Kris Delmhorst: It starts with the feeling
Kris Delmhorst is one of those performers you just fall in love with. Instantly. Doesn’t matter if you are straight or gay, young or old, folkie or urban hipster. You hear her voice, you see her smile, beaming moonbeams from the stage, catch the barely audible “thank you” she breathes into the microphone, like she is astonished that people like her music so much. And, like my wife said after about 10 minutes of Kris’s recent show at the Fremont Abbey, “you just want to take her home with you and get to know her.” Or at least have a pre-concert chat, which I had the delightful chance to do upstairs at the Abbey before her show.
“Music was a part of life in a pretty unremarked upon way,” Kris said. “I didn’t grow up among professional musicians or any of that kind of stuff. My parents both care about music a lot and they grew up singing it in their church choir and still do that as adults. I would go to their choir rehearsals sometimes when I was a kid and they would give me music and teach me to follow along.
“That whole idea of someone singing and you can pick some other notes and sing with them in harmony was introduced right away, and so that has been really nice to work on, to have that to go on as music became my world. It’s nice to have it be such a first language.”
Her first memory of a song that grabbed her was in kindergarten, the Beatles song “Help.”
“Especially that line about ‘Help me get my feet back on the ground.’ I was five, so I took it literally,” she explained. “I thought it was super funny. But that is the first time I remember having that feeling like this music, I can’t even stay in my body, this music makes me just freak out, I am so happy!”
Kris’ joy is clearly evident to this day, though a child’s ‘freak out’ has given way to a dreamy, spell-casting performance mode. Eyes mostly shut as she approaches the microphone to sing, Kris’ hands dance over the strings of her Gibson guitar, her voice, at turns seductively breathy and powerful envelopes her audience in what might best be described as melancholy rapture, recalling the deep longing sound of her initial instrument, the cello.
Kris studied classical cello in college at the Manhattan School of Music and then began songwriting in her 20s, when she realized she was no longer called to classical music
“I listened to a ton of music. But I think the people who, on some not-entirely-conscious level, turned the light bulb on [for me] that [I] could actually just write songs and sing them with a guitar, and it was a full satisfying thing, were a lot of those songwriters, mostly women songwriters at that moment, like Tracy Chapman, Suzanne Vega…later, a little bit of Ani DiFranco….Just something about that direct presentation of a song was the spark that made me actually start messing around and writing.”
Despite her lifelong relationship to music, it is often the lyrical depth of her songs that grabs you, demanding deep, repeated listening. Her songwriting process melds lyric and melody together.
“At least at the beginning, it starts together. And part of that is I’m not really a pen and paper writer, it just happens in the air. The way that a song starts for me is a little piece of a song…it will be the melody and the words. And then from there I’ll either expand on the music and fill in words later, or vice versa but the core of the song always goes together,” she said.
“It is interesting because I live with another songwriter (husband Jeffrey Foucault) and we have a very different process….We describe our methods as hunter and gatherer. He sort of knows where he is heading when he starts and I have absolutely no idea. Often times I don’t know what the song is about until I am done and I get away from it for a little while, and then I hear it again and I go, ‘Oh, I know where that comes from.’ So, it is a very groping process for me.”
“[I’ll have] this initial little bit…and I’ll just be singing it over and over in my head or with the guitar. And what usually happens is that it is like a little seed of some emotional state. That is really what my songs are—some of them have stories and some of them don’t—but I feel like most of them, and this isn’t conscious, but if I observe what I write, what happens, is that is starts with the feeling.
“I’ll get that little piece of song from wherever and it gives me a certain feeling, and then…it reminds me of times that I have been in that emotional state. It reminds me of stories I’ve heard about people in the emotional state. So, then it is this sort of magpie thing where I bring in a lot of little details that are, even if the song ends up looking like a linear story, sometimes they are from 12 different stories, and it is like a collage. So I do feel like a lot of the songs are explorations of a certain emotional state.”
Family life has certainly impacted Kris’ troubadour life.
“Having another songwriter who I respect in the house, just right there…sometimes it is a little scary, you know just like bringing (new songs) to anyone whose opinion you respect and who you want to like something,” Kris said. “There are so many obvious worries about being married to another songwriter in terms of any kind of competition or like when one person is stuck and the other person isn’t. But for whatever reason, whatever our personalities are, so far, knock on wood, it has been really great…And also, honestly, just being in the house and hearing him across the house working on something, is strangely inspiring and motivating.”
“Since we he had (daughter) Hazel two years ago we’ve done a lot of co-bills, which has been a blast And we are kind of moving out of that chapter now….Touring altogether was a blast…it made us slow down and take more time off, which is the way I always used to tour….And, like this is the biggest cliché in the world, but, she just brought this sort of utter newness to everything. I think Jeffrey and I have both kept our touring to a limit that we can still really enjoy it and not just be in zombie mode. But still having her with us was just like brand new eyes.”
In 2008, Kris released her sixth and seventh solo CDs Shotgun Singer and Horses Swimming. Comprised of songs written in the same two-year period, the projects have very different aesthetics. Shotgun Singer is a collage of many layers assembled over months of solo studio time. The songs are thick, like velvet or felted wool, the emotional state burnished to a deep luster. The EP Horses Swimming is a simpler folky presentation—sweet and/or melancholy fingerpicked guitar with Kris’ emotive voice up front. She is currently in process with a number of new projects including a disco album (!), an all-girls band covering songs by The Cars, a live Redbird release and a solo project, which she said, laughing, is “sort of in late youth.”
Kris’s Redbird collaboration with Foucault, Peter Mulvey and David Goodrich (during the Abbey concert she called it “a condition more than a band”) has achieved near legendary status among fans of acoustic song-based music. The initial CD, recorded in Mark Olson’s living room in Fork Atkinson, WI in 2003 and released in 2005, is a collection of 17 tunes, mostly covers, recorded over a three-day period.
It’s essentially a bunch of friends sitting around a living room, pulling out almost every song they know, just like musicians do everywhere when they informally pop the snaps on their instrument cases and relax into a jam while on tour. The informal approach, single takes around a single microphone, voices and instruments weaving around each other, truly set the stage for magic.
While the “condition” only toured briefly years ago, it has recurred in annual year-end sessions at Fort Atkinson’s Café Carpe. And in early 2011, an album culled from those sessions will be released. But for a reprise of Greg Brown’s song “Ships,” it is entirely different material.
“Redbird has done everything as ass-backwards as you possibly can.” Kris said. “The thing happened by accident because we were on tour together and we were just spending so much time together playing. At first it was just three of us without Goody and then Goody got on board when we decided to record something….We wanted someone who could take solos, like none of us are much good at taking a solo,” she said, chuckling.
“So, the Redbird thing really started as like a Christmas present for our families and then we eventually decided to put it out. Then we just started playing these few shows every year that we do, kind of touchstone shows. And the shows at Café Carpe are really fun and special things for us and it is a super intimate venue. We’ve been recording them, because we figured, ‘Why not?’ (The new record) is equally casual. It probably sounds a little better….It is sloppy as all get out and there are some pretty funny mistakes on some, but that is the whole point. We sort of edged into it, like should we do it? But now we are all feeling really fond of it and glad we are doing it.”
The new live Redbird CD has just been made available for preorder.
This article originally appeared in the Victory Review. Mike Buchman is a performing songwriter and Victory Music volunteer. You can find him most Tuesday nights at Victory’s open mic at the Q Café, or online at mikebuchmanmusic.com.