Kelly McFarling is a wanderer of wilderness and cityscapes.
Atlanta, GA raised her and gave her space to find her powerful voice in its church choirs and baseball stadiums, but it was San Francisco that gave her the encouragement and community to solidify her original sound. She has spent the past three years selling out shows in both her hometown and her adopted city (and many cities in-between) – a testament to the fact that her fresh spin on old-time music is resonant in any environment.
In 2005, Kelly spent months passing a beaten-up banjo in a pawn shop window while walking to her job slinging coffee in Cambridge, MA. One day, frustrated with her lack of musical outlets, she finally went inside and laid her tip money down despite the fact that she’d never played the instrument. She spent the subsequent year teaching herself to play in what is now her signature hybrid of clawhammer and traditional style. In the process, she developed her own way of using the banjo as a lead instrument, a catalyst for her eventual foray into songwriting.
Kelly’s banjo travelled with her across South America and to Boulder, CO, but it wasn’t until she landed in the Bay Area that she finally stepped onto a stage. “I started going to the open mic at the Hotel Utah, mostly as an experiment and to force myself to write songs, which at that point I’d never done.” Many who witnessed those first performances reported that they thought McFarling had been performing her songs on stage all of her life. She was so well received that she put together a band in short order and they started playing regular shows all over San Francisco.
In 2008, Kelly met bassist Jonathan Kirchner through a mutual friend. The two quickly forged a musical partnership that took the duo on tour together across the East Coast. Early in 2010, they were joined by drummer Andrew Laubacher. The trio tracked Kelly’s first recording, Distractible Child (2010) at the famed Hyde Street Studios in San Francisco and then embarked on two ambitious U.S. tours in support of the album. Shortly thereafter, pedal steel and guitar player Tim Marcus joined the trio, solidifying McFarling’s current lineup.
Like McFarling herself, her music occupies a place between places. She pays homage to her southern roots, while at the same time giving new life to old sounds. With her band, she explores territory outside her clear influences of folk, old-time, bluegrass and country, creating a sound equally at home by a fireside or at a large festival. On stage her performances are as considered as her songwriting. Her voice has a power and depth that evokes a sense of longing and nostalgia, and her songs articulate and elevate even the simplest of human emotions. Hearing McFarling’s music inspires the urge listen with your oldest friend or your newest love. Her stories are yours and her music stays with you.
Since her first release, Kelly McFarling has received praise from press outlets across the country (including a feature on CNN’s Music Monday). In 2011, she took home the grand prize at the 35th bi-annual Shoot-Out at legendary Eddie’s Attic in Georgia. In 2012, she ditched her day-job as a rock climbing instructor and now makes her living as a full-time musician. She released an ambitious and business-savvy joint album Conspire with fellow San Francisco songwriter Lia Rose, and she also began performing as one-third of the old-time all-female trio Glittersnatch.
With plans to release her second full-length album, Ridgeline, in early April, followed by a month-long tour and festival performances with her band, McFarling’s horizons are wide-open. Her music will be heard in back-rooms and on main-stages across America. If you’re lucky, you’ll have the opportunity to hear her sing at your favorite venue, or barring that, on your car stereo while you drive down an open road.