All right, so I must say I was slightly disappointed when she showed up sporting neither a see-through unitard, nor a boa constrictor. And her demeanor didn't seem to suggest that she would feel more comfortable bumming around in a convertible with Avril Lavigne and Hilary Duff. But that's the mental image I couldn't escape while listening to her gnat-in-your-ear-catchy MP3s.
I still can't shake it. Because if Kristen Key is anything, she is (nearly) signed, (close to) sealed and (almost) ready to be delivered to the hungry Los Angeles Pop machine. Her fashionable nonconformity boggles my mind a little, to be quite honest — in a city where "solo female artist" translates almost exclusively to earthy gals singing Folk songs and participating feverishly in the collective effort to bolster the often-precarious Cincinnati music scene.
Thing is, Key could care less about scene lamentation or "indie cred." She's pretty clear on the fact that she does what she likes to do, what she thinks is fun. And that's making music.
It's this all-American concept of "fun" that Key embodies, from her part-time job at Pacific Sunwear to her carefully scissored Chuck Taylors.
As a kid, she recalls moving around the Midwest, finally settling in Ft. Wayne, Ind., where deeply religious parents helped cultivate her musical talent in churches and local cafés. When she moved to Cincinnati for college, Key noticed increased praise and attention from friends and acquaintances for her considerable vocal talent. One observer was Kevin Finkelmeier, who had worked extensively with local bands such as Denial and Strange (members of which now constitute Key's backing band) and whose work with national acts such as Blessid Union of Souls was quickly expanding his network and knowledge of booking, promoting and talent management.
Via Finkelmeier, Key saw a way to pursue music as more than just a hobby. "I figure if you're going to be stuck doing something for the rest of your life, you might as well love it," she says. She is thrilled to have a more knowledgeable person leading her and says she doesn't mind that her songs have such a strong studio-manufactured quality.
"My chances of actually 'making it' are much better if my songs are radio-ready."
"I'd never seen such a marketable female artist in Cincinnati. I mean, her potential was unlimited," Finkelmeier remarks enthusiastically (while Key nods modestly in my periphery). The pair began writing songs together immediately with an eye for targeting a younger, "more MTV-ish" audience.
"At the end of the day," he says, "if you want to make a living in music, you've got to spread your demographic." The 21-year-old singer admits that her songs aren't terribly personal, but she feels that the broad relationship and life issues they deal with are subject matter that just about anyone can relate to. Her voice is powerful. The layers and natural texture are undeniable.
Finkelmeier's guidance in songwriting proves valuable so far: He's co-written songs that are likeable, uncomplicated and a nice fit for Key's range. One of their first collaborative efforts, "Without You," was chosen for the soundtrack of the film Tattered Angel (currently awaiting national distribution). This song and others are also being tossed around between Nashville publishers and Key was recently bestowed money to record from the local Red MacCormack Recording Grant Fund.
In watching Key's live performance, I get the feeling this is a profession that chose her, rather than vice versa. Maybe it's in the subtle squint you see from time to time when she's trying to hear her vocals over the new band. Maybe it's in the juxtaposition of a small-town girl covering Madonna's "Like a Prayer" as though she's cruising with it cranked up on her car stereo. Or maybe it's in the shy way she'll happily leave the task of singing her own praises to her mentor.
Whatever the case, the reins are screaming to be grasped. "This business is full of people waiting to screw you over and exploit talent," Finkelmeier says. "My main goal is to protect (Kristen) from those people every step of the way."
KRISTEN KEY (kristenkey.com) performs July 29 at The Mad Hatter in Covington.