About Kristeen Young

Written by Nisha Gopalan, August 2017

“I’ve always been attracted to dissonance,” says art-rocker Kristeen Young, “and angular sort of movements.” At turns shocking and seductive, this aesthetic is central to her music. That’s why the provocateur has toured extensively with Morrissey and attracted collaborators such as David Bowie and Dave Grohl—they’re drawn to her purity of expression. The latter once remarked, “She drove me to play harder and kept me focused, even in moments of beautiful, chaotic noise.” To which she replies, “The only thing I really have to offer is creativity.”

Her latest, Live at the Witch’s Tit, is a zeitgeist-ready battle cry for those who feel like outsiders. Featuring guest guitars from Nick Zinner (Yeah Yeah Yeahs) and Vernon Reid (Living Colour), it’s at once sophisticated and caterwauling, nuanced and chaotic, cheeky and gutting. “The title refers to how I’m still nourishing myself in this place of insubordination, of darkness,” she says. “It’s a message of survival.” Tellingly, the riot-grrrl-meets-Maria Callas rallying “Nice” is its first song release. Propelled by sturm und drang piano chords, it calls out people who act civilized to mask malicious intent.

Young’s album comes with anticipation. It’s her first release since 2014’s bright, assertive The Knife Shift, which demonstrated just how powerful her output was. While performing the fiery single “Pearl of a Girl” on late-night TV, she managed to upset the Christian-right with the lyric, “I only wish the Virgin / Would’ve had an abortion.” They launched a petition with more than 50,000 signatures against the network, then threatened her on social media. “They wrote the sickest, most non-Christian shit,” she recalls. Bowing to pressure, the network banned Young. This led a major radio station to temporarily prohibit airplay of her music, too.

The network pre-approved the lyrics, so Young is still a bit mystified. But, she figures, “You want to effect people. You want to move them someway, or challenge their ideas. Maybe it’ll make them think.” This is why much of Live at the Witch’s Tit’s contrarianism is boldly rooted in race and gender. “It’s about people who are not included, how they thrive within outside confines.”

A native of St. Louis, Young (who now lives in New York City) happened to be in Missouri three years ago, during the weeks-long protest after a police officer murdered black teen Michael Brown. There, she penned “Come to the Party,” her first song for Live at the Witch’s Tit, which set the album’s tone. “It’s from the viewpoint of a local,” she says, “about how the Midwest is ignored. But when Ferguson happened, everybody went there—everybody went to the party.”

Kristeen YoungMuch of Young’s unrest stems from her formative years, which began in the foster system until she was adopted into a Christian fundamentalist family. She had no birth certificate or knowledge of her Native American birth mother until she was 18, but her differences were obvious and at odds with her white, religious, working-class surroundings. Her adoptive parents were cold and abusive, and others seemed to think she was odd. Feeling isolated, music became her source of expression and how she exorcised demons.

Young never fit in, but finally found her footing after transferring to an arts-focused magnet school her sophomore year. “Everything opened up for me. I had friends for the first time,” she says. “The weirder you were, the more it was encouraged. The teachers thought it showed character.” She studied jazz vocals, southern-gospel music, classical music, musical theater, and even wrote opera. This is also when she honed her emphatic piano-playing style. “I listened to the radio a lot—everything was a guitar,” she says. “I wanted the piano to sound more like that.”

All these years later, Young still doesn’t stray far from those objectives. “Rock and roll is not dead, but it’s in its last gasps. It’s so dusty right now, not allowed to be creative like other genres,” she says. “I wanted to make an album that was not formulaic in any way.”

That is an understatement. Live at the Witch’s Tit is a banshee’s exhalation of frustration with boundaries. As a result, Young has manifested a vast landscape of sounds. For instance, “Why Am I a Feelmale?” is sludged-out indie pop, while “I Love You Sooooo Much” is a levitating, R&B slow jam in the vein of Prince, where Vernon Reid sends you off with a virtuosic solo.

The album is, in kind, the sound of Young navigating a hurricane of emotions. “It was born, she says, “out of difficulty and obstacle.” Both her adoptive parents died. She (successfully) battled Lyme disease. And David Bowie—friends with her producer and someone she, too, had worked with—passed away. Says Young, “I’ve never been through so much while making an album.”

This is Young’s eighth full length, the second one she’s co-produced with the legendary Tony Visconti (David Bowie, T. Rex), who’s worked on six of her albums in total. “If you’re creative, if you have your own voice, Tony is a great person to record with,” she says. “He’s not the type of producer who’s going to give you songs. You have to come in knowing who you are.” To that end, Young writes, and arranges, all her music. She also designs her album artwork and makes the clothes you see in her videos, which offer visceral glimpses of her riotous live shows. She even hunted down Zinner, who features prominently on “Feelmale” and adds texture to several other tracks, by herself.

In that way, Young’s most self-aware track—the off-kilter, theatrical hip hop of “These Are the Things I’m Not the Most”—is her manifesto to individualism. The song imagines Kate Bush passing the mic to Erykah Badu, as Young contemplates her upbringing and view of the ruling class, or “the white males who have everything, who get to make all the rules,” she says. “I grew up feeling like I’m not any race. I never felt wholly a part of anything.”

She elaborates on that sentiment with companion tracks such as the stark “Everything About You Is Always More Important Than Anything About Me” and “I Know You Are a Coward,” about musical cliques. “It’s taking punk to task,” she explains. In contrast, the indie-askew “Catland” is a celebration of female escapism that features the daughter of her longtime drummer, Jefferson Wayne White. “If anyone criticizes or tries to correct her, she’ll say, ‘But that’s how we do it in Catland.’ It’s her fantasy land, and I was inspired by that,” Young says. She even brought the five-year-old into the studio to record the track’s intro.

More than a decade ago, Visconti took Young into her first big studio. She had just moved to New York City, and he was working on David Bowie’s Heathen. “I was a sponge, soaking it in, wanting to learn as much as possible,” recalls Young, who ended up recruiting Bowie to duet on her 2003 track “Saviour.” “I remember David was so sharp on instrumentation. He had a talent for hearing the exact right thing that should go in the exact right place.”

Up until the exquisite requiem he left us with, Bowie paid attention to every detail of his music. Young is similarly disciplined. “I have always liked writing in different styles and bringing them together. My full day is put towards music,” she says. “Growing up, I never felt wholly a part of anything, except music. It really is my whole life.”