than the last one had been. Kind of more of an acoustic feel, because I wanted to do more of that,” she said.
Since graduation she’s traveled a fair amount, visiting her brothers and friends in the Lower 48, and taking a trip to Europe after finishing her “Stories” album. That’s all still working itself out in her music — where she came from, where she’s been, where she might go, where she returns to. In that chain, Alaska is the common link.
“I love Alaska a lot. There are a lot of benefits for me to moving, such as being near my brothers and being somewhere where there are more places to play music. But I can’t imagine not living here, so I’m torn. Time will tell. I think even if I go away for a while I can’t imagine not coming back,” she said.
“One idea I’ve been working on is about how I did grow up here, and a lot of my identity is wrapped up in this place because of that, so if I go and meet someone somewhere else, will they really know me? I’ve been trying for a couple years to get that out and I have not succeeded yet,” she said.
Currently Shields is the music and entertainment booking agent for Odie’s Deli in Soldotna, and will work for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game this summer. She plays regularly at Odie’s, Veronica’s in Kenai and a few other venues locally.
“I would encourage people to visit local venues and get out and experience the talent that is in this area, because there is a lot and you might not hear it if you don’t seek it out,” she said.
She isn’t sure yet how she wants her interest in music to grow in the future.
“I was the superdriven, ridiculous, straight-A, goal-oriented child all throughout school. And I graduated college and have been doing random jobs and going on trips since, so I don’t know — I don’t know what I’m doing,” she said. “I have not decided whether or not to drop everything else in my life in order to pursue it, because it can require that. To chase music as a profession you kind of are at its beck and call, so I just haven’t decided whether or not that’s what I’m supposed to do.”
Lea Shields said self-promotion is not ingrained in her daughter’s nature, so publicizing performances and her recordings has been a challenge. That’s why she’s particularly pleased with the Song of the Year awards, because that may get more people listening to her daughter’s music.
“She’s not the type to seek fame and fortune but she loves to share. She loves to do her music but it’s not her personality to promote herself,” Lea Shields said. “We love the music and are excited for other Alaskans and other people to hear it. Her heart is just for making music and sharing that fun and enjoyment with others, and I appreciate that about her.”
Shields said she may consider opening a studio someday, and for now is excited to expand her performance venues in the state beyond the Kenai Peninsula. One of the prizes she won in the Alaska Song of the Year Contest is a gig at the Tap Root in Anchorage.
To expand her listenership, she needs to spread out more into urban areas, and possibly the Lower 48. But that doesn’t mean she’ll branch so far from her roots that they won’t still nourish her songwriting:
“Take me to your beating heart — I will hear you playing for me. Even in the strongest storm I will find my way back to you. We’ll watch the sun rise and fall. The volcanoes resting, but never cold.” — “Flat Lands.”
“Music is something I will always do — always,” Shields said. “I will always be recording, I will always be performing and writing songs, and my ultimate dream would be to help other musicians do the same.”
Her music is available for purchase at Veronica’s in Kenai and online through iTunes and CD Baby.