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Scott Kelly – The Wizards of Winter

By: Lori Smerilson Carson

It’s always a remarkable feeling when you can pick up a snow globe, shake it and watch the flakes fall over the scene that you have chosen. Keyboardist/Composer Scott Kelly along with his wife Flautist/Vocalist Sharon Kelly, and their band The Wizards of Winter have centered their holiday shows around this magical element over the past several years, and are continuing their snow globe phenomenon in their current shows that will tour through the upcoming season. Having been founded in 2009 to help their local community food pantry, these extraordinarily talented musicians grew in popularity to release Tales Beneath a Northern Star in 2011. Then in 2014 they released their first original self-titled Christmas rock opera style album, and continued strong to release two more albums which feature fans favorites that they take on the road every holiday season. Florida fans can keep an eye open for concert dates that they are working toward confirming.

Catching up with Scott Kelly prior to the start of this season’s tour, he revealed some details about this new show that he and Sharon, along with Narrator Tony Gaynor, Lead Vocalists Guy LeMonnier and Manny Cabo, Lead Guitarists Fred Gorhau and Steve Brown, Drummer John O’Reilly, Bassist Greg Smith, Vocalist/Saxophonist Shawna Marie, Lead Vocalist/Aux. Keys Alexis Smith and Violinist/Vocalist Michelle Winters will be performing. He also gave some history about the band and their music, the charities they have been and are still involved with, his past experiences, and what fans can look forward to.

SFL Music: Starting with how the band came to be. It’s a great story about a local food pantry needing help?
Scott Kelly: Yep. It was the end of 2009 and the recession was raging, and there was a lot of people going to the food pantries locally and we noticed that the shelves were bare. I didn’t have a lot of money myself to stock them, so I reached out to just a couple local friend musicians and said, hey, you guys want to put something together? Let’s throw together a benefit concert, which we did. We learned the music of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra ‘cause I figured ok, we’re rock musicians. We’ll just cover some TSO songs with some other holiday hits and you know, do this benefit. We raised a few thousand dollars that first show and then people said, “Oh, well you’re doing one. You should do another one over here and another one over there.” So, we did a few shows that first year and we got the shelves stocked at the pantry, and then the next year, it was like well, if we’re gonna do this again, we should probably get away from TSO’s music and start trying to write some of our own. That’s how we got our start, but even the name Wizards of Winter was sort of a tongue in cheek kind of thing because TSO had “Wizards in Winter”. We sort of took a play on that name. We’re Wizards of Winter and we thought of it as like oh, WOW, the wow factor, at a time when we had bought a few lights on craigslist and we had no light person. We had a little lighting board that I ran with my feet as we played the show, and it was just a joke because we had no intension of it going any further. Really the one or two shows in the beginning, but it took on a life of its own. So, here we are. It just got bigger and bigger until in 2013, there was sort of a lot of infighting in TSO itself. A lot of the original members particularly from TSO West were honestly, they were sort of forced out of the band. They were sort of aging out as TSO tends to be younger other than the original Savatage guys. Most of the other members are younger over there. They heard about what we were doing and they had been trying to do their own original project called Kings of Christmas which had a failure to launch. So, at the time, Tommy Farese who was the voice of TSO particularly on the first album, he reached out and just said, “hey, love what you’re doing. Can we join you guys?” So, they did. We had four of them that first year. Over the years, nine former TSO members have joined the band. So, it’s a long way to answer your question, but that’s how we got here.

SFL Music: You have some really great musicians including of course, our friend Steve Brown.
Kelly: Absolutely! We love Steve. He was the local rock star around our town, right? We’re glad to get him. Him and of course, he’s really good friends with Greg Smith. That’s actually how we got Steve to join us was through Greg.

SFL Music: The last time I interviewed Steve, he said you and Sharon were “the geniuses and leaders behind the band.” What can fans look forward to with this year’s show?
Kelly: It’s a Christmas rock opera that we call the Christmas Dream, and it’s comprised of music from our first three albums plus some new music that honestly, if we get the money together, we’ll do another album. If not then it is what it is, but we’ll be playing some new music in there. It’s a story we take you on, well it’s a little different this year. Usually, it’s been on this metaphysical vehicle we call The Arctic Flyer and you go on a journey inside a snow globe in search of the meaning of Christmas. It’s got everything from the emotional roller coaster that people feel at the holidays. You know, some people are happy and joyous and you have the kids’ side of things, and then other people are a bit melancholy. So, it touches on all that. It touches on the religious aspects of course, of the first Christmas, and then it also looks in on homeless people, and then tries to encapsulate all that together into what people call the spirit of Christmas. What does that mean to them? So, we touch on all those points. This year “The Arctic Flyer” is gonna take a rest because we’ve been playing that song since the inception. I modeled the song after, I’m a science fiction nut and I modeled it after Doctor Who. He’s got a space ship called the TARDIS and he can travel anywhere is space and time. So, I sort of made the Arctic Flyer like that. That it goes back to the first Christmas and it goes back to the North Pole. It goes to different cities and places around the world. It didn’t matter where in time it was traveling, but this year, we have a song called “Flight of the Snow Angels”, and we’re gonna have the snow angels take us inside the snow globe this year. So, a little bit different.

SFL Music: Are you going to have “Spirit of Christmas” and “The Magic of Winter”?
Kelly: “The Magic of Winter”, we haven’t played that one in the show in a few years. “Spirit of Christmas” always ends our show. Our shows are so long. They’re two and a half hours long and people, by the time you get to two and half hours they’ll say, “ok I got it already. It’s Christmas” (he laughed). So, we’re gonna take out the encore and I’m gonna take the songs that we used to do in the encore and embed them in the show itself and take out a few of the tried-and-true songs and bring back some material that we haven’t played in probably seven or eight years live. So, there will be new songs that if we do an upcoming album, they’ll be from there. Then some we haven’t played before, along with, even at our size, we do have fan favorites. So, certain songs just have to be in the show because people expect them.

SFL Music: Like “Secrets of The Snow Globe”?
Kelly: Yep. That one will be in there. People love that one. That gives Sharon a chance to shine.

SFL Music: What inspires the songs?
Kelly: Originally, and again, its gonna sound a little strange. The concept was, ok the snow globe. You’re going on this journey. What happens in that snow globe. So, my wife had this Department 56 of these little snow village houses and stuff, and so I set them up on my grand piano. I close the top of the grand piano and set up this giant village on there. Then I started trying to think about, ok what are people’s lives like that are living in this village? Then I started writing the songs from there. So, all with the concept in time of being able to travel to the first Christmas. So, the religious aspects, and then I’m looking on the emotional feelings that people have. The joyous to the melancholy, to the poor, the homeless, to people that are suffering in war, etc. So, each song has its own little moral tale if you will. If you listen through them. Other than the opener like “Secrets of The Snow Globe”, that sets up the story line that you’re going to go into a snow globe, but a lot of the other songs have a bit of a moral tale to them, keeping the story in mind. I’m a strange ranger that way, but there you have it. That’s the truth (he laughed).

SFL Music: It’s good to be a strange ranger like that. I love the concept of the snow globe. Is that something that’s a favorite of yours or Sharons?
Kelly: Yep. It is and again, back to the science fiction. There were books written years ago called Ringworld where there’s this giant ring so far out in space and astronauts discover this. Its massive and as they approach it, they realize that there’s all these different villages and they’re all in their own time because the thing is so massive that time is different at the different points on the rings. So, I started using that concept. Ok, if you go inside that snow globe, time is suspended. Reality is suspended. So, what happens in there? That’s how I envision the snow globe.

SFL Music: What influenced you originally to become a musician?
Kelly: Oh, so again being straight up honest, I don’t even consider myself much of a musician especially when I’m around these artists like this. I started playing later compared to most people. I was seventeen years old. I had gone to see an Emerson, Lake & Palmer concert and I saw Keith Emerson being a madman on the keyboards. I said, oh, I want to do that! And what little did I know how hard that was (he laughed)! So, I went out and I bought a Hammond organ. I took my little day job that I had while I was going to school. I got a Hammond organ. We didn’t really grow up very wealthy and stuff, so I got some books on how to play and I started reading some books on how to play the instrument. Starting playing. Then I got a job selling pianos and organs in the mall which gave me a lot of time to be able to play and see other musicians that were much more talented than I was, and pick their brain on how to play. I just practiced a lot and was able to play enough through collage to play in all the local bands around the circuit and stuff with a lot of other musicians. Actually, my career was in machine learning software which the world calls AI (Artificial Intelligence) now, but it’s been around for a while and it’s just changed exponentially over the past couple of years, but I was in the telecommunications side of AI machine learning and I didn’t really touch a keyboard for almost twenty years. We didn’t have the extra money around the house. I had kids. We had a family. I was traveling the world. I had founded three different software companies over the years, so I was traveling a real lot. I started playing again when my kids got into high school, at the local high school marching band. They had about eighty kids in the band. There was only one instructor and he couldn’t keep up with everybody. So, I said, eh I know a little bit about it, and started volunteering with the marching band. There were kids that couldn’t read music or couldn’t play and stuff, so I bought a keyboard to help teach them. I was just using that and I started saying, eh, this is fun, and started playing again. My wife and I formed a little duo playing at the little local pubs around town until such time as we decided to do this benefit. Then it took off, and so now it’s just become such a great part of our lives that most people at my age don’t have a chance to do that. You’re either making it in music, you’re a musician your whole life or you don’t achieve the kinds of things that sort of The Wizards have been able to grow themselves to. You know, national tours and albums and T.V. and radio experiences. Like we’re doing a PBS special this year. A two-hour PBS special. So, It’s amazing. My wife and I, we look at each other onstage sometimes just like, how the hell did we get here, because it was all completely by serendipity, and then it just took on a life of its own. So, when you say, did I want to be a musician? Sure, I did, but I always knew that there were so many people that were much more talented that as a career, I probably wouldn’t be able to achieve that and I always had the backup plan. I actually never wrote a song until that 2011 when I was forced into writing music because we didn’t want to use TSO’s music. I said, alright. Let me give a go at this and it turned out that I could tell a story pretty good and put together support structures and the like, and some melodies. I’m very hooky on the melody side, but my style tends to be more prog rock and Broadway. I’m a big fan of Kansas and ELP and Yes and Styx and those kinds of bands, and then we have the other side of things. Sometimes the music needs metal touches and that’s where Fred Gorhau comes in and writes a little metal, and even Steve now is helping us with that. Anyway, a long way to answer your question, but I’m a stream of conscious this guy, if you haven’t noticed (he laughed).

SFL Music: You just mentioned you worked with high school kids to teach them music. What would you recommend to a young musician?
Kelly: Practice. It’s so competitive out there right now. I look at the music industry in general. So many bands don’t have the staying power of the original artists. Look at all the tribute bands around. They drive me absolutely crazy that they exist, but they’re there because those artists from the 70’s and 80’s, built catalogues of music, and it was great music and people still want to hear it and are willing to pay to see that. When you look at the artists now, there’s nobody building those kinds of catalogues. There’s no sustainability. Music, the whole industry is just a flash in the pan. So, when you go to develop your artistry skills, I think they need to keep that in mind because it’s not just about how many notes can I play or how accurate am I gonna play that note. It’s got to be about the song itself. Tell a story. Touch people’s emotions. Build something, build to last. Again, back to my industry thing, starting multiple software companies, there’s a whole side of industry. You’re either built to last or built for cash. And you can build your business so that it’s gonna be sustainable and its gonna grow. and it’s gonna be on and-on-and people are gonna remember it, or you can build it to generate as much cash as you possibly can in a short period of time, and either sell it out or just let it died on the vine. Its two completely different philosophies, and I think artists as they develop their skills need to keep that in mind of what do you want to be? I do believe that’s one of the unique things that the Wizards have is because even though the world is becoming more and more secular, Christmas still means something to people in general, right? We had to modify our show and take out some of the religious content and make it a little bit more secular, but it’s always gonna be core to this and Christmas is part of people’s lives. So, I think that the opportunity for us because we are a Christmas band has allowed us to be in existence. This is our fourteenth tour. We’re successful. We’ve developed a fan base. People come see us. You can see people singing our songs in the audience. They know the lyrics and stuff, so its heartwarming that way.

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SFL Music: Steve did say you have no tracks, and in your bio, you say there are no gimmicks?
Kelly: It’s all live. There’s no backing tracks. What your gonna hear is all live, good, bad and ugly. We don’t even do a lot of blocking onstage. You go to see a TSO show, it says you know, in thirty seconds you’re gonna be standing on this mark and a spotlight’s gonna hit you. Move ten feet to the left. We don’t do any of that. It’s all natural and actually the former members of TSO that joined us, couldn’t believe that we were operating that way. They said, “Oh, this is like a band. It’s like TSO in the early days.” Now everything there is to a click. We don’t do anything to a click, so the tempos might vary a hair from night to night depending on how people feel. How we interact with the audience, that’s gonna change, but we do have John O’Reilly on drums. He was with TSO all those years, but he was also with Blue Öyster Cult and Rainbow and other bands over the years, so he’s known as father time. So, if it’s supposed to be at 112 beats a minute, it may go to 113 and it may go to 111, but it’s not going to go to 120 ever because if you try to put it there, he’s gonna give you the stink eye (he laughed).

SFL Music: You guys not only donate to the food pantry, but to Wounded Warrior Project and Angels for Mark. How did those come about?
Kelly: Well, Wounded Warriors are near and dear to my heart. My son in law is a wounded warrior. He’s a Marine. He was in Second (Battle of) Fallujah and he was sixty percent disabled in the battle. So, in honor to him and to all the troops, my whole family is military. I’m like the only one. My brother and I actually, the only ones that aren’t military by background. So, we’re pretty patriotic as a family. So, that’s been close to us and then of course, my son-in-law. It ties to the food pantry. It also ties into Wounded Warrior. My wife and I have a home in North Carolina near the beach in a small town called Emerald Island, and in the state of North Carolina, twenty percent of the kids there don’t have enough food for sustenance. It started out as a food pantry in church, but it’s grown on. It’s a group called Backpack Friends where they pack backpacks for these kids that don’t have enough to sustain them over the weekends. It was going before we got there, but when my wife and I joined a few years ago, we were doing about four hundred kids a week, putting food so they would have food over the weekends. Now, its eight hundred and eighty-four backpack’s we packed this past week, and it’s sort of a sign of the times. It’s really just in the little local counties around this town where multimillion dollar houses on the beach, and then you move in about two miles and there’s people living in trailers and not enough food to live. So, it’s crazy. So, we do benefit concerts for them. We raised about twenty-five thousand dollars over the course of two nights. This year it’s gonna be one night, but it will still probably get the same amount of money. At that same show because it’s close to Camp Lejeune, we invite Marines. We give them free tickets to come see the show. It’s also near another big Marine base where all the F-35’s are based. It’s called Cherry Point, so we invite the Marines from there and the Coast Guard to come out and support us. So, that’s how our connection to the military started. The connection to Angels for Mark is in our second year, there’s a rare eye disease called Choroideremia where the retinas of your eyes start to deteriorate and people who have normal vision will eventually go blind. You start losing around the periphery until finally it goes down to a pinpoint and then disappears. It’s a genetic disease. It’s an orphan disease that doesn’t have any funding. There was a kid in our town, Mark who had this disease and his family approached us and said, “would you guys be able to help us out?” So, we got started with them and we did concerts for several years to raise money for Mark. Then the family eventually moved away to Florida so we sort of lost touch with it, but that’s where that started. We’ve also done Habitat for Humanity and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Over the years we’ve raised over two hundred thousand dollars for different charities along the way. It’s sort of been part of our core value. We started out helping the little local food pantry and we still do it. Not on these past couple tours because we’ve been really supporting Backpack, but back to 2019, we were still helping you know, a few thousand dollars to the local food pantry in our town.

SFL Music: That’s wonderful, and please tell your son-in-law thank you for his service.
Kelly: Absolutely. He’s doing good now.

SFL Music: He is definitely appreciated. Is there anything else you want fans to know about the show?
Kelly: Christmas is still alive. In the secular world, Christmas is still alive. That spirit and that feeling that you have at that time of year. People are always a little different that time of year. So, if you want a chance to feel that again, come out and take a chance and come see The Wizards. The music is decent. There’s world class musicians that are on the stage. In general, the tickets, we try to keep it so that a family of four can still afford to see us, and you’ll have a good time.

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