By Zane Fletcher, Culture Editor
When The Judds broke onto the country music scene in 1983, they appealed to mass audiences with their unique mother-daughter combination, as well as their wholesome and meaningful songs. Coincidentally, it was the former stage manager of the Judds who recognized the talent and potential of then 13-year-old Kelli Schilken.
At the time, Schilken was singing backup for her mother Jaymie Schilken, an established country artist due to her career in the band Mulberry Lane with her three sisters. Schilken first approached her mother about the opportunity to sing mainly out of monotony.
“I was just really bored and I asked, ‘Can I be your backup singer?’” Kelli said. “She was like, ‘Well, I don’t know, can you sing harmony?’”
Kelli, after demonstrating her self-described innate ability for harmony, secured the job. After a relatively small number of shows, the former Judds stage manager commented that they should switch to a duo format, giving Kelli an expanded role. After about six weeks of contemplation, the elder Schilken decided to bring her 14-year-old daughter into the notoriously tough music business.
Since then, their duo “Belles & Whistles,” has gained quite a bit of renown in their own right. Their first single, “Boy Like You,” not only charted in the top 100 of country music songs, but also was played by over 70 radio stations nationwide.
Over the last few years, the duo has taken off, and Schilken has been a major catalyst for the success of the band.
An early graduate of Westside High School, Schilken came to the University of Nebraska at Omaha not only because her mother and all of her aunts did, but because she wanted to remain near home.
“I always loved the campus and the way it was set out,” Schilken said. “I also wanted to be close to home so I could still do [music] with my mom.”
Her musical education began when she was very young, following her mother and aunts in their own band.
“I grew up watching my mom and my aunts sing in Mulberry Lane, and I just remember being 4 and 5, going to all of their concerts and watching them on stage, watching them warm up and all that,” Schilken said. “That was my normal atmosphere, just being backstage. That was really why I wanted to do this when I was older and also why I got into theater and dance at a young age because I just loved it from the beginning.”
Schilken received vocal lessons until her middle school years, along with dance and theatre. She performed often at the Omaha Community Playhouse and at the Rose Theater, acting in the production of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” for seven straight years. Her vocal lessons have since ended, but she isn’t without instruction.
“A lot of my vocal style is natural,” Schilken said. “Sometimes my mom coaches me, telling me to add vibrato here and there, and other things.”
After she was promoted to sing with her mother on a more equal platform, Belles & Whistles travelled to Los Angeles to record with their first producer Don Gehman, who produced such acts as John Mellencamp and worked as a sound engineer for Crosby, Still, Nash and Young; Loggins and Messina; and Hootie and the Blowfish. It was in this company that Kelli and her mother began their career in earnest.
Schilken points to the relationship with her mother when discussing the songwriting process.
“My mom [has] always been songwriting, and I started songwriting about two years ago,” Schilken said. “We really work well together. We have a pretty close relationship, we’re pretty honest with each other all the time. We usually come up with ideas separately, then I put my opinion in or she puts hers in.”
Their music, characterized by very bright and catchy numbers, is influenced heavily by the more artistic types in the genre.
“We’re really interested in artists that have a message and stand for something – meaningful lyrics,” Schilken said. “That’s why we both really like country music because the lyrics behind it have a really good message.”
Their message is an aspect on which Belles & Whistles place great emphasis. Schilken states that her goal with music is to have an influence on society, something which she has already noticed happening.
Though they have switched producers to equally well-known producer Jamie Tate (Taylor Swift, Thomas Rhett and others) their most recent single, released as a music video on Aug. 18 and entitled “Princess” has garnered equal, if not more attention. The song has received a lot of praise, despite it not being released to radio stations until January.
“Most of what I want to do with this music is make an impact on people’s lives,” Schilken said. “That’s what I’ve already seen a lot with the ‘Princess’ video and the song, is that people have been writing in. One girl wrote in and said ‘your song helped me tell my mom that my boyfriend is cheating on me.’ Part of the ‘Princess’ song was written the way it was because we wanted it to be broad enough to apply to many issues.”
The video for “Princess” is exceptional. Produced by Carl Diebold, who has a resume including Rascal Flatts and Gavin Degraw who called this video a “passion project” and flew in from Nashville for the filming.
A UNO student who is affecting people’s lives in such a strong way must be very abnormal, right? Not exactly. Schilken, a chemistry major with designs on pre-med and a later medical career, is an exemplary student who carried a 4.0 GPA through her last year of high school despite touring constantly. Apart from her music, she claims to lead a normal life, playing Mario Kart and helping her younger siblings with their homework.
“When I’m not doing music, I’m being a normal teenage girl,” Schilken said. “I hang out with my friends a lot. When I’m not super busy, I really make time for my friends.”
Being a teenager has helped Belles & Whistles in more ways than one. Her knowledge of social media, inherent in most teenagers of today, has been critical for the popularity of the band. Schilken says that if not for social media, it would be much more difficult for fans to know of concerts, song releases and other information.
Recently, Belles & Whistles opened for music legend Kenny Rogers at the Kentucky State Fair. Asked for a comment after the show, Rogers had nothing but glowing words.
“I must admit when I heard the name Belles & Whistles, I didn’t know what to expect,” Rogers said. “I was pleasantly surprised to see and hear this mother-daughter act…I think the crowd appreciated them as much as I did.”
For now, Schilken is happy with her station in life. She confesses to like school, and with a schedule arranged around her music, she is able to stay active in both parts of her life.
“I definitely don’t want to stop learning,” Schilken said. “I really do like school.”
While she is interested in medicine as a profession, she does not rule out music. A lot of her decision hinges on the success of current and future songs.
“It’s so unpredictable, especially in this business right now,” Schilken said. “You don’t really know. If things really do start to happen for us, or if the ‘Princess’ single does really well on radio…I am a year younger than I’m supposed to be in college. There’s a gap year. I have time to devote to music.”
It is needless to comment again on the impressiveness of the musical career of Schilken. Still in her teenage years, she has already experienced much more than an average high school student, but is able to stay grounded in her friends and scholastic achievements. Belles & Whistles shows no signs of slowing down, and with the expected success of their newest single, should continue to grow in popularity.