Two particular personal memories come to mind about rising British talent Kezia Gill. Both demonstrate the dynamic, devil-may-care attitude that she applies to her increasingly admired career.
The first was at the 2017 Country To Country Festival in London, where, dreamlike as it now seems, a packed IndigO2 had just been enjoying The Shires on the BBC Radio 2 Stage, when I bounded on to introduce the next attraction, Florida's Cassadee Pope. As I headed back towards the network's digital pop-up station HQ, Gill appeared out of the crowd, where she'd put herself in the right place to grab a word and hand me her debut album, Kezia. I took it home, played it and noted the striking and spirited songwriting of a roots-country name to watch.
By the time of the second memory, Gill had achieved recognition for the album's sharp opening tune, 'House of Cards', won CCN and BCMA Awards and toured in Australia. Our paths crossed again at the Long Road Festival in 2019, where this time I was co-hosting the BBC Introducing Stage. Kezia owned it, leading her band through a rocking crowd-pleaser of a set in which, at one stage, she had her foot up on the keyboard, Jerry Lee-style.
Since then, she's enjoyed ever more attention at BBC Radio 2, where the formidable 'Whiskey Drinkin' Woman' progressed from Bob Harris' country show to the station playlist, and where Harris continued to feature Kezia throughout the year. As the curtain rose on 2021, we Zoomed for a catch-up, discussing a view of what's next and some of her unusual back story.
I still fondly remember that time you jumped out of the crowd at me at C2C, especially as you're the Queen of BBC Radio 2 now!
Yes! Fortune favours the brave. BBC Radio 2 have just been so supportive this last year. When C2C announced it wasn't going to be going ahead in 2020, I got the phone call the day before, and Mark [Hagen, producer of Bob Harris' country show] asked if I could come down to Wogan House. We had a lovely hour before the live broadcast, and it was the first time I'd met Bob. He was just a genuine guy, he was as interested in me as I was in him, and I obviously did enough to impress him, because he's supported me ever since. As an unsigned artist, I couldn't ask for more. The playlist for 'Whiskey Drinkin' Woman' was out of the blue. I was in Nashville. Suddenly my Facebook went mad, and there was me alongside Twinnie and Luke Combs. I nearly fell off my chair.
'Whiskey Drinkin' Woman' is almost a southern rock'n'roll song, but there seems to be a lot of variety in what you write.
People love to put you in a box and tie it up with a bow. It's never been that simple, and I'm starting to explore more of an Americana sound. Rawer, more electric guitars, for example. I just thought, I'll make music and if people want to listen to it, it's up to them. Life's too short to try and conform.
Where does your energy and confidence as a performer come from?
I've always been a live artist. I've been singing in pubs and clubs since I was 13, so for me a crowd is as good as anything. All the time, people ask me, “Who are you like?”, and I go, “I can't put my finger on it”. I might be sat with a guitar singing a really meaningful ballad, or do a crazy old school rock 'n' roll song and I want you jiving. You never quite know what you're going to get.
Was there a record or artist that locked you on this path?
From a pure vocalist point of view, it was Patsy Cline, which I know is such a clichéd answer for a female country singer. But it was one of the first cassettes that I owned. My dad bought it for me, and it was called Queen of Country. That voice did something to me, and cemented that I was going to sing like her and tell stories like her. It’s a million miles away from the style I've adapted, but the fundamentals are the same. She taught me a lot.
How old were you when you got that cassette?
Really young, five or six. I did my first public stage appearance when I was seven, and I already had quite a catalogue [of covers] by then. It was all the influence of my dad, because he was a singer – not a songwriter, but a full-time performer, so there was always music in the house, Dylan, Roy Orbison. I loved Elvis and Willie Nelson, and these were all songs that dad sung. He got a summer season out in Corfu, and one day he was playing one of his shows and I just got up. I sang a song called 'Sailor', and I was dressed in a little sailor suit. Something lit in me. Every time my dad did a show, I'd get up and sing. So I had to learn more songs, and that's when 'Crazy', 'Walking After Midnight', 'Always On My Mind' came in. That's the way it always was, until he died this past year. I'd always sing with dad.
Have your influences always been mainly country?
They were, and even when I started to be influenced by my own generation's culture, I would still always listen to the old stuff, so my CD collection was quite eclectic. I'd listen to a bit of Spice Girls, but then I'd want some Kris Kristofferson. Or I'd want some Dylan, then I'd have some Steps. When I got slightly older I discovered the beauty of playing guitar, and I remember hearing Eva Cassidy for the first time. Dad gave me the Songbird CD. So then I just wanted to play guitar like her, and that opened up a whole world of acoustic, like Simon & Garfunkel. He always used to say, “Kezia, you're not Dylan”, because I'd write seven-verse songs! But growing up listening to songs like 'Mr. Tambourine Man', you never followed the chorus-verse rule. It took some considerable time before I started to finesse the art of songwriting and discover what a hook was.
But you're planning another album, so you'll be able to stretch out there.
That's the beauty of doing it. You have a bit more artistic licence and I'm looking forward to exploring that. I've done quite a lot of singles and a couple of EPs, so I think I'm ready to throw myself into another album project.
You live in Derby now - have you always been in the midlands?
I was born in Nottingham in England, grew up in Longeaton, then we moved to Derby when I was 11 or 12. But I moved to Lanzarote at 18 and spent seven years there. I call those years the apprenticeship, because that's where I really learned my craft, doing nine shows a week for intoxicated holidaymakers! I went there on holiday with my college friends. One night we were in an Irish bar, and I did four or five songs. They were all screaming for more and when I came off stage, the owner of the bar said, “I'll give you five nights a week”. I said, “Let me finish college, I'll come back this time next year and you've got a deal”. The plan was only to do six months, and I stayed seven years. It's where I met my husband, and it was absolutely the best time of my life.
And even if gigs have been out lately, you've kept the connection with fans via livestreams.
I always say I don't like to use the ‘f-word’ when I talk about fans. It feels very vulgar when I talk about fans. So on a Friday night when people tune in to watch my livestream, I like to say they're my friends. When we go into the big, scary world of live performance again, I'm going to be the most popular I've ever been, and I can't wait!
Photography courtesy of Kezia Gill.