Daniel Dylan Wray from Pitchfork Magazine interviews Chrystabell

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Pitchfork has earned the reputation as the most trusted voice in music. Over the last 20 years, Pitchfork’s online magazine has helped define how music is covered in the digital era, leading The New York Times to call it “The most prominent brand in online music journalism.” and TIME Magazine to recognize it as one of the world’s 50 best websites.

Daniel Dylan Wray: What was your first exposure to the work of David Lynch and what do you recall your response to it being? Did it have much of an impact?

Chrystabell: My very first exposure to David Lynch’s world was through my mother and stepfather reciting dialogue from Eraserhead to one another melodramatically. They are both musicians and performers who often entertained one another by acting like characters from films and plays they found to be particularly intriguing. If they were in a playful mood mom my might say to him “You’re on vacation, you take care if it!” and they would both crack up. Even though I was not allowed to see the film because I was so young, I would laugh at their histrionics. My mother joked I wasn’t allowed to watch the film until I was 30 years old because she found it so disturbing but somehow delightful at the same time. But I gathered that there was a baby in it, or something that was supposed to be a baby, and that it was a very strange film that my parents loved. My next exposure to David’s work was through the original airing of Twin Peaks. I was around 12 years old at the time, and too young to catch the nuances in the sophisticated plot and unconventional characters, but I was utterly transfixed whenever it came on TV. In particular, the opening theme song and how it flowed with the images of the world of Twin Peaks to set the tone of the show really compelled me and awakened a feeling within me I had not known before. It was powerful stuff. It instilled a desire within me to strive for a similar level of dramatic effect on others with my own art and music. A bar was set.

Daniel Dylan Wray: Tell us about how you and David ended up crossing paths?  

Chrystabell: I met David though Brian Loucks, an agent at CAA. At our first meeting, Brian sensed that David and I would hit it off musically, so he brought us together.  As it turns out, he was right. 

Daniel Dylan Wray: What were your first impressions of him and how did they match up to the idea you had of him previously? 

Chrystabell: I first met David at his studio.  Brian arranged that visit.  I was young, and I was a David Lynch fan, so I’d conjured an image of him based on my impressions of his art—what kind of man could create a world as alluring and confounding as Twin Peaks, or as dense and terrorizing as Lost Highway? I expected his presence to be massive and imposing. I was definitely not expecting what I got instead:  he smiled a giant smile and folded me in a warm hug, as though he’d known me for years.  Creativity, presence of mind and self-confidence flowed from his being; so did humor, charm and compassion. Even though I had been cripplingly nervous to meet him, he managed to make me feel comfortable and welcome.

Daniel Dylan Wray: You’re quite a unique artist in that you’ve worked with David on music for both his films and in a recorded context – can you tell us about your first ever collaboration and how it led onto more? Presumably you forged a connection to continue your working relationship? 

Chrystabell: The day I met David, we wrote a song together on the spot.  First he listened to my demo, then he asked if I’d like to hear one of his tracks. I loved it, of course.  Next he went downstairs to the “black box” to get some lyrics. We sat together at the console, me at the microphone, while I used his lyrics to improvise melodies. By the time I left, we had created “Right Down to You,” a really nice track on This Train. We were both happy that the experiment had been so fruitful. When you discover that kind of musical chemistry, it’s kind of like striking gold. You want to keep digging.

Daniel Dylan Wray: How much were you aware of the other music that was going to be used in Inland Empire? Did you discuss it much with David and what sort of instructions, moods etc. – if any – did he give you for working on Polish Poem? Was it clear what he had in mind and where it would end up in the film?  

Chrystabell: When “Polish Poem” made its way to the soundtrack of INLAND EMPIRE, it felt like a total fluke. We’d created that song in the waning hours of a session that we’d both, more or less, later forgotten. During the film’s post-production, Dean Hurley exhumed it from the depths of a studio hard drive.  David called me up to say he’d found a beautiful song that we once made together, and that he wanted to put it in the film. I had no memory of it until he played it for me. Of all our songs, that one had flowed out the most effortlessly, top to bottom. The final version was a compilation of my first few takes, all improvised.  At times, I’d lost confidence in what I was singing and made little noises of frustration.  David left them in.  Those little moans and sighs underscore the fragility and melancholy of the track.  He titled it “Polish Poem”.  INLAND EMPIRE, of course, was shot largely in Poland and featured many Polish actors—this was pure coincidence.

Daniel Dylan Wray: What were your thoughts on Inland Empire as a finished film and how your music fitted into the soundtrack?  

Chrystabell: The first time I saw INLAND EMPIRE was with David, in his studio.  That in itself was surreal, and the film is, for me, a darkly sinuous and deeply compelling journey.  It’s an opportunity to shut down your always thoughty-thinking, sense-making mind and open up your super-conscious dream mind.  It’s immeasurably fulfilling—an absolute thrill—to know that our music brings value to such other-dimensional art.  “Polish Poem” evokes a plaintive, grasping ethos, and, yet, as the film concludes, it helps to open a beckoning portal to hope.

Daniel Dylan Wray: David is credited as a co-writer on This Train, can you please talk us through the collaboration and creative process between you, how did the writing process work?  

Chrystabell: When we wrote our first song, our process was born.  It rarely changes.  He shares a track or shares a musical idea—it can be a new idea, or something he’s been sitting on for a while.  If I relate with it, if I feel melodies coming as we listen together, we know we’ve got a live one on the line.  He goes downstairs to get some lyrics, poetry, writings of some kind.  Or maybe they’re in his back pocket, so to speak.  Or, he starts writing lyrics on the spot.  That’s how we do it. 

Daniel Dylan Wray: Was his role as producer on the album a fairly traditional one? If you could please explain his approach and method as a producer on the record in detail that would be great.  

Chrystabell: David fulfills the traditional role of producer, but he also brings something deeper.  His intuition guides us.  His tracks are conceived when he catches an idea and takes it into the studio with Dean, where it grows roots. It might yield the beginnings of a song; if David thinks it could be one of our songs, he sets it aside for our next session.  But that’s not always how it works.  Sometimes he earmarks a track for other purposes but, in the moment, chooses to share it with me.  We listen together and maybe find that it fits with our project.  The tracks that fit have a way of revealing themselves.  When the melodies spring forth on our first listen, I know we’re cooking with gas. I start to hum and maybe move a bit.  Excitement overcomes me; it’s a visceral experience.  I need that flow.  It inspires me to improvise with the music and, well, I find it.  A melody shines through, a song is born.

Sometimes David plays a favorite track and then acts reluctant to give it to me.  He says he’s saving it for something else.  If I love it, he relents, but I have to wear him down!  He teases me like that.

Daniel Dylan Wray: Did you record at his studio? If so, could you talk us through a typical day during the recording sessions?

Chrystabell: In his studio, David verbally sketches the vision and mood he wants for the track.  He uses words like fragile, angelic, strong.  I take all this to the vocal booth and let it simmer.  When I’m in a good spot, Dean plays the track in my headphones and I adlib over it to find the changes. We record all this, even from the first pass; those early takes are so pure.

After a few passes, David offers his guidance. He’ll say something like, go back to that feeling you had there, work with that.  Or, don’t push too hard on that part there, you’re losing the sweetness. He’s very clear with his direction and knows how to guide me back into a zone that makes the vision come to life.  Dean is David’s right hand man.  He’s creative, he makes the technology work, he’s lightning fast and he speaks David’s language.  As David’s co-writer, he knows the tracks inside out.  David will say, take it back to that second line she did after the guitar stab right before the open section in the 3rd part. And, bam! Dean is there.

As we collaborate, I hone in on what’s working until we have a melodic structure for the song.  We smooth out rough edges and work up a final take, if we even need one.  David makes changes, adds texture here or takes levels down there.  He might ask Dean to come up with a string part to fill the chorus out, or find a sound to accent a certain section.  Dean assimilates David’s ideas and brings them to life.  At that point, the money’s in the bank.  That’s how we dance.

Ultimately, David makes the calls.  He’s very clear about what does or doesn’t work.  He might make changes post-session, taking out breaths or adding affects, but most of our creative work is done together.  Between the three of us, we coax the vocal arrangement into being—and we’ve got ourselves a song. 

Daniel Dylan Wray: What has been your biggest takeaway from working with David? What have you learnt/experienced that you haven’t got from working with other collaborators? 

Chrystabell: Being with David is fun. He makes people feel considered and appreciated.  He’s razor-sharp and remembers the stories I tell in remarkable detail.  And David can tell a story like nobody’s business—you hang on every word.  Even after these sixteen years, I feel giddy every time I walk into his studio.  Just being in his presence is uplifting because, in addition to being the consummate artist, he’s also an affable, compassionate, confident man.  He also studies esoteric and mystical subjects, which fascinate me. David is striving to create world peace.  Having worked with him closely, I believe he’s making progress.

Daniel Dylan Wray: What do you think makes David such a unique artist?  

Chrystabell: Never have I known a person so phenomenally creative and dedicated to his own artistic callings.  He’s an internationally celebrated artist and arguably the greatest living American filmmaker, yet he doesn’t rest on his laurels or take inspiration for granted. He respects his ideas and, in all media, grants them the potential to flourish. In his home, there are spaces and equipment for creating paintings, furniture, videos, photography, music, large scale prints, animatronics and so much more—it seems that ideas flock to him because he is a gracious host.

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