I love a good lyric. Music and a good beat definitely move my feet, but I love when a song can also touch my heart and move my soul. If you feel the same, then check out the Virtual SisterSpace weekend coming up September 10 to 12. It’s three days of fun and sisterhood under virtual stars with celestial beings like comedian Elvira Kurt, Stephanie Chin and a bevy of other performers, including this week’s Portraits – The Voice finalist Kristen Merlin and Skip The Needle band members Kofy Brown and Shelly Doty. I spoke first to Kristen, currently on tour.
Kristen, I was surprised to find out that you’re from Beantown, Boston Mass. Where’s your accent?
Kristen Merlin: [Laughing] Trust and believe it comes if I’m excited or upset about something, or drunk…
My ex was from Louisiana, so the same thing would happen. At about the 3rd beer the “y’alls” would start to fly.
The great thing about Nashville is that there’s an eclectic group of people here and they’re from all over so there are different accents everywhere. It’s super fun. My favorite is my Australian friends, I’m always like, just keep talking!
I love me a sexy accent. Tell me a little about the place you grew up?
I grew up in a small suburb of Boston, in a little town called Hanson, population: not a lot. But it was fun, be-bopping through life however and eventually making my way into Boston and doing shows there.
What’s the family dynamic?
I have two sisters, one older and one younger, mom and dad. My mom’s one of 6 so we have more family on that side and lots of family gathering, holidays, etc.
I’m a middle child too but with two brothers.
Goodness. People joke about it, but being a “middle child” is a real thing. Growing up I felt like I wasn’t seen and wasn’t heard. I’m okay with that because I feel like it’s what shaped me into who I am now. I think being an entertainer spoke to me because it was a way to be seen and heard and find that spotlight I didn’t always feel I had growing up at home or at school. I had a lot of acquaintances, and some friends, but I was a floater. I hung out with different groups, but was never at home with one. And now that works for me, I love traveling, seeing new faces, going to new places. Constant change is my constant companion. I can’t sit in one spot too long.
How did you get introduced to country music?
My parents. I remember taking car rides and being like, “Ugh! Turn this off! Can we listen to anything but country?” Then 90’s country hit, the Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, Shania Twain era and I started getting into the storytelling aspect of the music. I got into Reba McEntire and the emotions that the music evoked. And now as a songwriter myself I can appreciate the craftsmanship even more.
I remember country artist Chely Wright coming out and it being a big deal. Were you aware of it?
Not at the time, but I’ve gone back and learned her story and it hurts my heart. To see how things just unraveled after she came out. Even my friend Shelly Fairchild had to make the choice, either you put on a front and lose your girlfriend or you’re honest and lose your contract and she gave up the contract. It’s a tough decision to make. I eat, sleep and breath music and those decisions can be soul crushing.
It seems like you’ve been able to walk that line. Are things getting better?
Maybe, but I just focus on doing me. I’m not trying to force anything in anyone’s face, I am just me and I love to perform and to move people with my music and hopefully make a difference however and whenever I can. I’m often asked ‘what are the hurdles you’ve faced,’ and it’s hard to answer because I don’t often sit in those moments. It’s more like, I cannot wait to be someone who changes mindsets, so that someday it’s not, ‘she’s a member of the LGBT country world,’ it’ll just be, ‘Hey, did you hear Kristen Merlin’s new song?’ I look at artists like Ty Herndon who always had to put on a front and sing about women. Now that he’s out, he’s even going back and recutting some of his songs so that they reflect the way he wants to sing them. I love that. So, it’s getting better but there’s still a path to be paved.
And you busted right out with your song, “Shame.”
[Laughing] Yeah, I did! But I was nervous about putting that out. Some people were asking, is that your coming out song? And I had to laugh and say, “Man, I’ve been out for 20 years. So no, but in a way, yes.” I was careful in the beginning because I wanted to be accepted so I kept my lyrics gender neutral, but I got to the point where it was like, you know what? No. I’m just going to put out the music the way I want. And “Shame” became a cool statement song.
What were the best and worst things about being on “The Voice,” and how hot is Shakira?
Ha! Shakira is great. I mean she’s an international superstar, but I almost forgot that because she was so down to earth and humble. You could be in a room with her and not feel less than, we were all on the same level. I’ve been around others who let the fame get to them who tried to make you feel inferior. But none of the coaches made you feel that way. The hardest part is the lack of sleep and trying to learn songs back to back. When we were live, we’d go from 5 in the morning to the live show at night and if you made it through you had about a half hour to learn and tape your next song. You had to be 100% focused to remember the words and be spot on.
Yikes! Let’s wrap up with a favorite line from a song.
I’m going to go with one from my new song, “I’m more than who I hold hands with.” I’ll be performing it at the SisterSpace concert and I’m really excited. It’s a great opportunity to be a part of this event. I love getting to do different things.
Kofy, tell me a little about yourself.
Kofy Brown: I’m originally from Washington, DC but I moved to the San Francisco area when I was 22. I’ve been playing music my whole life. I’ve had my own group, the Kofy Brown Band, where I front and write the music, and I’ve started playing with some friends, Vicki Randle, Shelley Doty and Katie Colepits. We didn’t have a name at first but our friends and fans were like, “C’mon guys!” so we became “Skip the Needle.”
Big fam? Small fam?
Small fam, just me and my brother, but from my earliest memories, we had a band called, “The Family,” me and my brother, my aunt and uncle, the twins who are only 7 years older than me, and every time a kid was born they were absorbed into the family band. We’d sing the Silvers and the Jackson 5 out on the balcony with broomsticks for guitars, and that continued until we actually got instruments. [Laughing] My brother thought he was going to be another Prince! He had two bands: “Uptown Band” was his and “Essence of Vogue” was his girl’s band. I played keyboards in that. We were 16 or 17 and playing in clubs, but at that time Go-Go was huge in DC, so we’d be playing our little Minneapolis style music and we’d get booed off the stage! I left to start my own band, Park Avenue, and we cut our first vinyl record. Pretty good for a 17 year old! But then I fell in love and I wasn’t out so we moved to San Francisco where her mom lived.
So you come from a musical family?
Oh yeah, my mother and her sisters would do these beautiful 3 part harmonies and they could sing. I didn’t find out until later that my mother used to sing in clubs in DC when she was young.
How was the coming out experience?
Ah! Not so easy; my mom and that whole side of the family are Jehovah’s Witnesses. So being gay…? Though my mom took it better than I thought she would. I came out late, 35-36, after I broke up with my girlfriend of 13 years. It was a difficult time, and not being able to share that was hard and very lonely. So I decided to tell them. My mom wasn’t thrilled but she said, “You’ll always be my daughter. Even though I might not agree with your lifestyle choices, I love you.”
Shelly, tell me about yourself.
Shelly Doty: Jeepers! I was born in Chicago, but we moved to Berkley when I was 3, so I’m a California kid. It was me and my brother and my mom who worked a lot to support us, so I was a latchkey kid. I was a nerd so I spent most of my time walking my dogs or reading books, but once I found music and started playing the guitar, it changed my life. It allowed me to interact socially with other human beings. In college I was in a band called, “Jambay,” which was me and 3 straight white boys. It was an incredible experience, we toured for 7 years, but at the end of it I felt like I was in someone else’s world. Now I’m in a band with 3 women and it’s great. I loved the guys, but it’s a different feeling. I’m super geeky and I love rockin’ out with my guitar, but I also love the sensitive stuff. Being in this band with Kofy and everyone is such a dream. It’s joyful.
How does your activism manifest in your work?
My father was a very political guy. He was part of the Black Man’s Development Center in DC and died when I was three and a half in the custody of the police under very mysterious circumstances. They never found the cause of death. He left behind a lot of books about social issues, and so I took that on very early in my writing and in my perspective. A lot of my music is about what I see. Drugs, poverty, injustice… trying to understand the condition we’re in and figuring out how to make things better.
Kofy and Shelly, you’re going to be performing in the SisterSpace Virtual festival, what is the importance of Women’s spaces for music?
Kofy Brown: I think it’s fantastic to have a place to give a voice to women. In the music business women are often told how to act, how to create, how to be. I love that the festivals show the diversity of our craft and who we are as women, as musicians. That we have a place where we can share music that’s relevant to women’s causes and that uplifts the voices and our spirits. Shelly Doty: I totally agree with everything that Kofy has said. Another part of it for me is representation. I grew up around music. My mom was always playing jazz for example, and I was always engaged in it, but I never thought of picking up a guitar until I saw a woman playing guitar, and it was like, “Oh fuck! Well, I want to do that too!” There was a connection; I was able to see myself, a reflection. I love Wes Montgomery or Jimmy Page, but I never saw them and thought, “Oh, I can see myself playing like that” but then I saw Nancy Wilson from Heart playing and I was like, “Oh, wait a minute. I want to do that!” I don’t think it’s possible to quantify how important it is for women and girls to see other women and girls playing, and festivals like SisterSpace make that happen. And who knows, it may inspire someone like me, who might have never picked up an instrument if I hadn’t seen a woman playing.