By Stephen Fortner
Kristeen Young is that rare talent whose very existence proves how inadequate the tools of music journalism are for describing a true original. I’m talking in particular about the tired tactic of comparing artists to other artists and then doing a clever backpedal about the actual “sounds like” factor. As in, “If Kate Bush and David Bowie had a baby and hired Trent Reznor as a sitter, you still wouldn’t have Kristeen Young.” Better to note that her operatic voice can jump multiple octaves with absolute precision and haunting tremolo, that her piano playing can swing from thunderous and dissonant to delicate and lyrical on a dime, and that she dishes out an alarming density of melodies that will get stuck in your head. In fact, qualities like these attracted the attention of the Thin White Duke himself, with whom Young sang the duet “Saviour.” In 2007, she recorded vocals on two Morrissey tracks. Produced by Bowie alumnus Tony Visconti, her latest album V The Volcanic draws as much on funk and electro as it does on art-rock, with each song written from the point of view of a different film character that inspires Young. That these range from Violet Bick in It’s a Wonderful Life to the replicant Pris from Blade Runner further speaks to Young’s songwriting breadth. Look—just go get the record. And see a live show if you can. No matter how much you think you’ve heard it all before, Kristeen Young will make you believe in discovering new music again.
You use dissonance as a musical statement more effectively than anyone I’ve heard. Yet your pedal-down glissandi, “off ” notes, and other moves are precise and never overpower the arrangement. How did you perfect this technique?
Practice. Trial and Error. Years of humiliation and pain. I’ve always been drawn to dissonance, but to get the percentages of it right is a lifelong pursuit. I love atonality, but too much of it doesn’t even sound like dissonance anymore, and leaves you with nothing to hang your hat on emotionally. Melody has to fulfill that role.
What degree of classical training is in your background, and how does it affect your arrangements?
I’ve taken a lesson or two. Listening to music from centuries ago is inspiring because of the complexity. I’m not sure human beings will ever be capable of this again, as we have too many distractions now— we no longer have that kind of focus. Other than listening and being inspired, I don’t think people should become mired in only performing music from a hundred or more years ago. I think it’s a starting place and can give you a firm foundation of what’s possible. Then you should go your own way. That’s progress.
Live, you use the Roland XP-80 for piano sounds when a lot of newer keyboards are available. Why?
I’ve bought newer keyboards and I always end up returning them to the store because I don’t like the piano sound for my style. Of course the sound can be altered—but—it never sounds as good as the full and biting attack of the XP-80’s “Bright Piano” patch. It’s a pretty strong place to start and is the most assaultive rock piano sound I’ve found.
What keyboards were used on V The Volcanic, and can you describe two or three of your favorite “keyboard moments” in songs—in terms of a chord progression, riff , sonic aspect, or anything you’re particularly proud of because it’s cool or unique?
I only used the XP-80. If you’d asked me about “keyboard moments” on my last album, Music For Strippers, Hookers, & the Odd On-Looker, I could’ve easily answered. A lot of that album features the playing style we’re discussing here: the bashing accents, dissonance, glissandi, wall of assaulting pianos. But this album, musically, is all about combinations of styles and sounds. I’ll leave it up to others to decide whether it’s cool or unique. I’d never know.
What keyboard-playing performer do you find it most flattering to be compared to?
Mike Garson is the only other pianist I can think of who uses angularity and dissonance in a rock context, and he does it to perfection. He doesn’t bash like I do, but he doesn’t have to because he’s a virtuoso. I’m more of an emotional player and that part of me is more influenced by Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard, even Chico Marx! There’s a piano solo in my song “You Must Love Me,” and when I play it I’m almost always thinking of Chico’s piano performance in the film A Day at the Races.
How about the most annoying comparison?
It doesn’t just annoy me, it angers me when I’m compared to other pianists with whom I have nothing in common other than playing the piano and female anatomy. Yet our actual playing styles are worlds apart.
What’s your favorite thing you learned from working with Tony Visconti?
I’ve always added a touch of distortion to my live piano sound, just to thicken it, but many times this would sound shrill in certain venues. Tony suggested I get a small stage mixer to have more control of the ratio of clean to distorted piano and the EQ. He even made a wooden bracket for the mixer with a metal thread underneath that connects to any mic stand. Adding the mixer did wonders for my live sound. Now, when you stand in the audience, the effect is all encompassing, like a piano cannon—I mean the weapon!
What usually comes first when you’re composing: lyrics, melody, chord progression, or rhythm?
V The Volcanic
(Tony Visconti Productions 2011)
They all take turns—which is surprisingly polite of them.
In the bio on your website, you say that during the past couple of years you often felt like “food for thieves.”
I was speaking mainly of my visual presentation. The world in general seems to care more about visuals than the aural experience at this time. But I don’t even understand the concept of stealing other people’s styles and material. It’s like admitting you can’t come up with your own idea. Wouldn’t you feel like a loser . . . in those solitary, ceiling-staring moments at 3 a.m.?
What gear is essential to your home studio?
I don’t have a home studio, thank the gods. And if I did, I wouldn’t subject your readers to one more person so pleased with himself or herself for sitting alone in a room and masturbating with their electronic toys. I think it’s sad that a lot of musical environments have become so isolationist. To me, that’s not what’s exciting about music or life. I’m much more stimulated when there’s someone else involved.