Kelly Zullo hauls off-the-grid living to Beavercreek

By Matt Clevenger

Like sailors and their ships, touring musicians often develop a special bond with their vans. Countless songs and even entire albums have been written or named in tribute to these iconic vehicles, but few artists have taken their love of the van as far as Kelly Zullo.

For more than a year now, the Columbus-based acoustic artist has been working to build a special van designed specifically for touring. Complete with a working bathroom and shower, the fully customized van also includes a built-in stage and an extra alternator and battery capable of powering all the amplifiers and other equipment needed for Zullo’s shows.

“I’m working on a new concept called ‘Tiny House Van Concerts,’ where you get a tour of how to live off the grid and I do a concert outside the van,” she says. “I’m also working on using it as a tool to pull up on a sidewalk and give a concert just out of nowhere.”

Zullo started out customizing an old school bus, but switched to a van because the bus was too unreliable. A self-taught carpenter, she learned a lot about building the van through trial and error.

“All my knowledge is from stubborn curiosity and YouTube,” she says. “I remodeled a house like almost 10 years ago now, so I learned a lot about building from that. A van is totally different though, because it’s made of metal and it’s not square, so it’s a little more of a challenge.”

“I’m even using reclaimed pallet wood in there,” Zullo adds. “I’m trying to make it really nice. It’s such a small space that you can make it how you wish your house was.”

“It gives another dimension to what you’re offering as an artist,” she says of the Tiny House Van Concert concept. “Especially in today’s world, just being a musician is great, but people want to hear more. They want a multidimensional experience. So this kind of serves that, where people can learn about alternative ways to live, in addition to being enlightened by your music.”

No stranger to the Dayton area, Zullo (and her van) will appear at Spinoza’s Pizza in Beavercreek on Saturday, June 18. “I’ve played at Spinoza’s a couple of other times,” she says. “I played at Ladyfest at Oregon Express and at Canal Public House; I’ve been there many times.”

Combining influences ranging from folk and punk rock to flamenco, Zullo creates a high-energy, one-woman show that has received critical praise from local and national publications. She was named Best Solo Musician, 2014-2015 by Columbus-based 614 Magazine, and in a review, Guitar World magazine called one of her recent videos “an energetic acoustic assault by this skilled, funky speed-demon.”

“I spend a lot of time every day, probably four to six hours, just practicing my guitar,” Zullo says. “I do music all day.”

“It’s taken me years to finally get it, that you get what you put in,” she explains. “We’re never too busy to give time to what we’re trying to do with our lives. Music isn’t always things that you want to do; it’s sitting down and doing some work, and exercises and stuff. So that’s what I’ve been doing.”

Zullo started playing guitar about 20 years ago. “I started on guitar,” she says, “but I was a singer mostly, so I just played enough to do chords in the beginning. I wasn’t like a guitarist’s guitar player.”

“There was an upright bass player and a violinist, and we played together occasionally. Then, I just decided to do my own thing because it was just a little easier to travel and schedule things if it was just me.”

Keeping things simple is critical because Zullo tours almost constantly. In the Dayton area, she performs at Spinoza’s on June 18 then returns for a show at Blind Bob’s Tavern on July 1. She is also scheduled to appear at Ladyfest Dayton in September.

“I probably have like four or five gigs every month out of town,” she says. “That’s what I aim for.”

So far, Zullo has released three albums, including two live CDs and her 2011 studio album Firecracker. She is currently working on a new upcoming release, which she is recording herself. “I’m actually working on it right now,” she says of the new album. “I’m not sure when I’ll be done, but I’m in the process.”

“I have a degree in recording,” she says, “which a lot of people do; it doesn’t mean that you’re an expert. I have gone to studios, and right now, I actually just re-invested in doing it myself. I just find that when I’m able to record whenever I want and be spontaneous about it, I just come up with a better energy. So I’m working on that right now at my house.”

That DIY ethic is a major theme in almost all of Zullo’s work.

“I’ve never had any help,” she says. “I’ve always booked myself, and recorded myself and funded myself. I always wished I had help, and I always thought that getting picked up by some big machine was going to make my life easier. But I’ve watched people go through it, and I don’t necessarily think that it’s the solution to everything that we think it is.”

Kelly Zullo will perform Saturday, June 18 at Spinoza’s Pizza, 2727 Fairfield Commons Blvd. in Beavercreek. For more information, please visit spinozas.com or kellyzullo.com.
Reach DCP freelance writer Matt Clevenger at MattClevenger@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Reach DCP freelance writer Matt Clevenger at MattClevenger@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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