Sir Woman’s Kelsey Wilson on R&B, sobriety and how solo projects saved Wild Child
The video for Sir Woman’s “Making Love” offered a joyful reprieve in a summer marked by tedium and grief. DIY image quality is offset by ebullience as a collage of buoyant videos, featuring fans dancing, prancing and living their best lives at home, flashes across the screen, while Kelsey Wilson’s smoky voice slides over a bubbling funk jam.
“That song in particular was very important to me,” Wilson said during a September episode of Austin360’s streaming show, the Monday Music Mashup. “I wasn't in a good place. Didn't feel good about myself. And I was like, ‘What if I just wrote a song as if I did, and then when I sing the words over and over, it would just work its magic on me?’”
“Let me tell you that you have enough/ You don't need a bit of someone's love/ ’Cause when you are alone/ It's you I'm thinking of,” she swoons in the golden summer bop, which will appear on “Bitch,” the first EP from her Sir Woman solo project. It drops on Oct. 16.
“It just made me feel so powerful and sensual and strong,” Wilson said.
In April, she posted to her Instagram page a video of a young gentleman with a bright yellow bikini brief, a striking physique and easy seductive charm dancing to the song. She invited her fans to contribute their own clips “dancing to the song, just feeling good, doing whatever you want” for an official video.
“We got hundreds, and they were so beautiful,” she said.
Singer-songwriter and actress Savannah Welch, a friend of Wilson’s who lost a leg in 2016 after being hit by a vehicle, danced without her prosthetic for the first time. A couple of men decided to don dresses. Families performed choreographed routines together.
It was a glorious “celebration of love and self love,” Wilson said.
“It actually became a really cool thing for people in quarantine to do together, which I think is another reason it turned out so special,” she said.
A party prison
Though “Bitch” is the first EP from Sir Woman, Wilson is no stranger to the Austin scene. She has shared lead duties in the popular folk-rock outfit Wild Child with Alexander Beggins since she was 19. The band scored a sleeper hit with their debut album, “Pillow Talk,” in 2011, and the success led to years of relentless touring interspersed with breaks to record new music.
“It just blew our minds that it worked. It worked immediately and then just kept working,” she said.
But months bled into years, and in the blink of a thousand blurry-eyed mornings, Wilson had spent the better part of her 20s in a tour bus. By the end of 2018, she and Beggins were feeling burnt out.
“We had been on the road, like nine months out of the year for a decade. And that's just a long time to be away from home and in bars every day,” Wilson said.
While performing on stage is her “favorite thing to do in the world,” the pace was grueling. As audiences in each city arrived for a much-anticipated celebration, Wilson began to feel like she was in a “party prison,” she said.
It was the band’s duty to provide the upbeat vibes fans were craving, “but the truth behind it is you're just so tired. And you're so dirty. You want to take a shower and you want to go home and do laundry and see your dogs,” she said.
The band was surrounded by “people every night who just want to take a shot with you, or smoke a joint or whatever.” Sometimes the party was a party. But sometimes it turned dark. “And when you see a new crowd every day, no one's there to hold you accountable for how often it happens,” she said.
Unsure what the future held for the band, Wild Child took most of 2019 off.
Off the road and out of the bars, Wilson was able to tend to her soul in a way that she hadn’t for years.
“I got sober, started taking care of myself,” she said.
In the Wild Child world, there was always a fair amount of drinking, smoking and psychedelics.
“That third eye don't close, is what they tell me,” she said with a laugh. Wilson decided to cut substances out of her life. For a full year, she was completely clean — about a month of sobriety for every year she'd been using.
“The hardest part was thinking I would lose my community. Just because the community is so rooted in drugs and alcohol. That's the lifestyle. That's the creative juice. That's what your friends get together and do,” she said.
In retrospect, she believes her apprehensions were “just the addiction talking.”
“You don't lose people when you stop partying every day,” she said.
For six months, she adopted a hermetic life away from everyone. In time, she realized it was, in fact, possible to go to a bar and not drink.
“And it's totally fine. You start to like, hate your friends sometimes, but then you just leave,” she said with a laugh.
Wilson had always been caught up in the romance around the narrative of the tortured artist. She worried that sobriety would rob her of her voice. But as months of healthy living bolstered her spirit, she learned the opposite was true.
After about six months, she began to write prolifically. She was stretching out and exploring her voice.
“I'd only ever written with (Beggins). So just as an artist, it was important for me to figure out what Kelsey sounds like,” she said.
She knew the songs that she was writing were not Wild Child songs.
“With Wild Child, it's mainly fronted by a ukulele no matter what. And this music I was writing could not be played with the ukulele,” she said.
Wild Child’s sound skews toward whimsical twang, but away from the band, Wilson had always gravitated to soul, funk, gospel and R&B. “I've never really been able to explore those worlds. But that's all that I listened to,” she said.
Leaning into the sounds that inspired her was “scary,” but “incredibly rewarding,” she said. And being able to step away from the band “definitely saved Wild Child, for which I'm really grateful,” she said.
As “all the Sir Woman stuff started coming out,” it was a testament to the way Wilson’s outlook was changing.
“I was able to write songs about feeling good and loving yourself and lifting each other up instead of just songs about breakups and heartache and misery and loneliness,” she said.
She was creating music that healed her. “So now I know when I share this with the world, there are going to be people in the same place I was that I can lift,” she said.
Meet Sir Woman
It was a confused security guard who spied Wilson wandering around the woods of a music festival in a gender-indiscernible bundle of blankets who bestowed the name Sir Woman upon her. He called out “Sir!” and then “Woman!” and the name immediately clicked in Wilson’s head.
“It fits so well,” she said. “I just, like, grapple with my masculine side all the time.”
Throughout her years in Wild Child, stylists, makeup artists and label folks were always trying to find her a girlier style.
“Every festival you go to, everyone in the band, all the guys will get asked like, ‘What are your influences? What pedals do you use?’ Like all kinds of questions, and then they get to the one girl in the band. They're like, ‘Where do you shop?’” she said.
“I don't care about any of that. I never have and I never will,” she said.
Wilson began playing out as Sir Woman in mid-2019, and the project was an overnight success.
Her last gig before the coronavirus pandemic shutdown was the Austin Music Awards, where Sir Woman won best new artist despite the fact that she had only released a few singles.
“I love this city so much. I would not exist without Austin, Texas,” she said.
Wilson was gearing up for a big year. The canceled gigs on her roster included an opening slot at one of Black Pumas’ sold-out Stubb’s shows and a shared bill with Norah Jones and Mavis Staples.
“I was in the music family that I aspire to, the genre that I've always felt attached to and everything, and it was working. So it was definitely heartbreaking,” she said.
But like the rest of us, Wilson pivoted. She canned plans to release a full-length album called “Party City,” because the timing felt wrong. (Despite the celebratory name, the title track is actually about a hard night spent “basically saving a friend's life who's throwing up in their sleep,” she said.) Instead, she opted to put out a tightly curated collection of “the heaviest hitters,” the feel-good tracks that were “the medicine I want to give to the world right now.”
She opted to call the collection “Bitch” because she wanted to reclaim a term used as an insult to denigrate “a woman who's aggressive or outspoken or strong, qualities that any man can have and he’d be considered, like, a leader,” she said.
On her website, she’s selling 14-karat gold-plated “Bitch” necklaces, with 20% of proceeds going to the Marsha P. Johnson Institute (MPJI), which protects and defends the human rights of Black transgender people.
At this point, she doesn’t know when the full album will come out, but she’s still “writing like crazy. “So I could record another record, and then I just have two to drop whenever the time is right,” she said.
Wilson suspects a lot of “really good music is going to come out of this quarantine,” and as a consequence, “a lot of bad music is gonna fall through the cracks.”
“Maybe we'll get some substantial, heartfelt, important music, which I'm ready for,” she said. “Hopefully I'll be making more of that.”
ARTIST OF THE MONTH: SIR WOMAN
Band members: Kelsey Wilson (lead vocals), Spice (backing vocals), Roy Jr. (backing vocals), Taylor Craft (bass), Nik Lee (guitar), Amber Baker (drums), Dan Creamer (keyboards)
Releases: “Bitch” EP, 2020
Album release livestream: On Oct. 23; check sirwoman.com for details.