Singer-songwriter Jennifer Kelly, who’ll perform Sunday in Olympia, spent years singing other people’s songs before she found the courage to sing her own.
Long a singer and guitarist, Kelly of Seattle dabbled in songwriting for years but never took it seriously, partly because she doesn’t know how to read music.
“My inner critic was too harsh, and I didn’t finish things,” said Kelly, whose Olympia performance is a benefit for Out of the Woods, a nonprofit that provides emergency food and shelter to homeless families.
But after she was diagnosed with breast cancer, all that changed.
The cancer, a very aggressive kind, was diagnosed and treated early.
“Within about six weeks, I had a mastectomy and had gotten a full pathology report,” she said. “I knew they got it all and knew I was in great shape at the moment, but I was also aware of how common recurrences could be. I was living with chronic low-grade anxiety.”
Cancer survivors know it as recurrent fear.
She said, “I remember the day I was standing in my kitchen, and I had this thought, and it completely freaked me out: ‘If one day my cancer returns, and I’ve spent several years doing nothing but having anxiety about the possibility of recurrence, what an incredible waste of my life that would be.’
“It was a miraculous insight. It freed me from anxiety when I realized I just wanted to live my life to the fullest. That’s what pushed me into taking the risk of songwriting.”
One day she wrote “Song for Abba,” inspired by a man she met in a cancer support group.
“He was this beautiful man,” she said. “His cancer turned, and he was dying. He said something in group one day that was so profound, I decided I wasn’t leaving my living room until I’d written a song that honored him.
“That was really the beginning.”
The songs on her album “Nothing Lost” were developed with lots of help and encouragement from Kelly’s band, including bassist Darrell Jesse, lead guitarist Aaron Hiebert and drummer Jason Edwards. The band, including rhythm guitarist Ann LaBeck, will be with Kelly for the Olympia show.
“Jason is the person who mentored me through this whole experience,” she said. “He heard one of my originals and said, ‘Yeah, we can do this.’”
This will be Kelly’s first Olympia show. Her friend Leah Welch of Olympia was organizing a benefit for Out of the Woods and invited her to come and play.
“She cares deeply about people’s experiences and issues of justice and inequity, and she turns that care into beautiful music,” Welch said. “I thought it was a perfect fit for a benefit concert for an issue that she would care deeply about: the housing of families who don’t have it.”
The shelter, started by the Olympia Unitarian Universalist Congregation, now focuses on providing housing for homeless families, but it got its start by literally helping the homeless come out of the woods near the church, Welch said. That’s where the name came from.
She just learned the story from a recent sermon by the congregation’s minister, the Rev. Arthur Vaeni.
The church had bought land next door and was using the house there as an annex. Then the congregation learned that there were homeless people sleeping in the woods nearby.
“They decided to open that house for nighttime shelter for the folks they knew were sleeping in the woods,” Welch said. “That was the birth of Out of the Woods.”
The shelter’s name also inspired Kelly to write a new song for the occasion.
“At the same time that I was getting ready for the benefit, a friend who was going through grueling chemotherapy came to one of my shows,” the singer said. “She said, ‘I only have three treatments left,’ and I thought, ‘She’s almost out of the woods.’
“The song is partly about my friend coming out of chemo and partly about people coming out of homelessness. We all need to come out of the woods sometimes. We all go through difficult passages.”
What: Seattle singer- songwriter Jennifer Kelly, who just released her first album, performs as a benefit for Out of the Woods, a nonprofit that provides emergency food and shelter for homeless families.
When: 7 p.m. Sunday
Where: Traditions Cafe & World Folk Art, 300 Fifth Ave. SW, Olympia
Tickets: $23 (the amount Out of the Woods spends providing one bed for a night)
More information: 360-705-2819, traditionsfairtrade.com, jenniferkellymusic.com or outofthewoods.org
Hear Kelly’s music: Some of Kelly’s songs, including “Out of the Woods,” written for Sunday’s show, can be heard at songwriter.revimage.com/channels/jenniferkelly.