Kellin Watson calls to say she is running late. The reason, she explains later, is that she was painting a room in the Black Mountain home where she lives with her parents.
The paint job was in preparation for the arrival of family friends the Duhks, an increasingly drooled-over Canadian quintet for whom Kellin will open this Saturday at Stella Blue.
“They stay with us when they come to town,” she reveals. Watson, who has played and recorded with the Duhks before, boasts a particularly advantageous musical pedigree, and has been steadily gaining attention both locally and around the Southeast since becoming a full-time musician at the enviable age of 23.
After a few bouts with college life, the singer/guitarist moved back home with her parents in order to devote all her energy to music. Talking her father into the idea took some effort, she says, but she eventually persuaded him she should quit school and go for it. Such motivation was not alien to David “Fox” Watson, who, as a younger man, played guitar for several big-name musicians, including Bruce Cockburn. Kellin points out that her mother’s father was a musician, as well.
“It goes really far back on both sides,” she says. While her singing reflects a deep respect for soul and gospel, she didn’t always embrace the style. “I was very against it until I was in high school,” she admits. “But that soul vibe has always been underlying.” As she grew into songwriting, those early influences rose to the top. The 2003 release of Kellin’s first full-length CD, Paper Bird, as well as an increase in touring efforts, brought accolades and much local attention.
It didn’t hurt, of course, that her father, host of the WNCW show “Celtic Winds,” got a foothold for his daughter’s album at 88.7 — but it was the radio station’s annual listeners’ poll that placed the record in the year’s Top 100. Through 10 tracks, Kellin belies her youth with surprising soul and depth. Comparisons to other young, smoky, female vocalists ring true, but Kellin is separated by some particularly capable acoustic-guitar work.
Since the CD’s release, as any full-time musician should, she’s been working to extend her fan base. “The idea is to get as big a following as you can,” she says. Watson has made several forays onto the college circuit, where she’s earned favorable reviews in college newspapers and local press. Another family connection landed her an unlikely gig: opening up for Jessica Simpson (yes, that Jessica Simpson) in Raleigh.
“That was so random,” she says now. At the time, Kellin almost didn’t accept the dubious opportunity to link her name with the tabloid diva — but her family talked her into it.
After playing such a large venue, her show at Stella Blue will be familiar territory, as will sharing the stage with the Duhks. Hailing from Manitoba, the group of three men and two women, recently signed to Sugar Hill, are also promoting a new album. Theirs is an urgent form of folk (strains of Celtic, Appalachian and gypsy jazz all get their turn) highlighted by strong vocal harmonies and complex rhythms. Once again, Kellin finds herself flocking with the right crowd.
[Brian Postelle is a regular contributor to Mountain Xpress.]
Kellin Watson opens for the Duhks at Stella Blue (31 Patton Ave.) on Saturday, May 14. 10 p.m. $10. 236-2424.