Make no mistake: Christine Hatch, Aisling Keating, Melinda Kerwin, and Nancy Beaudette are grown-up women, with families and jobs and other adult stuff like that.
But every so often, the four are happy just to be girls.
Kelly Girls, that is.
Based west of Boston, The Kelly Girls perform Celtic and traditional Irish tunes and songs, as well as contemporary folk and original music. Over its four years of existence, the band has appeared at events and venues like BCMFest, the Amazing Things Arts Center in Framingham, Bull Run Inn in Shirley, Hibernian Cultural Center in Worcester, and, most recently, at the Maine Celtic Celebration. And earlier this year, the quartet released its first album, “May You Always.”
Bands of any musical genre often represent a fascinating amalgam of experiences, backgrounds, adventures, and interests, of course, and The Kelly Girls members certainly have their marks of distinctions: a child of Dixieland jazz musicians who is a social worker and mother of three teenagers (Kerwin); a Canadian native who is a former Canadian Gospel Music Awards “Song of the Year” winner (Beaudette); a one-time performer on the nationally touring “Hollywood Spectacular Stunt Show” (Hatch); and a massage therapist who once traveled through China as part of a Celtic music band (Keating).
So there’s no shortage of things to talk about or stories to share when they gather. But in the end, the instruments come out, the voices start singing, and The Kelly Girls are doing what they love.
“Our rehearsals tend to be a great blend of laughter and play,” says Keating. “We emphasize fun and friendship but are also ready to work hard and devote time to prepare new material and arrangements – and, when a gig is near, putting in extra effort to be tight and together. We often get side-tracked with eating, drinking, and merriment – Chris is an amazing chef – but we also love to work as hard as we play.”
“I have sung in a variety of choirs and choruses and just love the harmony aspect of an ensemble,” says Hatch, a songwriter who plays guitar, harmonica, and banjo. “Although we are few in numbers the harmony we create is such a spirit lift.”
Beaudette, a full-time musician (she plays guitar, bouzouki, mandolin, and clavietta) and songwriter like Hatch, agrees: “Our gatherings are quite animated, and it usually takes a bit of time for us to catch up with each other and focus on the task at hand. We really enjoy each other’s company and have grand interests in each other’s lives, so we have to sort that out before we start making music. We often refer to ourselves as the perfect ‘midlife-crisis band’ – which simply means we are women of a certain maturity and we can handle a glass of wine at rehearsal and still make fabulous music.”
The band’s origins go back about five years to a weekly open mic that Keating and her family regularly supported as listeners and participants. They were there one night when Hatch and Beaudette were among the performers, and Keating – a Dublin native well-versed in Irish traditional music – was impressed by their folk/contemporary style and stage presence. Before long, she started joining them up on the stage, and then one day Beaudette told her she wanted to start an Irish band – and she wanted Keating in it. Keating asked a fiddle-playing friend, Therese Gerene, to join up, and the band was off and running. When Gerene left two years later, Keating reached out to Kerwin, whom she’d known and occasionally played with for more than 10 years.
“At that time,” Kerwin recalls, “I wasn’t really looking to join a band. I was busy with kids, work, etc., but I agreed to come out and maybe sub in while they found their permanent person. We played for a few hours, had a nice meal, perhaps a drink, and I was so inspired by their talented playing, harmonies, songwriting, and just how lovely these women were. I was thrilled. I really couldn’t believe it, we seemed to click musically and all of a sudden music was back in my life.
“It helped that my three children all encouraged me to go for it,” she adds.
The name “Kelly Girls” has a special resonance in post-World War II American history, referring to both the pioneering temp company and its employees, as the band notes on its website. Although the company changed its name to Kelly Services in 1966, “Kelly Girl” endures as a catchphrase evoking an era in which American women became an increasing presence in the workforce, presaging other societal changes and trends to follow.
Historical significance aside, the 21st-century Kelly Girls show themselves to be a versatile ensemble indeed on their album. There are some everyone-join-in-type songs from tradition, like “Wild Mountain Thyme” (onto which is tacked a Swedish tune, “Sommervals”) and “Jolly Rovin’ Tar,” plus a jaunty rendition of “I Know My Love” that’s in much the same spirit and cadence as The Corrs’ popular version.
Most of the other tracks are Kelly Girls originals, which contain a lot of the lyrical and thematic aspects of songs from folk tradition. There’s the title track by Beaudette – a lovingly expressed assortment of blessings (“May you always have four walls/when the wind is blowing high/and a roof for the rain/and a fire to sit beside”), with a cheerful pas de deux between Kerwin’s fiddle and Keating’s whistle at the end. Another Baudette creation is “Molly Kool,” a portrait of a seafaring lady who takes no guff from anyone, least of all her crew (“Hey boys, don’t mess with Molly/she’ll break you if you do/Hey boys, don’t mess with Molly/unless you’re just a fool”).
The winsome “Daffodils,” full of admiration for pastoral beauty, is a joint Baudette-Keating venture – and for Keating, a satisfying accomplishment. “It was inspired by a poem I’ve always loved, ‘ I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,’ by William Wordsworth. I wanted the song to live up to that feeling it evokes in me. The process of co-writing was unique to me, and I wasn’t quite sure where we were going with bringing our parts together, and how we would move from poetry to song lyrics and from main melody to an instrumental, and end up with a song we loved.
“When we got there, it was pure joy.”
In a similar vein is Hatch’s moving “The Last Rose of Summer,” a meditation on the passing of seasons that is full of metaphor and meaning – Kerwin’s octave fiddle, which sounds like a cello, adds a contemplative and soulful stroke. Steve Spurgin’s “Walk in the Irish Rain” continues the bucolic-idyll theme, with some sailor-on-shore romance to boot (“I’ve got three pounds and change/And I’ll sing you songs of love again/And when I get too drunk to sing/We’ll walk in the Irish rain”). Beaudette and Kerwin’s “Another Goodnight,” a combination song and waltz, provides a fitting end to the album.
It’s the kind of repertoire and presentation that would work at a St. Patrick’s Day bash, a mellow folk coffeehouse, or a fine summer’s evening on a town green, where people just want to clap and sing along, even get up to dance. Whatever the setting, though, the description “Celtic band” fits them quite snugly, say The Kelly Girls.
“The term ‘Celtic music’ refers to a storytelling genre, complete with varying degrees of instrumentation and lyrics,” explains Beaudette. “While we totally respect the historical compositions that we carry forward, we recognize that we are also part of a new generation of stories. I think we all feel connected to our common humanity and the thread of hope and dreams that weave us together continue to connect us to each other.”
“It’s about the people, the land, the hardship, the joy,” says Hatch. “So we constantly are on the lookout for traditional and contemporary Celtic songs to add to our repertoire and inspiration for a new song to write.
“We love to rise to every and any occasion and make that connection with our audience,” says Keating. “We have an extensive repertoire which we like to mix up depending on the setting. When we play a full-length, two- or three-hour concert, we experience the joy of changing things up and moving back and forth from rousing energetic pub songs and reels and jigs to heartfelt ballads and waltzes. We create the set list we imagine to be the right fit and yet are ready to change course or tempo when we read our audience and their response to us. We like to energize our audience and offer an experience.
“I often feel like we are sitting in one big circle with our audience – and forget that we are on stage and tied to a PA system,” she quips.
For more about The Kelly Girls, see thekellygirls.com.