Keely Johnson is a young Queenslander who has lived with cancer since a young age, but that hasn’t stopped her becoming a singer and songwriter – and she’s also good mates with Lee Kernaghan, who is the subject of her song ‘The Man in the Hat’. The word ‘inspirational’ gets tossed around a bit, but it only took me a few minutes of speaking to Keely recently to realise that she is.
Not too many people have a song written about them – how does Lee feel about this song?
Well, when I sang it to him the first time, on the 25th of May 2015, I think he was a bit upset. I don’t know if he was crying or not, but I think he was pretty upset, and pretty honoured to have a song written about him.
I’d think especially a song by you, because you’ve known him for a long time, haven’t you?
Yes, I think it’ll be two years now.
How did you first met?
We met at a field day and I said, ‘I have this duet about childhood cancer’, and I said I wrote it, and then I gave him a look at it, and he said, ‘Yes, I’ll do it.’ I’d just shown him the first line and he said yes.
That must be so exciting for a songwriter and a performer, to have that happen.
I was jumping around the house for the next week, I think [laughs].
You’ve been a fan of Lee’s for a long time – can you remember the first time you heard a Lee Kernaghan song, and what the song was?
‘Something in the Water’ – oh no, it might have been ‘Boys from the Bush’ when I was really, really little. I can’t remember that, but the first song I do remember is ‘Something in the Water’ and ever since I would play that, on repeat, every single time we got in that car, and even when I was in a pram I used to love that song. My first ever concert was near Emerald. I was about two years old, sitting on my dad’s shoulders, and Lee’s guitarist touched my hand. That’s when I instantly fell in love with Lee [laughs].
Some parents might get sick of hearing the same song over and over again, but it sounds like your parents facilitated you liking Lee’s songs.
Yes, I think so. Now that we’re best mates with him, he’s not a superstar, he’s a friend, and that’s what I really plan on treating him like. I don’t want to treat him like, ‘Oh my god, it’s Lee Kernaghan!’ I had that moment when I first met him and that’s why I wanted to write a song about him, because he’s such a great guy once you get to know him. This song is my pride and joy, that is written about a truly wonderful man, and he helps so many people.
Now, you’re a songwriter and a guitarist and a singer – was he your inspiration for beginning to play, or have you listened to a lot of different country music over time? If so, who are your other inspirations?
I think Lee would be my inspiration, because he’s got so many people under him that I look up to. He’s my mentor. He’s told me to go to the Tamworth Academy, start learning the guitar. He really is my mentor on telling me what I need to do. He doesn’t say, ‘Keely, go to this or go to that’, but he’ll tell me wisdom that I need to know. He’s such a great guy, he really is. The day before I went to chemo I was given Keith Urban’s guitar at his concert. I’m a big Keith Urban fan too but not as much as Lee.
When did you first start playing guitar?
I’ve had lessons since 2013 but I never put my head to it, I always thought, I’m not going to learn this. But in the last couple of weeks my guitar teacher, Laveen Stewart, and also my beautiful singing teacher, Renee Grant-Williams in Nashville – Lee put me on to her too, she’s amazing. She’s taught Tim McGraw, Lee, Robbie Kernaghan, Faith Hill, Carrie Underwood, all those sort of people. And my guitar teacher, she’s amazing too. The last couple of weeks I’ve learnt some songs on the guitar and my fingers hardened up on the steel strings.
You have to get those calluses forming.
Yes, absolutely. And in a way, for me to write the song, it was just to say thank you [to Lee] for helping me, and I would love the world to hear it. I was actually on twelve months of chemo in Brisbane when I wrote this song. I wrote them down on paper and Mum helped me rhyme them a little bit. When I took it to my producer, Brendan Ratford, he added a few lines and put the music to it. Brendan knows Lee really well and he could tell me a few little secrets that I didn’t know. Some of the days I was pretty crook and tired but I needed to get it done for Lee. I really just wanted to follow in my hero’s footsteps, because he writes songs about soldiers, he writes about Slim. He has written songs about so many other people but he’s never had a song written about him before, so I thought the option’s there. I just wanted everyone to know how great of a guy he is. He was busking outside of a Tamworth tyre shop when he was young, with Ray [Kernaghan, his father], and then he went up on Renown Rock – the Roll of Renown, where your face gets put on a rock in Tamworth, which is the biggest country music award that he could have won. And I was there when he got presented with that, and in the middle of his song he said, ‘Hey, Keels.’ It was so funny.
I would imagine he feels as lucky to know you as you feel lucky to know him.
Like he said on Inside Story on Channel Nine, if I keep saying nice things about him he’s going to have to go up two sizes of Akubra. And, of course, I wear his brand of Akubra.
Your association with Lee has taken you to Tamworth, to perform with him – and Tamworth is the pinnacle, obviously. So that must have been incredibly exciting, to play there with him.
Oh, it was. In 2014 I did ‘Turn This to Gold’ with him, and I had no stage experience, so I didn’t have any ‘ears’ or anything like that. This year I was his opening act. I was introducing him on stage, singing ‘The Man in the Hat’. I am bringing an EP out down the track and I have met some of the most amazing people. And it’s thanks to Lee that I’ve met these amazing people, like Kerry Lee and Rachel Watson and Don Gough. These are all friends that I’ve made because of Lee and they’re the people who have helped me get through; they’re the people I’ve asked, ‘What did Lee do when he was younger’. And when you watch the music video, [there are] snippets of Lee – it has his grandparents in it, of him side by side with his Blue Devil Band, against Waltzing Matilda, Ray’s truck. His first Golden Guitar nomination and he won it. It really shows who he is. And while I’ve been using ‘The Man in the Hat’ to raise the profile of the Golden Octopus foundation – which he is the ambassador for, of course – I also hope the income will assist in my own extremely expensive ongoing cancer treatments. All the profits from ‘Turn This to Gold’ went to Make a Wish but all the profits from ‘The Man in the Hat’ is going to help with my growth hormone that costs $2000 a month. But mainly I hope it provides a level of hope for other children diagnosed with cancer, and against all odds you can tough it out and follow your dreams. I know I’m following mine because a great man has helped me create. I’m nowhere near getting a record label or anything – I’m just a little fish compared to all the big artists like Lee and Troy Cassar-Daley. I’d love to follow in my hero’s footsteps and one day, eventually, get a Golden Guitar nomination – that’s top of my bucket list.
Everyone starts with a single – Lee, Troy, Beccy Cole. They pretty much all started on Peel Street and everyone starts with a song.
Absolutely. I busked on Peel Street last year and I had great fun, so I’m definitely going to be doing it next year.
I’d like to talk about your foundation – why is it called Golden Octopus?
A lot of people think it’s a charity for an octopus, the animal, and it’s not. The reason I picked an octopus – and he’s called Ollee, as in Lee, and he wears an Akubra hat and he’s gold, because gold is the colour of childhood cancer. The reason we picked an octopus is because there’s eight groups of childhood cancer – bone, blood, brain, spinal, neuroblastoma … So each leg on Ollee is each different childhood cancer group. There’s not one charity out there that helps all the childhood cancers. Me – 0.7 in a million kids get what I’ve got and I didn’t have a lot charities that helped me, and there’s a lot of kids out there that I know, like Luke Spalding – he’s a V8 Supercar driver and he’s just started his career off, like me, and he is very, very rare, there’s only about three kids in the world like him, and he never had a charity to help him either. He’s an Octopus hero. There’s a lot of kids out there that are really rare, that don’t have a charity to help them. It’s not just the rare ones – we cover leukaemia and that sort of stuff too. If you have a child or a friend or a family member who has childhood cancer, pop onto our website goldenoctopusfoundation.org.au, and email me and we’ll see what we can do to help.
I read that part of your interest in setting up your foundation is because of the challenges faced by children in rural and regional areas who have cancer, and obviously challenges you’ve had because you’re in Far North Queensland. Some people won’t realise what’s different about being in the country and needing this treatment – what are some of those challenges that rural children face?
I live in Ayr, which is about an hour away from Townsville. I’ve got no hormones. I’ve got no cortisol. Say if a snake bit me and I’m on my cane farm where I live, an ambulance can’t come and find me. Within fifteen minutes I’m dead because I don’t have any cortisol. But I’m very fortunate that my mum’s a registered nurse. There’s a lot of kids out in rural areas – we’re going to be putting childhood cancer nurses in these regional areas. They’ll have CPR training, chemotherapy training, so that if this child has been hurt or injured, the nurse gets called as well as the local hospital. With children living out on farms it does get a bit difficult, so that’s why we are putting telehealth systems into our local regional hospital so children don’t have to go to Lady Cilento hospital in Brisbane every three months or Westmead down in Sydney. They can go to their local hospital and Skype their doctor. I’m eighteen in August so I’m not under a children’s hospital any more.
That’s a big shift for you, because that’s a system that you’ve become used to and now you enter a different system.
Yes, that’s right. I’ve seen three-year-olds pushing round their IV poles because their mums are so upset they have to go outside and they can’t watch their child having chemo. The cancer nurses are going to help and support them too. That’s the whole aim of the charity. I don’t think of myself, I think of other kids and their situations. I’m very fortunate that my parents have paid for everything and that’s why ‘The Man in the Hat’ is going to pay for what they pay.
On the Channel Nine show you said, ‘I may be little but I have big dreams’. You’ve already achieved the dream of this song and you said that Tamworth was a dream – do you have any other dreams that you’re pursuing now or that you have in mind to pursue?
I have two. Raising a million dollars by the end of this year and top of my bucket list is to win a Golden Guitar. And bring out an album. So I have three big dreams. I also have normal teenage dreams like learning how to surf but music will come first [laughs].
For more information on the Golden Octopus Foundation, go to goldenoctopusfoundation.org.au