Over the last several years, no fewer than four remarkable musicians have, when asked in interviews about the music they’ve been listening to, mentioned the same woman each and every time: Missouri-born, Paris-based jazz, blues and folk troubadour Krystle Warren.
Lauded by Joan and the Policewoman’s Joan Wasser as “a voice-of-a-generation kind of artist,” k.d. lang as “unbelievably amazing” and siblings Martha and Rufus Wainwright as both “brilliant” and “the kind of great singer that leaves your jaw on the floor and every hair on your body standing on end,” Warren is indeed a remarkable musician.
As she chats to Same Same, it transpires that she’s also a lovely conversationalist: quietly spoken, thoughtful and ruminative. She takes her time responding to questions and she’s given to peppering her responses with throaty laughter, the occasional self-chiding aside and small but significant personal revelations.
What extraordinary music hers is, too – the sort of richly personal singer/songwriter fare that both draws on the tradition of the greats, like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell or John Lennon and Paul McCartney, but also establishes its creator as an entirely new force to be reckoned with.
Just as Warren is now compared to those greats, one suspects she’ll soon be listed alongside them. In addition to being a gifted songwriter, she possesses a superb and moving contralto voice that occasionally recalls such greats as Nina Simone and Ella Fitzgerald.
“My album unabashedly deals with same gender relationships.”
But she’s also that much rarer thing; namely, a vocalist so singularly skillful that, really, casting around for comparisons seems futile because, yes, there are fleeting moments when she recalls Simone, Fitzgerald or even Tracy Chapman, but she’s no mimic – she’s a voice to whom others will be compared, not someone who imitates or explicitly recalls her forebears.
This month, Warren returns to Australia both to support Canadian musician Rufus Wainwright on a national tour and also to perform a handful of her own solo shows in intimate venues across NSW and Victoria.
For the openly gay Warren, who lives in Paris with her partner, Vanessa, music has been a lifelong preoccupation and passion. She grew up with a devoted mother and sister who both loved music and passed that love down to her.
“When I was growing up, my mother was playing a lot of soul artists and my sister, actually, was in a marching band for a while in high school, so I remember kind of fooling around with the French horn that she had on loan from the school and I remember her letting me play her oboe, too. I also remember listening to a lot of records. I mean, a lot of them,” she recalls, laughing gently.
“I suppose I grew up very much in a house with music lovers, but I think the difference between my mother, my sister and I, is that for them it was always very recreational. There were certain times that you, you know, sat down and you listened to music, but for me it was more of a necessity. I came to realise very quickly that I needed to have it around me at all times.”
As a teenager, Warren acquired her first acoustic guitar, bought from a friend, and shortly thereafter began teaching herself to play. She soon upgraded to a Fender Squire that, she says, “I had absolutely no idea how to play.”
“I thought I was going to be a rock star, for which I needed an electric guitar, obviously, even though I was rubbish at it! I ended up trading that one in and settling on an Ovation guitar. I taught myself to play, picking out chords from Beatles records that I was listening to at the time,” she remembers.
Asked to describe her sound, Warren eventually concedes that “it is quite hard being in a situation where you’re asked to do that, to really sort of boil it all down and basically define yourself and your music in a few words or a couple of sentences.”
“In the end, strange as it sounds, it’s very much Krystle Warren,” she says. “But, to crack it open a bit, certainly it’s influenced by many artists. I could go on and on all day. But I do love Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder and the Beatles. There’s so much that I listen to that I know I must be reflecting some of that, but how so I couldn’t say.
“It’s like, if you’re a huge Charlie Parker fan, and you’re a huge John Coltrane fan, and you decide to play the saxophone, it’s an instrument that is theirs, so you’re never going to make it as rich or as playful or as frenetic as they did, but, in attempting to implement some of those tones, you’ll come up with something of your own. Like that, I think I’ve just kind of taken all that I listened to in, you know?”
For Warren, who busked on the streets of New York before being offered a recording deal by a French label and relocating to Paris, the songwriting process is best described as nebulous and unpredictable, both circumstances she says she’s happy to create within the parameters of.
“There isn’t really a set process. It seems either that I’ve had some music sitting around for a bit or there are lyrics I’ve scribbled on whatever surface I can find, a piece of paper or a napkin or whatever. I suppose, though, it’s really about trying to find melody. I like to spend time working up the melody, working up the story, but there’s not really a set method,” she admits.