Lady sings beyond the Blues

15 March 2012 | 9:25 am | Liz Giuffre

Blues/folk/general gorgeous person Krystle Warren stole the show during last year’s Nick Drake tributes and since then has made good on her promise to return. She talks to Liz Giuffre.

Back in 2005 when Came So Far For Beauty, the big Leonard Cohen tribute show, happened at the Opera House, a whole bunch of people were blown away by Antony Hegarty of Antony & The Johnsons. We had no idea who he was, but the minute he opened his mouth he stole the show – how does a sound like that come from a vessel like this? The same thing happened again last year when Krystle Warren took the stage for Way To Blue, the international tribute to '70s smooth-voiced singer (and long gone folkie hero) Nick Drake. She looks like a small, relatively unobtrusive hipster – not in a bad way, just in a low-key way. She stood as the opening bars to Drake's even-handed Time Has Told Me played, calm but smiling. Then when she opened her mouth the most amazing sound came out, part near-baritone as if she was impersonating Drake, but with richness that the greatest of female singers can also manage.
“You know all of us were so giddy and nervous, with the Sydney Opera House being such an amazing theatre and also because it's new territory. But it's nice that there was that reaction, but to be honest I was too nervous to really notice,” Warren says sweetly down the phone from the other side of the world. While we're relatively late to the party, in the UK in particular she's already well-known and loved, having got the seal of approval from the iconic Jools Holland on his revered show Later…, as well as gaining the eyes (and ears) of those who love tribute and new music in equal measure. By way of introduction for the newbies, she explains graciously, “Well I moved over to England [from the US] about three years ago and shortly after that move released my first album, Circles, which was with my band The Faculty. From that the producers from the Jools Holland show heard it and I ended up being invited to play there and I think really from that point I think that things changed. It's one of the few shows really dedicated to music in that way and I think that was really a mark for me and the relationship that started to bloom in the UK. And previous to that I'd lived in New York from my hometown in Kansas City, Missouri and you know, what really ended up bringing me to Europe was the label that brought out Circles. So it wasn't really an 'I want to just pack up from The States and venture off.' It was more that, 'If I want to do this I have to do that,' and it's become home.”
Warren comes to Australia to showcase her own music – a mixture of soul, blues, jazz, folk, pop and something else as well. It's driven by her voice (part Dusty, part Drake, part something new entirely), but her writing is also about channelling a spectrum of sound and influences, something that doesn't take itself or 'the rules' too seriously. “I was working very closely with the producer of that record, Russell Elevado, and his musical background is… Well, we have a lot of common in terms of what we're into musically, genres we're into. His aesthetic as an engineer really lends itself to a retro sound – he only records on tape and only mixes and records with analogue equipment – and is a big drum'n'bass fan; there's a real density to the sound too.
“So for example, with the song I could say, 'I'd really like for like a Queen sound' during this part and, because we're both big Queen fans, we can kind of delve into that kind of production. So certainly when we were making that album we were so unashamedly [starts to giggle slowly] rebel and punk, you know. We don't care how uncommercial this is going to sound, how off the wall, let's just go for it! So yeah, we wanted that very distinct, almost classic sound.”
It would be easy with such a penchant to leave Warren in retroland, but her approach is contemporary, too. One of the best comparisons this writer can offer is to the divine Rufus Wainwright, a performer who obviously draws on lots of different influences and genres, but also pushes them to try and get something new. It's a comparison Warren is very happy with (not only because she's done some work with him, but also as a fan). “I remember buying Rufus' first album when I was eighteen and just worshiping it and him, so the first time I ended up working with them was for the tribute to Kate [McGarrigle, Wainwright's mother] that happened in the Meltdown festival in London, I guess a few years ago now. And then shortly after I opened for Rufus and Kylie Minogue over at the Watermill – and I'm going to be touring with him this year. So it's really been a dream come true to work with him.
“I definitely did feel, you know, when I first listened to Rufus, that there was some sort of kindred spirit there. There was someone who was just all over the place musically but there was still a common thread and I've never shied away from music, no matter what colour it has to it… and in that way the mixture of all the genres, the kind of melting point is genuine. And I think that is also true of him, but it's quite a complement that you think I have something in common with him.”
Also part of the new order is Warren's commitment to her own online presence, including calling her Facebook followers 'Cupcakes'. It's a sign of love, sincerity and sweetness, but also something that proves she knows how to treat an audience on and off stage. “I'm the only one that has control of that page and in fact, I'm not in MySpace anymore and I drop on in every so often and respond to messages when they're around. You know, obviously, there isn't that much time in the day to spend on it, but I don't feel comfortable with having anyone else speak on my behalf. I think it's cheating, you know – and no one really gets a kick out of that either. The point is to be able to have that connection and be able to speak with me directly. But I also want to speak with you directly, I want to get an idea of your personality, I want to know the people who are supporting me. So, yeah, I get a big kick out of it.”