February 18, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

In many ways Kelli Schilken is just like other teens. The bubbly 17-year-old loves music, hanging with friends, making friendship bracelets, and playing video games. However, there are also differences between Kelli and her peers.

Few 17-year-olds, for example, have started college, and fewer yet can tell you stories about the time the band she’s in with her mom opened for music legend Kenny Rogers.

“I kind of grew up backstage,” Kelli says in observing the four-part harmonies of Mulberry Lane. That’s Jaymie Schilkens’ (her mother and Belles & Whistles bandmate) former ensemble with her
three sisters.

“Having those experiences as a child inspired me and helped me hear harmonies,” Kelli says.

This Belle doesn’t fall far from the family tree. Kelli got her start in local theater (including a seven-year run in A Christmas Carol at the Omaha Community Playhouse) and high school show choir. Belles & Whistles began in 2011, when the stage manager at her mom’s solo Red Sky gig—a former Judds’ road manager—suggested they bring Kelli onstage.

Fittingly, Kelli says The Judds are “a big inspiration to us.” Miranda Lambert, Carrie Underwood, and Ed Sheeran are also musical influences.

Kelli calls their sound “a mix of old and new country, with strong harmonies.” Music News Nashville’s Janet Goodman observed that their vocals “blend like sweet churned butter on a hot stove.” Speaking of Nashville, the duo visited there last fall to meet with labels and record two new songs there.

After Belles & Whistles opened for Kenny Rogers at the 2014 Kentucky State Fair, he said they’d “pleasantly surprised” him.

“At the end of our set, we actually got a standing ovation,” says Kelli, beaming.

Kelli graduated early from Westside High School and is now enrolled at UNO. With a love of science, she’s taking chemistry, psychology, and also a music course “just to get started” on her higher education. She must also carve out time for her busy music schedule.

“This last year I’ve really learned to balance things,” says Kelli, who thrives on busyness. Kelli and Jaymie’s relationship is multifaceted. “There’s the regular, ‘Hey mom, what’s for dinner?’ side,” says Kelli. “On the other hand, [the band] is an equal partnership. She’s great at treating me like an equal. We’ve always been close and she’s one of my best friends. I can’t imagine doing this with anyone else.”

While Kelli loves performing, she says the best is when people approach her with how special the music is to them; how they relate to it, how it influences and effects their lives.

“We try to write songs with meaning,” Kelli says. “Knowing that things we’ve written have touched people is really cool.”

At the end of the day, Kelli says she’s still “pretty much a normal teen.”

“I really try to make time for my friends,” she says. “If I didn’t have them, my music could consume my life. I want to have people to share it with.”

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