Kyrie Kristmanson: Body Talk

Following a recent solo performance at Dalston's Cafe Oto, Rockfort managed to catch a few words with the Canadian chanteuse in the venue's kitchen before ultra-loud Norwegian experimentalists Puma kicked in. Kyrie was keen to discuss the key role that her homeland plays in her music, and her research into medieval female troubadours, but first there was something else we wanted to know... 

Rockfort: So do you have just the one white hat…?
KK: Oh god…(laughs)
Rockfort: Just kidding. But do you have just one?
KK: Yes, just one, that I have to take care of.
Rockfort: Ok, more serious questions now. How much do you recognise yourself in people’s descriptions of you and your music?
KK: It’s been interesting, it kind of depends a little bit on which country the album’s just come out in. What I’ve been really happy with is that people recognise my vision, which is trying to bring out what’s essential in the song, and that really depends on the words, and even the internal melodies of the words. I was glad that the Rockfort review mentioned Canada, because to a certain extent that country had influenced some of the ways in which I write. I grew up in a couple of really rural places, sometimes in prairie settings where it’s a very sparse landscape and you can be the only vertical thing on a very horizontal plane. I think these kinds of stark and simple places somehow manage to find themselves in the song. Anyway, that’s what moves me and enters my head when I need a place to go – that’s what I go back to. It’s about where your imagination is at its most active. I don’t know exactly how it happens but it’s… it’s something like that.
Rockfort: It’s going to be easy to paint you as a nature child, a naïf…
KK: Have you seen my hat?! I don’t think that I could be quite painted as a nature child! But I’m happy if people make that comment, I think we need more nature children right now, but there’s no need to reduce anything. If that’s how it speaks to some people then good for them but for me, while that’s part of it, I think if you really listen to the lyrics, you hear that it’s often an exploration of longing, of desire, and I mean that in a very general sense. Desire is something that you see in nature as well as in human nature –
everything desires, everything living wants to become… something, and for me that feeling of longing is what’s very present in the songs, it’s a theme that comes back. Is it nature child? Yes, in a sense. I’m not too scared about that.
Rockfort: That said, the body also crops up as a preoccupation, as on a new song you’ve played live, ‘Bad Body’. It’s tempting to read that as more personal, diaristic…
KK: What are you asking me?! (laughs) Well, one of things is… I live in France right now and I’m really interested in a group of medieval women songwriters called les trobaritz. They were really bold, quite rock n roll for the time, because they were singing quite openly about profane love, about sexuality. It was about love between men and women, and being spurned in love, instead of love between man and God and being spurned by God… so all of a sudden there’s this interest in the body, it’s not this kind of platonic transcendence. There’s more immanence. You know, maybe there’s something of the universe in us, maybe there’s something sacred in us and between two people. It’s quite astounding, and I don’t think they would have talked about it in such terms but if you look at the lyrics they’re thinking about these things. And I think they’re things that a lot of people still think about now, so I go back to that period a lot because there’s a tension there. Basically the whole movement was crushed in the 13th century and then we didn’t hear about that stuff for a few hundred years, so there’s a tension at that moment that I really identify with, between the immanence of the body and transcendence. So ‘Bad Body’, what is the bad body? I think everyone knows that a little bit (laughs).
Rockfort: For all that you see the words as the key, there’s plenty of attention to small but significant sonic details in your recordings. Even live, you have a particular guitar delay.
KK: I think it’s all in the words, they call for certain things. When you write a song, you start with the superabundance or the overflowing of a feeling, something bigger than you, so the challenge is to take this thing that might eat you up and condense it into something about three minutes long, with words and a melody. That’s not an easy thing. So when you are creating the world of the song, you help it to come back to the source of its inspiration, the feeling or the atmosphere. I don’t think of delay or reverb as an effect, it’s another instrument, you know? Just like you want the good word, you want the good reverb.
Rockfort: You’re from Ottawa which is right on the border with Quebec, so you’re Canadian but you seem to easily slip into French. What kind of relationship do you have to France and the French language?
KK: Canada’s officially bilingual, and since Ottawa is the capital both languages are very much present. I started learning French from when I was really young so it’s almost the same for me as English, although I think it English so I tend to write more in it. But I do have some songs in French, like ‘Oh Montmartre’, which I wrote long before I’d ever been there. So Ottawa is interesting, it’s where the Quebecois and the English-speaking culture collide, at least in an administrative and a civic way, and historically there’s a lot of tension between the two peoples. The Canadian identity is based a lot on that central tension.
Rockfort: You’re living in France now – apart from your interest in les trobaritz, have you been drawn to France for other reasons?
KK: Something I like about Europe in general and particularly France is that they have a much higher regard for the artist, because you have a tradition that reaches back much further than ours. So, as much as I love Canada and I miss it, I think it has a way to go before the artist is accepted as an essential part of building a community.
Rockfort: Although Canada has some great songwriting figures…
KK: Yeah, there are, Canada produces very interesting songwriters but perhaps doesn’t support them as much as it one day will.
Interview by David McKenna