Now that we have your attention, I must offer a confession of my own, despite the salacious title that prompted you to click on this article, Chrysta Bell isn’t really “confessing” anything in this interview and, much to my surprise, she really isn’t all that “dark”, as for the “temptress” part…well, I strongly suggest you watch the videos and judge that one for yourself.
Modern torch chantuse’ Chrysta Bell has spent the last decade collaborating with the legendary filmmaker/ artist/ musician David Lynch on a project that neither were certain would ever see the light of day but, much to the delight of both Lynch fans and music lovers everywhere, the result of this meeting of two beautiful and unique minds was finally released as the album This Train recently and has created a nice bit of buzz as well as quite a few rave reviews, mine, of course, being one of them. Put simply, this is the best work, ( film, music or otherwise), that Lynch has produced in over a decade, but then, when you have a muse in the form of a young Texas born beauty who has the extrordinary vocal ability to turn from angel to seductress, from verse to chorus and back again, how could the man be anything but divinely inspired?
I recently had the great pleasure of speaking with Chrysta Bell about her early beginnings, her musical influences and her collaboration with David Lynch.
Pop Bitez: Your journey as a singer and performer pretty much started right out of high school didn’t it?
Chrysta Bell: Oh yes, well, instead of going to university I went to the university of life (laughs), I graduated from high school and went on the road for about four years with a wonderful band called 8 1/2 Souvenirs. My situation with them, though I didn’t know it at the time, was really a dream situation. They were well known in Austin before I came on the scene, so they had laid all of this ground work and done all the really tough stuff and I got to kind of get on that train at a perfect moment. Not that we didn’t have our own share of the roller coaster but it was a pretty sweet deal. I had no idea how great a situation it was until I was no longer with them and I was like “Wait a second…!”. You get signed to RCA Victor at 19 and you feel like it’s only up from here and you can’t really conceive of anything different because that’s all you’ve ever really known, and before 8 1/2 Souvenirs I definitely perceived myself as the ugly duckling, I never really got the “yeses”, I got a lot of, ” …Wellll, if you were this or if you were that..”. Looking back I’m so grateful for that opportunity because I was surrounded by really wonderful musicians, these guys were very international and I really appreciated the opportunity to learn about things like gypsy jazz and old country, stuff that really hadn’t been on my radar before, I was the youngest in the band by 15 maybe 20 years and it was definitely like school for me.
PB: It’s obviously not enough to be a great singer these days, performance is really key, now more than ever I think, and with everything I’ve seen of yours on youtube and vimeo I find your work infinitely watchable, you seem to inhabit the songs as much as you sing them, you have a definite theatrical instinct both with 8 1/2 Souvenirs and now this latest project, where exactly do you think your foundation for performance originated?
Chrysta Bell: Well, my mother is a performer and a singer and in my earliest years she was supporting us by doing singing telegrams. She would actually write a song for every single client she had, she would get information about the person who was receiving the telegram and she would compose an entire song for them and she’d dress up in full costume, with a giant bouquet of balloons and whatever else was appropriate for the occasion and I got to witness all of this. She also did a lot of musical theater, and from a very early age I definitely shared that passion to want to make people happy and feel that reciprocation from a live audience certainly in part because I watched her do it. She went on to own and run a recording studio with my step father and that gave me the other side of the equation, performing artist vs. recording artist and how different they are, but as far as the performance, I knew that I loved theatrics. I could tell that for me it was even more exciting to watch a singer perform when it involved these other elements. I’ve always been one of those singers that has to kind of perform with their hands and sing with their bodies, I’ve actually had to reel that in to some degree. When I first started with 8 1/2 Souvenirs I was in the footsteps of this amazing vocalist, it was outrageous, her voice was incredible and, by my own perception, I wasn’t even half the vocalist she was so I felt that what I needed to do to make it a great show was to really bring all the other elements I had. I’m also just so fascinated that people have come to a show, they’re there in part to watch me sing and that blows my mind so I want to give them a stellar show and every bit of what I have to offer so that they feel their choice was a good one. As we began to do more music videos and I realized I could watch myself perform, I actually became a little self conscious because I felt like, “Oh gosh, this is my natural state but, maybe I’m over-doing it?“, but I don’t know how I would pull back because I really don’t know how to separate the two, so i just threw my hands up and decided I would just go with it (laughs).
PB: And were you singing in high school?
Chrysta Bell: I was, I was always singing and when I was 12 or 13 there was a children’s theater in San Antonio and I was definitely way into that, not really finding my groove at my school but feeling much more at home in the community theater. I was still finding my voice and discovering myself. I was usually type cast as the kind of ditzy character, which when I look back is so funny, (laughs) I’m not quite sure how but that was the perception people had of me at the time which is odd because I’ve always been fairly studious. I think in those environments you’re always trying to find your flavor, your character, and I guess that was the one chosen for me so I kind of just went with it. I really think it served in getting the pumps primed for me. In theater you’ve got the lines and the blocking and the emotion and then the songs you’re singing, it’s a really good way to get all of those juices flowing at that age. I would recommend musical theater for anyone going into any kind of music, pop music, country music, anything, because, as you said, the performance element has now become very, very important, there is so much going on out there and any way you can distinguish yourself is helpful. Certainly great songs are always going to be your strongest asset but the performance of those songs is definitely the next level, that’s prevalent everywhere now.
PB: So how and when exactly did your road intersect with David Lynch?
Chrysta Bell: David came into my life because of a manager, Bud Prager, who had managed bands like Foreigner and Bad Company, he really had this amazing ability to hear what was possible when something had yet to be realized. We met when I was still with 8 1/2 souvenirs and when the band split up he said, ” O.k., I want to take you on and see what we can do together“, and I was very open to the possibility. His strong feeling was if I could be in a movie or on a television show performing that would be my best chance, so he pulled the strings he could pull and called in the favors and got me a face to face with a man named Brian Loucks, who was an agent with CAA, after talking with me and listening to my demo, within, like, 15 minutes, Brian said “I think David Lynch is really going to love you”, and I’m like, “David Lynch“? My connection with David up until this point was just as a fan of Twin Peaks and really loving the music, but at that point…. through all of my years and experience, I’d heard a lot of people promise a lot of things and I honestly didn’t think it would ever happen, but my manager pursued it and made sure it happened and Brian did set up a meeting and I was able to meet David and my life hasn’t been the same since (laughs). Brian knew that David loved music and was making music and was open to working with musicians that would be an appropriate and complimentary fit and it couldn’t just be anyone, there were some parameters, I believe, that were unspoken, but Brian had a gift for knowing what David would respond to and, somehow, at that moment, I was actually 19 at the time, Brian intuited that David and I would work out together and the first day David and I met we wrote a song, it’s actually the second song on the album, “Right Down to You“, our musical chemistry, thank God, was instant. I know it was a big relief for my manager and for Brian who really stuck his neck out, a girl from Texas that nobody knows, he’s got nothing to gain except for David’s happiness and a lot to lose if David isn’t feeling it, so I really appreciate that Brian did that and that it’s worked out!
PB: Do you remember a specific moment in time when you discovered that you and David were simpatico?
Chrysta Bell: I can only speak for myself but the moment he opened the door, cigarette hanging out of his mouth, white untucked dress shirt covered in paint splotches and arms open and he said “Chrysta Bell!“, he knew my name, (laughing), and said it correctly! He has such a magnanimous spirit and made me feel special and important in that moment, before he’d even heard my demo. The night before I met him I hadn’t actually slept, I’d been up all night and it had been made very clear to me how significant this meeting could be, if it didn’t work out it wasn’t going to be the end of the world but if it did it was going to be helpful in a lot of ways, even if it didn’t manifest with David it was important that it go well. So I was taken with David’s compassion for the situation, he certainly didn’t have to be that way but he absolutely was and, of course, the friendship just grew from there. The musical collaboration and developing friendship went hand in hand. I believe this music has it’s own kind of karma and part of the reason it took so long was that there was a lot to put in this record. There was a lot to offer, every body of work is a representation of so many elements and this one needed years and a developing friendship and an understanding that I could really tune into what David was looking for, and then my personal journey as well, within. I feel very blessed in the time that we’ve shared and it’s always been a trip and super fun and an adventure in all kinds of ways.
PB: I, obviously, love the album and your work with David, much of the music featured is dark and sexy and exactly what we’ve come to expect from a Lynch project but I think the song that surprised me the most was the last track on the album, “The Truth Is“, which, dare I say, actually seems “radio friendly” and almost reminds me of the early stuff from the Eurythmics.
Chrysta Bell: Yes! It does have a sort of Eurythmics vibe and I’m a massive fan! That song is special for a number of reasons, David actually wrote it while he was meditating, he meditates twice a day, transcendentally, and TM is a very enlivening meditation, it really gets your creative juices flowing and so this song and melody came to him in flashes and when he came out of the meditation he wrote it down and then when I came to do some sessions he said “I have this song Chrysta Bell, it’s called “The Truth Is“. With all of the other songs we’d done together I wrote the melodies, he composed the music and the lyrics but it was up to me to create the melodies and give it a flow, but this one he already had the melody, so he said “Chrysta Bell I wrote this song during meditation, it’s for you and I’m going to sing it for you“. So he sang it for me and I kind of came up with the harmonies and added my touches to it and when we were doing it I was like, “Wow, this is..this is very different“, (laughs) and of course I absolutely love it and it’s perfect because even in a live set it adds that lift, that’s actually what I’m working on right now, the live presentation of the music, so it’s great to have that great uplifting moment and such a great song to sing and so much fun.
PB: I really think the timing for this album is perfect. I loved the 8 1/2 Souvenirs stuff as well and it’s great to see you back in the game, I think the brilliance of this record is going to take you to a whole new level.
Chrysta Bell: I hope so, my hopes are high, but I haven’t put expectations on it that in any way potentially end in disappointment, I just want to be in this moment and enjoy the fruits of the labor that have gone into making this record and putting it out into the world, I’m trying to be pretty even headed about that because you just don’t know. I never consciously put the music thing on the side, I just had all kinds of things in my life that took my focus but the music thing would never let me go, never let me do anything else, there was never even a possibility, it’s required a lot of staying power but, now that I feel it coming together, it’s really exciting that the album has touched the people that it has. I’ve been in the business long enough to know there are ebbs and flows, and this moment is like a lovely buzz, it’s like a sweet bit of acknowledgment that is very appreciated and taken to heart because it has been quite a journey to get here and I didn’t know it would ever really come to fruition, I am definitely reveling in this moment now and we’ll see what the future holds.
PB: Last question, if you could go back in time and see any concert you missed, where and who would it be?
Chrysta Bell: Maybe the Duke Ellington Orchestra with either Ella or Billie at the Cotton Club, just to witness that history would be so amazing, I would be completely entertained and soulfully inspired.