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It happens maybe twice a year, if you’re lucky. That moment when you press play on a new piece of music, and not only do you immediately like it, you’re immediately befuddled by it. “What the fuck is this?,” you exhale, as the music washes over you. “I don’t know what this even is. I can’t even go about describing this.”
This happened to me earlier this year when I got sent Dolls of the Highland, the debut LP from Kyle Craft. It sounded like a million things at once-- post-Nilsson Schmilsson Harry Nilsson, a band playing the bar on Deadwood, Bob Dylan on crank, a person yelling beat poetry over guitars, a Renaissance Fair—but it was distinct enough that you couldn’t place it in anything else happening in music in 2016. It’s the most unique thing I’ve heard this year.
So I jumped at the opportunity to talk to Kyle from his adopted home of Portland, Oregon. We talked about the inspiration for the album, being completely alone, and what it’s like to go from making your debut album to now having to promote it.
Dolls of the Highland will be in the Vinyl Me, Please members’ store, which opens this month on April 18. It’s out on April 29.
VMP: When I first got your record back in February, I downloaded it because I thought, “Well Sub Pop is releasing it and I’ll listen to everything they put out.” And then I pressed play on Dolls of the Highland, and I was like, “Holy shit. What is this?” I didn’t know where to place you musically, and I didn’t know your story at all, so I was just surprised. I guess I’m saying thank you for that experience (laughs).
Kyle Craft: (laughs) Well, thanks man.
This album really feels like it’s unglued from time. There’s parts of it that are ‘70s soft rock, and ‘60s singer-songwriter. A lot of genres. What music actually influenced the album when you were recording it?
I would say Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde was a giant influence. Ziggy Stardust is where a lot of the piano-driven stuff came from. When I initially set out to recording the album, I knew that I had a sound in my head that I wanted, and it was this sort of mixture of Blonde on Blonde, Bowie, and Pet Sounds, to a degree; I wanted the Brian Wilson-element of being able to experiment with what kind of sounds I could get out of the instruments that I was playing.
How long did it take you to arrive at that as the sound for this record?
Well, I don’t actually think I hit the sound I actually wanted with the record. I don’t think that I executed it in the exact way I think it should have been. It’s come as close to what I was imagining as possible with what I had to work with at the time.
The process was kind of long from start to finish. I moved to Portland years ago to try to make this album, and failed twice at doing it. But I realized it was the only thing in my life and kept trying. I went back to Shreveport, Louisiana and recorded it in my friend’s laundry room.
The songs not being completely realized. I typically write in the studio; I write with just an acoustic guitar, but then when I get in the studio I’ll start adding other things like bass and drums and piano.
Did you play all the instruments on the album? Or did you farm out the horn and the piano?
There’s a horn on one song, and an upright bass on one song, and a drum line on one song I didn’t do because I’m fucking horrible at those um-chucka drum beats. Otherwise it’s all me.
Your songs are full of women who have eyes like hurricanes, and who have three-headed hounds as pets, and who tell you to come back when their daddy’s gone. Is there a specific woman, or women, you had in mind when you were writing this album?
I would be a liar if I said it was just one person, but there was one woman who really sparked the album. It was a very strange time in life for me when I started. My eight-year relationship had sort of ran its course; it wasn’t like it was a horrible breakup. We were high school sweethearts, and then we drifted apart, I guess. From there I was left in this position where I was absolutely alone for the first time in my whole life. But I wouldn’t say one person inspired the album, but one person definitely lit the fuse.
How old were you when you were “completely alone?” I think everyone in their 20s has a similar experience; through moving into your own place, or through a breakup. I was 27 when I realized that I had never really been on my own till that moment.
I was like, 23.
Yeah, and you realize that your friends have lives, and can’t just hang all the time, and you realize you need to figure out what your life is independent of other people.
I don’t want to portray it as something, like—it’s something that gets talked about nowadays—as a rediscovery of the self via your self-destruction. It was that to a degree, but at the same time, I wasn’t pulling my hair out. I had my eyes open in a way, you know? And I learned so much more being alone than trying to base your life on other people. Not that’s a bad thing to do, I think that’s a big great thing, but at the time, at 23, it helped to stand on my own.
I think mistakes are charming in a lot of things. Blonde on Blonde being an influence, there’s tons of little mistakes on there that make it sound live and lax. As far as the voice goes; I understand. It can come off as abrasive, but it doesn’t matter to me because as long as I’m getting the feeling across that’s what I care about. There’s something that happens to listeners when someone is singing all the way, all guns blazing. It’s really beautiful. Bowie did that. Dylan did that.
I mean, I love Sam Cooke, but I just can’t sound like that. I can’t make my voice feel good unless I’m singing in my way.
You haven’t done too many interviews, or at least ones that I could find. As a newer, younger artist, how is the process like going from doing the work making the album to doing the work promoting the album?
It was a shift, for sure. Because I didn’t have any social media or any of that stuff, and I really enjoyed not having that for a long time. It is weird to make that shift. But I love playing, and the reason to do this whole music schtick is to get out there and play live, and I think you have to that kind of longing to do this in the first place. I’m ready to put my band and music out there.
Andrew Winistorfer is Senior Director of Music and Editorial at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard, The Story of Willie Nelson, Miles Davis: The Electric Years and The Story of Waylon Jennings. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.