An Interview with Kelleen Strutz

February 16, 2011 at 7:17 pm | Posted in Concerts, Interviews | Leave a comment

Pianist and vocalist Kelleen Strutz is a rising star in the Indianapolis music scene who will be performing Rhapsody in Blue with the IWS on February 26. (Info and tickets here.) I was lucky enough to get to sit down with her and talk about where she’s been and where she’s going:

Andy Hollandbeck: According to your Web site, you’re from Valders [rhymes with “pal furs,” I had originally mispronounced it], Wisconsin. How would you describe that? Is it a small town or is it a suburb or . . .

Kelleen Strutz: Yes. It did not ever break 1,000 [people]. Lots of farms around the area, and . . . just . . . very small. But there was a city nearby called Manitowoc, which had, like, 30,000 people, so we did a lot of things there.

AH: What kind of musical outlets and opportunities did you have nearby?

KS: Mostly within my family, we did music together. Ever since I was . . . ever since I can remember, music was in my life. Our nickname was the Von Strutz family, instead of the Von Trapp family from The Sound of Music, because if company came over, we’d all perform — with accordions, and guitars, and we would sing a capella harmony. I had four brothers and sisters, and so we had a great time entertaining people. And we were in the church, so we did a lot of music there. We were always part of the church program, and I accompanied the congregation from the age of nine. So that was a good outlet, the church.

We were home schooled, so we didn’t have “school music” so much, you know, but my mom taught me piano up until the age of, like, 10, and then we found a really amazing teacher for me. And I did competitions in the area.

But it was really when I came to the big city, Indianapolis, where I felt like, “Whoa! There’re all these opportunities!”

Pianist/Vocalist Kelleen Strutz

Kelleen Strutz

AH: Four siblings? Where are you in the hierarchy?

KS: I’m the baby.

AH: How many brothers and how many sisters?

KS: Two of each.

AH: Any of them get the music bug after they grew up?

KS: My oldest sister, she still plays to some extent — piano. And my parents play in church.

AH: So eventually you left Wisconsin; you were offered a full scholarship to Butler University. Had you ever been to Indianapolis before?

KS: No. It’s kind of a funny story because I remember going to the theater to watch Hoosiers, the movie, and we just loved that movie. It was almost like there was some Hoosier in me at that point.

We took a vacation to French Lick . . .

AH: Okay, Larry Bird’s town.

KS: Yeah. We saw Larry Bird, actually! We were all excited and we wanted to go to the actual scenes of Hoosiers. We were just that into it. I never would have thought that I’d end up living in the Hoosier state.

[Later on,] it was very serendipitous that the professor of music at Butler [Panayis Lyras] happened to be performing with the Sheboygan Symphony and did a master class at the local college. I happened to be in that master class. I’d never heard of Butler at all. So I played in the master class and really enjoyed his teaching style, so he was like, “Hey, if you’re interested, I can help you get to Butler.” So I auditioned, and I loved the campus. I loved everything about the city. It was a very easy decision to come here. And I haven’t left, so, obviously, I like Indianapolis.

AH: Tell me about your CD, “Simply Beautiful.”

KS: Throughout my courses at Butler, I was the very heavy, of course, classical pianist, and I slowly was also working on my jazz voice. A couple of professors at Butler [Mark Buselli and Dr. Tim Brimmer] really mentored me in that area of jazz.

When I graduated, I really wanted to do a CD immediately and, you know, do something. I was all excited to get myself out there. And so Bill Myers, who I had met at the Jazz Kitchen, he helped brainstorm with me. (He’s a bass player in town that I collaborate with.) He and I had this great idea to do a seasonal album and to invite many many musicians on board. So we started calling people up. Everybody was very supportive, and we had over 30 musicians on the album. We gave back the money to the Butler Community Art School. So it was a worthy cause, and some musicians donated their time, and it was just a wonderful experience. It was very difficult to put together, and we did it in like two months’ time. We were crazy, but . . . you know.

AH: That was a Christmas album, right?

KS: Yes.

AH: Do you have a favorite song from that album?

KS: Ummmm. That’s a little difficult. I really like “A Child is Born.” I like the soul ballad-type pieces, mostly, to sing.

AH: You’ve been doing both classical and jazz for a while now, do you prefer one over the other?

KS: No, I really like the combination of both because it really makes things exciting, and I get to collaborate with so many diverse people within the two fields.

AH: I heard you participated in a recital at St. Luke’s [United Methodist Church] last Sunday, right?

Kelleen Strutz and her PianoKS: Yeah.

AH: You did a Liszt piece?

KS: Yeah.

AH: Someone described it to me as “ferocious.”

KS: Oh. Yes. It’s one of my favorite pieces — since high school, actually. It’s just very viscerally exciting. Pianistically speaking, I like the really fast exciting things. But for singing, for some reason, I like the more emotional, heart-wrenching things.

But yeah, the Liszt is a real workout. And I enjoy performing it.

AH: Since you do jazz and classical both, do you do any composing as well?

KS: I do. One of the projects that I’m going to be doing this year is my own CD of originals, maybe mixed with some cover tunes. My style happens to be not real super-jazzy, but it’s kind of a hybrid of pop and jazz — and some other elements in there. And I want to use strings. I’m still brainstorming.

AH: It’s still in the early stages then.

KS: Yes.

AH: What other projects do you have?

KS: I have a trio right now called The Three Beats. It’s with cellist Yoonhae Swanson and a violinist, Miri Chung. We do classical trios — like Beethoven — but we also do world music. And some jazz. And pop hits. It’s just exciting to work with and collaborate with other people. It’s sometimes more fun than just, you know, practicing alone. We can bounce ideas off of each other. It’s invigorating having that input with them, and that’s exciting.

I’m going to be traveling with a horn band called Souled Out. It’s an 11-piece horn band, and we do corporate events, and I sing like Aretha Franklin and Gloria Gaynor. I bet you can guess which song I sing of Gloria Gaynor’s — her one super-big hit.

AH: No, I try to stay away from that whole area of music.

KS: [Laughs] But that’s been a real stretch for me, and I absolutely love it. I had no idea. I love all of that music that they played. It’s just really groov-i-licious.

AH: Did you say groov-i-licious?

KS: I said groov-i-licious!

AH: OK. Groov-i-licious. Nice.

KS: And then I’m going to be traveling with Angela Brown some this year as well, doing recitals with her.

AH: I know you perform every Thursday night at Sangiovese. Do you have any other regular gigs that we should know about?

KS: Yes. Starting March fourth, I’m going to be performing at Seasons 52, which is a new restaurant at Keystone at the Crossing. They’re going to have a piano bar seven nights a week, and I’ll be there on Fridays and for the grand opening. Which is March fourth.

AH: You said you like the visceral kind of piano music. So are you really heavy on the romantic music . . .

KS: Yeah.

AH: . . . and not the, uh, the Bach.

KS: Yeah. I know Bach is one of the greatest composers, but he’s very difficult to play in a different sense, whereas romantic [music] is . . . you know, you can . . . you can be sloppy and no one will know. [laughs]

AH: I’m with you there. Bach, and even Mozart — they have their moments, but it’s everything that came after that’s more interesting.

So, professionally, what is your dream gig? Is there some pie-in-the-sky thing that you would just love to get?

KS: I think it would be very awesome to be able to perform with a large orchestra — you know, with a string section — and to be able to do a real merging of my classical and jazz skills. And really present it in a nice, concise way. To have a show that combines both, because right now I do jazz and I do classical, and they’re not always mixed. So I think that would be a great challenge to be able put a show together and to work with the classical idiom of strings, but also adding jazz with it.

AH: That would be nice. If you had to choose — these are the hypothetical questions now. If you had to choose between being known as a great singer who could play the piano or a great pianist who could sing, which would you choose?

KS: I would . . . say . . . that is very difficult . . .

AH: I can ask in a different way. Try this: You get two e-mails on the same day. One is for a well-paying piano-playing gig, and the other is for a well-paying singing gig — but they’re at the same time. Which one do you choose?

KS: [After some thought.] I would say the singing.

AH: Yeah?

KS: I think partially because if you’re playing and singing, the most crucial thing is that you present the lyrics. That’s the most important thing. And that you have an instrument and technique that can do that. So your piano is supporting the “main act,” which is your voice. So in that sense, I think it’s better to be a great singer that maybe can’t play as well. That would be more important. But I enjoy both so much, so it’s very difficult to say.

AH: Well, that’s why it’s only hypothetical.

KS: Yes!

AH: What would you say is the best part of having a life in music?

KS: For me, you know, it’s not work. It’s just what I am. I feel like I’m working 24/7 in a sense. I eat, breathe, and sleep music. There isn’t a line, like, “Now I’m done with work and I’m going to relax.” I feel like I’m always connected with music, but it’s not a chore.

AH: I think it was Louis Armstrong* who said, “A musician is someone who plays when he works and works when he plays.”

KS: Yes!

AH: So what’s the worst part?

KS: Probably the same thing! [laughs] Because you can always be better, you can always hone your craft, and do more research. Even when I’m out [listening] at a concert, I’m still working in the sense that my brain’s working and I’m like, “Oh, I’m going to steal that” or “I really enjoy that.” At times, you can’t turn off your need to be working. To get better. But that’s not necessarily bad. It’s just . . . you can become a workaholic, I guess.

AH: So what do you do that isn’t music?

KS: Well, I enjoy reading.

AH: Any particular genre?

KS: No. I really am across the board. I do everything from Osho — he’s a philosopher — to, like, Ken Follett. And I like to cook. And travel, or read about travel.

AH: I suppose traveling is better than reading about traveling.

KS: Oh yeah. [laughs] But it’s fun to dream, too.

AH: What do you think you’d be doing if you hadn’t gone into music?

KS: Well, sometimes I say I’d be a massage therapist.

AH: Really? It’s all in the hands, huh?

KS: Yeah, it’s partly the hands, but it’s also giving back to people, making people feel good. Just like music. Otherwise, a personal trainer. I’ve thought that, too, just because it’s similar. You’re making people feel better about themselves.

But probably a massage therapist.

AH: You might’ve been great at it, but we’re glad you went into music instead.

All right, so here’s the big question, which I’m sure you’ve thought about: You have a long career ahead of you…

KS: Oh, I know where this is going…

AH: Where would like to see yourself in, say, thirty years.

KS: You said in how many years?

AH: Oh, thirty.

KS: Thirty? Oh Wow! Usually it’s like five years.

AH: Oh no. Those are the short-term goals. What’s the long-term goal?

KS: That is really difficult. The nice thing about being in the genres that I’m in [is] they really can sustain themselves. If I was a pop singer and I start fading or whatever, I wouldn’t have a career anymore. But the jazz world — Lena Horne and any of the greats — they sang until they were in their late late years. But as I age . . . I think, in 30 years, I might be more in a mentoring role at that point. Not that I wouldn’t perform, but I think it would probably shift to giving back to young artists that are looking for encouragement and help.

AH: Do you do any teaching now?

KS: I do teach. I don’t teach voice, but I have about eight piano students. And I’d really like to teach piano in the future, too, I think. Maybe in a more university setting.

In my 20s, I hated that question because I didn’t ever really have to think about my future. But as you get older, you start to think, “Yeah, I really better think about this.”

AH: I’m about 15 years behind on that question myself!

Is there anything else you’d like to add or to tell your current and future fans?

KS: I do want to say just how excited and fortunate I am that I have this opportunity to perform at the “epic hall” — at the Palladium — with the Wind Symphony. To be a part of their first official concert there.

AH: We’re excited about it, too.

* Apparently, I was wrong. Although I’m fairly certain I’ve seen this attributed to Armstrong, the original quotation is from an anonymous source, and it was about actors, not musicians. So it goes.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that after hearing one performance, you’ll become a fan. Catch her at Sangiovese Ristorante every Thursday night; then hear her perform on-stage with the IWS on Saturday, February 26, at 7:30 p.m. at Carmel’s new concert hall, The Palladium.

Find out more about Kelleen, her work, and her CD “Simply Beautiful” at

Posted by Andy Hollandbeck


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