BY JOEY GRIHALVA
In 2018, Kellen was feeling stuck in his work. He had what he thought was an album worth of material, but he didn’t know how to move forward with it. David invited him over for dinner and to listen to what he had. Together they would organize the songs into three categories: songs that simply needed a finishing polish, those in the middle that needed a bit of work, and the rough drafts that would require considerably more time.
“The goal was to start with the low-hanging fruit. That would give him the impetus to continue with the rest of it. When we sat down and listened to it, I said, ‘Kellen, I can’t put these in three categories. They’re all pretty much in that first category, maybe a little bit in the second. You’ve got something great here. What do you need to complete it?’”
At the time, Kellen was living in a house on the northern edge of Bay View. He had no qualms with the space, but he needed a change of scenery to finish the album. He had previously house-sat for David, taken care of his dog Stan and created music in his home.
“I don’t know who suggested it,” says David, “if it was me or him, but the idea was, ‘Why don’t you just make it here?’ He liked that idea a lot and we set up the study to be his studio. He spent the summer of 2018 there making QUIET, which was, for so many reasons, an extraordinary process.
“He would come over frequently. He would sit down, we’d chat a little bit, and he’d go into the study and work. Stan was always really happy when Kellen came over. He’d go into the study and just hang out while Kellen was making work. And sometimes at the end of it Kellen would call me in to listen to something, and sometimes he wouldn’t.
“I got to see Kellen’s process up close, and it blew me away. For all the anxiety that he feels in his daily life, when he was creating, he was calm, he was professional, he was workmanlike. He would try something out and say, ‘Oh, that doesn’t work.’ Rather than see it as a dead end and feel anxious about it, he’d say, ‘Fine, let’s do this instead.’ It was the calmest I’ve ever seen him.”
The morning David and I spoke on his patio, he invited me into his study. It’s a small room, about a hundred square feet, on the northeastern side of the house, just off the bathroom. David told me about a QUIET recording session with SistaStrings, Johanna Rose and Carl Nichols, who had to play his guitar in the bathroom because there was no more space. The study has two standing bookshelves, a couch along the windows and a desk with another bookshelf on top. Among the many books are photographs of David’s family, friends and his late wife, Phylis. There are also objects like Phylis’ glasses and an original Elsie the Cow, Phylis’ favorite stuffed animal.
“I was trying to figure out for the longest time why this space was so resonant for Kellen,” says David. “One day I was sitting here listening to him and looking around and I realized, ‘This room is really thick with history.’ I don’t think he knew what the history was. Sometimes I would tell him certain things. But I knew he felt that sense of history.”
David, like Kellen, had no interest in leaving his home after Phylis died. He tells me that he can still feel her presence there today.
“My dad died in ’95. He was 66 years old. I’ll be 66 next year. The turtle is a totem animal for him, which is why there are turtles throughout the house. One thing Kellen did that was really uncanny, because it was before we even talked about it, is he brought in this small sculpture of a robin and set it next to the turtle. He didn’t know what the turtle was, but he just got it and felt it, and wanted that history to be in this room.”
During this dark period in Kellen’s journey, there was another elder who helped guide him, Elzora Collins. She runs Fokus Family Services, which is just east of I-43, half a block south of West Locust Street on Vel R. Phillips Avenue.
“She immediately took to me, she was very matriarchal. I think she could see my pain. Half of her life she was involved in prostitution, selling, using, anything you can think of.
Then she just made this turn. And on top of it, she committed to helping other people. I remember having very real conversations with her. She would be like, ‘So we got your results. You want to tell me why there’s still coke in there?’
EVENT: SONSET: An Intimate Performance and Book Reading, the second book release event for The Milwaukeean: A Tale of Tragedy and Triumph, will be on Saturday, Aug. 13 at 7 p.m. at For Martha, 825 E. Center St.
“It was never a scolding. She was like, ‘I know it’s hard, but you have to.’ Just really pushed me to stop and explain why it was still happening.
“A big part of sobriety and the 12 steps is people, places and things. It’s about distancing yourself from your old habits. She knew, and we talked about it often, that it was not a reality for me. As long as I’m a musician and as long as I’m an entertainer, these things will always be around. I certainly wasn’t going to quit pursuing music because of it. She helped a lot with that. I don’t think I ever got to the point where I needed it to create, but it definitely became a part of the routine, so I guess it’s kind of blurry at that point.”
Getting clean enough to complete rehab took Kellen two years, while the courts said it should have taken six months.
“In that drug program, I wrote ‘SERENITY’ during one of our classes. We were talking about the idea of serenity. We were supposed to be writing something in our journal, but I just wrote that verse. I wrote the chorus to the music, but that came second. I already had the verse.
“It was one of the first moments of having any hope, of believing that I was going to be able to pull myself out of this. I’ve always struggled with the process. The first thing you have to do is surrender, which is like admitting defeat. In some ways, I still haven’t. But the powerful thing about serenity is the balance. It’s this trifecta of knowing the difference between that which you have control over and that which you don’t, having the courage to change the things you can, and the intelligence to leave well enough alone, because you’ll kill yourself trying to change those things. That really resonated with me.
“There was a shift in me from that moment on. What that did for the process of the album, how many more songs were written after that, in that spurt of time, it came from specifically talking about that idea.”
THERE ARE THREE guest artists whose names appear on the tracklist for QUIET. Saba recorded his verse for “NOISE” back in 2016, the same year he appeared on fellow Chicagoan Chance the Rapper’s Grammy-winning record Coloring Book. SistaStrings appear on “SPIRIT,” QUIET’s soaring finale. And Marielle Allschwang sings alongside Kellen on “P&Q,” the album’s second track.
Marielle was raised on the northwest side of town. Her mother came to the United States from the Philippines. Her paternal grandmother was a Holocaust survivor, the only in her family. Marielle’s father was a social worker who would take calls in the middle of the night. Empathy was a major part of the psychic environment that Marielle grew up in. When we spoke in the summer of 2020, social and political upheaval were at the front of her mind.
“Milwaukee is the soil that I emerged from, but I also feel like a stranger in this land. I am the result of so many different migrations. At the same time, I am tied to this land, and I want to be respectful of that. I’ve tried to put that in my music and in my lyrics.”
Marielle and Kellen first met when he came in to record with Group of the Altos. “I would do a little dance and he would join me. I thought, ‘OK, we can be buds.’ I think the playfulness of his personality, something about him felt really familiar and warm to me. I felt like I could relax and be myself around him. I could just be weird, and he would reciprocate with a similar weirdness and openness.”
When Marielle learned that Kellen was at David’s house recording QUIET, she reached out.
“For years, he would be like, ‘Oh I want to produce a thing with you,’ or ‘We should collaborate on something,’ and I was like, ‘You know what Kellen, I’ll just call you.’ I was proactive. I thought it would be fun. So I went over to David’s house, and he taught me this part and that was basically it, nothing too fancy. We were hanging out from mid-morning into the evening. I don’t know how something can take several hours when it’s like three lines, but he was very patient with me, and I was very lucky to do that.
“Kellen always wants to learn. He always wants to push himself and offer something that others can learn from through his performances. I really admire the electricity that he puts into his performances. … He seems to be more and more interested in showing more of himself through his music, like shedding the layers, which I really admire and am grateful for.”