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A Different Qwest

A strange case: Kelly David is a litigator and an electronic-music composer.
James Bludworth

So you think you have a stressful career? Consider Kelly, who makes his living under his given name as a senior attorney in the legal-affairs department of Qwest, a Colorado telecom that's spent more than a year making the wrong kind of headlines. The guy who said there's no such thing as bad publicity apparently didn't read the articles published this week about former Qwest CEO Joe Nacchio and the allegedly hinky business practices and accounting techniques employed at the firm. The negative buzz that resulted may not have reached Enron volume, but it definitely wasn't good for business.

"The company's been going through some tough times," Kelly allows, understating the situation substantially. "It's been a wild ride."

Obviously, Kelly, 48, could use an outlet to get his mind off such matters -- and fortunately, he's got two. Better yet, these diversions could hardly have less to do with his day job. He not only works as a weekend disc jockey for Jammin', an R&B/soul station at 92.5 FM, under the moniker Kelly Randall, but he also records ambient music with a spacey edge as Kelly David. His first CD, Broken Voyage, issued on Kelly's own Rocky Mountain Records imprint, has been on the New Age Voice magazine Top 100 Airwaves chart since May, and recently received a gushing rave on the influential All Music Guide Web site (www.allmusic.com). According to AMG reviewer Jim Brenholts, "Kelly David's Broken Voyage is one of the best debut albums -- regardless of genre -- ever. In ambient-music circles, it is clearly among the Top 10 debuts of all time."

Terms like "ambient" and "new age" imply that Kelly's music is somnolent -- the sort of stuff that's only good for sedating brains overwhelmed with anxieties spawned by professions like his. Fortunately, that's not the case: The songs on Broken Voyage are sweeping, dark and often challenging soundscapes that reward active listening. But Kelly has no problem with those who feel differently.

"If you go to sleep by my music, I take it as a compliment, not an insult," he says. "I'm lapping at the edge of consciousness and trying to reach those zones you're in when you're half awake and half asleep."

Dualities like this one are recurring features in Kelly's life -- appropriate for someone who, as he puts it, "was born and raised in Washington, D.C., a white kid in George Clinton's 'chocolate city.'" His parents were classical-music buffs ("My Saturdays as a kid were tied into the broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera"), and he grew to love this style as much as they did. But his fondness for the great composers, whose works he learned to play on piano and French horn, was paralleled by a burgeoning interest in the pop music he heard on the radio. "My mother accuses me of practicing to be a DJ when I was ten, with my 45s," he says. Kelly subsequently got into prog rock, a form seemingly made for him: "When Emerson, Lake and Palmer hit, I remember it being a huge time for me. Reading stories about Keith Emerson traveling with his Moog synthesizer and all the technicians he had to have with him, I had an 'Oh, wow' reaction."

By his mid-teens, Kelly's own music was beginning to elicit that response in others. "I remember going up to the drama teacher at my high school and saying, 'I can write music for your next play,'" he says. "It was Arthur Miller's The Crucible, and I wrote the scariest music I could think of. I have a recording of it, from the fall of 1970, and you can hear Stravinski, Wagner, plus Bernard Herrmann and TV music." He laughs. "I ripped off everything I was listening to."

Upon his graduation from high school, Kelly enrolled at the College Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati. The experience proved to be formative, but not in quite the way he'd anticipated. "When I got there, I freaked out, because all the players were so good. And I found out that the school really frowned on external influences like jazz and rock and electronic music. I did a musique concrète piece with tape loops for my sophomore-year recital and got booed off the stage. That told me I was on the right track."

Kelly eventually dropped out, but not before signing up at the campus radio station and discovering that he had a passion for deejaying. He landed a part-time job at WEBN, the first station owned by Jacor, a Cincinnati-area company that grew into a nationwide radio leviathan. (It was later subsumed by an even larger concern, Clear Channel.) From there, he moved to an album-rock station in Louisville, Kentucky, beginning a seventeen-year odyssey that took him to a slew of major markets -- Boston, New York, Pittsburgh and Dallas among them. Along the way, Kelly decided to go back to school, earning an undergraduate degree in political science at the University of Hawaii during a stretch in Honolulu. Shortly thereafter, he and his radio partner, Dan Cooke, relocated in Philadelphia and stayed for eight years -- long enough for Kelly to graduate from Temple University law school.

Armed with yet another sheepskin, Kelly moved to his home town of Washington, D.C., in 1991 to practice communication law "just as radio was starting its crazy consolidation phase." He spent the next two and a half years representing radio and TV conglomerates in respect to sales, acquisitions and appearances in front of the Federal Communications Commission. Then he switched sides, becoming a staff attorney at the FCC specializing in resolving administrative-law disputes. "I think my most amazing moment was sitting in my office listening to the Howard Stern show while writing a decision about someone alleging that his show was indecent," he says. Kelly swears that being a Howard fan didn't sway his decision, but he ultimately argued that attempts to block the sale of a station airing Stern shouldn't be held up because of whatever objectionable comments the host had made.

Following three years with the FCC, Kelly headed to Denver to work for MCI, where he remained for a relatively short span before jumping to Qwest. In the meantime, he returned to radio, which he'd back-burnered during his FCC days because of the potential conflict of interest. He covered weekend shifts on Alice between 1997 and 2000 and did a brief stint at KISS-FM before hooking up earlier this year with Jammin', which is among the few major stations in the market to still use live DJs, as opposed to the pre-recorded kind, on weekends. In his view, this sad situation is unlikely to improve anytime soon.

"Radio is really roadkill on the information superhighway," he says. "I have a fifteen-year-old daughter [Kailani], and she gets all her music info from TV -- and she's not alone. So radio's looking to stay alive, but one of the ways it's trying to do it is voicetracking and importing shows from other parts of the country. That's relegated talent to much more of a supporting role than it's ever had before, and I'm concerned that there's not going to be another generation of great DJs because of it. There's no opportunity for the younger people coming into the business to develop their skills, which takes away employment opportunities for anyone looking to get a break and get started."

Doing so in the world of music isn't any easier, but Kelly is giving it his best shot. In 1983, he purchased his first synthesizer since music school, and even built a studio. He sold this gear when he went to law school but began purchasing replacement equipment again in the early '90s. The process accelerated after his arrival in Denver. "I was captivated by the light and space of the west in a way that really influenced me. And I was listening to a lot of ambient electronic music, especially by this guy Steve Roach."

A resident of Tucson, Roach is a well-known figure in the ambient-music subculture, having released dozens of electronically oriented platters since the '70s. Kelly became a regular visitor to Roach's Web address, www.steveroach.com, and used the information he found there to contact the main man. "He's a really generous guy. He let me buy some studio time and hang out with him, and that got me going. I kept sending him stuff I was working on until he said, 'I think you've got an album here.'"

He did indeed. Over time, he pulled together a variety of musical snippets inspired by events that took place in the South Pacific. "I read a lot of odd travelogues written by people in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries -- really fascinating stories with Joseph Conrad-like images about jungles and people who were sick and cannibalism," Kelly says. "I took this collection of things to Steve's studio and slapped it against the wall, rearranged it with cutting, pasting and digital editing, and came out with Broken Voyage."

As its creative origins imply, Kelly's maiden Voyage has a strong sense of place and atmosphere that's positively cinematic. "Off the Map," the sprawling lead cut, is built upon synthetic waves and winds juxtaposed over the deepest of drumbeats; "Coastwatcher" sneaks up on the listener like a ship out of a fog bank; "Shadow Side" is nearly 23 minutes of meticulously shaped drama; and "Cargo Cult" lets loose foreboding rhythms as unsettling as a Val Lewton-produced horror flick. Anyone falling asleep while this last number spins is apt to awaken in a pool of sweat -- so it's a better idea to stay awake and enjoy it from start to finish.

No one knows better than Kelly how uncommercial Broken Voyage is. Despite the rapturous notices he's received to date -- not to mention airplay on the syndicated National Public Radio program Hearts of Space and adventurous radio stations as far away as Minsk, in the former Soviet republic of Belarus -- the number of discs he's sold through Roach's Web site and his own (www.kellydavid.com) measures in the hundreds. But because he's gainfully employed in a well-paying field, he doesn't have to worry about making concessions. "I'm free to go into the studio and do exactly what I want to do without regard to making a living," he says. "If I model myself after anyone, it's Charles Ives, who had the courage to write the music he wanted to write when no one was listening for twenty years, while he was working as an insurance executive. I'm a neophyte, an infant, compared to Ives, but I really admire that about him."

Not that Kelly is an elitist. He speaks about current pop music with great enthusiasm, conceding that "I listen to Top 40 radio like a teenage girl. I love the hits, like that new Eminem song, and I love funky hip-hop and R&B, which is why it's so much fun to work at Jammin'." In recent months, the station has supplemented its oldies-heavy repertoire with more recent ditties by the likes of Will Smith, Destiny's Child and Mary J. Blige, and that suits Kelly just fine.

He's equally unwilling to denigrate his co-workers at Qwest. "I'm not one to patronize corporate America," he says, "but from being in this company, I'm really impressed at how many people there really care about their customers, and how they take everything so personally. It's hard for them when they see outsiders come in and take over the company, especially when the results don't seem to be great. But our new CEO [Richard Notebaert] has already made a difference, and I'm convinced that he's concerned about people and what they think. I'm sure there'll be a few stumbles along the way, but I think Qwest's better days are ahead, and I think it's going to get better for the telecom business as a whole, too."

How Kelly will fit into this future is up in the air at present. He's long been assigned to handling legal issues relating to QwestDex, a directory service branch that in August was sold for $7.05 billion to a pair of investment groups. When the deal is finalized, Kelly may be reassigned to another Qwest division, or he could wind up staying with QwestDex under whatever new moniker it's given.

Uncertainty like this is a recipe for a nice ulcer. But luckily, Kelly is accustomed to dealing with multiple names, having three sets himself -- and besides, he's got somewhere to turn when he needs to get away from it all.

"Most people find my music scary," he says. "But when I'm making it, I'm a really happy guy."