Caroline Keys: String Band Queen

Caroline Keys is relishing her residency at VCCA. “I am so grateful for my time at VCCA. It informs everything I do and there’s just no way the things I get done here would get done at home.” A self-described collaboration junkie: “If I’m not careful, I’ll be rehearsing or performing every night of the week,“ she says with a mirth filled laugh. Being in residence at VCCA allows Caroline to check in and see what she can make on her own. And like so many other Fellows, she feels great freedom here to work in a more experimental fashion than she would normally.

Caroline’s a well-known figure in the Rocky Mountain and Northwest string band communities. She’s happy performing in a bar, a concert hall or recording studio—her one requirement is that the performance be a collaborative effort.

Caroline grew up in a family where music was valued. Her father, the rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Lynchburg, instituted a children’s choir, of which Caroline was a member, that sang every Sunday. Less successful, as far as Caroline was concerned, were the piano and violin lessons she suffered through. This was because, she later realized, they were solitary pursuits. It wasn’t until college, when she discovered the joy of playing collaboratively, that her musical talent took flight.

Caroline has an MFA in creative nonfiction but is a self-taught musician. She credits her experiences along the way as helping to shape her performing and compositional talents. And her band mates whom she describes as “music nerds who know so much. Working with them is like an extra grad school experience.”

Together with Caroline at the helm, they form the “astral art folk" band Stellarondo (named for the character in Eudora Welty’s Why I live at the P.O.). Stellarondo performs Caroline’s songs and compose film scores.

Stellarondo has been working in collaboration with award-winning writer Rick Bass scoring his short fiction pieces as if they were films. Bass and Stellarondo have performed in theaters across the Northwest, and in 2012 released a collaborative album at Humanities Montana Festival of the Book. Their performance was named a conference highlight at AWP 2014.

Stellarondo also were commissioned to score Paul Strand's 1921 film Manhatta live at 2012 Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. In addition to this project, Caroline has also written recorded scores for films. It’s challenging work. As Caroline points out a song has a four minute arc (on average), Bass’ narratives can be 12 minutes long, but with film, you “need to get your idea in and out in 30 seconds.”

When Caroline comes to VCCA she brings her banjo, augmenting it with instruments she finds here. This trip, she’s become very fond of the keyboard, which “has all kinds of strange settings.”  

During her residency Caroline recorded 17 song demos, which she'll take back to her collaborators in Montana. She loves duets. She recently produced a duet between herself and the sound recording made by the Philae ESA lander on Comet 67P/Churyumov—Gerasimenko.

Montana Public Radio has used Caroline’s songs as bumper music and have featured her prose on "Reflections West." Last July 2014 Caroline published two poems in New Nowhere.  Caroline is currently Missoula Writing Collaborative poet-in-residence at Arlee School on the Flathead Indian Reservation and teaches music at Sussex School in Missoula.


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