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Local Q&A: Kelsey

Kelsey Montanez, who got her start performing in local coffee shops at age 14, never envisioned herself auditioning for TV singing competitions like "American Idol" or "The Voice," saying, "That whole thing really isn't me."

Yet in late 2011 the current Lakeview resident somehow found herself weighing the pros and cons of each program after being selected to appear on both. Following some careful deliberation--and a thorough perusal of both contracts--Montanez opted to compete on "American Idol," making it all the way to "Hollywood Week" before being shown the door.

The decision to audition for both programs could be viewed as a small part of Montanez's ongoing musical evolution. Though she got her start making, in her own words, "bluesy, grungy rock," her new EP, "A Delightful Sadness," arrives packed with polished, radio-friendly tunes steeped in pop and R&B. Oh, and she's also dropped the Montanez. These days it's simply Kelsey.

In a recent phone interview, the 21-year-old singer, who's in the midst of working on a follow-up EP and sketching out plans for a cross-country tour, discussed her experiences on "Idol," her optimistic nature and why she doesn't fret if a black cat wanders into her path.

I thought Oprah was the only Chicagoan who could get away with going solely by her first name, yet here you are.

[Laughs] Yeah, you know, for a time I thought I should maybe use a stage name or a band name, but I started playing out so young and had already built up a following. I felt like I might have been taking steps backwards if I came up with a different name.

Does the decision to drop the Montanez mark the start of this new musical direction?

This is more of a pop record, and dropping the last name made it more clear it was something new. When people look up Kelsey Montanez they can find the old stuff. But now that it's just Kelsey it's about this new direction and this new sound.

Your new EP is called "A Delightful Sadness." Do you consider yourself an optimist or a pessimist?

I consider myself to be an optimist to the extreme, in most cases. The title came from something I was writing in my journal. I was going through this whole uninspired phase before this project started. I was feeling numb. I wasn't writing anything. I wasn't creating. My personal life was in shambles. Coming out of that numbness even sadness felt like an improvement. It was like, "OK, I'm feeling something. I have something to write about now."

You sing about that period on "10,000 Bombs," which also includes a line about being "out of luck." Are you a superstitious person?

I don't freak out if I see a black cat crossing the road or I break a mirror, but I do believe in signs and I do believe things happen for a reason. I try to be in tune to the world and universe ... and if things aren't going well I usually take it as a sign something needs to change.

When you started promoting your new EP you actually performed at a number of "L" stops. Had you ever busked before?

I did it once when I was younger. I was 15, and my friends and I wanted to see this concert, I forget which band...

Do you really forget? Or are you just too embarrassed to say who it was?

I don't know if I should tell you. It's embarrassing. Remember I was 15, OK? It was Mindless Self Indulgence. We wanted to see that show so I went on the street and played guitar for like two hours. I made 80 bucks and was able to get all my friends in.

You got a nice guest verse from Chance the Rapper on "Out of Sight." Is the title a reference to the Jennifer Lopez movie?

I didn't even know that was a movie. I feel like I live under a rock culturally.

She actually was a judge on your season of "American Idol," right?

Yeah, she was. In the beginning stages she really liked me. I never had any conversations with her, but she was one of the ones that put me through.

The way you talk about that experience in interviews it almost sounds like an endurance test as much as anything else.

It absolutely was. I think the hardest part was the amount of stress surrounding you. Everyone there was so anxious and upset. There were literally people crying and passing out and vomiting and having nervous breakdowns. It was strange to see because I've done music my whole life, and it's always been my calming place. It brings me peace from the outside world.

Kelsey, 8 p.m. Fri. Feb. 15 at Elbo Room. $10

Kelsey personality test
What's the last album you bought? Lana Del Rey: "Born to Die"
Song you've listened to on repeat recently? Lana Del Rey: "Burning Desire"
Song you never want to hear again? "Gangnam Style." "I hate that song!"
Best concert you've seen in the last year? "Who have I seen recently? I can't think anything off the top of my head."
New band you don't know personally that deserves to be big? "There's this band Ivan & Alyosha I think is really amazing, and all their YouTube videos only have like 5,000 plays."
Favorite movie ever? "Death Proof"
Chicago's best music venue? "I would have to say Empty Bottle. I've never played there, but they always have a lot of cool, underground bands. And they have cheap drinks."

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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