MUSIC SCENE

The gypsy artist Kristen McNamara


Kristen McNamara now splits her time between Key West and Los Angeles. COURTESY PHOTOS

Kristen McNamara now splits her time between Key West and Los Angeles. COURTESY PHOTOS

Kristen McNamara was born in Templeton, Calif., where she lived for two years until her mother got a job at Howell Mountain in Napa. They were there for seven years.

“There was 21 acres,” she recalls. “It was not great then, but now there are grapes planted and you can ride horses. I used to sell chicken eggs on the corner to help pay for my sister Shannon’s diapers. It made me business-minded. My family is all still there.”

But living on a small ranch, fishing, hunting and selling chicken eggs on the corner was not enough. At age 9 she started performing and writing, then moved out at age 16 to pursue her music career.

She started with gigs for funerals and at small venues such as the Blue Bird Café in Nashville, worked up to a 72,000-seat arena that was the home of the San Francisco 49ers and San Francisco Giants and then, in 2003, ended up in the top three finalists on CBS’s “Star Search” with Arsenio Hall.

She also competed on “Nashville Star” (season four) and “American Idol” (season five). There are plenty of YouTube videos of her performances.

Kristen’s dog Truffles goes almost everywhere she does, including her gigs.

Kristen’s dog Truffles goes almost everywhere she does, including her gigs.

Kristen is a free-spirited gypsy artist, fearless but fragile, worldly but innocently naive, strong yet vulnerable, incredibly soulful and very photogenic. She’s a girl with ambition, a songwriter’s heart and a sultry captivating voice you’ll never forget it.

When asked a question, she responds non-linearly, in an artist’s stream of consciousness, with stories and conversations, one line of thought leading into another, each recounting things that might have been previously missed. There’s so much to tell, for this pixie so diminutive, and a titan so grand, it’s exciting just to listen to her try. You feel as if you’re not getting a tenth of all there is behind the words.

Whether she won those contests or not is irrelevant; it put her out there for America to see.

For five years now, she has called Key West home. “Key West was the answer to those ‘failures,’” she said light-heartedly.

At 16, Kristen moved to Branson, Mo., and began playing the Ray Stevens Theater two time a day, seven days a week. Then, onward, naturally, to Nashville, the epicenter of country and pop music in the United States for young, aspiring singer/ songwriters.

“I got a job with DreamWorks after a major label deal fell through, wearing a business suit and stockings, HR for Gaylord, Opryland. On orientation day I got to go to the Grand Ole Opry. They said, ‘We would like you to stand where the greats have stood’ on the stage, and I said, ‘Hell, no. You can’t stand there. Elvis, Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash have all stood there. I’ll wait until it’s my time.’ I thought, ‘I’ll go for the next ‘Nashville Star.’

“Chris Young and I became best friends, the only two underage contestants. I told him that his song ‘Drinkin’ Me Lonely’ could be a hit.” It was one of two songs off Young’s self-titled album that hit the Billboard Hot Country Songs, reaching number 42.

Kristen has since toured and opened for Kenny Chesney, Big and Rich, Adam Lambert, Alan Jackson, Wynona Judd, Montgomery Gentry and Glen Campbell. You would think such credentials would make her a country singer, but she’s not so easily categorized.

“I’m like a Christmas tree with too many ornaments, and my branches are starting to sag,” she said, referring to her mountains of accolades and stories.

She headed to Louisville, Ky., for the tryout for “American Idol.” Out of thousands, she made it to the cut before it came down to between 14 and 17 contestants. “That’s when I decided reality TV is not right for me. I want to write. Be real. Be truthful.”

Five years ago, the BMI Key West Songwriters Festival brought Kristen to the island, and she immediately found it inspirational. She fell in love with a fighter pilot, and he convinced her to stay.

“I was here with friends from Nashville. He grabbed me up, we fell in love, and I stayed,” she said, adding her song “Duval Street” is an homage to him. She now splits her time between Key West and Los Angeles.

The first time I heard her sing, I was walking down Greene Street and I heard a voice coming out of the Green Room. It floored me … I sat down with some friends across the street on the Sloppy Joe’s Tap Room porch to listen. I asked everyone who it was, and they said KMAC/Roenin (she was just going through that name change transition).

Always rebranding herself, she first went from Kristen McNamara to KMAC.

“My name Kristen came from my dad. He’d go to the nude beach, I think it was called Pirate’s Cove, and get girls’ names and numbers. He ripped off the numbers and put the names on the fridge,” she told me. “Kristen was one of them, and it became mine.”

Because she hadn’t amassed any wealth while auditioning for contests, she had to do a bit of couch-surfing when she first moved to Key West.

“There were the greatest people here,” she said. “I stayed on Errin Harrelson’s couch and Heath’s (Hankin’s from Rick’s). Liz (Podlucky, formerly of Island Dogs) gave me my first job playing at Island Dogs (it was standing room only).

“Then Fred Bushey hired me at Rick’s. And I played out at Mallory Square, tipped by homeless people.”

From then on, you could find her everywhere: the Green Room, Rick’s, Island Dogs and the Smokin’ Tuna.

When she’s not playing around town, Kristen hosts a Paint-and-Sip class, because music isn’t her only talent (visit Key West Paint and Sip on Facebook to see upcoming dates). Otherwise, she might be traveling, out on a boat or frolicking on the beach with her dog Truffles. Her life always seems to be an assortment of adventure. She is also a busy artist and photographer, holding paint and sip classes and popular body painting for special events. You can check out her work at www.kristenmcnamara.com.

“I was at the Casa Marina painting on the beach when I got zapped by lightning,” for example. “It landed me three or four feet away. My producers who were with me said I should just get up under the awning and write songs. After I assured the hotel I wasn’t going to sue anyone, I wrote ‘Duval Street.’”

The best thing about living here? “The love,” she answers. “Where else in the U.S. can you go, put on a mask and snorkel anytime of the year without getting hypothermia? McNamara means ‘man of the sea.’ Key West just speaks to certain people.”

Kristen is in high demand, so check out her ever-changing schedule at www.kristenmcnamara.com.

In the meantime, you’ll find her doing a little bit of everything: painting, traveling, frolicking and always exploring. ¦

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