KEELS (or ‘Keels’) is one of the most talked-about songwriters around…
the U.K. and E.I.R.E. at the moment. As former member of the band Empire Divide, Niall Keels cemented his reputation around London as a name to watch. Stepping out alone, the single Surrender brings together embers of The National and Bon Iver. There will be more work coming – which is exciting indeed – so I was eager to talk to KEELS about the new material and how life solo compares to that in a band. Having toured with the likes of Augustines, Catfish and the Bottlemen and Young Rebel Set; working with established filmmakers Kim Roden and Alfie Biddle - many would be envious of that sort of C.V. Always humble and forward-thinking; KEELS has his sights set on 2017 and just what can be achieved.
Hi KEELS. How are you? How has your week been?
I’m all good, thanks. Just trying to get everything done before the Christmas panic-shop. On the music front, I have been getting a few bits in place for the video (for the) next single Darkest Nights - and getting the live rehearsals going.
For anyone new to your music: can you introduce yourself, please?
Sure. My name is Niall Keels. I am a singer/songwriter on a journey to live the dream! I have lots of new work to share which I’m very excited about. If you like The National, Bon Iver and Massive Attack you should give my music a listen.
I do not often get to interview Irish artists. Which part of the country do you hail and how does the music scene compare there (to England)?
(I have) A very Irish name and a very Irish dad but I was born and brought up in Surrey/Sussex.
I have a lot of friends and family over in Dublin and spend a fair bit of time there. My allegiances are with the men in green when it comes to sport.
This was drilled into me from a very early age from my dad and the rest of his mates down at London Irish Rugby Club in Sunbury. I played with the club all the way through ‘til I was about nineteen and it was there I had to quickly learn a good Dublin accent.
Based out of London, I can imagine the capital provides its fair share of inspiration and frustrations. What is it like for an aspiring musician living in London?
London is a great CITY but it is an expensive place to live! On the music scene, there are some brilliant venues to play for up-and-coming artists like the Lexington, The Sebright Arms and St. Pancras Old Church - where I’m playing in March of next year. It’s great that so much music is readily available and it certainly helps provide creative motivation. London is such a diverse, multicultural hotbed: you meet so many people from all walks of life which can only be a good thing in terms of creative inspiration - especially when you’ve worked as a waiter/landscaper/carpenter/brickie’s assistant.
Looking at reviews that have been paid to your music – you are being compared with the likes of The National and Bon Iver. So early in your career, is it quite daunting or humbling receiving that kind adulation?
It’s both! Very humbling as these, in particular, are two acts whose works I love. I have been to see The National live in London a few times and absolutely loved it. Epic songs delivered so well on the big stage: Slow Show and Hard to Find are two of my favourite tracks. Bon Iver has inspired so many people: just look at how many artists have covered Skinny Love! What a voice and what great songs.
You are a former member of Empire Divide. What was it like being part of the band and how does solo life compare?
Being part of a band is great. Working collectively on a track is an awesome experience. It’s not all that different now as Keels.
I still enjoy writing with old band members and I work closely in the studio with my producer and other writers - which means the creative process is similar. I just get to have the final say. Live, I will be playing with a band, so that shared performance/enjoyment of the music on stage won’t change all that much. I always work with musicians who are into the music and believe in the project, which is very important.
Surrender is your new single. What can you reveal about the origins of the song and what inspired it?
Hard to say. The chords and melody to the song came about when I playing at home on the piano. The lyric "Heart will surrender to nothing but The Devil’s play” came out of nowhere, almost immediately.
We have all lost someone at some point or another so once you have a starting point - the skeleton; chords, structure and lyrical idea - it’s just a matter of fleshing it out and building the track up - and retaining the theme of loss and regret which I did with a friend in the studio.
Was it a difficult song to get together or did it kind of flow when you got into the studio?
In terms of the body of the song it all came together pretty quickly but the production on the track has evolved. Building up the sounds/pads and vocal layering took time.
The video for the song is beautifully shot and conceived. Whose idea was the video and what was it like working with Kim Roden and Alfie Biddle (whose work includes V for Vendetta and Harry Potter)?
After putting together a mood board the video was storyboarded by Kim Roden and Alfie Biddle. Alfie is one of my best and oldest friends and he also happens to be one of the best up-and-coming cinematographers in the film business. He is immensely resourceful and generous with his time and I have been very lucky to work with his talented team. Alfie has worked on some huge films in differing capacities and his wealth of experience and knowledge plays a huge part in delivering such a powerful visual that works so well with the track. I couldn’t recommend a better team of people to work with and I think the video is sufficient evidence of this.
Can we expect an E.P. or album next year perhaps?
There will definitely be an E.P. first and hopefully an album at the end of 2017.
PHOTO CREDIT: @pedroalvesphotography
In terms of the musicians that have inspired your music: which would you rank as the most important and why?
Again, a very tough question to pinpoint as there are so many artists that have influenced my vocal delivery and songwriting.
I would say Johnny Cash/Roy Orbison/Elvis are three vocalists that I listened to more than any growing up. They all had an amazing ability to convey their message through a powerful and honest vocal delivery.
For me, honesty is the most important quality in delivering a message through a great melody.
Having toured with everyone from Young Rebel Set and Catfish and the Bottlemen you must have some fond memories. What has been your career highlight so far?
Young Rebel Set are a good bunch of lads with great songs and I am always surprised that they haven’t had more success. Berlin Nights is brilliant. Career high is hard but playing with Augustines to a sold out KOKO was pretty special. They’re another band I am amazed haven’t exploded and was very sad to see that they had called time. Another high was playing more recently out in Moscow in a sold-out Imagine Café - where my brother came and joined me for my set. We’re best mates so to have him with me for that show singing to a sold out venue was awesome.
Are there any new artists coming through you recommend we check out?
PHOTO CREDIT: @der_ivanov
Is there any advice you’d offer to any new artists coming through?
Be determined/persistent. I have been grinding away for a long time now and it feels like things are starting to really come together.
Luck plays a huge part in music but you have to be in it to win it. Of course, be true to yourself as an artist and don’t rush. Look at Sia: her first number one came album in her late-30s.
It is almost Christmas. Any plans for this year? What have you put on your list to Santa?
Excited to spend Christmas with old friends and family: it’s the one and only time of the year some friends are about.
Also super-excited to get all the live performances going in the New Year and can’t wait to put more tracks out. I’d love to get on a few more shows overseas: always a great opportunity to see a new city/town.
I have asked Santa for a Christmas number one. I didn’t specify what year so we’ll have to wait and see!
Finally, and for being a good sport, you can choose any song you like (not yours as I’ll put that in) and I’ll play it here.
Hard to Find - The National
Thanks to you all and a very Merry Christmas.