This interview was conducted in April, 2002, during the Dave Davies tour.
... there was that one song "Always" on the first album. I sang that for the first time in this songwriter workshop and I could see the glasses steaming, they were all crying, and I thought "I'VE GOT THE POWER!" -- Kristian Hoffman
Q: Where did you get the idea to do a duets album?
KRISTIAN: The whole idea of the duets album came about by mistake. I was supposed to do a duet with Belinda Carlisle, who didn't end up being available. She said yes to doing a duet with me on an old chestnut by Paul Anka called "Having My Baby." It was just going to be a joke B side for a 45. I wanted to have an extra track in the can so I'd have something available, and she was in town and is an old friend of mine.
Q: Does she want to have your baby?
KRISTIAN: I actually have an autographed Go-Go's 45, when I used to know her quite well, back when the Swinging Madisons and her were great friends, she said: "To Kristian, in hopes that I too may someday have your baby."
Q: "I too" -- hmmmm --
KRISTIAN: But that was quite some time ago, she may have changed, and she is married now. So that's the way it started. Up till the last minute we were going to record, and then she had been on tour and lost her voice, and had to go back to a specialist in London, and we somehow never connected again. I have a very funny song I wrote about Belinda Carlisle.
Q: What's it called?
KRISTIAN: It's called "Belinda." [Ed. note: The song is now available for download exclusively at this site - go to the Sound page.] I was obsessed with her. I loved her. Back in Swinging Madisons days she used to come to my shows, she'd be standing there getting really drunk at the foot of the Whiskey stage, and holding on to the stage and screaming at me, and then I'd run down to the Roxy and do the same thing to her.
Q: It's too bad she's not on the Duets album, she'd be the biggest name I think, to the general public at large.
KRISTIAN: Darn her, darn her for having a life and a career. Who the hell does she think she is? But then my record company heard the idea and said, "that's a great idea - duets," and I thought, "ooh no, I have all my songs ready for my new album, and now I have to re-format everything." But then I tried one, and I thought I'd do one on a throwaway song that was a Mumps song -
Q: Right, "Anyone But You" -
KRISTIAN: There are two Mumps songs, that one and "Just In Time." It just was so fabulous, and I thought, this is fun. My prejudice against it was having to think in terms of duets, and I felt that I couldn't take my serious songs and make them duets, but it turned out that the other people's voices took all the songs to another level. Then the project just kind of snowballed without any input from me. Suddenly people that I loved were interested in doing it. A friend of mine asked Russell Mael if he would want to do it, I didn't even ask him. I met Van Dyke Parks at a party and said, "I'm doing an album, would you do a string arrangement?" He just said "Yes." It was like God wanted it to happen. These fabulous artists that I've been in love with for years and years.
Q: Many of them are people you've worked with forever, like Ann Magnuson and Lydia Lunch and those people.
KRISTIAN: But even Lydia, I've been kind of out of touch with her for a few years. The idea wouldn't have come to me otherwise, and then we wrote the song together, so that took it to a different level than me just trying to force, shoehorn people I already knew into songs that already existed.
Q: So you didn't have to do too much recruiting. They just came to you.
KRISTIAN: No. Well, anybody I asked said yes. I didn't know Maria McKee at all, and a friend of hers is a friend of my boyfriend's, and she thought Maria McKee would love this stuff, so unbeknownst to me she had given her my solo albums, and Maria said, why don't you let me sing one of these songs. So that came completely without any input from me, and it was so wonderful working with her. Her voice is so gorgeous, and I just felt at that point some great spirit was smiling.
Q: I certainly can't wait to hear it. The one with Russell Mael, "Devil May Care," is on the eggBERT site, and Anna Waronker's song is on there too.
KRISTIAN: That's the big huge production number. She was a person who I didn't know. It was right in the beginning of this album idea, and I saw her play in a band. She's married to Steve McDonald from Red Cross, so that's how he came into the project. I saw her and I thought her voice sounded so much like Leslie Gore and I thought, oh my God I need a voice like that on the record, and the first time I asked her she said sure.
Q: Everyone needs a voice like Leslie Gore on their record.
KRISTIAN: She made up all these backing vocals on the spot. She was just a natural.
Q: You've made a career out of collaborating with other musicians --
KRISTIAN: Don't tell them that! They think they did it by themselves. Let them live in that illusion.
Q: If there was one musician in all of history that you could collaborate with, who would you pick?
KRISTIAN: That's a dangerous question. I feel that all the people that were really my childhood idols have somehow ended up being in my life in some weird way. I was obsessed with the Kinks, now I'm working with a Kink. I was obsessed with Sparks, and now Russell Mael is on my album. I would have loved to have worked with John Lennon. I think the answer to that question would be very obvious. I love Emitt Rhodes of the Merry-Go-Rounds. I actually opened for him once, and I just thought he was incredibly gifted. That's somebody who, since he wasn't as huge as the Beatles, I felt we could actually do something that would be fun for both of us.
Q: What about Roy Wood?
KRISTIAN: Oh yes, I'm obsessed with Roy Wood. I've never met him, but Jonathan [Lea] met him, so that's almost the same. I met him by proxy. Jonathan had seen him in England and said how fantastic it was, and he was going to play at the same place Dave [Davies] played at last tour, and we were all going to fly out and see it, and then I had something else I had to do, and I was going to miss it, but then it got canceled anyway. I heard they're incredible, I loved him so much. Other people who were very formative upon me were Kate and Anna McGarrigle, and then I got to work with their son and meet them. I never got to work with Joni Mitchell. I'm not ashamed to admit I'm a Joni Mitchell booster, not a basher.
Q: What about classical music? It seems like there's a lot of classical influences, with all the string arrangements, and the occasional lapse into the harpsichord.
KRISTIAN: It's faux baroque. I would love to say I had a schooling in classical music, but it came much more by way of the Left Banke or the Beatles. When I was young, the only music in our house was either folk music - 'cause my parents were peace workers, they were peace activists - or else they gave us one classical record for the whole seven kids to share every year. So I know "Scheherazade" and "Pier Gynt" and all the obvious selections.
Q: There were seven children in your family? Where are you in the birth order?
KRISTIAN: I am the third from the youngest, or the fifth from the oldest, if that adds up. I'm middle adjacent.
Q: Well, they weren't into zero population growth, I see.
KRISTIAN: And we weren't Catholics. We were Quakers. There was no excuse for it on that account, they just kept having them. And they're all very artsy, we're all completely useless in terms of manufacturing productivity, but we're very good at bringing more un-asked for art into the world.
Q: I know you consider yourself a songwriter predominantly. I think many of your songs are very revealing in an emotional way. However, I know that it's a mistake to just assume that the emotions in a song are those of the writer. How much would you say are your emotions, and how much come from your observations of people in your time on the planet?
KRISTIAN: I always try to reach for a feeling that I had, but I don't necessarily try to do it through literally telling my own story. You'll start with a feeling, like I have felt abandoned, how can I have that in music? Then you'll say - my mind goes to - what are the varieties of ways one can feel that way? And I would probably concentrate on the one I know the best, 'cause I do like it when you get some sort of naked emotion in there, in between the wordplay.
Q: We're getting to that -
KRISTIAN: I'd say it's 50/50. There's a couple of songs I feel guilty about, because I did them just as exercises in craft, but almost every other song I've written, I've always said, here's something that struck a chord with me, that resonated with me, that made me feel caring, or happy, or stupid, or inadequate, or whatever the thing is that you're trying to address, or felt like I was aging or felt like I was young again, and I would just try to approach that in a musical sense. Often if I come up with a melody first, it will be, what does this melody make me feel? I love songs that make me cry. There's one song called "Go Leave" by Kate & Anna McGarrigle, and no matter where I am I always cry, 'cause it's so beautiful and heart-wrenching. That's something I aspire to, but it's all mixed in with that Move and Kinks influence, and that kind of kooky wordplay, so it's kind of schizophrenic. I have songs where I have had the whole audience crying, whether it was from embarrassment or not I'm not sure, but there was that one song "Always" on the first album. I sang that for the first time in this songwriter workshop and I could see the glasses steaming, they were all crying, and I thought "I've got the power!"
Q: There are three or four songs on that album that do that. "I Fell From Grace" is one of them.
KRISTIAN: Little misty?
Q: Just a little.
KRISTIAN: You see, that's specifically about a personal experience, where I cheated on my boyfriend, which was something I swore I would never ever do, it was so hurtful to me when it happened to me. But then I extrapolated it to what are the various ways of looking at it, blah blah blah, and your craft is always working whether you want it to or not.
Q: What would you say are the three songs that you've ever written that you like the best, or you think are the best?
KRISTIAN: That's a hard question. I know one of the most popular, in terms of the very small peripheral popularity that I've ever enjoyed, that I've written as a rock songwriter, has been "Anyone But You." That's one that people always seem to respond to and think it's the hit or something. I think that anti-God sentiment was kind of cool in the punk era when I wrote it, and it's a little belabored since XTC and Randy Newman and blah blah blah have all approached it. In terms of songcraft I think - what song is it, "baby I know this could get ugly" - the song is called "I Had My Chance." Whether or not it's realized on the recording, I think that's a really solid piece of songcraft that other people could cover. I think on the new album, "Revert To Type," which is the one where Van Dyke Parks did the string arrangements, I could see another person hearing this and saying "I'd like to record that." That's a legitimate piece of quasi-standard songcraft that also takes it to another level. So, for me I feel like those ones achieved something - they can be revived over and over again. But I like them all. I'm not shy about thinking that I'm a fairly capable songwriter. I have a way around a catchy melody.
Q: You have a way around a turn of phrase - "Morose colored glasses" - "Lite of the world" - "Brigitte who, who, who, who let this owl in here." This is something that, when I listen to your records, I think, how do you draw that line, where you're clever, you've got the catchy phrase, but you don't ever cross that line into the groaning pun.
KRISTIAN: There's a couple of groaners in there.
Q: You think so?
KRISTIAN: I think it's in, oh God, I can't remember the song title. It's on I Don't Love My Guru Anymore, and I think it's right after "Brigitte Who." Waylon Jennings made this bad joke where he said, "If I said you had a beautiful body, would you hold it against me?" It's a really lame joke, and I put this joke in my song. It's completely inappropriate for the song. It was the songcraft song and I can't remember what the title was. It was going along like a good standard Linda Ronstadt-y sort of heartfelt song, and then I just couldn't resist. It doesn't sound like that joke, because the melody is very serious. I always try to get something that will sort of shock you into attention - like "what did he say?" [Ed. note: the song is "New Old Flame."]
Q: Like in "I Don't Love My Guru Anymore" where you say "let that lying dog sleep," or there's another phrase in that same stanza, "a tired man who counted on sheep."
KRISTIAN: Or, "He means well, with his taxidermy smile," I think there aren't a whole lot of other people who have "taxidermy smile" in the first line. I try to say something that's sort of sonorous, but then you go -- "wait." We were recording "Morose Colored Glasses," and I was talking about these pastel colors, and then I said "squishy pulpy mass of pastel sentiment." I wanted to compare these words that were poetical with these other words that are thought of as being drudgy, weighty words that weren't poetic. And Earl [Mankey] said, "did you put squishy in there?" I liked that, that sort of leaden word that wouldn't generally be used in there, and then juxtapose it with the other words. That doesn't seem to me to be pretentious or unwieldy, it's sort of like my trademark. I don't think anybody else says squishy pulpy. Especially with that kind of melody and those string arrangements.
Q: You mentioned the song "He Means Well." What's that song about?
KRISTIAN: That song is about people who, you've got to give them credit because they're trying, and yet it's so painfully obvious that they'll never attain their goal. It could be about anybody. It's kind of like "I Don't Love My Guru Anymore." It's a non-denominational observation. At that point I was probably thinking about Clinton. I kept thinking, God his heart is in the right place, and he just can't get over that hump. But it could have been just about myself or about anybody.
Q: That song has a funny twist at the end too, where you turn it around to talking about yourself. The singer says, he knows that I know that he knows that I mean well too.
KRISTIAN: That's another thing I do. I really try to balance that thing where a singer/songwriter is often prone to confessing to the point where you wish they would just shut up and burn their diary. But then the other ones are the ones that are the finger-pointing ones. I hesitate to say this, because I love Aimee Mann so much, I'm obsessed with her and I'd love to work with her one day, and I think "No One Is Watching You Now" from the 'til tuesday LP Welcome Home is one of the most beautiful songs ever written, and I intend to cover it some day, but she's one of the finger pointing ones. No matter what she says, she's blaming somebody else. Wasn't there one occasion in her life where she turned her sights inward and said, gosh I was the idiot that fucked that up? Whereas I often think, I was the idiot that fucked that up, and I want to share that with the world, sort of a self-aggrandizing branding yourself as stupid, but aren't I cool.
Q: Hey I was dumb, but at least I'm good about talking about it.
KRISTIAN: Ad nauseum.
Q: You mentioned a certain political figure. What about "The Fool is Back Upon the Hill"? Was that about anybody specific?
KRISTIAN: That's another one of those - it was about Bush.
KRISTIAN: The funny thing about it was that when I wrote it, I thought now that he's out of office I can never play this again. But then it wasn't just this Bush. It turned out that the attitudes that he fomented in the American public didn't go away, the sort of mean-spirited, me-first, defensive, war-mongering attitudes, whatever attitude he had that resonated with the voters, continued and you just hear that over and over again - "we have to get them first" - and that sort of thing. That sort of ugliness of spirit. And that's what that song is about. So now I can still sing it, the song that I hoped wouldn't be current any more is still current.
Q: Do you consider that there's political content in your music?
KRISTIAN: Oh yeah. I even consider that in a way there's too much, but then I look at the new album that has a lot less political stuff on it, and I kind of miss it. "Something Might Have Happened, But It Didn't" I think of as a political song. I am a proud knee-jerk liberal, I am a proud defender of political correctness even though I disagree with the lack of humor. Political correctness is a way that people can discuss things they've never discussed before, that will always be uncomfortable in the beginning. But if it didn't happen, there would be no feminism, black people would still be slaves, if we didn't go through that uncomfortable period of growth. So I am definitely whatever radical thing you can accuse somebody of, I'm ready to be it.
Q: What about environmentalism? I hear that in the song "Science Fiction."
KRISTIAN: Oh yeah, environmentalism, I hope it's not a lost cause. I also feel that sometimes I yammer about it in songs, and then what am I really doing? I didn't go on the AIDS ride, I didn't go and live in a tree like that girl Butterfly or whatever her name was. I loved her, that girl who lived in a tree for a year. Everyone was making fun of her, but I felt like there was someone with commitment.
Q: You can do something. You can write a song about her.
KRISTIAN: I'm lazy, so I'll write a song and sit in my room and hope that somebody listens to it. Somebody has to do that too.
Q: You mentioned having an effect on an audience, where you have them in the palm of your hand.
KRISTIAN: On rare occasions.
Q: How does that feel?
KRISTIAN: Well, I don't play to big audiences like Dave Davies, although there was a period when the Swinging Madisons were getting fairly popular when I could depend on 150 people a night, or 200, every time I played. That was a very straightforward rock band, though, and so, you play so many dance songs and then one ballad.
Q: Do you have any dates scheduled to promote the new album? Are you going to do any live performances?
KRISTIAN: There's supposed to be a big record release party as close to June 11 as we can, 'cause that's the official release date, and then I'm planning on coming to New York and a few other places to play some dates. It depends what we can pull together, if I can just play acoustically in a coffee house, or bring a band with me. I have lots of people who want to help me, this guy Antone who's this kind of weird gender-non-specific opera singer type, a type I'm familiar with, he's fabulously gifted, and he opened for Rufus Wainwright the last time he played in New York, and he said he would set up a show for me. I have a wonderful support system of people who actually pay attention to what I'm doing, which is actually kind of shocking.
© Joanne Corsano, April 2002
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