Audeze catches up with musician and producer Willie Kelly

Willie Kelly is an Irish Singer, Songwriter, Musician and Producer. As a member of Irish band Rackhouse Pilfer, he has worked alongside Ethan Johns on Tom Jones 2015 album ‘Long Lost Suitcase’ and Grammy Award winning producer John Carter Cash.

 Willie Kelly making music with his Audeze LCD-X headphones

"I can’t begin to explain how much more confident I am when critiquing the mixes now with the Audeze... when the mix feels like a finished record the LCD-X let me know!" - Willie Kelly
Here's our chat with Willie:
Can you pick out any highlights from your work that you're particularly proud of?

Without a doubt my proudest moments came with my band Rackhouse Pilfer. We achieved things we wouldn’t have dreamt about at the outset, coming from being a fireside jam band in a small pub in Sligo, Ireland. We went on to record three albums, which progressed over time from self-producing our first album ‘Back To The Country’, to working with Brad Jones (Steve Earle, Josh Rouse, Bobby Bare Jr.) on album two ‘Love & Havoc’ and then working with the legend, Gareth Jones (Depeche Mode, Erasure, Grizzly Bear) on album three ‘Solar Lunar.’

One of the highlights of the band’s journey was waking up to an email one morning from world renowned producer Ethan Johns. After he had heard the ‘Love & Havoc’ album, he invited us to The Church Studios in London to be the session band on two tracks on Sir Tom Jones 2015 album ‘Long Lost Suitcase’. One track turned out to be the lead single ‘Honey, Honey’, a duet with Imelda May and the other was a Rolling Stones cover ‘Factory Girl’. That was simply a surreal experience, to be in that studio with the legendary Neve console that Pink Floyd’s ‘Wish You Were Here’ was recorded on and with those people, wow! We were all in awe of Ethan Johns.. we were fans of a lot of records he made and it was such a humbling feeling that he believed in us enough to invite us to record with Tom Jones.

Rackhouse Pilfer toured Europe extensively playing lots of rock and country festivals, we played Glastonbury in 2017, which was amazing. We were invited to play for Michael D Higgins, the Irish President at his residence. We won several Irish awards, Hot Press ‘Live Band Of The Year’ in 2014, Hot Press ‘Folk/Trad Band Of The Year’ in 2015, beating some heavyweights on the Irish Folk scene to claim the prize.

How would you define your main role on most of the projects you work on these days?

Rackhouse has been on hiatus since 2017, things changed very much when kids started to arrive and in truth we had burnt out playing over two hundred live shows a year for about six years. Since 2017 I’ve fallen into the business side of the music industry. I co-produce a respected festival here in Ireland called Sligo Live and I’m a live booking agent at Midnight Mango UK, representing several artists there and booking their UK and European tours.

Creatively, I’m currently co-producing an album with John Carter Cash for my Mother, Sandy Kelly, who was a very popular country artist in Europe in the 80’s, 90’s and still. This is very much a legacy album, which will be released in tandem with a book about her life. We tracked the album at The Cash Cabin in Nashville in 2019, however, the project got shelved for a couple years with a little thing called Covid. It’s a really exciting, special project for me, I’m so proud of my Mum. She has recorded duets with Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and many more back in the 90’s. All produced by legendary Nashville A Teamer, Harold Bradley and recorded at Bradley’s Barn, an amazing studio that sadly is not there anymore. We got those old multitrack tapes out of storage and recut the Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson duets in a very acoustic contemporary way, to breathe new life into them and give them a fresh face. They were such huge moments in her career they had to be on this album and we wanted them to fit sonically with the rest of the album. We also tracked a bunch of new songs, mostly covers and one original song that I wrote.

Beyond that, lockdowns have given me the opportunity to really dig into production and get back to writing myself, something I had dropped out of necessity for the couple of years previous. I love writing, I love production, I love the studio environment and so I’m making strides now to steer my career back in that direction. That’s where I’m happiest.

How did you get started in music? What kind of music did you listen to while growing up and how has that progressed?

I come from a family steeped in generations of music. Going back to my Great-grandparents and my Grandparents, they had a fit-up show called ‘Dusky Dan’s Roadshow.’ They’d go town to town in Ireland with a marquee and provide music, theatre, dance and comedy in return for whatever anyone wanted to exchange for a ticket, a chicken or its egg. Both my parents are musicians, I slept in a suitcase behind the drummer of their band when I was baby. It’s been around me all of my life, I’m not sure I ever really had a choice and if I did, I certainly didn’t back away from destiny. My Grandad was a drummer and lived with us when I was young, his kit was there set up, I think I could hold a beat by the age of five.

I’ve always been surrounded by Country music, this was the genre my parents worked in and I got to see so many legends live that my parents worked with when I was young… Johnny Cash, The Highway Men, Tammy Wynette, Waylon, Buck Owens, Kenny Rogers etc. Plus, my first trip to Nashville from Ireland was at age ten in 1989. I began going to Nashville myself a lot, once I got older, I used to make yearly pilgrimages there in my twenties, learning the craft of songwriting and recording. They were such amazing experiences, I kind of consider that as my unofficial college education in many ways, I met so many great people there that were always so forthright with giving me help, advice and their knowledge.

I don’t think I’ve really progressed away from this genre. Everything I do, even in booking the music festival and the artists I represent as an agent, it’s all Country/Folk/Americana focused.

Can you name any factors that influenced the course of your musical life? Heroes, role models, moments, interactions, etc?

Without a doubt my most influential moments have come in the studio, I have been so lucky to have worked with world class producers and session musicians, I have taken lots of different things from each of those guys. In 2007 I recorded a solo album at the Cash Cabin, with John Carter Cash producing. That was my first real eye opener and test I guess in the studio, where he had assembled an A list session band. I won’t lie, I was absolutely bricking it going in there, my previous recording experiences in Ireland were always stressful. But this was quite the opposite, all of those guys were so relaxed and uber professional, that it really put me at ease quickly and inevitably I think that made me rise up to perform better than I had ever performed previously. There’s something in that, it definitely made me strive to always work with the best people I could possibly work with and try to maintain a cool attitude, especially if I ever work with younger artists. It’s weird, I find myself at that stage now, where I’m giving back knowledge and advice I’ve learned to younger artists, I love that actually.

I’ve found it quite fascinating working with the different producers that I’ve been lucky enough to work with. All of them have their own way of extracting the best possible results. Some of them have torn songs apart and painstakingly pieced them back together. Some just let it flow and let instinctual creativity lead the way. Gareth Jones for example, he takes meticulous notes all through the pre-production stages, there’s literally documentation for the evolution of each song, as well as rough demos. Then when on the floor in the studio, he’s not in the control room, he’s there in the tracking room with you, always liable to change anything in the arrangement at any time, like a conductor. No cans, we set up our live PA in the tracking room, which in a lot of ways took all of the preparation out of mind, it felt like we were playing it live at a show and brought some rawness to the takes. I’d never have been brave enough to make a call like that, with a tight budget and no room for error when the clock was running.

Can you briefly describe a moment of frustration from your past work, and what you may have done to overcome the obstacles? Would you approach it differently now?

I learned a hard lesson in 2007, after recording my solo album. I had done things backwards, where I thought if I got to work with the best producer and best musicians, to make the best possible album I could, then things would work out in my live career. I was very wrong, I hadn’t done the hard miles in building a following, I couldn’t afford to put a band on the road to reproduce the records and in hindsight I don’t think I fully understood the challenge ahead at that point. I wasn’t ready for the hard work or clever enough to know how much work really was ahead to make it sustainable. It got me really down, to the point of quitting music for a couple of years and I ended up working on construction sites etc. Which in a weird way actually made me learn that there’s no way around the hard work. When Rackhouse Pilfer emerged from the dust in 2011, that’s when everything started to click for me, I worked night and day on that band and made more progress than I ever had before. That’s what things boil down to now, if I take something on, I work really really hard at it. In hindsight, that earlier failure made my future successes.

Is there any gear you find yourself turning to most when working on a project? What are some of your favorite tools/instruments recently?

I have a couple of Acoustic Guitars that are my best mates when writing, a Larrivee D-03 that I bought in Nashville in 2006. More recently, a 1948 Gibson LG-2, which is the ultimate couch writing guitar with tone and vibe for days, I love it. Both record really well too.

In the past two years, I have updated my home recording set-up and I have gotten way deeper into mixing myself. It’s a humble set up, decent PC, SSL 2, a couple of mics and an array of software. It’s really only geared towards getting my ideas down and rough-mixed at this point. I find great satisfaction in Acustica Audio’s products, they sound so good to me and probably as close as I will get to some of their emulated hardware in my studio, at least for the foreseeable future. I use Harrison Mixbus 32C, I love the console-like workflow, I never get sick of opening a session in there.

Do you have any words of wisdom for people who might aspire toward a similar path for their own careers?

As previously mentioned, I think my biggest lesson has been learning work ethic. I realise now I didn’t put anywhere near enough effort into nurturing my career in my 20’s (and I actually put a respectable amount of work in during my 20’s). But as I got into my 30’s and now 40’s, I realise I had to work so much harder than I was doing. That would be my words of wisdom, if you’re intent on having a career in music then make the sacrifices and do the hard miles.

Bonus wisdom… Cherish and respect the connections you make, the people around you will nine times out of ten lead you to the next opportunity, if you’re respectful and cool. Do it all with a good vibe, you’re very likely to meet the same people on the way back down!

How long have you been working with headphones, and how do you typically use them in your workflow?

In recent years, I have relied heavily on headphones. Ever since my son was born in 2014, I couldn’t make noise at night and I have always been most creative late at night. My small studio is in our house, it’s difficult to track anything once everyone else is in bed. I might quietly throw down a scratch idea if inspiration hits and then redo it the next day properly. Then, I always mix at night. Great headphones are a necessity here.

How have your Audeze headphones affected your work? Can you tell us what you've been working on with them recently?

We have relit the torch on getting my Mum, Sandy’s album finished. I have been working closely with Trey Call (Cash Cabin Engineer) on the final mixes for the album. Which obviously is a remote kind of thing, where he’s in Nashville and I’m in Ireland. Trey and I have been working on this for several months now and I have my LCD-X’s for about half that time. I can’t begin to explain how much more confident I am when critiquing the mixes now with the Audeze compared to any of my old cans. First and foremost, I am assured I have something at the top of the game sitting on my ears. But I am astounded by the detail, the stereo field and the depth I hear with these headphones. Being honest, I was always unsure before, that some revisions I might request weren’t accurate. Second guessing myself, I wished many times I could make the trip to Nashville to be in the room with Trey. But genuinely, most of that concern is gone now thanks to having my Audeze. Trey is usually really happy with my notes, I feel very confident in the choices we’re making and inevitably more confident in signing off on a final mix. The only way I can describe that feeling is, when the mix feels like a finished record the LCD-X let me know!

Willie Kelly's setup featuring his Audeze LCD-X headphones