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Kelly Moran: ‘It’s always inspiring to me how the people of Ireland have always been so outspoken’

The Irish-American experimental composer, whose new album is gut-punchingly beautiful, on making music and standing up for what you believe in

Kelly Moran is shaken but unstirred as she dials in via Zoom. A rare earthquake has just struck New York, and although the experimental composer and pianist is still processing the surprise, she does not seem unduly flummoxed. “My roommate and I were talking, and our apartment started shaking. And it was, ‘This feels a little stronger than the air conditioning turning on’. It’s crazy.”

Moran’s music is a sort of earthquake in reverse: still on the surface, molten and tectonic beneath. That is particularly true of her gut-punchingly beautiful new album, Moves in the Field, which the young Irish-American musician will be performing music from in Dublin this weekend. The project has deeply intimate origins, she says, arising from the stillness of lockdown and upheavals in her family life on the northern shore of Long Island.

“I moved home right before the pandemic. It’s a little personal – my parents split up. I’m 36. It’s strange for your parents to split this late in life. My parents are both 70. For them to split in their late 60s was a really big shock for me. It was so abrupt. My dad left my mom because he met someone, and he left really quick. It was such a huge shift for my family. At the time I felt, ‘I have to go be there for my mom, so she’s not alone’.”

As this was happening Moran was formulating a plan to record an upbeat album that would go down well at festivals. Then Covid struck. Her touring dried up, and her label told her to take all the time she needed with her next LP. Back at the family home, with her dad gone, each day was like wading through fog.


Moving home “wasn’t intended to be a long-term thing”, she says. “It was such an intense time for both of us. Because obviously she’s reeling from the personal tragedy of the divorce with my dad. I’m processing that, and I’m processing the loss of all my income and all of my gigs, and just watching my future crumble.”

She has turned that darkness into light on Moves in the Field. Beyond its hypnotic grooves, the album is about an artist venturing past her comfort zone. She recorded it using a Disklavier, a type of piano that can record and then reproduce a performance, like an extremely sophisticated pianola; Moran was able to use the instrument, which Yamaha loaned her, as a sort of piano loop pedal.

This was something new. Moran, a classically trained graduate of the University of Michigan and the University of California, has specialised in “prepared” piano, which is to say a piano with objects placed on or between the strings, or with strings retuned to create an unusual tonal effect. But the Disklavier allowed her to play along with herself, which unlocked something in her writing and brought a previously untapped emotional weight.

Moran’s paternal grandfather is Irish; growing up, the family were stereotypically devout Irish-American Catholics

“It was a scary time for me. Honestly, the Disklavier really saved me. I lost all of my motivation to make music. The record I was going to make, I wanted to make something really dancey that I could play at festivals, that people could party to. And all of a sudden I was, like, ‘Oh my God, this world doesn’t exist any more’.”

Moran draws on many inspirations. When she was in her 20s she was in a no-wave punk band with the future TikTok megastar Mitski. She lists the electronic outfit Telefon Tel Aviv and the avant-garde metal band Kayo Dot as among her influences. Moves in the Field, meanwhile, draws on her love of Tori Amos – particularly Amos’s album Boys for Pele, perhaps best known for the song Professional Widow.

Amos’s music, and that record in particular, have become even more impactful over time, she says. When she listens to Boys for Pele today she is struck by its use of metaphor and subtext, a novelty in an era when musicians are hyperspecific in their lyrics and trip over themselves to tell you exactly how they feel in the most literal terms possible.

“I was reading this article about how, now, modern pop lyrics, there’s almost no abstraction in them,” she says. “[About] how many pop songs are meant to be quoted and are meant to be soundbites. Someone posted a video of this new pop star, and the entire video was her just singing ‘I’ statements about herself. There’s no nuance or anything.”

She pauses. “Man, it makes me appreciate how abstract Tori Amos was – she was writing something that was so personal herself that she doesn’t give a f**k if someone doesn’t understand what this metaphor is, or if people have to do more work to understand it. You may not understand what a lyric means, but maybe if you listen to the song a few times, or think about it in context, it will make more sense to you.”

Moran’s paternal grandfather is Irish; growing up, the family were stereotypically devout Irish-American Catholics. She talks with pride of performing in Ireland for the first time last October, at the Haunted Dancehall festival at the National Concert Hall. Moran is especially supportive of Irish musicians’ decision to boycott this year’s South by Southwest music festival, in Texas, because of the US army’s sponsorship of the event. During her concerts she makes a point of speaking out about Gaza, she says. The reaction can be mixed. When she spoke in Dublin last year, she was struck by the solidarity she felt in the room.

“It made me very proud. It means so much. I’m an American, but I have Irish roots. When you know the history of what the Irish people have gone through, it’s, like, yeah, of course they understand what is happening in a way that most other countries don’t, because they’ve been through this before. It’s always inspiring to me how the people of Ireland have always been so outspoken. They’ve always been on the right side of history about this.”

Kelly Moran is at the Pavilion Theatre in Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin, on Sunday, April 28th