Meet Declan Kelly, Fringe Face for 2019, with Music Running Through His Veins

Music runs through Declan Kelly’s blood. It’s been a part of him since the very beginning. With an Irish father and a Maori mother, herself a talented singer and musician, he was encouraged to learn the drums and guitar. Eventually he came to singing and throughout school played in his first band The Beefs along with fellow musician Alex Lloyd. It was more than an outlet, it was an obsession and it saw him transition quickly from a hobbyist to a professional when he was picked up immediately after high school by the iconic rhythm and blues band, the Bondi Cigars, with whom he toured for a full four years, even recording an album.

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Since then Declan’s solo career has blossomed, with three albums released to date, beginning with his breakout record Tales From The Neighbourhood, which saw considerable success on the radio and launched him into the Australian festival circuit. Since then he’s performed and recorded with the likes of Katie Noonan, Emma Donovan, Pat Powell, Tina Harrod, and Frank Yamma. His music has also recently been featured in the hit BBC series Top of the Lake, and with his fourth studio album due out this year we’re soon set to receive another serving of the distinctive Polynesian harmonies and gripping rhythms for which he’s known.

Ahead of this year’s festival we spoke to Declan, one of our 2019 Fringe Faces, about life as a touring musician and the many projects on the horizon.

Your family has always been musical, when did you know you wanted to make a career of it?

Mum and Dad both music lovers steered and nurtured my passion for music from an early age…. We moved to Balmain, which was thriving with live music and was a great neighbourhood to get inspired with seeing musician's working.  

My very first band was with Alex Lloyd when we were 15/16 years of age. Lets say we had an early start; playing live at Battle of the Bands, pubs that did not know our ages and the odd party and bikie party. We were making money regularly and it sparked my desire to follow making music for a living.

After graduating from high school you toured with the rhythm and blues band The Bondi Cigars, how did that experience shape you as a musician today?

The Bondi Cigars were labelled the hardest working touring band at that time in the late 80’s and they regularly performed in Balmain where I saw them. I was a huge fan and knew their repertoire. Their drummer had to head back to Perth for family reasons so they trialled me out on a tour and it all fitted well and timed with my finishing of High School. I went straight into touring and being on a wage with well-seasoned veterans in the music scene. They definitely were great mentors for my formative years. 

Your touring has taken you all across the country, what have you learned about the music scene in Australia?

Touring across Australia opened me up to all the many communities and towns that are hungry for live music. Living in Sydney can lock you into a bubble without really knowing what’s out there and believe me, there are many towns that support live music and have their own pockets of musicians travelling and touring. 

What’s your favourite venue to perform in and why?

At the moment I am enjoying intimate venues with great character and charm. Theatres and churches always feel divine to sing in. I performed at a very awesome bar in Brisbane called the Junk Bar and really felt that you entered into a special cocoon of warmth and intimacy.   

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In 2014 you released Diesel’N’Dub, a collaborative record of Reggae and Dub Midnight Oil covers, and proceeds from the record went to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation. How important is music as a force for social change?

I believe music has a great influence on social change. So much so that it can rally a movement deeper than a political agenda can. Music has always been the connector and defining bind within certain cultures for celebration and also to sing for positive change.

You’ve got an album due out this year, what can your listeners expect to hear?

This new collection of songs has been a culmination of stories that have developed after performing them stripped back with an emphasis on keeping this album an intimate experience. I have a studio in Surry Hills called The Nest, which I have bunkered down over the last 2 years; recording and creating. I am looking forward to releasing these creations from The Nest.  

The music industry is notoriously difficult to break into, what advice do you have for budding musicians today?

At this particular time in the industry I think you have to be adaptable with all the evolving changes on releasing music. Streaming your music seems to be the current format that will hopefully one day be a fairer platform as far as remuneration and distribution of finances. Above all make and record the best of you as you can. 

What in your view is the recipe for a healthy live music culture?

A healthy live music culture is about having solid music venues that are filled with community and people immersed in live music culture. Sydney is full of so many talented musicians and bands that work hard to build a unique sound and voice to perform, as well as great venues and festivals. 

After Sydney’s lock out laws and heavy handed licensing laws, local government needs to strongly get behind the change that is essential for its community to have music, culture and art and a supported industry. 

What do you love about Sydney?

Sydney is my home… I love how pretty she with beaches for days and the surrounding sprawl of unique suburbs nestled around the harbour. Apart from this, Sydney has a rich cultural diversity that extends through music and the arts, restaurants and everyday life. 

What does the Sydney Fringe mean to you?

Sydney Fringe has always been about diversity and cutting edge artistic brilliance. It is one of Sydney’s fantastic and open-minded festivals and I am so looking forward to presenting my new creations during the Sydney Fringe Festival.