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Local singer-songwriter Kelly Moreno releases "Mourning Lullaby"

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SOOTHE YOUR SOUL Singer-songwriter and psychologist Kelly Moreno releases a song about mourning, "Mourning Lullaby." - PHOTO COURTESY OF ANN MCMAHON
  • Photo Courtesy Of Ann Mcmahon
  • SOOTHE YOUR SOUL Singer-songwriter and psychologist Kelly Moreno releases a song about mourning, "Mourning Lullaby."

You or people you know are probably going to lose someone before this whole COVID-19 pandemic is over, and it's going to hurt. Social distancing and sheltering in place is already taking a heavy psychological toll on all of us. I don't know about you, but I'm pretty stressed out. I do take comfort, however, in the way artists try to make sense of our collective pain, how they take universal feelings and help us understand them and process them.

One local artist, Kelly Moreno, has just released a song called "Mourning Lullaby," which he wrote for his stepmother after his father died.

"Like a tree deep in the wood/ Who will hear you when you fall/ Who will see you when you're down/ Now that there's no one around," he sings in his rumbling baritone. "The cane has no hand to hold/ The chair's wheels, nowhere to roll/ The vice has lost its grip/ Without the wind, the flag hugs the pole// It's gonna be alright/ It's gonna be alright/ It's gonna be alright/ Gonna be alright."

Moreno is a Cal Poly professor of psychology and director of training for the university's psychology master's program, so he knows a thing or two about grief counseling. He's also author of the novel A Duty to Betray, a psychological thriller New Times wrote about in 2016 ("Cal Poly professor Kelly Moreno offers an insider's account of psychosis in debut novel A Duty to Betray," April 27, 2016). It was Moreno's first novel, and now—at age 63—he's about to release his first album of original songs. The debut single, "Mourning Lullaby," is available now on SoundCloud and Reverbnation under the name JK Moreno.

The song's most poignant moment comes at the end: "They say this hurt will end/ You shake your head and turn away/ With no pain, there's nothing left/ It's in the ache, that he remains."

"Three years ago, my father died, and my stepmother quickly collapsed. She became a shell of her normally optimistic and energetic self, and liquidating their estate, combating predators, and retiring to a seniors' home left her beyond depressed," Moreno recalled.

"Yet she resisted reassurance. She would not let go, especially with respect to her despair. Family and friends became increasingly frustrated because she couldn't quit talking about her husband and took no relief from their help. What they didn't understand was the comfort she found in her pain," Moreno explained. "As a society, we still don't fully understand loss, particularly how it differs from death. In death, someone or something is gone; in loss, there is nothing left. No matter how badly we feel about someone's dying, sometimes it beats the alternative—feeling nothing at all."

Wise words for our time. But what took him so long?

"My mother's a concert pianist, so I grew up around music, and my father had a beautiful voice," Moreno explained, "but I got to grad school and got busy and put my guitar down."

Like a lot of artists, life and the need to earn a living and develop a career got in the way. Cut to 25 years later.

"I was suffering from depression. It was 2011, and A Duty to Betray was at an impasse," Moreno recalled. "I was telling my accountant how miserable I was and how I felt bad I felt. My family was great, Cal Poly was great, but I wasn't happy."

His accountant had a casual band and would get together with other players every Sunday and jam, and he invited Moreno.

"I dusted off my guitar and played with them that Sunday and I never left. I kept going back every Sunday. My mood improved and I started writing," he said.

Moreno also started playing with the Tax Band, as they called themselves, mostly playing cover songs.

"I actually tried to start making an album a couple years ago," Moreno said, but it never quite happened. "Then we played The Siren last May, and I did four of my originals. [Music producer Rob Vermeulen was in the audience, and] afterwards Rob pulled me aside after and told me had a studio in Morro Bay, so I called him up."

"We hit it off right away," Vermeulen said. "I'm not a cover band person, though I've played a lot of covers over the years in different bands, but I get excited about original material, and I think Kelly is an awesome storyteller with great substance and cool songs."

Now Moreno has 10 songs that he's recorded with Vermeulen of Robbo Music. His debut album is nearing completion.

"I'm almost sad it's over," Vermeulen said. "I had a blast arranging these songs."

I've heard a few of the 10 tracks, and they often wrestle with thorny subjects, such as "Guns Don't Kill," about unintended gun deaths among children who gain access to their parents' unsecured firearms.

"It's dark but it's intended to tell a story about what's often forgotten in gun issues, which is that women and children are the most common victims," Moreno said. "It happens daily, but gun violence only gets attention when there's a mass shooting."

There's also "Get Me Back to Missoula," which really highlights Vermeulen's production skills. It sounds like there's a full horn section, but I think it's Vermeulen on keys. The song's a real barn burner with a super hooky chorus. Moreno noted that he wrote that song and a few others with Ed Larik, who also sang backup on some songs.

"Yes, that would be mostly me," Vermeulen said of the album's instrumentation. "I hired Sean Sullivan on drums—he's now playing for Brass Mash and is the drummer for Damon Castillo, and my wife, LeeAnn, is on grand piano and backing vocals."

Full disclosure—LeeAnn Vermeulen is a New Times sales rep.

"The coolest part of working with Rob is to hear something in my head and Rob just gets it," Moreno said, "like these horn sections on these different songs. Rob also injected different instrument and sounds I hadn't considered, like this great Rickenbacker guitar sound and different ways in which to mix vocals."

Going from writing a full-length novel to writing three-minute songs must be a challenge.

"When you write a novel, you have to keep the reader interested from page to page and scene to scene," Moreno said. "Kill your darlings [as they say of the editing process]. But writing a three-minute song? Talk about the quintessential exercise in economy—there's no room for fat on the bone, and when you couple that with the song structure of verses, choruses, and a bridge, you've got a matrix of complications."

Moreno and Vermeulen don't have a hard release date for the album, and as far as an album release party, that's definitely up in the air, so for now you'll have to satisfy yourself with "Mourning Lullaby," a song for our times.

UKULELE YOU Maybe in Time—aka Mae Blonski—will play a Facebook Live streaming concert on April 11. - PHOTO COURTESY OF MAYBE IN TIME
  • Photo Courtesy Of Maybe In Time
  • UKULELE YOU Maybe in Time—aka Mae Blonski—will play a Facebook Live streaming concert on April 11.

Live stream!

Only one person contacted me about a live streaming show this week, Maybe in Time—aka Mae Blonski—a ukulele player with a gorgeous voice and a charming online "stage" presence, who'll be doing a concert this Saturday, April 11, at 4 p.m. on Facebook Live (facebook.com/events/214706723193400/). She says she sings songs about "anxiety and hope." I watched her first stream after the fact. She did a great version of The Beach Boys ballad "In my Room." Solid ukulele player! Totally worth watching!

If you're a local act with a streaming show coming up, send me the details. Let's keep this ball rolling! Δ

Keep up with New Times Senior Staff Writer Glen Starkey via Twitter at twitter.com/glenstarkey, friend him at facebook.com/glenstarkey, or contact him at gstarkey@newtimesslo.com.

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