By Kate Daly | Special to the Menlo Park Almanac
For now, singer/songwriter Megan Keely has no intention of quitting her day job. Even after getting a taste of Hollywood with a song that made it on the Hunger Games movie extended soundtrack, the landscape architect says she loves working on high-end gardens in the area, and loves performing songs with her family and friends.
Ms. Keely, 28, grew up in Ladera surrounded by music. When her father, Bert, wasn't working at Microsoft, he played lead guitar in a psychedelic rock band called the Flying Other Brothers.
"He and his friends would jam a lot and started touring," she says. "Our family vacations were spent touring with them to Alaska and London. ... I was always in the audience, dancing and listening with my mom."
Aside from a brief stint in chorus at Menlo School during high school, Ms. Keely didn't focus on music until she went off to study landscape architecture at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.
There she picked up a guitar and lived in a music-themed dorm. She left to study and travel around India with a knockoff Epiphone guitar.
One summer she attended the Stanford Jazz Workshop to work on her music skills (singing, playing and composing). During the school year back at Cornell, she would visit her older brother, Brandon, at NYU, where he played guitar and trumpet for fun. They ended up recording a song for their father for Father's Day 2007.
Their father's band's producer, T Bone Burnett, heard the song and encouraged them to continue recording and keep in touch.
Ms. Keely says at first she was terrified to perform in public. She recalls playing at a monthly coffee shop event at her dorm and laughs about how she didn't even make it through two verses of one song.
"Now, I love performing," she says. "I practiced a lot and got better. At first I was technically so new I couldn't do it on autopilot. Knowing that vulnerability is a special and wonderful thing."
Critics have commented on her inviting, sincere and emotional approach to music. She describes her sound as "contemporary folk that draws upon folk and Americana roots. ... I'm a pretty open and honest person, and in my songwriting I'm communicating about pretty universal things."
In October 2010, she self-released her debut album, Acorn Collection, which she says is "full of failed romances and pathetic heartbreak." For her second album, she says, she "had to find new inspiration because I wasn't going through heartbreak, so I drew on fictional sources."
That's where The Hunger Games enters into her narrative. The producer, Mr. Burnett, was involved in making the movie's soundtrack and asked her to consider writing for it. Ms. Keely and her brother spent a summer working on a bunch of songs based on characters in the book.
They recorded demos, mailed copies to Mr. Burnett's office in Los Angeles, and then arranged to drop by to play the song "Rules" for him.
The song eventually made it on the soundtrack companion album, "The Hunger Games: Songs from District 12 and Beyond." In that version, veteran singer Jayme Dee sang the vocals, Ms. Keely sang backup vocals and played ukulele, and her brother played guitar.
Other musical highlights for Ms. Keely include when she performed with her father, brother, and fiddler friend Antja Jean Thompson at the TEDxSanJoseCA Women program in December 2012. Ms. Keely's brother works at Google and her father is retired, but they still make time to play gigs together whenever they can.
Ms. Keely recorded her second album, "Deciduous," in Nashville that same winter, and made some videos. One was inspired by her grandmother emigrating from the Philippines to the U.S. in 1960. Ms. Keely wrote and performed the song, "Dream it Now," for a pro-immigration-reform documentary, "The Dream is Now."
This year she is turning her attention "to taking strides on the business side, and learning about film and TV placement (creating songs for movies and shows)," she says. "It's an area where a musician can make money. That's very difficult to do on tour."
Most months she performs locally at places such as Brick & Mortar and Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. On Feb. 19 she's appearing at Bottom of the Hill, also in the city.
See megankeely.com for details on other upcoming appearances.
Ms. Keely splits her time living between San Francisco and Woodside, where she works for Sycamore Design, a garden design company. Sometimes she finds herself pulling off the road during her commute to write down notes about a possible song.
"There are hundreds of unfinished ideas and scraps that are ready for me to assemble," she says, giving the impression that she is just getting rolling on her musical career.