During this year’s Tamworth Country Music Festival I was lurking around the 2TM trailer on Peel Street, waiting to meet someone and not really paying attention to who was performing on the stage attached to the trailer. Then I heard a voice – a really beautiful voice that made me stop what I was doing and pay attention. The voice belonged to Kelly Menhennett, who had been one of the winners of the Telstra Road to Discovery just the night before.

After Tamworth was over I found Kelly’s website and sent an email asking to interview her. She said ‘yes’, and I interviewed by phone her one Saturday afternoon while she was watching a softball match. She told me that she takes her guitar along because sometimes she’ll take a break from the match and go off somewhere and play for a while. So that led me to my first question …

What really intrigued me about you and the Telstra Road to Discovery was that you won the Songwriter Award and not the Performance Award, because the way I discovered you on Peel Street was that I was walking off to something else and I heard this voice singing and thought, Whoever that is, I really have to stop and listen to her, because your voice is just amazing and when I listen to your record, it’s like this extraordinary instrument, it’s quite unusual and I can’t think of another Australian singer like it. So I’ve got to start off by asking you about singing. How long you’ve been singing and if your voice has always been like that or if you’ve changed it over time?
My mum used to be a singer. She was a singer in the Sydney cabaret scene, but prior to that she was a resident singer in the country at a hotel. When she was, I think, fifteen she became the resident singer so she’s been a massive inspiration and consequently, as kids, my sister and I and Mum would always be singing around the house. I just loved singing, but I never thought anything of it and it wasn’t until later in life when I was … I’m a winemaker by trade and I was in the countryside working, doing that – I pursued that. Mum and Dad having lived the Sydney cabaret scene in the early ’70s and knowing how tough it was, they discouraged me from a career in music.

[Laughs] Well, fair enough.
And, yeah, they were just being, I guess, trying to look after me and not wanting me to have a tough road, so they discouraged me so I pursued wine, which kind of was quite natural too because I grew up on a vineyard. And then I was back living in the country, making wine and there was just – it was all work, I really had no outlet socially, so I started to perform as a bit of a social outlet, and people started commenting on my vocal ability and performance and things like that, and I really hadn’t thought too much of my talents, but it was just that gratification and people really enjoying what I was doing that kept me driven and, I guess, vocally, I don’t know, I think I’ve always had that vocal ability but never really recognised it until later in life.

Not that you’re that old!
No, no, no. Well, I was probably, I don’t know, maybe in my early twenties when I starting performing again and now I’m thirty.

So you didn’t really do singing at school, or you did but you didn’t realise that it was anything special?
Yeah, yeah, I did, I did. I did music right up until Year Twelve. I did guitar as my instrument, though. I started off with violin as a four year old. But, vocally, in our music classes we would just make up silly songs and you’d sing along to them, but there was never … I guess at that age, everyone’s sort of singing along and, I don’t know, it’s easy to get drowned out amongst the noise of a music class. [laughs] I never recognised any vocal talent then, I just thought that I could hold a tune, but nothing really more than that.

Well, clearly your teachers didn’t say anything. I can’t believe they didn’t. But on the Telstra Road to Discovery- when you’re actually being judged that night, that finalist night, I suppose you just to do what you do and it’s not like you enter into either the songwriter strand or the performance strand, is that right?
Well, I didn’t know what the difference was, to be honest, because I just thought, Well, I’m a performer and I’m a songwriter, and I didn’t know which one to go for, so I put an entry into both, and funnily enough I actually did have an entry in the performer and got through the – went in for the heats, but I never got any further than the Adelaide heat in the performer section, and –

[Laughs] Sorry, I find that so hard to believe.
Well, Bill Page – who’s the head judge, apparently – really wanted me to get through and he copped a lot of flak for not pushing me through in the performer section. And, yeah, if I – I think at that particular heat I did one of my originals and not knowing what I was in for, I did a cover of ‘Me and Bobby McGee’, thinking it’s a … It used to be a country competition traditionally and I thought that might sort of fit the mould of the competition and perhaps sort of appeal to the audience – a lot of it was based on audience response, apparently with the judging. But, according to Bill, he said to me, ‘Kel, I loved your original but’ – this is, this is like only the other day after winning – and he was like, ‘Bloody hell, “Me and Bobby McGee”. I’ve heard it a thousand times.’ So, for me, that particular song was a poor choice, but in hindsight I got through, and I think particularly in the semi-finalists, there is hardly any difference between the performer and songwriter categories. All of the people that were in the songwriter category performed, and performed really strongly, so I guess they put the songwriter category in there if you’re a really snazzy writer but can’t perform.

[Laughs] Or maybe they’re just trying to take two bites of the cherry, they figure, oh well, maybe we’ll get two great performers out of it instead of one.
Yeah, that’s true, that’s true. That’s possibly it as well [laughs].

The Tamworth Country Music Festival has given rise to – well, around the festival there’s these two competitions, there’s Star Maker and Road to Discovery, and I think they seem to more than carry their weight in terms of finding new talent, and before there was Australian Idol or anything like that, these competitions were unearthing people, and there seems to be a very good follow-through in terms of people having careers after they’ve been through these competitions.
Definitely. I agree. If you make the most of this opportunity you can really, kind of, build a foundation so that you’re moving into the future in a really – you’re all sorted essentially, like you can make some amazing contacts through this experience. We’ve all – like even the finalists or semi-finalists, we all have met some amazing people who can help out down the track.

Part II of this interview will be published very soon.