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Sailing on to success
February 28, 2018

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Kelly Neff didn't always have her head in the game. It took her a while to figure it all out, but now the local Fort Myers musician has founded a successful career doing what she loves: performing.

The Virginia native has been performing throughout Florida since 2003 and moved to Fort Myers in 2012. She now performs every Thursday at the Lani Kai's Sun Deck and in Naples Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at Bayside and Lucky's Market.

Her success earned her the SSA Songwriter of the Year in 2016 and has now landed her a spot sailing into fame: performing her music as part of the lineup for the annual Melissa Etheridge cruise March 12.

Melissa Etheridge, an ionic female rock artist, will bring a total of 18 other musicians aboard her week-long cruise, including another international performer, Sarah McLachlan. These seven days aboard the Royal Caribbean Cruise's Serenade of the Seas will expose Neff to thousands of people, along with the other artists aboard.

The Observer sat down with Neff to talk about her upcoming performance and the journey she's taken to make her career bloom.

When did you get into music?

I've been a soloist forever, it feels like. I play in Virginia, I sprinkle around St. Pete and Orlando. I like to travel up the coast and play, it gets me out of town sometimes. I play a mix originals and covers that I enjoy. I stay away from a lot of the other stuff everyone on the beach does - I'm not into Me and Bobby McGee, I don't do the Eagles. I do what I like, and it's been beneficial to me. You'd probably classify my originals as indie rock with acoustic roots, but it doesn't really have a box that it fits in. Ninety-fix percent of what I do is solo acoustic entertainment.

I've worked other jobs, but I decided to do music full-time.

I play music to make a difference. People me, "you create a calming, peaceful atmosphere." I'm able to watch my audience enjoy my music. When people are enjoying, singing along, there's no room for bad vibes.

You weren't always as focused on music as a career. What happened before?

In St. Pete, I was playing full-time, getting gigs mostly by word of mouth. I pushed the party. But I didn't chase anything. I drank all my money and expected things to just fall in my lap.

Then, I had an incident where I blacked out. I didn't know how I'd gotten home. I realized if I had died no one would have found me for two weeks. I stayed awake for 15 hours because I was afraid to go to sleep, I knew something was wrong.

After that I didn't drink for two or three years. I grew into playing sober. I had to separate myself from the party and still work.

That bar environment is too toxic for me. It's playing with fire. I don't hang out after the show, I pack up and I go home. I'm not doing shots between my sets. I've faced a lot of separation from a lot of people I used to hang out with.

You stopped drinking while playing. How has that led to your successes?

Not drinking changed everything. I decided to become a musician. My manager at my job begged me no to, she was afraid I'd be destitute. Lots of musicians think you have to have a day job to support your music. But I had a plan. My mentality is, there is no plan B. Plan A is, I want to be a successful musician.

Moving down here, I networked and utilized the connections I had. It's been a lot of footwork. I am dedicated to making a calendar, not drinking and getting sleep so I can get up the next day to go to the office. I'm making grown up choices. They (clients) aren't paying me to drink. I don't have to call the next day and apologize for what I did when I was drunk. No calling out because I'm hungover. Even if I have one beer, I can tell my timing is off.

I don't need all the gigs, there's enough for everyone. I won't undercut other musicians because I want the gig, and that's what's been driving the market down, the undercutting each other. Doing more for less. But I know what I'm doing. I get paid what I'm worth.

How did you get the gig? Are you nervous?

I have no idea. I got a call from the cruise director who asked me to join. They may have just looked up local artists on ReverbNation, or I'm just that cool.

My face is on the same screen as Melissa Etheridge and Sarah McLachlan. Etheridge came a few years after Joan Jett, she was openly gay and had a huge following. She gave something to rock music that other people just couldn't do. In my eyes she's kind of a pioneer for women in music, and she didn't just focus on the gay community, she has a huge following across the board. That's very admirable. For her to be teamed up with Sarah McLachlan on this cruise is awesome. McLachlan started the Lillith Fair in the 90s, which became a huge women's event. So now it's kind of like those two are merging on one boat, and it's really neat. It's been one of the cooler things I've gotten to do.

I'm joining my good friends, Lisa Noe and Melissa Crispo. I'll be playing four gigs in seven days. It's about 2,000 people on the boat with 60 concerts and five different venues. There's meet and greets, Q &A sessions, autograph sessions. I think I've set the record for saying the word neat in the last three weeks, I've said neat more than any show in the 50s.

I'm trying not to make it a big deal. But I'm going to. I'm going to geek out. I'll probably throw up.

I'm very shy, and afraid of people in general. I think I have a sign on my forehead that says "make fun of me."

I was bullied as a kid. There's some hidden damage there that comes back when people call me "sir." Something happens to men when they feel intimidated by something they don't understand. Maybe it's because I'm tall.

What else do you do in Southwest Florida?

I help organize the Pride event with Alliance of the Arts. I pick out the bands who will perform.

I would love to see the day where we don't have to have gay pride, we're all just human.

I'm proud of who I am. I'm one of few successful female solo artists, I don't want to get pigeon-holed or labeled as the dyke with the guitar. Gay artists do get pigeon-holed. Just because I'm gay doesn't mean I only want gay fans. I'm cautious on what I say and do on stage. It can cost me my job.

I don't play music to get phone numbers, I play music to make a difference. My partner is very supportive. She's very excited about (the cruise). She's been on a cruise. I've never been on a cruise before, but this is a great way to take my first one.

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