Most people never forget the first time they hear Kristeen Young's music -- though "hear" doesn't really do her songs justice. The singer-songwriter, who grew up in St. Louis and has toured the world with Morrissey, wages war with -- and on -- her piano, launching aural attacks that are unlike anything currently getting airplay.
For her seventh studio album, "The Knife Shift," Young found herself working with a who's who of the rock world, including Nirvana and Foo Fighters legend Dave Grohl and super producer Tony Visconti, who is perhaps best known for his extensive work with David Bowie.
The Huffington Post caught up with Young, who just came off the road from a short run with Morrissey, to learn where her unique piano-playing style came from, what inspired her new song about porn star Sasha Grey and her take on Lady Gaga.
The Huffington Post: When did you learn to play the piano like that?
Kristeen Young: I had some piano lessons when I was little -- like around seven -- but I never really took to it that well. I'm really not a natural at piano and it always seemed kind of awkward to me. I was really much more affected by what I heard on the radio, which was mostly guitar. So I was trying to make the piano sound more biting -- like a guitar. I also had more fun with the piano when I wasn't thinking "songs" -- I would make up stories and try to tell them on the piano to my friends. That seemed a lot more fun.
Your style is so unusual. Was there anyone who said to you, "You can't do it that way"?
Early on I was told that it was "odd" -- the way I voiced things -- but it didn't sound odd to me, it sounded right to me, so I didn't pay attention to it.
You worked with an impressive roster of musicians on "The Knife Shift," including Dave Grohl. He recently said, "Kristeen Young drove me to play harder and kept me focused, even in moments of beautiful chaotic noise." Did he make you approach your music in a different way?
He was very open the entire time to what I wanted and to what was right for the song. If something didn't fit right, he wanted to know right away. But that wasn't really an issue for the drums, because he, for the most part, had a really intuitive feeling for the songs and he played the "right" thing right away and it worked out really well. When we went with guitar -- he played some guitar on the songs -- that was a little more difficult because there isn't that much room for guitar and I think it's unclear which direction to go with the guitar, too, so that required a little more talking and direction. But I was really impressed that he wanted to hear from me -- he would play something and look at me [for my reaction]. I shouldn't be surprised that somebody on that level would be so there for me and would trust my instincts so much -- which he did. I would say, "OK, that part right there, let's expand on that part right there," and he would just go with it. That made me feel so good. it was so validating and I sort of really needed that.
You're no stranger to working and touring with big names but did you find yourself a little starstruck working with Grohl on such a intimate level?
I was thrilled -- I was out of my mind thrilled but maybe not starstruck because I had such a strong feeling that it would work. I could hear how his style would work. The moment we started playing we both felt like Oh, this feels strangely familiar. This feels good. The nerves were over pretty quickly.
You're what some people might call a "critical darling" -- the press loves you -- but commercially, you're still under the radar. Is that frustrating to you, or is it a kind of badge of honor that not everyone "gets" you?
It's definitely not a badge of honor that people don't get me [laughs]. I don't really understand it. The only thing I can say is that I've never been on a label -- I've never had that sort of "step up" that I probably need in a large scale way. I know I've accomplished so much for one person trying to do something and I can't complain about that but I think that's what's blocked me. I've never had an agent. I don't have a manger or a label. There's still that barrier -- you still need all of that to get you that other level of exposure.
Is that something you want? If someone came to you today and said "Here's your agent, here's your manager, here's your label -- let's go!" Would you be interested?
I definitely need help. I'm a little overwhelmed trying to do all this on my own at this point [laughs] and it gets more and more [intense] all the time. I would like some help. I would talk to someone about it -- I'm open to a lot of things. I'm not really closed off about anything.
People have compared you to Kate Bush, Tori Amos, Amanda Palmer -- the list goes on and on. Do you agree with any of the comparisons? Do you find any of them particularly flattering -- or particularly offensive?
I get the Kate Bush thing the most. I guess there has to be some truth to it. I wasn't influenced by her when I was cultivating my style because I hadn't heard her then -- I didn't know of her. I listen to a lot more male artists and I think I'm more influenced by them. It's not that I don't like female artists -- I do -- for some reason, more of the stuff I'm influenced by is by men. But I know that people have a real barrier with being able to think "male voice" when it's a female voice.
One of the things that is immediately apparent when following you on social media is how fearlessly outspoken you are about everything. You have no problem saying exactly how you see things. Does it bother you that more musicians don't speak out?
What bothers me more is that people don't put it in their music. I hear people talk a lot about things and they're more open to certain issues that they didn't used to be but I did try to do that with this album. I made a conscious decision to put it in the music because I just don't hear [people] doing that anymore. Everyone seems to write about that same things and… it's not that interesting.
There's a song on the new album about porn star Sasha Grey. What inspired the track?
I came across her Facebook page and it was really strange because -- I really respect her because she tries to be a full-spectrum person. It's "I don't just have sex on camera, I'm a human being, too, and I can do all these other things" and I really like that she presents herself like that. But any sort of update of what she was doing or a picture -- like "Here I am gardening" or "Here I am making dinner" got thousands of comments that were just the most [sexually] vile almost verging on violent responses. And I just couldn't believe it. They wouldn't let her be something else [other than a porn star] and they wouldn't accept another part of her. It was so narrow. It was funny in one way but also really sad.
You recently said, "A great song makes me want to runaway, kill myself or F-U-C-K and a really great song makes me want to do all three simultaneously." How do you feel about the state of music right now? I'm guessing that maybe there are a few songs on the radio that make you want to kill yourself.
I'm not one of those artists who is always bemoaning how horrible music is now. I like pop music, too. I always have. I always can find something new that I like and that moves me. We have been driving around in between tour dates and listening to the radio and there is a lot of new stuff that I don't like [laughs] but that happens all the time. It's just like with fashion -- some seasons I hate everything in the windows. That doesn't mean I'm going to hate it forever. But I can't find much right now [laughs].
You once accused Lady Gaga of stealing your look. What are your thoughts on her now?
I am capable of like a person's music even if I don't like the person -- that's not it at all. I just don' think she's writing very good music. I think she's floundering a little when it comes to what she's presenting. She seems a little lost. I do like that she's trying to do something different. There's just something about the presentation that doesn't feel authentic… not that everything has to be authentic. Please! [Musicians] deal with fantasy -- that's what we do! But in some way there has to be something that you can really feel that's tangible in some way, something that's believable in the fantasy and I just don't find that with her stuff right now.
"The Knife Shift" is largely inspired by St. Louis, which isn't a city that often gets cited for inspiration. Brooklyn? London? Sure. But not St. Louis. What is it about the city and your time there that made it worth chronicling?
I think that's exactly what makes it interesting for me -- that not everybody is writing about St. Louis [laughs]. Brooklyn doesn't even seem like an interesting subject -- it's so over-mined. I did grow up in St. Louis, so I have a lot of formative feelings and experiences about the place. It's a very odd place. Whenever I bring people there they say, "Wow. There's a lot of odd people here." That's not a bad thing, it's very interesting, I think because people in St. Louis are cut off -- I know that we're all connected via media but still -- there's an eccentricity that's been maintained there that I don't even think they realize until you go away and come back. That in and of itself is interesting and a beautiful thing. I think I have a lot of odd stories and tragic stories from growing up there and how I grew up there. It's also a very convention place in many ways. There are very conventional people and there are people reacting against that in a very strong way, too. There are just so many extremes there.