It is the briefest of phrases – just three notes and four words – that are over in the space of mere seconds. Yet in those few seconds, you know at once that Kristina Train is that all-too-rare thing: a singer who can take the simplest of lyrics – “Since you’ve been gone” - and transform them; investing every breath with a level of emotion, conviction and intensity that has always set truly great singing apart from the merely average.
The heart-stopping moment is taken from ‘Dark Black’, a pivotal track on Kristina’s extraordinary new album of the same name, her first release on Mercury Records. It is a song that tells you all you need to know about Kristina’s incredible talent, yet leaves you wanting so much more; a song that has already seen Kristina compared with timeless artists like Dusty Springfield and Aretha Franklin, as well as contemporary classics like Norah Jones and Lana Del Rey. With its vintage production feel and gloriously languid pace, it pairs only the barest of instrumentation with Kristina’s intoxicating vocals that imply more than any lyric ever could, imbued with a devastating – yet breathtakingly beautiful – sense of sadness at the end of a relationship. Like each stunning track on the album of the same name, the hushed fragility and disarming intimacy of Kristina’s distinctive sound marks her out as something truly special; someone set to make a huge impact on all who hear her.
The passion for music that is so audible and inviting in Kristina’s songs now was first stoked in childhood. Born in New York, Kristina moved with her mother to Savannah, Georgia when she was 11 and lived in a house without a television or a radio – but plenty of classic rock, pop and soul music to inspire a young, receptive Kristina. Even at a young age, she was already something of a veteran on her first instrument, the violin. “I’m very grateful to my mother for that,” Kristina says, “because not only did I have my voice, I was able to train my ear and communicate, to ‘speak’ music.”
Even so, she admits now that there were times when the regime of daily practice began to lose its appeal, especially as her mother had, she says, first got her started on the instrument after reading that very young children who took up the violin were more likely to excel academically. “When I was growing up, my mother played records all the time – music was always there. And home was an incredibly nurturing environment, artistically. Yet, as free as my mother is, she is also extremely strict and by-the-book. She’s a teacher, so her major thing was education, and although at home, I had this free creative allowance, as far as schoolwork went, there was none of that. She wanted to encourage that side of me, but she also wanted me to realise that the real world is the real world, and that sometimes, that stuff doesn’t really fly – that life doesn’t always afford you the freedom you desire.”
Still, Kristina’s focus never wavered from her one true love and she devoted hours of childhood playing in youth orchestras and symphonies. Music was everywhere she went, integral to her life in the American South. “It’s rooted in the place,” she enthuses. “Everywhere you go you hear Southern sounds: soul, gospel, blues, Southern rock, country; it’s such a strong part of living there. People love playing music. And that really stuck with me.”
She was certainly no average teenage either. In her teens, the burgeoning vocalist started standing on the roof of the building she lived in during thunderstorms, lifting back her head and hollering at the tempestuous sky. She did it, she says, in order to toughen up your voice, which she considered too girly for the music – Janis, Led Zeppelin – she was then listening to. While the edge to her voice now bears testament to the fiery skies of Georgia, it also proves that nature had other ideas when it came to Kristina, as she retains the soulful pop purity she once sought to banish. Indeed, it is the tension between the two that elevates her singing to greatness.
Fast forward from the thunderstorm years and Kristina signed a major-label development deal with the prestigious Blue Note Records at just 19 years old. It’s the big break she’s been waiting for; the moment every musician dreams of. She duly returns to Savannah with the good news but her mum has other plans. Absolutely no way, she says categorically. A battle ensues and, naturally, mum wins. Kristina puts her dreams on ice and enrols in university, travelling whenever she can. Despite her best efforts though, academia was never likely to claim her for long. “In my heart of hearts,” she says, “I knew I was going to be a musician, and I couldn’t understand why anyone would want me to do anything else.” Even now, as she recalls this period in her life, the determination on her face is unshakeable, telling of the very same Southern grit that ensured that she got her way, discarded her study books and took up her dream again.
By 2001, she has joined the Park Bench Blues Band, and had started gigging around Athens, Georgia, covering tracks by The Beatles and Aretha Franklin while writing alt-country tracks of their own. Within two years, university had been put on the back burner and Kristina returned to Savannah, where she turned heads with a performance at that year’s Savannah Music Festival and started recording with the band Scrapomatic. Incredibly, she even convinced Blue Note Records to give her another try, signing with the label again in 2006 at the age of 24. Finally, she was ready for the rest of the world to hear her incredible voice. Kristina promptly moved to New York City, relocating once again in 2007 to London to record her debut album. Alone in a new city at just 25, she threw herself into the making of the record she had waited years to make. The sublime result, 2009’s ‘Spilt Milk’, alerted critics to a new talent and Kristina’s years of waiting finally seemed like they were to be paid off. The record was also her first encounter with Ed Harcourt, with whom she co-wrote a number of tracks. It was an experience Kristina resolved to repeat and did with her forthcoming new album ‘Dark Black’.
Written and produced with both Ed and the songwriter and producer Martin Craft (who releases his own work under the name M Craft), Kristina started work on her new album when she finally got off the road following an 18-month tour in Herbie Hancock’s band. If she has mixed feelings about her debut album, she also regards it – and the lessons she learnt working with Herbie – as “the best dress rehearsal I could ever have hoped for, because I worked with some great people”.
Both also allowed Kristina to know exactly what sound she wanted to achieve on her second album, understanding how both her voice and musical interests had changed in the intervening years. This time round, she was keen for the sessions to be intimate and low-key, showcasing her spectacular voice and crafting music, settings and atmospheres in which that voice can soar, shine, confide and confess. The experience was, she says, almost telepathic – each of them seemed to know instinctively where a song needed to go. “I really wanted to blend technology with very basic, organic styles of playing and performing – live guitar and drums, and then filling in the spaces with synthetic sounds; and treating those as sounds in themselves. And Martin and Ed just got that, got it immediately.”
Since moving to London full time in 2011, Kristina has worked very closely with Martin on perfecting her melody driven sound; a mix of organic and synthetic sounds all complemented by Kristina’s natural and distinctive vocal. Together, they have taken a modern production approach to timeless sounding songs and the resulting elegant, emotive record is exactly the album Kristina was hoping to make… and the record the rest of us have been waiting to hear.
Although now based in London, Kristina has travelled a long and sometimes circuitous path to complete ‘Dark Black’, pouring all her most painful experiences, personal thoughts and deepest feelings into a record that reflects her entirely. Along the way, she has travelled to and lived in New York, Savannah, back to New York, a brief period in New Jersey, picking up life lessons – some of them welcome, some of them not – along their way that have informed her songs with a worldliness beyond her years and a depth of feeling that could never be faked. “I never, ever stopped singing,” she says. “It was the one thing I could count on, and sometimes the only thing I had. It was such a comfort to me, and it still is. It’s allowed me to get through a lot of things.”
The musicians who draw most evocatively on their life in their songs have tended be those that, musically, carry no passport and hold no allegiance other than to their art – and Kristina is emphatically one of those. “I’ve never felt that I’ve really fitted in anywhere. I’ve always felt like I could live anywhere, I don’t really experience a sense of either loss or longing about a particular place.” That said, she finds London endlessly inspiring, she says. “Moving here is the best thing I ever did. It has been incredibly empowering – and I think you need to feel a little isolated and uncertain to find out things about yourself. London has been nothing been wonderful. And if I am looking at it through rose-tinted glasses, well, good!”
Though the album may tell of a lifetime of musical influences and years of personal, often painful, life experiences, it has been a process Kristina is convinced was worth waiting for. Finally, she has made the album she was destined to make. “I was singing at the same time as I started speaking,” Kristina shrugs. “It’s always been this completely natural thing. For me, it was always music, only music, always singing, only singing, and that’s all I cared about.”