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Kelly Zullo is Columbus’ own — for as long as she’ll have us

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In an attempt to shine light on local music, The Lantern’s “Columbus’ Own” is a weekly series that will profile a new Columbus band each week.

As an acoustic singer-songwriter act, Kelly Zullo found it hard to get an audience’s attention in the noisy bars she was playing.

So about seven years ago, she got a gimmick: playing fast and percussive guitar riffs that have her fingers flying up and down her ‘67 Gibson fretboard at 150 beats per minute.

Developing that skill was no easy task — she still works on it nearly every day, often for six-hour chunks of time.

That means she sits still a lot, but she doesn’t like it. She has a poor attention span and has been restless since she was a kid.

Zullo started playing guitar at 12, with great anticipation of getting out of her small town in upstate New York.

“I had a map of L.A. on my wall, because I was going to be a movie star — which was stupid,” she said.

Instead, she rolled into Nashville, Tenn., as an 18-year-old to attend Belmont University.

It was 1994 when she arrived, and while the city was still primarily a hub for country music, it had also gained notoriety for its enormous pool of talent. Zullo said Nashville gave her “a barometer on what ‘good’ is.”

“That city has earned its stripes with art,” she said. “It’s not trying to prove anything.”

In Nashville, she learned how good she wasn’t — and how good she wanted to be.

Two decades later, she’s still not where she wants to be as a performer; she’s also not sure where she wants to be geographically.

Within a few years, Zullo grew sick of Nashville. But it took her 15 years to leave the city for good, and since then, she’s toured Europe and lived in Chicago, New York and Cleveland.

She’s also worked dozens of odd jobs. She has a side business making loft beds, which she started in 2011.

“I was living in a tiny room in Chicago and there was no place for my bed,” she said. “So I bought a bunch of wood and put this thing together … I wasn’t much of a carpenter before that.

“I’ll still make a bed for someone if they call and ask, but at one point it was 15 beds a month,” she said, adding that she’s has gotten tired of “eight hours a day out in the sawdust.”

Zullo came to Columbus in October 2013 to visit a friend. When her gig got canceled the next day, someone took her to go down to a qualifying round of Columbus Songwriters Association’s annual contest.

“I won, so then I had to come back,” she said of her return for the finals in December. “And then I won that.”

Zullo said she decided to move because Columbus’ music scene had more vitality than Cleveland’s.

“My lease was up in Cleveland,” Zullo said, “and this seemed like a more fruitful place to hang out.”

As a young city, Columbus has a “hunger” for a music scene, Zullo said, but too often people are relying on name recognition. She didn’t have that much trouble getting noticed though — (614) Magazine voted her “Best Solo Musician” only four months after she moved here.

Zullo’s now been in Columbus for a year and a half — as long as a stretch anywhere as she’s had since she left Nashville. She’s called herself both a “tumbleweed” and “gypsy,” and she’s itching to leave. But with no plans to relocate, she satisfies herself with mini trips: driving a van out to random towns and showing up at open mics.

Up until this year, she said recognition was a principal force driving her to better herself — a “toxic” motive in her view, and now is more concerned with improving her music.

“I was playing really fast, but it didn’t have a lot of dynamic to it,” she said.

So she’s started working on a new sound — one with more complexity and things like sixth, ninth and 11th chord extensions. She still plays with a pick, but last year, she also started going to salons to have a bulky acrylic nail put on her index finger to make her pull-offs stand out more. When she plays live, she’s started accompanying herself by playing and looping drum parts, and playing bass lines with her foot on MIDI pedals.

She’s still restless, but the labor has gotten easier as she’s gotten older.

“It’s the 11th-hour syndrome,” she said. “Now it’s easy to be in this thing of constant improvement. It makes you seem so heroic and industrious.”

Refining and practicing her technique can be isolating.

“It’s like I’m in med school,” she said. “My fingers can move really fast in the things I’m used to, but when you’re learning things that you’re not used to, you slow yourself down. That’s where the patience comes in. This is humbling.”

But perfecting the craft is important; she’s the type that believes on making the product and letting the marketing take care of itself.

“That doesn’t take as much elbow grease. McDonald’s has to spend millions and billions of dollars convincing you to eat their food — but good food sells itself.”

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