Kristi Stice used to belt when she sang, but that all changed when she got a jazz vocal degree
Kristi Stice used to belt it out when she fronted the Fort Collins-based band Eve's Drop, but after getting a jazz vocal degree at the University of Northern Florida, her approach to singing changed. Her vocals on her debut album, Under the Willow, are much more kindred to Jolie Holland or Madeleine Peyroux than the Concrete Blonde-inspired Eve's Drop. Under the Willow is a gorgeous effort with sparse instrumentation that features some great local players like trumpeter Ron Miles, pedal steel player Glenn Taylor, pianist Steven Denny, bassist Ian Hutchinson and cellist Phil Norman. We spoke with Stice about the new album and how she got started writing songs.
Westword: In the liner notes of your new album, you wrote how you were writing poems and recording melodies when you were eight years old, right?
Kristi Stice: Yeah. I just started writing and collecting poems and things like that.
What initially inspired that?
I don't even remember the magazine, but it was a writer's magazine or something. I can't even remember. It was for people who write poetry. There were a lot of different things in there. There was one section where people would submit poems that they had written for publishing in this magazine. I would get this magazine, and I would read all the poems, and I would start collecting them.
Then I started writing poems, and then I would record people singing them when I was a little kid. Eventually I started singing more and more, and I eventually wanted to be able to accompany myself as opposed to having to rely on somebody else to accompany me. So I started playing guitar when I was a kid, so I could put my poems to music.
How old were you when you started playing guitar and accompanying yourself?
When I started playing guitar I was fourteen.
You've played on some other people's albums, but this album is your solo debut, right?
Yeah. I was in this band called Eve's Drop in the late '90s, and we recorded a couple of albums on Hapi Skratch out of Fort Collins. But it wasn't my music. It was this other guy's music. I was always like the lead singer of a band, but I never recorded my own songs.
Then I ended up going to music school out in Florida and got a jazz vocal degree. So I studied jazz there and kind of got lost for a second. When you're in the midst of a jazz education... I don't know. I feel like it was really good for me but at the same time I came out of school, and I was like, "Oh, I'm a jazz singer now." But I wasn't a jazz singer. I never... I mean, I like Billie Holiday and Jolie Holland.
I definitely heard some Jolie Holland on your album. What about Madeleine Peyroux?
Yeah. I love them. But I think I had to regain my footing in what to do after jazz school because after being totally immersed in that, it kind of took me a second to get out of it, and remember that I really like to write songs. It's hard, you know? Music school is good but it can be kind confusing.
So what made you not want to go the route of recording, say, an album of standards or straight ahead jazz, versus what you actually ended up doing?
It's interesting. I sing standards, and sometimes I'll play at Dazzle, and I'll have somebody accompany me, and I'll just sing straight up standards. I love some of them. There are some standards that I completely love. But then sometimes I feel like it can be really cheesy when you're singing straight standards. There's a lot of cheesy standards out there. Anyway, I guess I do a little bit of that. I have a couple of gigs this spring at Dazzle and I'm trying to figure out to approach them in a different way because I don't just want to be accompanied by somebody and sing standards. But then I feel like it's being true to myself.
But I'm a songwriter. That's what I love. So I think my songwriting after I went to school sort of took on this different thing where it's kind of little more complicated but it's influenced by the sound of... Because I sang in this choir and we went on this amazing tour through Portugal and we were singing all classical music -- so I have this influence of classical music and jazz, and then I'm still just a songwriter. So it changed how I write and probably how I sing.
I know it changed how I sing because when I was in rock bands back in the day, which is what I kind of started out doing, I had more of a -- I used to scream more. Well, not really scream, but I would just belt a lot. There was a lot of a Concrete Blonde kind of thing. Something like that. So it's pretty different how music school sort of changed me.
Did you have a goal in mind when I you were putting the record together?
Like as far as I what I wanted to do with it?
Yeah. Or maybe the direction you wanted to take.
I feel like when I put together this album it was sort of a trial by error kind of thing. I kind of knew what I was going for, but I didn't totally know. I knew what instrumentation I wanted. It sort of built as I was going. I really figured out that I love the cello and the accordion and when they play together -- and upright bass.
Then I ended up putting pedal steel on there, which was sort of something that happened toward the end that I'm really happy about. It kind of gave a couple of the songs like "Down by the Bucket"... there were a couple of things I needed to sound a little edgier. And that helps create a little more of edgier sound.
So yeah, it was sort of a trial by error thing. I recorded a bunch of songs. By the time I finished, I think there were about nineteen songs and I just cut out a lot of them because they didn't fit the project. There was one tune on there that was almost like a straight up standard sounding, and it was just too jazz-oriented for the whole album.
There were a couple of really old songs that were really goofy but I didn't really like them, so I just ended up taking away a lot of stuff. Then I feel like it sort of became this cohesive thing. It took a lot of thinking how to make it cohesive. But then there's a French tune on there and that kind of throws your for a loop.
"Courage." That has Ron Miles on it, right?
Yeah. He plays on three different tunes on the album.
I also really like your version of Tom Waits's "Green Grass."
There's a singer named Cibelle. Do you know of her?
Sure. She's Brazilian, right?
Yeah, she's Brazilian. She actually covered that song and there's this really amazing music video that you can find online for that particular tune, and I actually fell in love with that tune from listening to Cibelle sing it. She's just so good, and I've loved that tune ever since, so I decided to put that tune on the album.