Smile Politely

The final bow: Tell Mama says goodbye

Since its inception in August of 2014, Tell Mama has been a staple of the Champaign-Urbana live circuit. The band, named after the Etta James song, was initially conceived as a reggae outfit before evolving into a soulful cover band, and has received many accolades for its down and dirty sound. The group cultivated a small but dedicated following as a result of their many appearances around town. Unfortunately, as the old adage goes, all good things must come to an end, as Tell Mama will be splitting after a final performance at Cowboy Monkey this upcoming Friday, May 12th. The breakup is amicable all around – the band’s bassist and founding member, Paul Winn, as well as the lead vocalist, Ryan Cannon-Scott, will both be moving from the Central Illinois area; as such, the band elected not to soldier on.

Though scheduling differences did not allow me to talk with the two leaders of Tell Mama, I was able to sit down and discuss the group’s separation with Kelsey Sharp, who serves a dual function as the group’s keyboardist and background vocalist. Though she has been an active member of the local music scene for years now, including performances with Snayl, her membership in Tell Mama was Sharp’s longest-running musical partnership to date. I was able to get her perspective on the group’s separation, her upcoming music-related endeavors, as well as what fans can expect for the final Tell Mama show.

Smile Politely: It feels kind of bittersweet to conduct an interview with the group’s final show on the horizon, but I’m glad to do it, because I know a lot of work went into making Tell Mama what it was. I know you weren’t there for the band’s formation, but can you give us some of your perspective on what joining/playing with the group was like?

Kelsey Sharp: I was a member of a short-lived band that had broken up about a month before I joined Tell Mama. I saw the group’s opening for a keyboard player, but I wasn’t exactly eager to jump directly into another musical project; however, I was persuaded to take a second look by Austin [Duncan], a.k.a. Snayl, who insisted that I give the group a shot. After listening to Tell Mama’s music, I fell in love and decided to audition. Right from the get-go, we all meshed together very well – within a couple of rehearsals, it felt like we found our groove. Though to be fair, the band was already a well-oiled machine, so it was easy to slide right in!

SP: Tell Mama is known for its very soulful, funky/jazzy bent. As someone who came into the group later, were you given specific musical directions, or were you and the other band members encouraged to bring their own influences to the table?

Sharp: I was definitely encouraged to bring my own creativity – in fact, that was a huge appeal in deciding to join the band. The band had an established set list, which they provided for me once I joined. I wasn’t given any sheet music, however – I learned the basic templates for each song through my own improvisation and via online lead sheets. Over time, the more comfortable I got with a song, the more I was able to put my own personal flair on it.

SP: What are some of the best memories you’ll take from Tell Mama? Any particular shows or onstage moments that stand out?

Sharp: My first show, about four weeks after I joined the band, was at Cowboy Monkey. I had no idea what to expect, both because I was a new member and because I hadn’t seen them live, so I didn’t know what kind of rapport they had with their audience. Needless to say, the first show was a huge success, and set the tone for many more successful shows at Cowboy Monkey. It was already fairly well established as a trademark venue for the band, and I felt more and more comfortable each time I played there – it kind of felt like a “home turf” for Tell Mama. I am super grateful for the experience I gained in the band, especially in terms of overcoming my own battles with stage fright and getting to experience all aspects of performing live on a regular basis.

SP: On a personal level, what’s next for you? Any new projects in the works?

Sharp: My primary project, which has only recently launched, is the OneVoice Songwriting Sessions. It is the result of a partnership with Community Choices and The Open Champaign project, and features local musicians leading group songwriting sessions that will focus on both the cathartic and creative aspects of making music. It is a collaborative event that will bring people with and without disabilities together to express themselves creatively through group songwriting. I had the pleasure of leading our first session, which premiered on April 15th at the Independent Media Center, with Denny Ellis leading the following session on the 22nd. The goal for this project is to become a weekly event, and ultimately lead to performances of the songs that are written by the various groups. We are currently rehearsing for a performance that features the first two songs that have been written during the sessions so far; stay tuned to the OneVoice Facebook page for upcoming information. Aside from that, I am also involved with the Parkland College record label, Perimeter Road Sound Recordings, from which the first Parkland student-based compilation album was recently released. It is through this partnership that I am hoping to record an EP of my own soon, with the help of my fellow Perimeter Road colleagues.

SP: Lastly, what do you have planned for the final show? Should we expect any surprises?

Sharp: I don’t want to give away too much, but we will be premiering some new covers. I am also excited to say that I will be singing lead vocals – something I haven’t done much of in Tell Mama – on one of my favorite Ray Charles songs. You’ll have to come to the show to find out which one!


Tell Mama is playing Cowboy Monkey tonight, May 12th, at 9 p.m. Tickets are $5.

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