Shelli Gates is everywhere. At jams, open mics, concerts…you name it. She’s one busy lady. Besides earning her living as a respiratory therapist, she sings, plays, composes, co-founded a music nonprofit organization, works in various capacities at venues and concerts and — on top of it all — is just a really nice person. I could go on and on, but the whole purpose of an interview is to get inside a person’s head and heart. Here’s Shelli’s heart. It’s a good one…
Q: If you’re not a native, what brought you to the Outer Banks?
A: I first came down in 1975, with my family, and then with my sorority sisters in the early-1980s. I always felt drawn to the Outer Banks. I moved here 26 years ago, and never looked back. Best move I ever made.
Q: How would you describe your music?
A: I would say that I have a bluesy feel. Whether I am playing an original or a cover, I always seem to go to that bluesy place.
Q: Who is your greatest musical influence?
A: I would say that my mother and uncle were. Both could play the piano and sing. My uncle was a DJ, and I still have his extensive vinyl collection. My mother loved all kinds of music. Jazz and blues are what I remember most being played in the house growing up.
Q: What is it about music that touched you?
A: Music makes you feel, it creates a mood. As a friend said, ‘Music makes you remember, and it makes you forget.’ Simply magic.
Q: What was the first concert you attended?
A: My first concert was the No Nukes Concert on Capitol Hill in 1979, with Jackson Brown, John Sebastian, Graham Nash, Joni Mitchell, John Hall, Dan Fogelberg, and prominent speakers. I was already performing in school at the time, but I am always inspired by them.
Q: Are you self-taught?
A: No. I was a vocalist in school and minored in voice in college. I took piano lessons in elementary school but never really used that skill to play out. Ruth Wyand taught me to play the guitar when I was 47, but don’t judge her teaching ability on guitar skills! I’m a basic player. I have also had a few bass lessons in the last few years. I’m trying to fit learning the bass into my busy schedule.
Q: How many musical projects are you involved in?
A: Really just my own projects. The name of my duo/trio is Tempest Revival. Jason Woolard has been playing bass with me for about five years. He is very accomplished and turnkey. I have recently been rehearsing with Bruce Loughry, who is a great lead and slide player.
Q: Musicians usually play for those “moments” when everything clicks. Do you have a favorite moment?
A: Honestly, I have been lucky to play music with some professional players who are way above my skill level. I probably have the most fun when I get to play with Ruth Wyand.
Q: What do you do in the off-season?
A: I have a yearround job as a respiratory therapist. I also have a music production company — soon to be named Boss Lady Productions — where I run stages with my crew for festivals, and we help out when large acts come into town. It uses the other side of my brain.
Q: Was there a person in your life that motivated you to pursue music?
A: My family was always involved in music. I feel like it kind of chose me, but I stopped singing for a while. My good friends Cristina Garey and Mick Vaughn pushed to get back out there, and I’m grateful to them for that.
Q: If you could perform with anyone, living or dead, who would it be, and why?
A: Dinah Washington, Nina Simone, Lowell George, Bonnie Raitt, Warren Haynes.
Q: What one song have you heard that you wish you'd written?
A: “Angel From Montgomery.”
Q: If you could choose a time period in which to perform music, what would it be and why?
A: Wow, that’s a hard question to answer. I love the traditional jazz vocal standards. I also love the blues. Some of the women that were trailblazers, like Sister Rosetta Tharp, lived during tough times. It would be hard to live during that time period, but the music was great.
Q: Do you listen to new music and if so, what are you listening to?
A: Yes! I’m obsessed with Larkin and Poe, JJ Grey and Mofro, Down Like Silver, HoneyHoney, Pistol Annies, ZZ Ward, Downtown Abby and the Echo’s and my friends from Virginia Beach, Anthony Rosano and the Conqueroos.
Q: Did you ever consider quitting music and doing something else?
A: Well, I don’t do this to make a living. I write and play music because I love it. So no. But you have to be realistic about your talent, what the industry is and what you want out of music. There are times when I compare myself to other musicians and insecurities creep in. You just have to do it because you love the music.
Q: McCartney or Lennon?
A: Musically, Lennon. But Paul was pretty cute back in the day.
Q: When you write a song, is it positive or negative inspiration that drives you?
A: Both actually. It can be very cathartic to write through tough times. And sometimes song’s come out of the blue, I have no idea what I’m writing about until I’m done.
Q: Do you have any hobbies that aren’t music-related?
A: Well if you know me, you know I love my dog Piper! I also love to surf. I’m a longboarder with bad knees so I really dig the small days.
Q: Your favorite album?
A: "Waiting for Columbus," Little Feat. I love the influences of the slide, blues, creole, second line, syncopation all mixed together to create a rich sound. Every song moves me. I think I know every word to every song on that album.
Q: Your favorite song?
A: Wow that is hard to answer. 'Feeling Good' by Nina Simone, 'Lochloosa' by JJ Grey, 'I Can’t Make You Love Me' by Bonnie Raitt, 'Spanish Moon' by Little Feat, 'London Calling' by The Clash, and so many more. They all make me feel a certain way, and of course, they make me sing.
Q: If you were me, what question should I be asking you?
A: Good question. I will say this. I love the community of musicians on the Outer Banks. There are very few places where musicians support each other like they do here. For the most part, people have your back and will help you in a second if you need it.