Genuine, laid-back and warm as an Alabama summer, Kristy Lee is as engaging in real life as she is on stage. Natalie O’Driscoll caught up with the soulful Southern songstress to talk about lyrics and Love during her first Australian tour.
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The tiny town of Bay Minette, Alabama, population 8044, is where a four-year-old Kristy Lee used to sing into tapes and dream of being a rock star when she grew up. When she was given her first guitar at 12, that dream was one step closer to reality. Kristy credits the abundance of music in her home state with the development of her distinctive style.
“Where we live, you’ve got Bay Minette and Mobile. Some of my band members come from north Alabama where you’ve got the woodsy / rootsy soulful stuff. Almost 65% at least of the good soul hits you’ve ever learned in your life came from Muscle Shoals, so we’ve got that centre of soul nearby. And New Orleans is really close as well. So I’ve found it’s a mixture of sound that’s around us.”
Dirt Road Soul is the name that Kristy has given to her personal genre, and it immediately fits so well I want to know how she came up with it.
“My first shows were in the middle of the wood, on a freakin’ dirt road, next to a bonfire on a tailgate. That’s how I got to test my own songs out and share them with people. I felt all this pressure early on in life like am I supposed to be in a genre, am I supposed to be in a category? I don’t think I necessarily fit, and I don’t think I necessarily want to fit, you know? But I think you take some of that dirt road that I came from, and you mix it with other pieces of the world… I just write however I feel at the moment I don’t really care if it sounds too rock or too rootsy. It’s just me.”
Lyrically driven album Raise The Dead explores the personal struggles and intimate fears that most people experience at some point in their lives. Featuring vocals and instrumentals from Julz Parker and Leesa Gentz of local roots band Hussy Hicks, the album seemed to come along just at the right time in Kristy’s life.
“I was going through a weird spiritual kind of time in my life where I felt musically flat and just didn’t know what my next direction would be. I knew it was time to make another record but I just didn’t have everything together, and I had some other things going on… I just wasn’t ready yet. So I was driving down the street one day, and wondering what the title of my next record would be and it came: Raise The Dead. Well, I thought, we’ll see if the song comes or not, and probably about two or three weeks later, the whole song came at once. That song is about waking up your soul, waking up your spirit. When I say raise the dead, I’m talking about yourself. I felt dead at that moment, so it was kinda like a song that made me feel some freedom back again.”
Unrecorded track Hold Onto Hope appears as a YouTube link on her website. The searing lyrics and heartfelt delivery feel so personal that I asked her if the message within was for anyone in particular.
“I’m gonna tell you the truth. That was the second song, as far as that whole spiritual moment, as far as feeling a little flat spiritually. I was about to leave out on a tour and I had just got diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. It was my birthday and we were leaving to go tour Europe with the girls [Hussy Hicks], it was our first overseas tour with them. It’s never easy finding out that you’re not invincible. I think that time the song came to me because I needed it. I’ve never recorded that song, but I also feel that everyone needs to hear those words – hold onto hope – because at some point everyone feels like giving up on something.”
Kristy’s raw, personal performance style is one of her trademarks, and in person she is no less honest, if too self-effacing. She is prepared to give everyone credit for her success it seems, except for herself. Long-term partner and representative Missy takes on “the load of a freaking army”, while she credits her time spent with Michael Franti and Zac Brown Band as giving her more of a sense of fun with her music. G. Love [and Special Sauce], with who she has been touring for the large part of this year and claims is one of the most generous musicians she has ever met, apparently supported her in many ways including “providing me with fans”, as though her own significant talents were not related to that happening. When it comes to her ability to write songs, however, it all seems to come back to her dad.
“The main thing is my dad writes poetry. So my whole life if we’re ever going through something major in our life, he writes us something. He’s never bought any of us a card, he’d never go to a store and buy a card and sign it, you know, he’s going to write it. That was definitely the most influential part in terms of me learning, this is how I write songs. I don’t think I wouldn’t have figured it out without that.”
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Kristy Lee plays a special show with her mates the Hussy Hicks on Friday 5 December at Miami Marketta.