BY:IAIN SHEDDEN From:The Australian
IT’S not everyone who has among their chief ambitions a desire to make a Jethro Tull covers album. When such an aspirant to fey English prog-rock from yesteryear is a 30-year-old Missouri-born, Paris-based female soul singer, the idea seems even more far-fetched.
Yet that is what Krystle Warren, a singer-songwriter who channels Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin a lot more than she does Tull’s Ian Anderson, has high on her to-do list. She’s also a big fan of karaoke, Mel Torme, the Beatles, Nick Drake and, more recently, Australia.
It was the music of English songwriter Drake that brought her here for the first time in November. Warren was part of Way to Blue, the stage tribute to Drake, who died in 1974 at the age of 26. The show, which also featured our own Shane Nicholson and Luluc among an international cast, was curated by Joe Boyd, the producer of two of Drake’s albums during his short career in the late 60s and early 70s.
Those who saw her performances at those concerts will be aware of Warren’s astonishingly soulful, jazz-tinged voice and of her captivating stage presence. She’s a singer who likes to immerse herself in a song, vocally and physically, whether the material is hers or someone else’s. It’s with her own songs, mostly, that Warren is coming back to Australia next month for a series of shows and festival appearances to promote her second solo album, Love Songs: A Time to Embrace.
Today we’re sitting in the cafeteria of Paris’s modern art compound, the Pompidou Centre, where the singer is explaining how she ended up such a long way from Kansas City. “I never wanted to live here,” she explains. “But after I had been here a while I didn’t have the cash to fly myself back. I ended up making friends. Now I love it. If I were to leave and go back to Missouri that would be foolish because I have so much going on here now.”
Warren moved from New York to the French capital three years ago after securing a record deal with a small Paris-based record label, Because Records. The relationship was not a happy one, however, and the singer severed ties with the company after the release of her debut album, Circles, late in 2009.
Indeed Warren has been moving on, one way or another, since she was a teenager, a journey that has taken her to New York and San Francisco as well as Paris. She grew up in Kansas City absorbing the music of soul artists Randy Crawford, Lisa Stansfield and Franklin, to name a few, through her mother’s record collection, but got an education in gospel music from her grandmother. To add to the range of influences, in her pre-teens Warren had a pivotal moment with John, Paul, George and Ringo, while watching the Anthology documentary series on the Beatles on television.
“I don’t know why I was so attracted to it,” she says. “I hadn’t listened to the Beatles before that. But that charted my own direction in music, even though I wasn’t even playing guitar then.” A cover of the Fabs’ Eleanor Rigby has been a long-time fixture in the singer’s repertoire.
Warren began her music career busking and doing small club gigs around Kansas City, but the jazz scene of which she became a part didn’t suit her tastes. “I like jazz but I didn’t really like performing it,” she says. “That’s why I left Kansas City. I felt like I had burned a few bridges and I needed to grow up and I needed to get away from my mother; just growing up really. There was a lot of angst there.”
Warren left with $400, a box of records and some Beatles memorabilia, but her dream of breaking into the music business in New York was difficult to realise. She ended up busking again, on the subway, playing a mixture of her own material and Beatles favourites. It’s a process she would repeat on the Paris Metro years later when her plans didn’t turn out as she had hoped they would. “When I was living in New Jersey I couldn’t get a job, even in McDonald’s,” she says. “I had a few dollars left to call my dad and ask him to send some money, but I called and said everything was fine instead. I was determined to get through it. It took me about a year.”
While in New York Warren teamed up with a number of musicians, some of whom form the basis of her band, the Faculty, that played on Circles. The album boasts a mix of styles, from funk to folk, with Warren’s voice striking throughout, whether with the band or without it. She has bad memories of the album, however, because it took so long to make – recording began in 2007 – and because she had to compromise on aspects of the recording to satisfy the label. “It’s not they way I wanted it to come out,” she says. “Maybe when we do the 30th anniversary edition I can fix that.”
Her latest album is, she believes, a new beginning to her career. Warren’s reputation has grown around the world since Circles, thanks to some positive reviews and a well-received performance on the TV show Later with Jools Holland in England. She has become a darling of the tribute circuit as well. Way to Blue took her around Europe last year and in 2010. The singer was part of a similar tribute to Canadian folk legend Kate McCarrigle in London and New York last year. She has been invited to do others, including a salute to Billie Holiday.
Her take on that is surprising. “I can’t stand her voice and I don’t enjoy her music,” says Warren. “I try to not get involved in things that I can’t be passionate about. I mulled that one over for a little while, even though I knew I wasn’t interested. If I had done it I would have hated it and it would have shown.”
She had no such reservations about singing Drake songs. She discovered the sensitive Englishman’s music when one of his songs was used in a TV advertisement in the US. She then became obsessed with Drake’s third and final album, Pink Moon.
For Way to Blue Warren sang the title track of that album with English singer Teddy Thompson at the European shows and with Nicholson in Australia. There is a strong possibility, according to both parties, that Warren and Nicholson will record the song together soon, possibly while she is here. “I loved singing with Shane,” she says, “although we approach singing differently. He explained to me that he wasn’t used to things flying off the cuff, whereas I love when things stretch out. It was different each night but always incredibly enjoyable.”
While she has proved herself as an interpreter, Warren’s next step is to establish herself further as a songwriter, something she has been working hard at over the past two years. Love Songs: A Time to Embrace is the first instalment of songs from a batch of material she has written around the theme of love. Album 1 looks at the positive side of love while the follow-up will concentrate on the negative. (“Album 1: two people who have patched up; album 2: oh f. . k, slit my wrists now; the world is over.”)
She laughs loudly at the suggestion she is overly romantic. “A romantic? One of my band read the lyrics to my last album and said to me: ‘you’re a bit of an asshole, aren’t you?’ I thought he might have a point. So I don’t know if there’s a romantic in me, but I do have a keen observational sense of my faults and everyone else’s.”
Two lots of love songs should take the singer into 2014 at least. Only after that can she begin to think about that Jethro Tull album. “If I had my way I’d make 20,000 albums of other people’s music,” she says, “and nine times out of 10 I’m thinking Jethro Tull. I don’t want to stick to my own tunes forever.”
Love Songs: A Time to Embrace is out now through Planet/MGM. Krystle Warren’s Australian tour begins at Port Fairy Folk Festival in Victoria on March 10 and travels to Mossvale Victoria, Melbourne, Katoomba NSW, Sydney and Canberra.