Cora Kelly: 'I wrote my song, Moments, after my granny was diagnosed with dementia... I wanted to share our story'
Co Down singer-songwriter Cora Kelly (22) tells Lee Henry about her inspirational grandmother Theresa, her early musical influences and performing in Nashville
Cora Kelly can remember the first line of the first song she ever wrote: "It was down in Co Wexford when I met this fine young man." She cringes at the thought - "I had never even been to Wexford and at age 10 I thought boys were disgusting, but it was catchy" - yet the 22-year-old understands that every musician has to start somewhere.
The singer-songwriter's musical journey began in primary seven when she took up the guitar and piano in her native Killough, Co Down. Since then Cora has dreamed of making it big. Inspired by her musical idol Beyonce, who she saw perform live while a young teenager, she has written music with master collaborators in Nashville and perfected her own unique sound, a fusion of pop, country and blues.
At this early stage of her fledgling career, however, it's for her emotive and melodic song Moments that Cora is perhaps best known: a touching, lyrical and highly personal composition written about her beloved grandmother Theresa's diagnosis with dementia.
"The first line of the chorus is: 'Moments slip through our fingers like the wind, I wish I could save them by making a fist.' It pretty much sums up the message I wanted to get across," says Cora. "I wrote Moments about a year ago. It was never a song I was going to release as a single, I just wanted to share it with people because it's a story everyone can relate to.
"As you get older life becomes a lot more precious because you start realising people don't last forever. My granny was diagnosed just after my aunt Maureen, who I was also very close with. Sadly, she passed away. Losing family members is horrible and painful and something we all dread to think about, but it happens, which is why it is so important to cherish every moment with them."
Cora has always considered her granny Theresa to be a solid, supportive and inspirational figure in her life.
"She worked all her life while raising six children," Cora explains. "She was raised through the Troubles and lived in Belfast, except for one time when she moved to Killough because her house was sinking!
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"My granny is incredibly laid back and loves her family, especially her grandkids. She has this ability to make everything seem fine, even when it isn't. I remember the summers when all the cousins were shipped up to her house while our parents were working and we would dress up in all of her clothes.
"A lover of whiskey, my granny never missed going to the club with her sister and friends. She was extremely sociable and loved a good family party, when she would normally sing her famous rendition of Someone To Watch Over Me. She is an amazing woman."
When Cora learned of her grandmother's diagnosis, it was "devastating" news to hear. A gradual decline in memory had signalled warning signs but Cora admits to not knowing much about the disease beforehand. "I was aware of dementia but I didn't know anyone who actually had it," she says.
"I now understand it a lot better. It is not a disease that occurs overnight. My granny still has the same wit and humour, even though she is at a late stage. She makes sure to point out when she hates something I am wearing - especially ripped jeans, she is definitely not a fan!
"As much as I would love to take the disease away from her, I am extremely grateful for the memories that I have with her. It is not easy seeing her so far on with dementia, but I find comfort in the fact that she is loved and cherished by everyone, and in turn loves all of us."
The process of writing about this experience seemed entirely natural to Cora, who otherwise finds it more comfortable and natural to inhabit other characters, tell other people's stories, in her work. With regards to Moments, however, she sat down with the express intention of putting her own thoughts and feelings down on paper.
"I am not going to be clichéd and say that I use songwriting as a tool to express my feelings, because I usually don't. But this was something I felt I needed to write about. It is so easy to say to yourself, 'I'll go see someone another time', or 'I'll call them tomorrow'. As you get older you realise that tomorrow is not always promised."
Creativity was always in Cora's blood. Though she says that her immediate family "were always very good at denying their talents", her mum Maura has a "lovely singing voice" and her dad Laurence is an accomplished artist. That creative nature was passed on to Cora and her brother Daniel. "We've just exploited it more."
Music was a mainstay in the family home. "We always had Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Ray Charles albums on repeat," Cora recalls. "My house was very rarely quiet. Growing up in the Sixties and Seventies, my parents lived through some of the greatest musical years of the century and, in turn, made myself and my brother huge Motown fans.
"Although I was just one when my grandfather Harry died, he supposedly had a wonderful voice too. He sang in the local pub and every time I go in, the same barman tells me exactly how he used to sit and sing to the bar, even if they didn't want to listen. It is moving to know that we have that connection."
It wasn't until she was old enough to attend live concerts, however, that Cora realised that she too had a desire to perform to an audience. "I went to see Beyonce when I was 13 and she absolutely blew me away," she recalls. "Her stage presence, her ability to make you dance and cry, all within 10 minutes, was something I was in awe of. Her music and mine are worlds apart but her work ethic and stage presence are what I aim for."
Needless to say she has the full support of her family and others in her tight-knit community. "My family have always been amazing, even when I'm on my 15th practice of Wagon Wheel. And every time I play in Killough, I'm overwhelmed with the turnout and love that I receive. Knowing that you have an army behind you makes the journey a little easier."
Her brother also shares the creative gene, having written a play about their grandmother's experience with dementia, A Thought For Your Pennies, which will debut in St Matthew's Social Club as part of the East Belfast Arts Festival in early August. "Daniel and my granny are extremely close," says Cora. "The play talks about dementia and boxing. It's dark but there is also music and humour."
Cora, meanwhile, is currently studying for a degree in music performance at Queen's University and has plans to complete a PGCE in order to teach music to young students in the years ahead. If, however, record label boss Ed Sheeran was to come calling, she would not be averse to signing up and seeing where the musical journey took her.
Career highs thus far have included releasing her own music and performing in Nashville, international home of the songwriting elite. "It lived up to my expectations and more," says Cora, who travelled there at the invitation of the Belfast Nashville Songwriters' Festival.
"There is music on every corner and the musicians are on a whole new level. We played in some of the best venues but the highlight was the Bluebird Cafe, a place known for hosting singers like Taylor Swift and Garth Brooks."
With plans to perform more gigs in her native Northern Ireland and also release more original music, the months and years ahead look set to be busy for one of Ulster's most promising young artists. Whatever lies ahead, she will always have Moments to look back on.
For those with a family member facing life living with dementia, Cora has this sage advice: "Cherish the time you have with them. Let them know how loved they are and reassure them that you will be with them every step of the way.
"There is no telling how a person with dementia is feeling, but from what I have experienced, I would say they will appreciate just knowing they have a support system with them at all times."
- Cora Kelly plays at Horatio Todd's, Belfast, next Thursday. For more information visit her Facebook page