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December 2023
Vol. 23, No. 3

Cover Story

In Service Through Music: ASTRA KELLY has found her calling

by Lizzie WannJuly 2020

Astra Kelly. Photo by John Hancock.

Astra stars in her high school production of Bye Bye Birdie.

Astra and frequent collaborator Jeff Berkley.

Nature girl, 2010.

Astra at her CD release at the Music Box in 2018. Photo by John Hancock.

Astra at Claire de Lune in 2010. Photo by Dennis Andersen.

Astra (far left) at last year’s lady brain festival.

Astra hanging out in Liz Abbott’s patio. Photo by John Hancock.

On a moonlit strip of highway in Colorado, the van Astra Kelly was driving hit some black ice. She was finishing up a solo tour that had taken her around the country a few times. In almost two years, she’d logged 85,000 miles on the conversion van that skidded, rolled, and landed upside down on a set of railroad tracks that fateful night nearly 20 years ago. The roadside glinted with silver from the CDs that had been thrown in the crash. Kelly was able to gather herself, grab her guitar, and get out of the van shortly before she watched a train barrel into what had been her world.For Kelly, this terrifying event actually gave her great clarity. “It was like a flash…very quick and certain. My fear of death was gone. I knew if it had been my time to die or I had wanted to I could have, and my angels would have stood by my side. It was like a door was opened, and I chose not to walk through. I experienced energy in a way I never had before. I knew that I existed beyond this body and that I was a vessel for something greater than myself.”

To understand what brought her to this climactic moment and how she came out on the other side to where she is today, it’s important to first know where she started.

Astra Kelly seems infused with energy, and the circumstances around her coming into being, even in utero, back up this concept. “When I was in the womb, my folks had rescued a great horned owl, and my earliest memory was an owl hooting in the darkness. To this day, owls are my power animal. They journey into the darkness to bring back the light.”

Born in small-town Arkansas, Kelly moved with her family to Colorado before she was two years old. Her parents split up shortly thereafter, so she never really knew her father, except for some letters she received in her late teen years. Her mom remarried, and they moved again, this time to the suburbs of Chicago to be near her stepfather’s family. At five years old, she proclaimed that she’d be a singer someday. At 12, she not only was given a keyboard but also began practicing meditation and experimenting with her own life energy and healing. “I always remember being in tune with the metaphysical side of things.” Still, Kelly recalled, “Growing up was pretty normal actually. We had a beautiful house on nine acres that became my sanctuary, my source of grounding, and the atmosphere to most of my cherished childhood memories. It’s always felt like a gift to have that foundation. Chicago will always be home.”

As Kelly grew up, she started to have feelings of abandonment from not knowing her birth father. And when she had her first serious relationship, suppressed memories of childhood sexual abuse came flooding back. “Music and songwriting were my saving grace. They gave me a way to let those things out and begin the healing process. So, I felt that I HAD to use music, creativity, and meditation to feel healthy and well.”

Kelly attended a junior college and was interested in music and music business as a major when one of many life pivots presented itself. “An opportunity came up to join a band that was doing pretty well,” so she hit the road with the Junction, a jam rock band, playing rhythm guitar and singing vocals. The band toured nationally, playing shows with groups like Widespread Panic and the Marshall Tucker Band.

She does not regret her decision to drop out of college and pursue music. She realized that an education for what she wanted to do didn’t need to come from a brick and mortar institution. “I’ve never needed a college degree to do the work that I have done. I have been able to educate myself or find mentorship in all aspects regarding building my career.” But that doesn’t mean she stopped learning. “When I quit college, I vowed to continue studying something, so I dove into ancient philosophy and religion.”

After the tour, she returned to Chicago. She got a job as a telemarketer for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Although it was about music, her “ability to sell and ask for money was totally distorted.” Kelly took the subway to work every day, and she often saw people playing music on the platforms. One day, she decided to play down there, and the next day was her last as a telemarketer.

She made a living as a musician between playing the streets and subways, touring with bands, and joining a handful of other musical ventures in Chicago. Her subway performances started drawing a steady audience and people requested recorded material. Using funds from an inheritance she received after her grandfather passed away, Kelly made her first solo record called Stones, Bones, and Boxes in her apartment. “Releasing my very first record in Chicago in ’96 was definitely a significant time. There were so many pieces falling into place around me and the world of independently produced music was just opening up. It was an exciting time for artists everywhere.” The record featured players from the Chicago scene, and the release show was played to a sold-out crowd at the famed Cubby Bear.

Kelly joined a ten-piece acid jazz and funk improv band called SUMO that she played with while also pursuing her solo career. “Every Sunday at the Elbo Room, we’d show up and make stuff up. We never rehearsed once. We were sensitive to song structure and could craft songs on the spot….most of the time! Members of that band went on to play with Smashing Pumpkins and Filter. People used to call it “church.” It was sweaty and raucous; those were some of the best musical years of my life. Chicago was absolutely on fire then, and I was right in the thick of it.”

She began work on her second record, Subtown Rituals, with her band Far Rockaway, in 1999. She ran out of money in the middle of making the record, so, true to form, she pivoted and made a deal to trade time by helping out the studio manager at 35th Studios in Chicago. This decision would set her on another new musical path of managing studios as one way to pay bills for the next 15 years. Her record, which featured a melodic rock sound, was released at a sold-out show in Chicago.

Tapping into that soulful energy that had always been with her, Kelly studied and began practicing Reiki (a Japanese technique for stress reduction and relaxation that also promotes healing). “When I started, it not only gave me a powerful tool in my toolbox for managing and moving through life challenges, but it amplified the profound nature of songwriting and the awareness and experience of how creative energy can show up and guide us.”

Later that year, Kelly bought that ill-fated conversion van and gigged her way across the USA and back for the next two years. She busked, crashed with friends, and booked and promoted shows along the way. Early on in that adventure, she met Cathryn Beeks.

“I was on a two-month busking adventure with my friend, Heath Gmucs, when we met Astra through mutual friends in Boulder, Colorado, in August 1999,” explained Beeks. “As a skilled traveling troubadour, Astra helped us hone our street performing skills. She gave me her CD Subtown Rituals, and I practically wore it out.” This random meeting would lead Kelly to another pivot years later.

While on her epic tour, Kelly released a live acoustic solo album in 2000 called Acoustic Soul Live, which was recorded over three live shows in Colorado. After the wreck of her van when she got away with her life and her guitar, she settled temporarily in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Kelly worked at Stepbridge Studios and kept writing and recording, using her music to process her life experiences and challenges. In 2004, she divided her time between Santa Fe and Los Angeles, playing shows in both areas, and recorded her self-titled EP. The album artwork features a spiral that was a recurring symbol in Kelly’s life. “The spiral was something I used to doodle as a kid. Took a sharpie to all of my toys at one point! When I discovered Reiki, it was one of the symbols used in the practice. It became a beacon of understanding. It means many things to many traditions: power and source to the Mayans; balance of the elements to the Celts; a journey taken or eternity in Native American myths and South American cultures; and Kundalini or base/serpent energy in mystic and Hindu culture.”

San Diego Calls
“When I was settled in San Diego,” recalled Cathyrn Beeks, “I reached out to Astra to let her know how much I loved her music and that she should come to San Diego and play some of the showcases I was producing with my new company, Listen Local. Not only did she visit, she moved here!” Kelly added, “I got an email from Cathryn saying things were going off in San Diego, and I should come check it out. I rolled in and did a set at Tower Two in Ocean Beach. Imagine pulling up to that beautiful spot and playing my first set in sunny San Diego! Then I opened up for [Beeks’ band] the Ordeal at O’Connells. I sang a few notes and silenced the place. I knew that night that San Diego was my new home, and I was living here within the year.”

She became a receptionist at AAA radio station 102.1 KPRI, but soon found herself on the air, first doing commercials, then becoming the overnight DJ, and pretty quickly began producing her own local music show, resurrecting The Homegrown Hour in early 2007. She also was seen on local television, hosting NBC 7/39’s Street Side San Diego. She hosted the radio show for just over two years and then handed the reins to Beeks, who would keep the show running until 2015. All the while, Kelly was also playing and writing her own music.

In 2010, she released an EP called Battling the Sun. The album artwork, by San Diego artist Billy Martinez, again featured her signature spiral but as the center of the sun. This image was more than just good-looking art; it blended in Kelly’s lifelong philosophies and truths. “The sun is our power and the center of who we are. It is self-esteem and transformation. It is the symbol of the solar plexus which rests just above the belly button. When we say we have a pit in our stomach, it’s because whatever situation we are in is challenging the core of our being. It is rooted in the eastern tradition of the chakra energy centers.”

Racking up accolades for her music (seven-time nominee for the San Diego Music Awards), she continued doing all she could to make things happen for herself. Leveraging her studio management experience, she picked up jobs at Studio West and later at Capricorn Studios. She put a band together and toured the West Coast as well as being a regular in the San Diego clubs.

In 2011, she recorded and released Timebomb, which included three remixes from local San Diego DJs, a testament to her eclectic spirit and vast experiences. She had “to expand my talents to diversify and develop a formidable career.” She delved into art and found success as a voiceover actor, becoming the voice behind many different brands including Southwest Airlines and Starbucks.

She also launched the Music Industry Cooperative (MIC) Network, a vetted collective of music and entertainment creatives that would serve as a one-stop shop for people who needed services in those areas. She imagined a physical space that would include a studio, sound stage, workspace, and more, but the universe had other plans for her. Her studio management job at Capricorn “went very far south,” and her parents got divorced. Amidst this chaos, in 2013, she made another pivot to devote all of her time to being a full-time, self-employed musician.

“The jump from working for other people to becoming a full-time artist again seven years ago was a huge catalyst. I’m always seeking to feel fulfilled, so I’m on a constant quest to do good work and nurture things in my life that help me to thrive, be well, and share that energy with others. I’ve failed more than I’ve succeeded, so my drive comes from just wanting to evolve and offer something relevant and valuable in the world.”

Coming out of that period of emotional lowness, Kelly set out on a path to reconnect with herself, and with that girl who used to play on the subway platforms with just her guitar. “I wanted to return to a style of music where the focus was on the vocals and story. It was also a natural course of action after the struggles I’d been through. Writing and collaborating with other artists really helped to define a new sound and pull me out of the depths.” She released Back to Ten in 2015, which featured ten San Diego talents, including Gayle Skidmore, Carissa Schroeder, and old friend Cathryn Beeks, each on a different tune. “Writing songs and infusing the creative journey with life energy has been the anchor and catalyst propelling me forward in my career as an artist, and inspiring ways to advocate for mental/emotional freedom thru music. The process of embracing and incorporating my life lessons has certainly been painful, scary, and, at times, very dark and heavy, but the revelations and healing have always been far greater and [more] valuable than not taking that journey.”

In 2017, Kelly sought the wizardry of producer, musician, and San Diego icon, Jeff Berkley, to work on her next album called Chasing the Light, which blended folk, country, and bluegrass genres. “I felt that Jeff really helped me to come home to my new sound.”

“I’m so honored to have been a part of that record,” declared Jeff Berkley. “At the time it was just about listening to her and trying to use whatever I had in my quiver to help her hit the bullseye. I think it was just Astra’s intuition at play. Somehow, she knew that the thing I do would fit with the thing she does. It was a very collaborative effort, and I’m very proud of the work we did together. It all started with her amazing songs. It never felt like we were trying to contrive a sound as much as just sort of unearth a treasure.”

Kelly found herself wanting to use songwriting in a more fulfilling way. She saw a flyer for Jail Guitar Doors, a nonprofit organization that provides instruments, mentorship, and workshops to help rehabilitate incarcerated individuals through music. She’s been an artist-in-residence with them since 2018.

“I’d already been exploring various ways of bringing people together to share songwriting experiences, both one-on-one and in group settings. Working in the prisons, I was able to home in on a process that could really open the way for a profound experience of songwriting for people from all walks of life with little (if any) music or songwriting experience. We cover tough stuff…childhood trauma, judgment, resentment, responsibility. The topic of race is also part of our Arts in Corrections (AIC) training. I am continually blown away by their willingness to share, participate, and allow for processing of challenging emotions. To watch a man who lives in this community, away from the world, find truth in the songwriting process, and so clearly displays a physical and mental experience of transformation is one of the most humbling experiences I’ve had,” explained Kelly. “In every workshop I’ve facilitated, there is a profound awareness that arises out of the songwriting process where the participants were able to hold space for each other and come to the realization that we are more the same than different, and that would create a powerful sense of unity and equality among the group mentality.”

She went on to say, “Helping people find their own creativity and voice is why I love vocal and songwriting coaching. One of my favorite aspects of it is witnessing someone tap into their creative source and find inspiration and greater understanding of the self and their personal story; it’s pure magic. Somewhere along the way, I realized music felt better in service than ego, and so performing AND teaching is like tapping in and allowing others to feel that juju.”

And it was that realization that inspired her to create and launch, transformative songwriting workshops for “each individual to explore universally relatable themes that will facilitate growth, healing, and connection through music and songwriting.” She hosted two workshops starting in late 2019 with the themes of gratitude and acceptance.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought Kelly’s endeavors to a screeching halt. “Everything has changed. Performing artists everywhere lost our jobs. Obviously, many of us are doing online stuff. But it’s been an intense journey of self-reflection and perception shifting.”

Kelly took her music to livestreaming almost immediately. She had been working with Jeff Berkley again to record new songs for an EP called In This Life, with Tony Econom on drums and Harley Magsino on bass. They only got through two tracks, which will now be released as singles, before the coronavirus put things on pause. “I’m incredibly excited about the two new tunes, and it was Tony’s and Harley’s magic that really brought them to life.” Their first official gig was scheduled for March 13, but they ended up streaming it live. Her next livestream show was March 18, and she has played pretty consistently over the weeks of the stay-at-home order, even when she went to care for her mom who had emergency surgery in early April. Kelly said that she came back at the beginning of June, but her mother recently went back into the hospital and will, most likely, need another surgery. “So yeah…2020 is not about giving anyone a break I guess,” observed Kelly.

That may be true, but for the woman who says she’s never had a “plan B,” she’s still focused on what is available to her and how she can keep going. “I’m tapping into online offerings and expanding to do meditations, Reiki courses, and one-on-one or group sessions and workshops, in addition to performances and vocal coaching, of course.” But, as with all that life has thrown at her thus far, this forced reckoning has caused Kelly to reflect. “I’m questioning my identity and analyzing the return to the life I had before. There is someone I haven’t become quite yet that balances the musical self with the spiritual self. I hope to be able to expand upon current offerings, but also find a greater balance with how much I have to be physically present for. Though nothing compares to in-person creative exchange, I do love the online forum and will definitely continue to do online shows and classes.”

Astra Kelly approaches her life with intention, openness, and wonder. That’s not to say that there are no hurdles to get over. In thinking about what kind of legacy she’d like to leave behind, she hopes that it’s a body of work that inspires others and allows them to see their story, that it gives respite and healing on some level.

“When humans are able to move through and transform pain, depression, and anxiety associated with stress, life trauma, and abuse, we are able to be more compassionate and empathetic to others. We can then have a greater capacity to appreciate and connect with people who have the same struggles without judgment. I’ve always resonated with the Buddhist principle of Samsara that says life is suffering and all destructive emotions are meant to be transformed, by embracing the pain, sitting with it, giving it a name, and then choosing to nurture only the good seeds, so to speak. Everything is energy, movement, and change. I view the world, my place it, and what I contribute to it rising from that space of acceptance, freedom, and inner peace. It’s a full commitment I’ve made to my highest self. Along the way, as I’ve cleared the emotional/mental weights, I have experienced a much richer and more fulfilling experience of life, music, and relationships.”

Kelly is far from done. While it’s hard to see beyond our present world, she is optimistic. “I honestly think I have yet to experience the height of my life and existence here. It’s part of why I keep going.”

Catch Astra Kelly’s music in July.

Release date for new single, “In This Life,” July 20, new moon
Recorded by and co-produced with Jeff Berkley.
Featuring Harley Magsino on bass and Tony Econom on drums
Actual in person shows, woo hoo!: 
July 12, Torrey Pines Glider Port, 1-4pm
July 19, Europa Village Winery, Temecula 1-4pm
Next virtual show: July 17, 5:30-7pm
Next songwriting workshop: July 23, 6-8pm via Zoom to register.

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