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In debut solo record, Kelly Reed uses rock and pop songs to make space for vulnerability and mental health issues

Courtesy of Brandon Dorn

Kelly Reed began her classical training on violin and piano at age five in her native Chicago.

As she grew older, Reed found the structure and formality of the classical world suffocating, and so began her journey to her debut solo record.

Stupid Idiot veers from experimental, ambient textures to rock and pop songs that deal with mental health issues Reed doesn't shy away from.

Reed talked with WUNC about the songs and her move to Durham a couple of years ago.

This is an excerpt of an edited transcript of that conversation. You can hear the full interview by clicking the LISTEN button at the top of this post.

You wrote and performed almost everything we hear on Stupid Idiot. You began recording in Chicago but then moved to Durham in 2021 where you wound up finishing it. Did you need a change of scenery to complete this project?

"Well, I was dating someone at the time, so it kind of necessitated change in scenery. But I do think that changing from a really urban setting to a much more rural and low key setting kind of set the stage for some of the more textural elements you see on the latter half of the album."

The record opens with a song called The Lonely. It's a stark depiction of living with depression. You've said that being honest about mental health issues is still hard to do despite it becoming more common. Can music like this help shine a brighter light on this problem that so many people suffer from?

I think that it can I think music kind of sets a space for people to reflect. And what I've found in creating this album is that specificity kind of breeds universality. Being specific in the music about my own experience, I've noticed people feel permission to be vulnerable with me and with others surrounding the album around what they themselves have experienced. And so I think music kind of, this album in particular, kind of sets the tone where people can feel a sense of comfort in being vulnerable.

The British band Young Fathers inspired you when you were on an artist retreat on the Oregon coast. That's when you wrote The Blue. What did you get from Young Fathers, and how did it translate into the swirling sounds that frame this song?

The Young Fathers album Cocoa Sugar has a lot of really awesome, Lo Fi beats that are just like crunchy and very raw. And I was listening to that album on repeat. And I think because this album has that more raw authenticity with the lyrics, I really wanted it to feel like the drums are just kind of crunchy and in your ears. So I had a bunch of presets on my computer and just started messing around with them to the point where like, they're not recognizable at all from what they were as presets on the logic software. But I was trying to emulate that because it just like I don't have you listened to that album.

I've read that you are terrified of making mistakes. How many "mistakes" made it into these songs? How did you make peace with that?

Oh, countless, like every single beat is a mistake, essentially. And I love it. I love that kind of like messy music making.

How do you make peace with that though? Because they're part of you doesn't want that.

I think with my music, I have a lot more grace toward myself with mistakes because I really approach it with like, 'Oh, whatever shows up is meant to be' kind of approach. I think it's much more a personal thing, like, even leaving this conversation. I'll probably be like, 'I should have said something else.' You know, a much more personal inner monologue around like just me showing up as a person with music. I'm kind of like, 'Ah, I don't know. I hope it sounds good.' And hopefully people can hear those little mistakes because it kind of makes it unique, you know?

There is an epic quality to The Boys that feels uplifting and that's something that happens more than once on a record whose subject matter is pretty heavy. What brings you to a place where you can transmit that feeling despite lyrics that deal with depression and challenging mental health issues?

The Boys in particular has a much more anthemic quality to it and it's a moment of peace and rest with the fact that we will die, all of us will die, for as morbid as that is but there's there's kind of a beauty and a calmness to that too in knowing that, yes, there are a lot of struggles that happen in life. And there's a lot of heartbreak and a lot of difficulties we experience. But we're all experiencing some level of that up until our final moments, too. And so I think I find a lot of hope in knowing that we're not alone in this journey. And that I think is what kind of translates into hope that peeks out in the corners of the album is just like this is a universal experience, whether it's mental health or a singular challenge you're experiencing right now everybody has had to deal with pain and recognizing that kind of diminishes the aloneness that you feel in the midst of it, in my opinion. I hope people see that, too.

Stupid Idiot is fueled by a conversation you had with your psychiatrist during which you argued whether your depression is your Achilles heel or a superpower. Did you come to a conclusion?

That's still a question. I think a lot of that sadness and turmoil and inner dissatisfaction can drive music and make it really powerful. But my therapist at the time was like, you know, I wonder if you didn't have to deal with that, would your music be even more powerful and I couldn't even entertain the idea because to me, it's like, that's what fuels it. And I don't know that I found an answer to that. I think I'm healthier today than I've ever been. And I definitely think this album wouldn't have existed as it exists without me being in that better place.

Kelly Reed's debut solo record is called Stupid Idiot. It's available wherever you buy music.

Eric Hodge hosts WUNC’s broadcast of Morning Edition, and files reports for the North Carolina news segments of the broadcast. He started at the station in 2004 doing fill-in work on weekends and All Things Considered.
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