Under the Sun

Phoenix Singer-Songwriter Lonna Kelley Is Heading Home to Tucson

Lonna Kelley

Phoenix can be kind of a harsh city,” said singer-songwriter Lonna Kelley. “When we were all starting out, creating the downtown arts scene, there was nothing else here. There was freedom to do what we wanted — kids in an ugly city, fending for ourselves on the outskirts of suburban American. There was an edge to Phoenix then, and there’s less of one now.”

And so Kelley is relocating to Tucson, where she’s been a headliner for years. “I’ve lived in Phoenix for 25 years now, but I’ve spent so much time making music in Tucson,” she explained during a recent phone call. “Tucson always felt like my home.”

She helped brand Phoenix’s downtown art scene in the early 1990s, back when big-deal artists like Steve Yazzie and Robert Anderson and Jeff Cochran were just getting going. “I was in Jeff’s movie, Punk James,” she said. “We had Three Car Pileup, and Metropophobobia, and there were all these shitty little galleries, back when First Fridays was just this sad little thing.”

Downtown Phoenix was more exciting back then, Kelley said.

“People were afraid to come down here. The office workers would go home, and it was just the people working the streets and the transient folks. At night, it was scary. But there was cheap-ass rent. I lived at the Westminster, in this gorgeous two-bedroom place with high ceilings and crown molding and huge windows, for $450 a month. It was a scene where you could become what you’d wanted to be all along.”

She’d wanted to write songs. At 14, she picked up her mother’s guitar. “I had an old chord book, and I sat in my room and taught myself to play,” is how she remembered it. She wrote a bunch of sad songs and tried to play them for musicians she knew.

“But they were all dudes,” she said. “They were more interested in showing me their guitar skills than paying any attention to me.”

Not long after, Kelley met someone who did pay attention. “I didn’t know her for very long, but she completely changed my life. She was this Canadian punk rocker with a shaved head who I met in my high school guitar class. She pulled me aside and said, ‘You know dudes suck, right? Girls can be in bands, too.’ She took me to a Bikini Kill show and told me, ‘This is what we should be doing. Playing our music. Fuck dudes.’”

Later, a writing professor cornered Kelley and asked what she wanted to do with her life. When Kelley admitted she wanted to write and perform her own songs, the woman told her to go find an open mic night somewhere. “And that was it for me,” Kelley recalled. “I had my little songs and my guitar, and I started playing around town.”

Fatigo singer Mike Montoya heard Kelley sing and introduced her to other local musicians. With percussionist Shane Kennedy, she formed an alt-country band called Lonna Kelley and the Reluctant Messiahs (later Lonna Kelley and the Broken Hearted Lovers, “because Reluctant Messiahs was such a stupid name for a band”); Jeremy Randall played guitar. Kelley’s love of Tucson really began then.

“Shane said if we want to do well, we needed to play Tucson,” she remembered. “The audience there understood what we were doing. Dave Slutes from the Sand Rubies loved us. He was booking acts at the Hotel Congress, and he gave us amazing bookings. We opened for Magnolia Electric Co. and M. Ward, and we were sort of on our way.”

Kelley met Tucson music legend Howe Gelb during this time and began playing with Giant Sand, Gelb’s fabled musical collective. “I was in Tucson recording an album, and he asked me to open for him on a European tour. I had a week to get my passport and pack. I was 25 and all of a sudden I’m playing all over Europe.”

It was a heady time. She toured with Howe for nearly a decade; somewhere in there, she sang on a Sand Rubies song. “They’re huge in Europe, so I’d be playing with Howe and after the show people would corner me with that Sand Rubies record and ask me to sign it.”

After Broken Hearted Lovers broke up in 2006, Kelley fronted other local bands including Cherie Cherie, and took to releasing her own albums and playing to crowds in Tucson. Yet she still called Phoenix home.

Now, she’s looking forward to leaving. “Some of the magic of Phoenix has passed,” she said. “Some of that magic will come back later on down the road. But I won’t be here then. I’ve been in Phoenix a really long while, and it’s time to be somewhere else now.”