Open Mic, Open Doors - An Interview with Lea Keeley

We sat with Lea to talk about how she first got into music, her family's role in who she is today, how the pandemic affected her health and her music, and the importance of Open Mics for Montreal's music community.

Open Mic, Open Doors - An Interview with Lea Keeley
Lea Keeley singing at the open mic she organizes in Montreal

GigLinked interviewed Lea Keeley, also known as Keyylime, a patron of Montreal's music scene.

The host of Open Mic Night in Parc Jeanne Mance is moving the popular gig to Turbo Haüs at 2040 Saint Denis St, Montreal starting October 25th, 2021.

We sat with Lea to talk about how she first got into music, her family's role in who she is today, how the pandemic affected her health and her music, and the importance of Open Mics for Montreal's music community.

Hi Lea, can you tell us about how you got into music?

Music has always been an integral part of my life. Both of my parents are musicians, so I was raised in a musical family. My mom is a pianist/musical director and my dad is a singer/songwriter and an actor. I started playing piano when I was 4 years old and I took classical lessons until I was 16. I also played alto sax, guitar, and the violin, but singing was always my biggest passion. I tried taking classical singing lessons, but it didn't feel natural, it felt like I was trying to be something that I wasn't. In the end, I didn't continue with those classes, but I still learned some different techniques and gained new perspectives on music that helped me grow.

I had a really great support system as a family growing up. I’m very grateful for that. They [my parents] wanted us to follow our passion, whatever it was, and if it was music, that’d make them happy, but there wasn’t ever any pressure. My dad had a bunch of old vinyl from the 60's and 70's, like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Stevie Ray Vaghn, Fleetwood Mac, Doobie Brothers, all the good stuff. We’d listen to all types of music and jam out around the kitchen table growing up. My grandma loved old country music, so we’d listen to that too. My dad released a few country/rock albums back in the day. He inspired me a lot to start writing.

My mom got her Bachelor's of Music in performance for pipe organ, then she became a pianist for the Festival Theatre in Stratford. She built her way up and is now the musical director. She's been working there for 40 years.‌

So you took classes and lessons at a young age, and it seems like you shared your family's interests - at what point did you realize that you wanted to make a living with music?

It wasn't till maybe I was 15 that I realized I really wanted to pursue music. I started taking it more seriously and entered into a couple singing contests, one of which was “Stratford Star” where I sang alongside Justin Bieber, yes it’s true (laughs). I came in second, he came in third and another girl came in first place. Then he blew up [Bieber] after his mom posted videos from the competition. It was surreal to see this kid who I sang with back in the day get super famous. Music wasn’t something I wanted to go to school for, I just knew that it [music] was something I was extremely passionate about. I wanted to keep following that path and see where it lead me.

How did your strong support system at home make you confident enough to not take a so-called traditional route for your career?

Having parents that supported my decisions, even if it meant not going to school, meant that I had the freedom and time to figure out my path on my own without any limitations. My parents never told me that I needed to get a degree. They never pressured me to go to school. It made me feel more confident to not have the stress of external expectations. I debated applying to NSCAD in Halifax because I'm a visual artist as well, but I went to check out the vibe and it was just totally different compared to Montreal. I knew I had to be in Montreal.

You moved to Montreal at 18, can you tell us what you were thinking or some of the emotions you were going through in your head when you made that decision?

I don't know man, I was crazy (laughs). The first time I came to Montreal was with my family and we saw Stevie Wonder perform at the Jazz Fest. It was magical. I’d never experienced anything like it. I just knew I had to live here. I didn’t know many people, or how to speak french. I had two friends living here that were from my hometown in Stratford, that was it. They had a room opening up in their apartment and I thought "why not, what have I got to lose."  The first couple of years living here were really difficult. I had some pretty severe health complications with my Crohn’s disease. I underwent a major surgery and was on medication for a while leading up to that. It wasn’t until after my operation that I could get out and experience the city the way that I had imagined.

How did you first get comfortable getting to know the Montreal music scene, and at the start, did you feel like you were working towards a specific end-goal?

No, I didn't really have an end goal. I tend to live life day-by-day and go with the flow and see what doors open up and take as many opportunities as I can get to meet new people. The first open mic I went to is how I started getting into the music scene here [in Montreal]. It was at Brutopia on Crescent street. It’s actually the longest running open mic in the city. At Brutopia I met some really cool people. Then, I found Ye Olde Orchard and they had an open mic every Monday (that's actually where the open mic Mondays originated from). My good friend Mike Hand was the host, he then handed it down to my brother, who is still hosting open mic there (now on Tuesdays). I also hit up a bunch of cool jam nights: fonzie, pompette, and Le cypher, were all a huge part of how I integrated into the music scene.

Ok, so in other words the open mics/jams were a big part of your social integration to Montreal?

It was the biggest part, without those nights I wouldn't have met a lot of the people that are now my close friends.

How would you say you made the transition between unpaid to paid gigs?

I already had experience playing paid gigs before I moved here, so the transition wasn’t too difficult. I went around to different bars and asked if they were looking for new performers. Open mics were a great way to connect and get more exposure. I was consistant and persistant about performing every week. I started a band “Soulhouse” with my brother Aidan, and another friend, Dahlia. We started writing our own songs and performing around the city. Then I started hosting open mic at Brutopia. I also worked part-time as a waitress. I'm still trying to make music my full-time career. I think that's what a lot of us artists struggle with.

Over the summer, your open mic nights in Park Jeanne Mance really blew up. Can you talk about how the process has been for you?

It's been crazy to see how much it's blown up the past two years. Before the pandemic I was hosting my own open mic at Local Legend, a cool resto/bar in the Plateau. When the pandemic hit, I wanted to find a way to keep the music alive. I started doing Instagram live streams every week, on Mondays, consistently. I kept the same open mic format, but we were all isolated. Playing to a screen isn’t the same. There was a crucial element of genuine, real human connection missing. I had isolated myself for 51 days because I'm immuno compromised, but I was living in a world of fear. My brother and friends did my groceries, but we never hugged, and I’m a big hugger (laughs). I didn’t leave my house once. Not having any human contact definitely effected my mental health. Luckily I had my cats to keep me company. It was a really intense experience. The open mics online helped keep me sane, but I knew I couldn’t live in isolation much longer. One day I just said to myself,  "OK , enough is enough, I can’t live in fear any longer, I need to get the f*ck out of my apartment." I remember seeing the trees for the first time and watching all the people around me, feeling the grass between my fingers and thinking, "Oh my God, what is life."

My friend Frisco Lee, who used to run the open mic down at Bar de Courcelle in Saint-Henri on Sundays, was the one who inspired me to start my own open mic in the park. He started his own open mic outside during the pandemic. I recall going to his event and thinking "there's live music, there's real people, is this actually happening? This is incredible.” After that I took the initiative to create my own open mic in park Jeanne-Mance. There wasn’t something like it in the Plateau. I had all the instruments and gear that we needed. It all fell into place with a little help of some close friends. The first year was a huge success. When winter came again, I went back to doing the open mics online. Then spring rolled around and we brought it back to the park for a second edition. It flourished into something greater than I could’ve imagined.

Open Mic Mondays in Parc Jeanne-Mance, Photo : Terry Hughes

Considering the role open mics played for you when you moved to Montreal, and given what everyone has gone through, specifically musicians with the pandemic, what do you think your open mics mean to the wider music community?

I think the community really appreciates it. It’s so important to have an outlet for people to freely express themselves. Live music was so missed, and so deeply needed in our lives. With venues being closed, it was one of the few places you could feel safe but still be connected. We were all just trying to survive. It’s been really incredible to see how much hearing/playing live music can effect people’s lives in a positive way. I don’t take it for granted anymore. A stranger could walk by having a bad day, stumble upon the open mic, and then their day completely turns around. It’s beautiful to be a part of that.

To get back to those 51 days that you spent in isolation what role did music play during that time for you? Did you consider your need for music to be stronger or weaker in those moments?

I don't think it made it stronger or weaker or more important or less, it just changed the way I looked at it, it changed my relationship to it, I became more grateful for it. I wrote a lot of songs during those 51 days, I needed to channel and release, to get those emotions out somehow. So music was my outlet for that - painting as well, I did quite a lot of painting. I started doing fluid painting on old vinyls. I also started painting my dream worlds. Since I was a kid I can remember my dreams vividly and all the places I travel to. I started making a dream map. Music-wise, I played more around the house because I was confined and there's nothing else to do. It's either you're going to clean the apartment (laughs) or you're gonna play music.

How did isolation affect the music community?

It effected the community a lot. It was really difficult to stay connected and stay positive, but we still had each other, even if it didn’t always feel that way. We just had to find ways to adapt. We were all in our own little bubbles. I find it fascinating that music has a way of alleviating our differences. You aren’t focusing on the things that differentiate us, but rather, on the things that bring us together. That's why I find music extremely healing. It’s a universal language of love. It’s a deep expression that comes from your soul. You're sharing from your heart and that's what a lot of us have become disconnected from because of fear, negative mentality and self-doubt - it’s hard to face your fears if you're scared you're gonna fall - you have to take that first step and not be afraid of the unknown.

You have your own projects cooking. Can you tell us about this EP you're working on?

Yes absolutely. The last year I wrote a bunch of new songs. It was a time of deep reflection and transformation. Most of the songs are about recognizing my self worth, healing, trusting the process and becoming more aligned with my higher self. They’re a collection of soulful songs about the consciousness of the cosmos; about ourselves and the power that’s within. I'm currently in the studio working with two friends, Manny & Nidal, who I also know through the open mic scene who have their own home studio called The Resort. They're super talented, both of them, Nidal is an amazing guitar player/bassist/all around musician - just an awesome dude. Then my other friend, Manny, is an incredible singer/songwriter, rapper, and producer.

In 2019, I finished my first full length album “Golden” but it took me five years to finish because I produced everything myself. I’m not a producer. I don't want to go down that same road again. This time, I wanted to take my songs to someone who really knows what they're doing. I’m planning on releasing my first single in Feb. 2022 called Precious, and  then release the rest of the EP in Spring/Summer 2022

So what's next with the Open Mic now that Winter is coming?

I wanted to keep the momentum going with this wonderful community we built, so I'm moving the open mic inside to Turbo Haüs. My friends do a cypher rnb/hip-hop jam there every Wednesday called Growve which is amazing, they're all so talented. It such a good vibe there. I talked with the owner and he was down to try it out. The first one will be Oct. 25th. I’m planning to bring the open mic back to the park again next summer though. It’s just so special and magical. Until then, I’m stoked to be continuing the open mics throughout the winter at Turbo Haus. Live music isn’t dead. Check out the fb group page for more info about other jams/open mics in the city.

This interview was conducted by James Dere, Founder of GigLinked - an online platform designed for musicians and event planners with the mission of creating sustainable careers in music and optimizing collaborations between musicians and their peers and potential clients. Visit us at and follow us on instagram to learn more.

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