Kristeen Young SPEAKS
Kristeen Young, a striking chanteuse born and bred in St. Louis, has all the composure and grace of a torch singer, the raw emotion of a performance artist and the wry humor of a Slam poet and somehow combines these traits without sacrificing rock ‘n’ roll intensity. And she does it without guitars.
Morrissey’s opening act since beginning of the Ringleader of the Tormentors tour in 2006 , Young performed last week, opening for Morrissey at the historic Hollywood Palladium. With only her vocals, keyboards and sole musical accomplice, drummer “Baby” Jeff White, Young commands attention with her classically trained voice, quirky costumes and thought-provoking lyrics. She’s attracted the interest of musical legends like Morrissey, producer Tony Visconti and David Bowie. (She sings and plays piano on Bowie’s Heathen album.) I recently talked with Kristeen in the restaurant of the West Hollywood hotel that’s her home away from home for the eight night (two of the original 10 dates were cancelled due to plumbing problems at the venue) stand at the Palladium.
How did Young secure a spot as Morrissey’s opening act, a coveted achievement that many artists pine for? “He saw a video of us playing live that his producer at the time (Ringleader of the Tormentors producer Tony Visconti) was editing on a screen. And he walked in and just happened to see it and asked “Who’s that?” and Tony said (the producer) I’m doing their record next. I’ll send it to you when it’s finished.” He did and Morrissey really liked it. When it wasn’t working out with his opening act at the time, he called us and we went over it continued and continued he had all the other opening acts at the time killed.” Young was definitely a Moz fan before meeting him.
“He’s responsible for (and I’ve told him this, too) the forming of me-at least 82 percent of what I am. Lyrically, definitely, I was very influenced by him and I really don’t feel influenced by very many people. I just sort of picked up everything. But him, definitely. I was thrilled.” The first show she did with Morrissey is somewhat of a blur. “I can’t even remember it. I felt like it was a huge disaster. I felt like I wasn’t even present. I don’t know how I got through it–just a lot of vodka.”
Young’s stage persona certainly doesn’t fit into the corporate rock chick mold that’s so prevalent today. “I think it’s that way in general with all of music, not just females. I know there are people out there doing interesting things. It’s just that the state of the industry right now just sort of squashed it all. People in the industry are afraid. They end up promoting really safe things for some reason. I don’t even understand that way of thinking. I would go “Let’s try something different instead of something (that) we’re already doing.”
Like many artistic types, Young had a less than ideal childhood. She grew up in a conservative Christian family in St. Louis. “I was a very confused kid. I was adopted. It was made known to me that I was not really a part of them, so it was hard (for me.)
Young turned to music and other creative pursuits. “I was given piano lessons. I didn’t have a lot of talent for the piano- still don’t. I just make a lot of noise and hope people don’t notice. ”She (my adoptive Mom) gave me piano lessons cause she always wanted to play piano. I had a really active fantasy life was constantly in my head and not present, pretending I was someplace else. ” School provided another outlet for the fledgling musician. “I loved school. Anyplace that wasn’t home and I loved learning. In a way, that’s a great escape.”
Young attended Webster University and performed with local St. Louis bands Water Works and November 9th, before forming her own group. Their first release “Miss Kristeen Young and her All-Boy Band” was released in 1997.
“We had a record out on an indie label (World Domination, founded by Gang of Four member Dave Allen) and they were based in L.A. We wanted to move to L.A., but they said, ‘Stay in St Louis you’ve got a fan base in the Midwest. Reap the benefits of that,’ which made no sense whatsoever. We sold the most records on the East Coast and we were driving a lot to and from New York and back to play.”
“I wanted to get out of St. Louis. Even Though we love in a supposedly global community with computers, you still have to go to the source.” Young first moved to Pennsylvania and traveled along the East Coast playing shows, garnering an especially good reception in New York.
Young’s big break occurred when she sent a demo of new material (later released as the CD “Enemy”) to producers. Legendary T-Rex/David Bowie Tony Visconti was one of them. “He was so taken with it he called me on a Sunday morning, which is an unusual time to call. He said he would work with us on spec and do whatever it took to get us someplace, and he thought it was the most important thing he’d heard since the mid-70s. That moved me and I ended up moving to New York to make it all easier.”
Young and Visconti began working on demos shortly after she moved to New York. “We just started doing demos because he thought it was going to be easy to get us a deal. The initial demos Young & White recorded with Visconti were released as the CD “Breasticles.” “We ended up on a small label in Portugal (_N) and they had me come over there and do some shows, which was exciting because at the time I’d never been out of the United States before.”
X (Roman Numeral 10), the second Visconti-produced CD, rebuts the 10 Commandments, but it wasn’t planned that way – “Unconsciously, I wrote 4 songs that were anti- Ten Commandments. I was doing a theme there and I didn’t notice it, so I just completed it like that.”
Young’s songs combine sarcasm, wordplay and lull you into a world all their own, in the same way Bjork or Patti Smith do, though Young has a style all her own. Her most recent album, The Orphans, highlights lyrics about family, independence and prejudice, encased in a raw, live sound. “Put Prince off his heels and feel…free/deflate to their death Led Zep…free…” she sings in Kill the Father. Mixed Kids addresses middle American ignorance. “Strange combination/ strange combination/ all my life I’d be walking down the street and people would stare til they spit it out,” she sings, then punctuates the chorus with a abrupt snarl- “What are you!” Then there’s the instant, Kate Bush like catchiness of London Cry.
The sense of humor in Young’s lyrics underscore their feistiness, and are more prominent the singers who share her dramatic style.
“A lot of people miss out on that. I think there are other things distracting them, like my outfit, which is my fault.” Yes, the outfits. They include dresses made partially from bubble wrap or Wonder bread bags. How does Young get the ideas for her outrageous stage gear? “Mostly I’ll just see some material I like and do something with it. I’ll like one aspect of a thing and exaggerate it.” Of course, this has childhood roots. “I like colorful things. I liked Sid and Marty Kroft–“H.R. Pufnstuf.” I was mesmerized. I was a toddler when I saw that.”
Vocally, Young is most often compared to Kate Bush, but never heard her until a friend played her some of the British diva’s songs a few years ago.”
“If I’m influenced by anyone (vocally),” Young says, “it’s male singers. It’s mostly male singers that I heard growing up. Young credits John Lydon, Morrissey, Jello Biafra, and Peter Murphy as inspirations, and that’s not hard to hear in the vocal twists and turns she employs. A delicate soprano she is not. Not surprisingly, Young always admired guitar players growing up, and emulates the passion and physicality of rock guitarists in her keyboard playing. “I can’t see why you can’t play keyboards with the same force and lust,” she says.
Kristeen Young – Discography
Miss Young and Her All-Boy Band (World Domination, 1997)
Enemy (Self-Released, 1999)
Breasticles (N_/Portugal, 2003)
X (Galileo/UK, 2006)
Orphans (Test Tube Baby, 2006)