photo by Tony Visconti
Rock Mythology In the New MillenniumImagine a pop song inspired by Dorothy Parker's book of poems, Enough Rope, and written about Morrissey. Or a songwriter who likes her romance with edges and insults, crafting beautiful, heart-wrenching songs that re-interpret the sappy love narrative for time immemorial. Telling me with a smile, "I want to be in love so much that when they're gone, I want to kill myself."
interview by Samantha Skinazi
Imagine a Midwestern Christian Fundamentalist adoptive mother angered by your voice as you, a small child played with friends. Telling you who always loved singing, "Kris, your voice cuts like a knife."
Then think high art, high drama and sensory bliss as realized by a St. Louis born and bred, half-Apache self-proclaimed "Rude Girl" who plays the keyboard orgasmically, and still loves bubblegum and Sour Patch Kids. Imagine by her side, a sensitive and sensual, sweat-soaked rebel with a cause drummer called "Baby" Jeff White who bows his head gently, sometimes shedding a tear as he pummels the hell out of his Ludwig drum kit.
Envision haute couture creations so imaginative that they might startle Zandra Rhodes. So glamorous that they'd turn Yves Saint Laurent's head. All drawn from a palette of elements so disparate even Marcel Duchamp might blush (bunches of artificial grapes, 4-inch stiletto transparent boots, first-aid tape, gold-lamé bikini tops, decadent billowing collars, clothespins...).
How about never being "supported by anything but other artists"? And what if those artists were Tony Visconti, David Bowie and Morrissey? Imagine going from ten years in "the trenches" of the music world playing only "the smallest" rock clubs, to opening over one hundred shows worldwide for a legendary artist you feel "practically formed [you]," at venues like the Hollywood Bowl, Teatro Romano di Ostia Antica and Manchester's G-Mex Arena.
And then imagine that at the 116th show (which happens to be in Manhattan, your home for the last 7 years) a crass off-the-cuff remark, probably intended to rile up a stiff audience, misses its mark by country miles, and lands you off the tour.
Well, it's the stuff on which Rock and Roll mythology and folklore is built. It's also the ongoing story of KRISTEENYOUNG. An epic "post-punk piano/drums pop opera" duo, stealthily injecting a sharpshot of iconoclasm into the heart of the mainstream music industry.
And she is Kristeen Young. Work of art, force of nature, mystical misfit, songstress extraordinaire.
I meet with Miss Young on a sunny October afternoon in West Hollywood, a day before the final night of an eight-night residency with Morrissey at the Palladium. Facing a busy boulevard in an open-air café, she wears a high-neck gossamer blouse under a fitted checkered jacket with a round collar. Looking glamorous even in early afternoon, Kristeen orders a cappuccino. The waitress brings her a macchiato instead -- a situation she remedies by ordering another cappuccino and combining the two. An hour later, while sipping a cafe mocha (her third attempt at getting what she wants), she confides, "Unless I'm drinking vodka or coffee, I don't talk." Kristeen laughs, explaining that she always has a shot of vodka before she goes on stage. Otherwise she won't say a word. With an utterly charming schoolgirl giggle, she quickly adds: "But I don't drink any other time. When I'm not touring, I don't touch alcohol."
Could Kristeen Young, who recently came on stage in Los Angeles saying, "I'll be your dominatrix for the evening," be shy and self-conscious?
When I ask her if she thinks of her music as harsh, she replies, "Yeah at times, very much. Brash. I mean I think there are pretty moments, but there's also a lot of brash."
KRISTEENYOUNG the band, expresses Kristeen Young the woman's compelling fusion of icy finger-in-your-face, punk bravado for the space age future with a soft, sensuous emotionality evocative of childlike innocence for another and more wholesome world.
photo by Lori Bailey
I suggest to Kristeen that not so far underneath her signature brashness she cares deeply about what the audience thinks. Looking into the distance with her huge flying saucer eyes of translucent green, she mostly agrees, "I always care about it." As she shifts her delicate but cutting gaze directly at me, she is careful to add: "But it's not ever going to make me stop doing what I'm doing. Ultimately I don't care. So I care; but I don't. I'm still going to do what I do. Does that make any sense? Like I might cry about it tonight, but tomorrow I'm going to do the same thing. [Laughs] I'm not going to change it."
And so her answer to my next question certainly surprises me. I ask Kristeen if what I recently read is true –– that she always wanted a mainstream hit song. I almost drop my iced tea when she laughs politely, responding with much enthusiasm: "Yeah, I always wanted to be like, you know, Madonna. And then people would say: 'Well you don't want to be like Britney Spears.' And I'm like: 'Yes I do!' And I want to say, 'I think I am like that.' You know like I don't have a proper vision of what I am, actually."
What may at first seem like a conundrum reminds me of Alan Watts explaining Zen philosophy as "an eye that sees, but does not see itself" or "a sword that cuts, but does not cut itself." The distinct oracular power of Kristeen Young may precisely be as the auteur rock savante who knows, but does not know herself.
And beyond that, throughout our interview, Kristeen repeatedly and purposefully chips away at the conventional, dualistic cultural argument that pits pop music against cutting-edge music, and low art versus high art.
For instance, I ask Kristeen, beautiful as she is, and with such an exquisite and mesmerizing voice, what stops her from putting on a conventionally sexy dress and singing pretty love songs. I imagine that she might embark on a diatribe against such pedestrian forms of expression. Instead, she wryly delivers a profoundly simple (and funny) response: "Very low self-esteem. [We both laugh.] I have no confidence in myself whatsoever. So I always overdo."
Similarly, I mention that her outfits remind me of modern art canvases. Her reply, "I don't think that that's a goal. I mean I just make stuff that I like." She explains that her clothes are the only real visual she can offer because an opening band can't have a stage show. Kristeen pauses, thoughtfully extending this to a general philosophy of living. She says slowly: "Which has always been my motto. If I have a motto [laughs]. I do the best with what I have. I make the most out of what I have. That's what I try to do. That's really all the clothes are about."
We tend to assume someone so daringly original tries to be different. But our discussion keeps coming back to the fact that as far back as grade school, even with "everyday behavior," Kristeen Young "was always trying to fit in." She muses, as though still unraveling the knot: "I've always been rubbing off edges, and trying to figure out what it is that everybody else does naturally... What's the difference? I'm a human being. I'm made of the same thing. I don't know. It invades every aspect of my life."
In the end, it's Kristeen who poses the overwhelming question of our moment. She asks, "When did 'different' get to be such a bad word?... It's just not healthy in any way." On a similar note, she speaks passionately about her active involvement in the 2004 campaign to remove George Bush from office. I ask her where she thinks the counter-culture's hiding these days. Deeply concerned, she says: "There's just such a feeling of apathy, and just this embracing of blandness. It puzzles me. Maybe that's the new generation's statement, but I'm too old to understand." She continues, "It's like they need -- [pause] some sort of bravery, or heart, or just to care about something." Kristeen expresses her unequivocal belief in the purity of youth, thoughtfully adding that she feels, "it's someone else making the decision [for them]." If given the option, kids "will always like colorful things; they'll always like something that's different. Sometimes they're just not given the options, and they pick the best of the options that they're given."
If you've become accustomed to just choosing from available options, relegating art to the museum and pop music to mind-numbing blather, the revelatory experience of KRISTEENYOUNG may unsettle and astonish you. It may also, in these shockingly apathetic times, give you back some of the bravery that is your birthright. The same bravery that allows Kristeen to say -- after ten exceptional years mostly under the radar -- "Maybe it can be an inspiration, just my whole experience. That I do what I want, and I'm not going to really change just to be part of the system or whatever. Ultimately... as trite as it sounds... I can be nobody but just me."
And thank the Pop heavens for that.
All of KRISTEENYOUNG's albums can be purchased at iTunes or Amazon. And they are currently recording a new album with legendary producer Tony Visconti. Take your protein pills and travel to myspace.com/kristeenyoung for more info.
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