- Stefan Poulos
There's a reason that local singer-songwriter Talia Keys earned the City Weekly's Best of Utah Music Reader's Choice award—the girl works her ass off. By the time she meets me for our interview, she's already played a month of shows up and down the West Coast. Next month, Keys heads northeast for a string of shows that will take her to Chicago, New York City, Maine, Vermont and Michigan, before coming back home to SLC via stops in Idaho and Ogden. After some local gigs in early August—including coordinating gear for and performing at the six-day Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls—she'll spend the last half of the month hitting New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Florida and Tennessee.
Keys' musical motivation took seed early on, when she learned piano at 9, drums at 10 and guitar at 16. But it wasn't until she played with her first band, Marinade, when she realized that performing passionate, politically charged music was going to be a big part of her future. "With Marinade, we started in my mom's living room, getting drunk and playing jam band music," Keys says. Marinade recorded their first album Soak Your Meat in This... in August of 2012 with famed local producer Mike Sasich of Man vs. Music. It's a tasty mix of bass-heavy funk and grimy, blues-inspired guitar, and it's the sonic foundation for what would eventually become Keys' solo career.
It was her collaboration with Marinade on the song "Me" that caught the attention of local author and filmmaker Bill Kerig. "For the last two seasons, I've been Alta's resident musician. I was playing at the base of the lift when [Kerig] heard me," Keys says. Kerig soon discovered the music video for "Me" that was filmed and produced by Keys' partner Melahn Atkinson. "We shot the video all over Utah—Capitol Hill, Temple Square, the Salt Flats, City Creek—and Kerig loved it," Keys says. This experience led to Keys and her music occupying a large role in Ski City's ad campaign. "My mom taught me to ski when I was six, and I've worked in the skiing industry for a long time. It was cool to see things come full circle like that," Keys says.
After spending eight years with Marinade, Keys eventually came to the decision to begin a solo career; "Going solo was the only way to tour," she says. And "solo" means solo: Keys developed Gemini Mind, a one-woman looping project where she plays guitar, synthesizer and a drum machine while also singing and beat-boxing. At home, she also performs with another solo project, Talia Keys & Friends, but for touring purposes, "the main focus is Gemini Mind," she says, because "touring with a band is not financially responsible." Going it alone also affords her maximum mobility, which is good for someone so kinetic.
Keys started by hitting up venues in towns that are known for their music scenes: New Orleans, Austin, Nashville and Memphis. As you can tell by her summer plans, she continued to hit the road hard. "We don't have much of an online presence, but we are out there pushing it on the ground," she says.
In 2014, Keys recorded the Gemini Mind EP, once again with Sasich. Unlike her one-woman live show, Keys only plays all of the instruments on "In My Beer" and "Face in the Clouds." The rest of the album features James "Dad" Trevino of Marinade (not her actual father who, sadly, passed away earlier this year), and members of her older band, Lady Legs. Gemini Mind represents a turning point in Keys' musical career. Not only did it solidify her blues-funk-rock sound, but it established her presence as a fiery advocate for equality and human rights.
Last year, Keys released Fool's Gold under her own name. Although it consists of songs more suited to the band format, the record finds Keys further embracing her abilities as a musical powerhouse. In addition to singing, she plays guitar and drums on every track. Dan Nelson's horn arrangements throughout the album make each song explode, and provide a perfect complement to Keys' freight-train vocals. Songs like "No Justice No Peace" and "Help Me" demonstrate that Keys hasn't forgotten her political activism. "America is beautiful," Keys says, "but we have so many beautiful people that are being held down unless they're in that top [income] percentage. That's what we fight for."
June is a relatively slow month for Keys, but it held one of the season's highlights for her—one that combined her two passions. As we wrap up our conversation, she reflects fondly on her recent performance at the Utah Pride Festival two weeks ago. "Coming back to Salt Lake [after touring] reminded me why I play music," she says, "We have this counterculture here—I don't know how to explain it, but it's special and I felt it at Pride."