June 29 2011 10:15 AM

Looking for a steady paycheck, Astra Kelly taps the tween music market

Photo by Tammy Hall

You might say that Astra Kelly has Rebecca Black to thank for her new-found financial stability.

As the manager at capricorn Studios, a recording studio Downtown, Kelly has been tapping into a lucrative cottage industry: tween pop. In addition to other work at the studio, she’s helped write and produce songs for artistic little kids with wealthy parents. Her portfolio includes “All Around the World,” a simple R&B tune sung by a local trio of gradeschool boys called The Garcia 3.

“I coached them through everything,” the singer-songwriter says in an interview at Claire de Lune Coffee Lounge in North Park. “I worked with them for a good six weeks to teach them how to sing together.”

The tween music market isn’t exactly known for artistic merit—“Friday,” Black’s mind-numbing YouTube mega-hit, is famous precisely because it’s such a bad song. But Kelly’s quick to defend her new line of work.

“I’m sure there’s producers in parts of the local industry, especially, that are, like, ‘Oh, I’ll only do this cool project,’ and maybe they can afford to do that or maybe that’s the draw that they get,” she says. “But at the same time, I need to pay bills— I need to work—and this business is coming to my doorstep.”

A lively multi-instrumentalist in her mid-30s who grew up in Chicago, Kelly has managed to eke out a living in the music industry for 15 years. She spent the late ’90s and early ’00s living out of a conversion van and busking on the streets. She’s taught music lessons and managed recording studios, and she currently runs the San Diego Music Collective, a consulting company that represents local artists in licensing deals.

Still, she doesn’t hesitate to take the occasional odd job.

“I watch my friend’s cat twice a month when he goes out of town,” she says. “Whatever it takes.”

And after years of doing everything herself—putting out records, recruiting bandmates, booking shows, paying for studio time—she wants a stable music career. She’s not looking for a platinum-selling single, just a steady paycheck.

Timebomb, her new EP, might be the moneymaker she seeks. One of the most polished releases she’s ever put out, it could easily attract a younger market. The cartoonish cover depicts three musicians in space outfits trying to defuse a giant bomb smashed into the Earth. The press kit came with an uncolored cover printout and a pack of Crayons. The songs, which she recorded with capricorn engineer Josh Mallit, trade the hefty classic-rock riffs and introspective acoustic balladry of last year’s Battling the Sun EP for bright hooks and universal themes.

“I used to have songs that were six minutes long because I’d have these long intros or these big bridges or a third verse,” she says. “And now I’m just, like, you know what? I want people to listen to this stuff. I want them to understand it. I want them to love the songs. And I want them to not get bored.”

Timebomb is her first release since her 1996 debut that she’s considered sending to labels, she says. But she’d also happily license the songs to another artist—perhaps somebody like Lia Marie Johnson, a young actor and singer who recently teamed up with Kelly and capricorn owner Bryan Stratman to record a Radio Disney-friendly version of Kelly’s song “One and Only,” a love song for her guitar from Battling the Sun.

“I’m down with selling any of these tunes,” she says. “My songs are for sale!” 

Kid singers are only a small part of capricorn’s diverse clientele, which includes established local acts like B-Side Players and Deep Rooted. Stratman says youngsters wanting to record songs of their own are more likely to cite British songstress Adele—The Garcia 3 recently name-checked Michael Jackson and Jay-Z in an interview with the San Diego Reader—than Rebecca Black.

Kelly isn’t sure whether she’d work with somebody who’s bereft of talented—“It depends on how the bill situation is looking that month, I guess,” she says—but her experience has been positive so far. The new version of “One and Only” is even a bit inspiring.

“To hear the song redone like that, it’s, like, Wow, I’m actually a pretty good songwriter,” she says. “I could write hit songs for other people.”

But these collaborations take a back seat to her own projects. At her CD-release party this week, she’ll display some art she’s been working on—pieces of broken LPs arranged into various shapes on canvas. Once her work supporting Timebomb slows down, she plans to start a new band called Harlequin.

The continuing grind can be frustrating, but she isn’t fazed.

“I usually go through at least a good 45 minutes of really sincere frustration maybe every three weeks or so,” she says. “I just had a good cry, like, two days ago. Then I had a massage and I felt better.”

Astra Kelly will celebrates the release of Timebomb with Endoxi, Gayle Skidmore, Miss Erika Davies and DJ Coda Collins at Soda Bar on Friday, July 1. astrakelly.com