Kristeen Young’s volcanic eruption

Willowy young singer presents striking, theatrical figure, with self-designed dresses Lady Gaga would envy.

Kristeen Young (photo credit: Courtesy of Tony Visconti)
Kristeen Young
(photo credit: Courtesy of Tony Visconti)
When Kristeen Young glides onstage before thousands of Morrissey fans to warm up the crowd, she’s never afraid of being snubbed. “I really don’t see too many people being distracted,” explained the St. Louis-raised vocalist/pianist in an email from the road in Europe, where she’s been opening a world tour for the former front man of The Smiths.
Maybe it’s because the willowy Young presents a striking, theatrical figure, with self-designed dresses and gowns that Lady Gaga could learn a thing or two from, and swept-back hair that gives new meaning to the term pompadour. But more importantly, her aggressive electro-pop songs featuring what she calls her “freakish” four-octave voice and evocative contemporary lyrics that discover the common denominators between Kate Bush, Bjork and Tori Amos are impossible to ignore.
Touring partner Morrissey, who’s asked the offbeat Young to open most of his shows since 2006 as well as appear on his records, recently called her voice “a beautiful bayonet” in a spread on the two artists in The Guardian. “She sings about the way we live when we are prevented from living the way we’d like to. The sound is as good as you’ll ever hear in modern music. We scan the British pop charts in the hopeless quest for something different. Kristeen Young frees us from this,” he wrote, adding “Beneath the waterplant hairstyle (hers, not mine) is a face made to be peered at till the end of time. The eye-crossing drabness of flicking through music magazines could be undone in a flash by Kristeen Young. Please, lower yourself in.”
Many fans have already taken the plunge, including Morrissey’s own rabid and passionate following, whom she wins over night after night on tour.
“A portion of his audience is my audience too, now.
They are excited for the whole show... which, as some of the ads state, includes me,” she said with a sardonic nod to her role as a support act.
But the supporting phase of the 31-year-old Young’s career may soon be coming to an end. After releasing a series of self-released albums over the last 10 years, her two commercially released records – 2009’s Music for Strippers, Hookers, and the Odd On-Looker and last year’s V The Volcanic – have created their own buzz.
Both produced by Tony Visconti, the wizard behind David Bowie’s greatest albums, the albums range from art rock and thundering piano and drums to V The Volcanic’s more funky groove. Asked by the Post how he ended up working with the relatively unknown Young, Visconti explained that he heard her 1999 self-made album Enemy and was blown away.
“I phoned her before the CD finished. Her voice got to me before her compositions, the second of a one-two punch. I couldn’t believe that someone this talented, with such an amazing passionate voice, who wrote songs that rival any great artist of the ’70s and ’80s was unsigned,” he said, adding that he played her music for Bowie, who ended up recording one of her songs.
Visconti also provided the link between Young and Morrissey – he was playing one of Young’s videos on a big screen in the studio and Morrissey walked in and said, “Who’s that? She’s very good.” When his opening band pulled out of a 2006 tour, Morrissey asked Young to fill in, a role that she’d held ever since, including this Saturday night, July 21, at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds.
DON’T THINK that Young is hiding in the shadows of the more famous singer, though. V The Volcanic establishes her as a thoroughly original and confident artist – the album’s hook is the fact that each song is written from the point of view of one of her favorite film characters, like Violet Bick in Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life (“V The Volcanic”); the angry apple tree of The Wizard of Oz (“I’ll Get You Back”); Lucy Westenra in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 take on Bram Stoker’s Dracula (“Why Can’t It Be Me?”); and the android Pris from Blade Runner (“The Devil Made Me”).
Choosing the apple tree in The Wizard of Oz to identify with is representative of Young’s outsider outlook on life, she said.
“I relate too much to the Apple Tree. The idea of doing all this work and creating something, and someone just happens to pop by and pluck it from you. That was my complete experience of the past couple years: being food for thieves,” she said.
Her childhood was not much easier, evidently, as the half-Apache, half-German Young spent time as a foster child before being adopted by strict Christian parents in St. Louis. Music provided her with her only outlet of happiness.
“They were controlling parents, and I wasn’t allowed out of the house much to do anything that wasn’t church-related. Music was a way of escaping the prison I grew up in,” she said, adding that she was only exposed to the music on mainstream Midwest pop radio, especially the r&b and funk of Prince, Rick James, Teena Marie and Cameo. “There was an [alternative] music scene in St. Louis... but, I wasn’t privy to it growing up. I wasn’t familiar with the St. Louis music scene until I was already writing my own music.”
One slightly non-mainstream artist she did latch onto in high school was The Smiths, and she immediately grew attached to Morrissey’s voice, as she told The Guardian.
“I grew up listening to his music, so part of what I am is formed by him. The first time I heard the Smiths I was 14 and my boyfriend played me Hatful of Hollow. I lived in the Midwest, I had no brothers or sisters, and the radio only played the mainstream.
This was something different. I played that album over and over again.
“Singing with Morrissey on the B-side of his last single, “Sweetie Pie”, was the thrill of my life. It was incredible, but somehow felt natural. When I was young, listening to his records, I could never sing in his key – it was always too low. So instead, I harmonized.
I grew up harmonizing to his melodies. I know a lot of people do that, but for some reason it actually happened to me for real.”
She described their relationship to the Post as “a very healthy, mutually artistic one” but joked to The Guardian that at the photo shoot for their story, it took on a different level.
“Morrissey asked me to sit on his shoulders. At first I thought he was joking, but he really wanted me to.
I thought, “This is bizarre!” So there I am, literally heaving with desire for him and suddenly his head is between my thighs. We’d certainly never been that close before,” she said.
It’s a moment of lightheartedness that rarely surfaces among Young’s dark wave music. But while the singer admitted that she does have an intense personality and answers questions about keeping her sanity on the road with pithy answers like “I rarely leave my room,” she aspires to some sense of a healthy balance between light and dark.
“I’m not intense every moment, that would get a bit exhausting,” she said. “I think the people I am around on a mostly daily basis would tell you... yes... I can be very focused on something. But, I am mostly people I just meet... how different I am offstage. I don’t feel different or that I am being different. I think it’s just that they don’t really know me yet. Am I supposed to meet them with a scream and a yowl?” For that greeting, Young has the stage, and her music.