Cross over the ancient threshold of a hole in the wall music shop in Santa Monica and you’ll be transported into a one of a kind museum of instrumental history… that is also a music venue. McCabe’s Guitar Shop is home to hundreds of unique, custom, and relic six strings in addition to a room converted into a concert space that can fit just under a hundred people. Here, greats like Beck, The Aman Folk Orchestra, and even Dr. Tim Leary have played before a small crowd of patrons, and tonight Krista Detor returns to do the same.
Detor works her way slowly into the forty minute time slot by setting up each song with an anecdote in between. Her songs are soulful and well executed with her own brand of humor thrown into the mix. Her beautiful voice resonates as she works the piano, occasionally switching off to the accordion as well.
You were recently in Stanford giving a lecture, where your new album has been made required reading for a Modern Literature class there. How do you feel about that?
I liked it. It’s not the first time I’ve been to the university, but I like that atmosphere.
And what is the application of the your material in Modern Literature?
It was actually discussing how it related to modernism. Late 19th century to early 20th century.
The professor who teaches this class — was he just someone who picked up your album and found it relevant?
He listened to my album, Mudshow, and was someone who was a fan.
Had you guys met before he picked up your new album?
We met at Santa Cruz, and a few times shortly after, and he had the program up and running and funded. He brought in various artists and various people in different capacities like Chuck Rainey, Victor Wooten, people like that.
How contemporary for a literature class. But let’s start from the beginning, Krista. When did you first start writing songs?
Well, I had always written bad poetry.
As we all do in adolescence.
And some short story type of writing. Then I wrote for high school bands, and for college bands, and I got a degree in classical piano performance.
So you’re writing the musical compositions as well as the lyrics?
Sure. And I do some cross scoring and musical directing.
Where is the beginning of a formula for coming up with a new song?
it really depends. For this particular album it started with the first suite of songs inspired by this poem I had written years before when I was working in this corporate sector in Portland. It was this series of images; I was watching this guy sell oranges down the street in the rain below my office building. I wasn’t happy there, looking at the slow dance of death and making money. I was looking at this guy and wanted to know who he was and what he went home to. Something happened in my brain where the street scene sort of changed and he was an illusion where the streets were all cobbled and there were dancing, singing scarecrows. [Krista laughs at the image] And I wanted to run down the stairs and run off with him and see what would happen and it sparked the three song suite. That’s not a usual occurrence; sometimes I’ll wake up with a melody in my head. There is a song on this album called “A Hundred Years More” and the melody was just dogging me. [Krista sings the melody] I wrote it into something. I like to work under pressure. I’ve done some collaboration projects, like the Darwin Song Project in England.
Who else have you collaborated with?
In England, I was the only American female, and a guy named Mark Iraley who is a singer/songwriter. We were in this old 18th century farm house and BBC was there, and we wrote together for seven days until Darwin’s birthday. On the eight day, we recorded an album.
Who was your favorite person to collaborate with?
Why is that?
Because he has a wide open brain. He’s producing now for a lot of people in the folk scene. He’s just great; a really exuberant guy.
What are some collaborations you would really like to get into?
I don’t have anything collaborative that I’ve started. Yes, I’d like to. I did the Wilderness Plots, a collaboration in New York. I did this period piece between the civil war and revolutionary war that turned into a PBS special and was honored by congress for contributions to the arts. But I don’t have anything collaborative set up for next year.
What is your next big project after this one?
I have a couple Coral Commissions for a couple women’s choirs. I have one act of a play written.
Is it a musical? Tell me about this play.
No, it’s not a musical. It’s called Jane. It’s sort of a strange generational family thing. It’s set on a lake where one of two daughters has drowned and the aftermath of that goes through the next few generations as the story is told.
That sounds pretty depressing. Like a tear jerker.
It sounds like it, but it isn’t. you have the basic set that someone has drown, but that’s not really the point of it. The point is…
To overcome that?
Yeah! Well, along the lines of not necessarily to even overcome that but how it shaped the people that followed. When you think about the singer/songwriter genre, what singer/songwriters do you think of as really chirpy and happiness?
A lot of people play off of their own sorrow and tragedy.
Yeah. I try not to go too far into that and at a personal level I think it can be self indulgent. So I try to write character stuff outside of myself. But I try not to add in too much of how I feel, but it’s impossible not to. I would much rather try to frame it in the context of someone else.
But of course your personality always leaks into whatever you’re making.
Let’s talk about your new album, Chocolate Paper Suites. I have to ask where that name came from.
Federico García Lorca, a line in his poem about a chocolate paper gown. The idea of a chocolate paper gown is transcendent of life, transcendent of art and everything. I like the visual imagery of it. I like Lorca’s poetry and the color of it and I try to incorporate that style and sense of wonder in modern music.
How did you approach this new album compared to the last ones?
Well, I got signed to a small Dutch label with Mudshow and it had no constraint although they were trying to find something that was more radio friendly.
They say your second album is the toughest to make.
Yeah, and it was. I wasn’t very happy with what became of it because I think I spent too much time thinking about what I should be doing. But I think it turned out really well.
That’s exactly why your second album is the toughest; because of all of the expectations from fans who anticipate something extraordinary, so it can either make or break you in the end.
Exactly. And on one hand it got really good reviews, but on the other hand there was a whole pool of critics who wanted more of the first one. So I was really frustrated when I got through that. That was like five years ago, and since then I put two albums out. I got frustrated with the whole thing as I watched the record industry basically implode. Everything changed; it’s all massively different now.
What with digital downloads cornering the market and all.
They’ve completely trashed the market. Record companies have folded and it’s all completely different. There was an expectation ten years ago that if you released an album a certain way then you could expect a certain number of sales but that has steadily declined for everyone. And even for the ones selling the highest number, which still isn’t even close to what it used to be.
Modern piracy is so easy and pronounced.
And there is a different generational ethic behind it with the idea that music belongs to everybody.
Artists giving away their material for free via the internet has become all too common, however, this makes marketing the music that much easier.
Oh, yeah. It’s shifted. So in the past five or ten years, whatever a record label can do for me, I can do a lot of myself. So I think in the US right now, being on an indie label is worthless. You’re just giving up a chunk of a very small pie. So I have other people who help me, an agent and publicist, and people in Europe, and it’s still a big work load when your running a label or putting your stuff out or marketing yourself. So as the labels exploded and spread out over the vastness of the internet, I didn’t feel constrained by anyone; I could do whatever I want.
You’re a do it yourself girl.
Yeah! Screw it, I’m not going to try to appeal to the public, I’m not going to try to appease the market. I just decided I wanted to do something else, so I did. I have a commercial recording studio in my house. I live with a producer. I can spend as much time as I want. I know a lot of musicians. One of the greatest things about the digital age is, you know, there are people on this album all over the world, so I can drop an e-mail to Chris Wood and say, hey can you lay down a violin track.
A lot of musicians are doing that lately.
I know, I love it! That part is amazing. Don’t get me wrong, I would have loved to come into this twenty years ago.
What generation do you think your career would have thrived in?
There are a lot of emerging singer/songwriters in my generation and Generation X as well, like Sarah Mclachlan and Amy Mann. And there were a lot of emerging singer/songwriters there too, but I would probably have liked to been in one generation before. There weren’t a lot of people and just a few people were writing songs and people like Steely Dan. If you’ve ever heard Steely Dan’s demo reel, no one would touch them, but someone could recognize the potential that is there and pick them up. There is not a lot of that nowadays, not unless you’re going to be a pop product, otherwise you work it yourself. You put your own albums out. There is a guy names Chase Coy that my husband works with. He is an internet phenomenon, millions of hits, good writer, self-made man, and it just didn’t used to work that way with the record companies.
Remind me what your husband does?
Lots of things. Primarily advanced medical technology, but he used to be, and still does, producing for a lot of people in the folk circuit. He’s an audio engineer.
So these themes in the album Chocolate Paper Suites — you talk a lot about Lorca, Tom Waits, and Darwin. Why these people with these ideas and why now?
I’ve read scathes of poetry over the course of my life. Things percolate over time and things just happen to come together. Thinking in terms of visual imagery and some of those people have very striking imagery to draw on.
Did you have an epiphany while all of these ideas were marinating in your mind and you realized, oh, I should do Chocolate Paper Suites!
In a way, when the first Suite came together it seemed like what I should do. You know, I’ve read so much about the artistic process and it’s always discussed after the fact. I don’t think there is any kind of reasoning of why it happened in a certain way. I don’t think there is anyone who sits down and says, now I am going to guide the course of my creativity. I think you just wake up and go with whatever there is. More often than not I think the idea lead you. And if you’re a painter you can talk about the brush stroke and the play on shadows or whatever else it is, but in the process of doing it your just doing it and you don’t fucking know why. Everyone has so many adjectives and there is so much language behind the process of making these things but honestly I think we’re all just monkeys who once in awhile some little bit of a good idea comes through. And for some people it comes in a lot in huge doses like The Beatles or Beethoven and for other people you just grab it when it comes around.
What did you find challenging about the structure to these suites?
I wanted real continuity between all of them. What I really wanted is for them to be all internally related. Being a dewy decimal geek it would be really interesting if they were all interrelated per song, and then related as a whole. I would love to do something like that. But it didn’t work out the way I wanted because some parts had to be in D and it had to work lyrically so it still had to sound good and I felt I had to give in on that.
It was a bit of a stretch?
It was a bit of a stretch but I would still like to do that. I like tying up ends that way.
That’s a cool novelty idea.
I know, I thought it would be fun. Dealing with the musical organization on that level would have been great, but the songs also had to be delivered to the best of my ability.
So the novelties had to be sacrificed?
I think so. I think when you don’t sacrifice the novelty that’s when you run into problems.
Would you like to do something like that in the future?
I could see myself doing something like that using some of my classical background. I’m no piano prodigy but I have classical background and I really like analysis and theory and substructure. I’ve always been good with the math of that, so it would be fun to do something like that.
So piano is your instrument of choice?
Well that’s the first one I learned. I also play guitar and accordion. I’d like to learn more; and instrument is an instrument and they all operate in the same framework with music theory and structure. So, learning to play another instrument is learning another physical skill. Like, I don’t play any horns, but I can play a little recorder and flute, but in terms of expanding into other places I’d really like to stretch that out.
Krista Detor, thank you for talking with me, it’s been very enlightening.
After speaking with Krista, I was introduced to the professor at Stanford who has employed Chocolate Paper Suites as course work for his Modern Literature class. He told me he consistently brings in various musicians to lecture his students on modernism and its lyrical role. After meeting with Detor, he now fulfilled a long running fantasy of his and is playing bass with her on tour along with her husband, the medical technology expert, who also does trapeze acts for various circus shows. This off-beat group of cultured idiosyncrasies came together to give one powerhouse folk performance.