By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Despite her fair skin and mostly bright disposition, dark is an apt word for Kristy Kruger. As the Dallas songwriter talks about her burgeoning career in local music, one that has been a long time coming, she has to pause to shield the sun coming in through a store window. "I just don't like the day in general," she says, before adding emphatically, "I just can't fucking stand the day."
It's an odd sentiment to come from a Garland-born woman who experienced her musical awakening in the sunshine of California, but her battle between shadow and light is plenty obvious from the first notes of her fourth full-length album, Songs From a Dead Man's Couch, which starts with the anti-California sentiment of "Gold Rush": "Fools have come rushing in," she sings slowly, nicotine dangling from each smoky word.
Petite and seemingly demur, the 29-year-old has the look of a vegetarian who sneaks out late at night for Big Macs--a knowing grin of a slacker pulling one over on everybody else.
"I'm a little bit anal, but I'm also a slob," Kruger says, smiling, but with eyes betraying a previous long night.
When she talks about the banalities of her life (bartending at Standard and Pours, trying to get enough sleep), it's a casual wave of her small hand and a blasé near-whisper. When she talks about her music, however, her eyes widen as if she's about to reveal a secret that all in earshot might want to hear.
In what she describes as "dark Americana," Kruger's more draconian tendencies make rare but significant appearances in her engaging music, a mix of Lucinda Williams' country candor and the peculiar showmanship of Tom Waits. Her newest effort, named for the sofa on which her mother's ex-boyfriend passed away (and the place she wrote most of the songs), is a proudly rural collection of articulate narratives, songs executed with a professionalism and profound worldview that belies her youthful appearance.
"I took music lessons like every kid on my block," says Kruger, who studied classical and jazz piano as a teen while attending Booker T. Washington High School. After graduating, she moved to Los Angeles to begin study at USC, where she began a personal transition toward songwriting, one that came quite naturally: "I was always into writing and keeping a journal," she says. "Everything I did before was sort of trained, so I guess I was breaking free."
Kruger gained freedom at a quick pace, releasing her debut album Bachelor of Apathy (which she stereotypically disdains) while obtaining her degree in the not-nearly-so-romantic major of music business.
"I knew I wanted to be a songwriter," Kruger says, "and I didn't want to make stupid decisions about my career."
With a solid understanding of contracts and publishing, Kruger booked herself a tour, playing universities and coffee houses across the United States and into Canada ("Colleges paid a lot of money, it was ridiculous").
She made enough to pay for gas and her self-released second effort The Noise I Make in 2000. Still developing a cohesive style, Kruger's early work owes as much to neo-folkies like Ani Difranco as it does to the more countrified influences she would later embrace. In 2002, after a noteworthy tour with Austin indie-rockers Drums & Tuba, Kruger was encouraged to head closer to home and enter yet another studio.
"I went to New Orleans to make a record, but I didn't do anything but bum around on people's couches," Kruger says. Technically, she's lying, as she holed up in a studio with Soul Asylum singer Dave Pirner long enough to lay down the basic tracks of what would become her third release, An Unauthorized Guide to Human Anatomy. Running low on money and patience, Kruger returned to Dallas to do the mixing and overdubbing herself.
"It was 16 hours of me singing in my apartment," says Kruger. "I really ran myself ragged."
No wonder Kruger was exhausted, as Anatomy is a colossal undertaking, from the convoluted music to the obsessively detailed packaging. Clearly inspired by the sonic explorations of Beck, Kruger's third release borders on anal-retentive overkill--every track is stuffed to the breaking point with layers that mask the inherent power of her melodies.
"I always challenge myself to see if I can say something the best way I can," Kruger says. With Anatomy, however, Kruger confused quality and quantity, a problem she rights on her new CD.
Songs From a Dead Man's Couch has the texture of earlier efforts, but like Emmylou Harris' seminal Wrecking Ball, the songs are never sacrificed for the sound. Instead, Kruger has made an effort equally affected by her Dallas roots, her college days in California and her endless wanderings that led her back home.
"When I started working on Dead Man, I knew it was road music," Kruger says. But it's road music made with a sense of return. "We're so far from our homes/A town of strangers and unknowns," Kruger sings on "Gold Rush," mixing historical and personal perspectives in a convincing narrative about an erroneous journey.
Other cuts offer a darker perspective. In "Talk Radio," Kruger sings of a place where "no one's here to listen to me" and where "an hour moves like a cemetery." Such slower numbers allow Kruger's natural penchant for sadness, with only a glimpse of possible redemption, to bring both her gifted voice and songwriting to the fore.
"I felt like a lot of the personas of these songs were written from someone down on his luck," says Kruger, "because everyone understands that situation."
Many of Kruger's lyrics refer to the night and the occasionally unwelcome inhabitants who venture out once the sun has gone. "Something about the night is just magical," she says. "I think mine is definitely night music."
Kruger's dark and stirring musings should bring the attention and acclaim that her nomadic spirit has previously prevented. Far from a typical self-released set, Songs From a Dead Man's Couch is a startlingly mature work, full of whispered secrets and quiet affections that try to avoid the attention daylight will inevitably bring.
"I want some sunglasses," Kruger says, walking in the afternoon sun. "I wish it would just go away." Like her characters, Kruger works best in the shadows.