You’d be hard-pressed not to feel charmed after listening to the heartfelt folk-rock sounds of up-and-coming Ottawa artists Mia Kelly and Neha Sin.

Kelly’s striking voice exudes a confidence and charisma that many singers spend their careers chasing. “I love making the audience feel involved,” says Kelly of her live shows.

Likewise, the honey-drenched tones of Sin’s acoustic songs evoke a sweet sincerity and bring to mind an inviting image of carefree summer days.

“I don’t like singing sad songs,” said Sin, her cheerful personality hinting at such.

Things were certainly looking sunny for these young singer-songwriters at the beginning of the year. In January, the Ottawa Citizen named Kelly one of its 10 Artists to Watch in 2020 on the strength of her debut EP Cardboard Box, while Sin’s EP Signs of Pink ‘til Morning was nominated for Album of the Year at Faces Magazine. At just 18 and 23 years old respectively, Kelly and Sin were fast becoming two of the most exciting new voices in Ottawa’s folk music scene.

PHOTO: Lara Kelly (Mia Kelly)

“It felt like things were strong for me. My music was going well,” said Sin. A regular performer in cafes and clubs around the city, Sin had eleven shows booked in March—“the most ever,” she said proudly.

“My spring schedule was totally full,” says Kelly, whose 19-show tour had her branching out of Ottawa and performing shows in Toronto and Montreal.

And then…

“Just when I was getting a little bit of action and traction, and it was exciting, it just totally slowed down to a full stop,” said Kelly. “I was heartbroken, to say the least.”

The abrupt cancellation of live music events across the country has had a devastating financial impact on the music industry, affecting every corner from concert promoters to club owners. But for many young artists who are just getting their foot in the door, the sudden disappearance of opportunities to perform has taken an emotional toll, stunting their creativity.

“I was heartbroken to the biggest extent I could possibly be,” said Sin.

The self-described “slinky, acoustic honey-folk musician” went from promoting her light-and-breezy songs on Ottawa’s club circuit to feeling lost amidst the unpredictability of the pandemic.

“I didn’t reach out [to anyone],” she said when asked about her initial thoughts on the lockdown. “That was a mistake. I think I was still in a state of shock. I had no motivation to write. I didn’t have the happy energy.”

Kelly also struggled to create new music.

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, I haven’t written one single song,” she said. “I get very inspired by watching other performers and going to live music events. It pushes me to be like, ‘Oh, I want to do that,’ and then incorporate that in my own music. So not having that was like, ‘What am I doing now?’ I find it really hard to motivate myself.”

Kelly also confesses she worries about what the live music scene will look like for local artists even post-pandemic. “Some festivals [in 2021] will have their lineup that they were supposed to have in 2020, but maybe they won’t have places for artists that are new. That’s huge for emerging artists who kind of need those spots to put themselves on the map.”

PHOTO: Soka Rodriguez (Neha Sin)

Despite the setbacks to their burgeoning careers, sunnier skies are ahead for the artists. Sin’s working a new collaborative project called Golden Hour Music with two other local singers, Dani Ablack and Isabelle Tardif-Sanchez. The trio have been posting covers of their favourite songs to Instagram. “I’m writing and recording with other people in my bubble. It’s a lovely way to work with others, recording separately but together,” said Sin.

Ottawa’s lockdown meant that recording studios were forced to shut their doors, blocking off a valuable opportunity for the city’s emerging talent to record and share their music. So Sin is now learning how to record and mix her own music. “I realized if I have my own ability to release music I can be more creative.”

And after a summer of surfing the Ottawa River and taking care of her mental health, Kelly is now also fueling her creative energy into collaborations. “I luckily have a friend that I write music with [Nick Loyer of the Quebec band A Leverage for Mountains]. We did a little bit of writing together [this summer], but mostly just playing and that just feels so good. To sing with another voice and have a little bit of energy bouncing off that that other person,” said Kelly.

As well, both women are featured performers in this year’s Marvest, CityFolk’s digital concert series showcasing local musicians. The annual Glebe festival made the shift to a virtual format this year in an effort to adapt to the changing times.

When asked how the pandemic has changed their creative processes, Kelly and Sin each share how they’re adapting their music in the age of COVID.

“I think emerging musicians like myself will have to be a little bit more creative when it comes to putting ourselves out there and finding venues and festivals in which to perform,” said Kelly, who’s been shifting her focus to digital festivals and live-streaming as a way to connect with her audience.

Sin is shifting how she approaches creativity. “Before I waited for inspiration to hit me. Now I try to summon creativity, discipline creativity into me.”