At first listen, there’s a sense of serenity in Kadey Ballard’s music, but in “The Changeling Well,” off the singer-songwriter’s 2020 album 7 of Cups, still waters run deep. Ballard’s acoustic guitar canters in a seemingly centuries-old rhythm, like a buckboard jostling on a carriage route. Gradually, her feathered vocals gain force like wind shaking the treetops, as haunted harmonies and layered instruments join in. All the while, Ballard’s lyrics cast a spell where human needs and nature’s magic meet.
“I ran the path / The darkling trail /The fairy queen / And quick of nail / Who answers yes in blackest night / A winking roaring fairy rite /A thousand years down in the well/ A thousand years I fell and fell…”
When asked by her growing cadre of fans, Kadey Ballard describes her music as moody love spells, psych folk, mountain witch music or dreamy heartache incantations. Like the emotions evoked, the names of what she calls “acoustic music with an electric hum” are legion.
“A lot of the songs feel like lullabies to me,” says Ballard, who’s scheduled to play Petra’s on May 12 alongside Ian & Trav and Zack Joseph.
Now 32 years old, Ballard was bewitched by music at an early age, singing everywhere from church to the grocery story when she was 3 years old. One of four siblings growing up in the Charlotte suburb of Weddington, she took piano lessons for a few years before ditching the drudgery of keyboard exercises. Guitar lessons lasted a little longer, until Ballard’s instructor wisely released her from lessons after teaching her a few chords, then allowed her to record in his studio.
“[The instructor] quickly recognized that I just wanted to play an instrument so that I could sing,” Ballard says with a chuckle.
At the same time, Ballard developed an interest in performing and theatre. After auditioning for and joining a youth ensemble at Children’s Theatre in 2007, she met Charlotte theatre artist and dramaturge Matt Cosper, who would go on to launch experimental ensemble XOXO. While still in high school, Cosper directed here in a production of The Crucible at Theatre Charlotte and the two struck up a friendship.
Ballard began writing songs as a teenager, and while she played them for friends and family, she mostly kept them private, like a personal journal.
“I never thought about trying to do anything with [my songs],” she says. How Kadey Ballard went from inward artistry to a burst of outward-looking creativity that led to an album, an EP and a single all dropping in 2020, not to mention a gathering avalanche of live gigs beginning in January 2021, is a tale as winding as the mountain trails she loves to traverse.
Air, water and earth
There’s an undeniable Appalachian influence on Kadey Ballard’s music, illustrated by the December 2015 release Songs From the Water, which consists of the B-side “Lie in Circles” and the single “Jacob Don’t Drown.” Propelled by Ballard’s pensive, coiling acoustic guitar, “Jacob Don’t Drown” is an eerie lament drawn from rural murder ballads handed down through the centuries, except here the killer is the unspoiled and wooded high country, dotted with the streams, pools and waterfalls.
The elemental landscape is the one constant with Ballard’s work. It’s in the air currents suggested by her braided layers of vocals and in the waterways and wells that precipitate magic and tragedy. But mostly it’s in the earth.
In Ballard’s body of work, subconscious ruminations and emotions are entangled with pure invention and imagination. All burst forth like shoots slowly emerging from rich dark soil.
It started with family vacations, Ballard says.
“When I was a kid, all of our vacations were in the woods or up in the mountains,” she says.
It was a walk in her neighborhood, however, that sealed the connection between being in nature and songcraft.
“My boyfriend broke up with me when I was 17,” Ballard says. “We were on a walk, and I ran away from him, and went to the piano. I started playing and making a break-up song right then.”
Early musical inspirations included Tori Amos, Alanis Morrisette, Jolie Holland, Joanna Newsom and Jessica Lea Mayfield, all of whom were augmented by Radiohead, which informs Ballard’s current production style, building layers of sound as her songs progress. (When Ballard plays live, those layers accumulate through the judicious use of looping and pedals.)
“I had a lot of moody experiences as a teenager, out on a trail pining for someone who broke my heart — but [the songs are] like the woods talking to me about it,” she says.
Despite the healing, confessional and creative effect of natural settings on Ballard, when it came time to go to college in 2007, she headed to New York. She chose her father’s alma mater, The Kings College, located in the Empire State Building. It was not a good fit.
“It’s a Campus Crusade for Christ school, and I didn’t entirely realize what that meant,” Ballard says. “It was quite religious.”
Ballard had kept in contact with Cosper, and one bright spot was going to see a play that he directed, as he was then living in New York.
Casting around for an alternate school, Ballard fell in love with Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk, at the base of Beech Mountain.
“I thought it looked like Harry Potter’s Hogwarts [with its] old stone buildings,” Ballard says. She transferred there in her junior year.
“I went from a school where the motto at the time was ‘God, Money, Power,’ to a school whose motto was ‘In The Mountains, Of the Mountains, For The Mountains,’ which reflects the spiritual journey that I’ve had,” Ballard says. “I feel much more animus [in] my music, like everything is alive [and] enchanted, which is something I feel I’ve learned living up there.”
Ballard began to develop an interest in agriculture. Working at a local farmers market, she met Kaci and Amos Nidiffer, owners of Trosley Farm in Elk Park. Ballard started working on the farm as an intern, and after earning a degree in performing arts, she came back to work as a farmhand in 2011.
Ballard was also exposed to a lot of Appalachian music in Banner Elk and Elk Park. August 2012 brought her first release on Bandcamp. Entitled Lullabies, it consists of rough recordings of two songs, including “Lie in Circles.”
Partly in honor of her heritage — Ballard’s grandfather is Jewish — she took part in a permaculture certification course, traveling to Israel in 2013. She spent six months in Modi in Israel at Hava Ve Adam Ecologit, and through the permaculture program there traveled and volunteered at various farms, ecological organizations, and kibbutzim throughout the country.
“I lived on this ecological learning farm in a geodesic dome,” Ballard says. Growing up in the South, it was welcome exposure to non-Christian diversity, including Jewish people from around the U.S., and a roommate from Australia. Coming back to North Carolina to work on Trosley Farm in 2013, Ballard began to feel constricted. In 2014, she broke off a relationship she had started with a local farmer.
“I was thinking about living on this farm, and I saw my life closing into this narrow thing,” she says.
Knowing in her heart that she would like to return to theatrical performance someday, Ballard felt it wouldn’t ever be possible in the rural mountains.
At the age of 23, she moved into an isolated cabin, cutting herself off from the local farming community. Living by herself in the middle of the woods near Newland, she spent a lot of time alone on mountain trails. She could hear the coyotes howling at night.
The result of these experiences can be heard on the album Havah, recorded in 2014, but not published on Bandcamp until 2020. Here, Jewish spiritualism is added to Ballard’s mix of influences. The pull of the Appalachians is still strong too, and her stream-of-consciousnesses lyrics are the result of “singing out” her then-recent breakup and cutting off her community.
The woodland solitude, and the personal-yet-universal mysticism it inspires, continues to inform Ballard’s rootsy but experimental ruminations, yet those impulses are in a tug-of-war with her concurrent quest for community and the eye-opening exposure to art that often coincides with crowded urban environments. The need for community brought her back to Charlotte in 2015, but she didn’t initially find what she was looking for.
Songs from the mountains, stories of the city
Kadey Ballard came back to a Charlotte that looked different. She recalls she even had trouble recognizing the streets. She started working as a substitute teacher in Union County. One creative outlet was releasing her Songs From the Water EP, recorded at the Hendersonville home studio of Nathan Billingsly, a friend of her father’s.
Once Ballard had let go of the fantasy that she would somehow find a community of like-minded souls in the mountains, she set about becoming part of one in Charlotte. She reached out to Cosper and subsequently moved to Windsor Park and started working with his boundary-breaking theatrical troupe XOXO.
Ballard counts herself lucky to have performed in 10 XOXO productions. She sang in eight of them, including the psychedelic Zen western recast as pop operetta All the Dogs and Horses, post-apocalyptic collision of fever dream and crime drama #Cake (Year Zero), and ceremonial magic ritual masquerading as free-form theater GUF (Thee Well of Souls).
Work with XOXO brought Ballard in contact with the cross-disciplinary artists creating intersectional art at Goodyear Arts at Camp North End. In that time, Ballard’s and Cosper’s friendship had blossomed into something more, and they married in June 2019.
Busy with XOXO and her day job as a middle school and high school drama teacher at Socrates Academy in Matthews, Ballard let her songwriting fall by the wayside.
Meanwhile, impressed with Ballard’s output, Cosper encouraged her to pursue her music. His voice was joined by singer/songwriter Dylan Gilbert’s (Hectorina), who Ballard considers her musical mentor. Gilbert persuaded Ballard to finally publish Havah.
When the COVID-19 pandemic swept through the country and shut down Charlotte in 2020, it launched Ballard into a whirlwind of activity that kicked off with a Queen City Streams solo session alongside Later Rain, a band headed by dance artist Eric Mullis.
Ballard released 7 of Cups in July 2020, followed three months later by the EP Ruin, which contains perhaps her finest example of a supernatural Appalachian hymn, “Roan Mountain Ghost.”
Ballard’s recent material retains its apparent serenity. That calm, however, is only on the surface. Far from quiescent, Ballard is waiting and watchful, as currents of undiscovered or yet-to-be-formed memories and emotions roil up from the depths.
Some of these revelations and inspirations may stretch back generations, but others seem to be happening in real time as we listen to Ballard’s invocations and incantations.
Her most recent release is the single “Little Sister,” a heartfelt tribute to her childhood friend, Morgan Garrett, who was training to fly with the Coast Guard when she was killed in a plane crash.
Ballard started playing at Goodyear Arts, but her gigs increased when Gina Stewart and Brenda Gambill at EastSide Local Café encouraged her to play at their eatery. Ballard has also received encouragement from Madison Lucas of alt-rock powerhouse Modern Moxie.
“The music community here has been so welcoming,” Ballard says. “It’s like this whole new community in Charlotte that’s opened up for me.”
Nevertheless, Ballard finds the move from theatrical performer to performing musician somewhat terrifying. In theatre, she offers, you’re not yourself. You have layers of character you can hide behind.
“I wonder if I’ve been doing theatre all this time to be able to do what I’m doing now,” she says. “I think I’m getting more comfortable.
“There’s something that I obviously need to express and say in a certain kind of way. I want to be a conduit for that,” continues Ballard, who has harnessed her love of nature to conjure an emotional reaction in audiences, a live energy exchange, that’s as powerful as any mountain witch’s spell.
“With an audience, there is something beautiful going on in the room,” she says.