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“I know it makes no sense, but I know it’s going to work out, that I shouldn’t give up,” says Kristeen Young, punctuating the serious thought with a bright, loud laugh, as she does often in conversation. “There’s no logic to it, but I know the best is still to come.”
Kristeen Young performs with Morrissey tonight at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
While the St. Louis-born, Manhattan-dwelling singer, songwriter and keyboardist, 37, is bullish about the future, she’s not shy about talking about the rough, occasionally demoralizing road that’s been her 15-plus-year career–a journey that stretches back to Young’s 1997 debut album, Meet Miss Young and Her All Boy Band.
With her dramatic, operatic, four-octave-spanning voice (which has been compared by virtually everybody, friend and foe alike, to Kate Bush, and not unfairly so) and discomfiting lyrics meeting oft-dissonant keyboards–and thanks to a commanding, sometimes combative, stage demeanor (she’s not big on taking shit from people)–Young’s fashioned a polarizing career that’s earned her intense devotion and outright hostility, yet so far hasn’t produced the big breakthrough she yearns for, and has suffered for.
After a decade toiling in obscurity, Young finally seemed on the verge of that breakthrough in 2006 when Morrissey handpicked her and her long-time drummer, “Baby” Jef White, to open for him on his Ringleader of the Tormentors world tour–so taken was his Moz-ness with the duo, they became his permanent opening act for more than a year and his relationship with Young took on a mentor/protege feel. “She uses her keyboard as a highly trained Nazi might use an electronic rod for shocking the parts…the voice is a beautiful bayonet, and the life swills out in song,” Morrissey gushed about Young to The Guardian in 2007.
Still, for much of that time, most Morrissey fans were not feeling beautiful bayonets and Nazi keyboards, and Young was mercilessly heckled at shows and savaged online. Despite that, and the fact that her five albums to that point–featuring material sometimes baffling, sometimes off-putting, sometimes absolutely brilliant–hadn’t really made a dent commercially, Young brushed it off, continuing to believe in herself and finding comfort in the support of friends and collaborators like David Bowie, Placebo’s Brian Molko, and iconic producer Tony Visconti (T. Rex, Bowie, Moz, a million others).
“I grew up being made fun of a lot, and I didn’t have adoring parents or anything–quite the opposite–so adversity, or people saying mean things to me, is something I’m used to,” she says. “I know it sounds weird, but I think I deal with it well just because I’m used to dealing with it my whole life. I’ve got a fighting spirit inside of me, so it doesn’t upset me, it fuels me. I’ve seen some people crippled because they’ve gotten one rejection or something went wrong and that’s it, they live their whole life being upset by that. And I’m not going to internalize things like that.”
And then, on an October 2007 night onstage at Hammerstein Ballroom, Young–facing one of those hostile Morrissey crowds–infamously let loose the remark “Morrissey gives good head…I mean, er, cunnilingus,” and was promptly fired from the tour. Young quickly posted a MySpace blog explaining that the remark was misconstrued and she meant no offense, and she’s avoided commenting on it since, as clearly she doesn’t want that moment to define her.
But looking back now, she admits, “the whole thing was so traumatic. Immediately after, we did a tour with Ted Leo and every night I’d get offstage and I’d just cry. I couldn’t stop crying. [Leo] was so…I felt so bad that he had to deal with hearing that, but he was so kind about it. He understood that it was a traumatic thing, the public humiliation. But we pushed on and kept playing.”
The duo continued touring and made another album, 2008’s excellent, Visconti-helmed Music for Strippers, Hookers, and the Odd On-Looker (which featured a collaboration with Fall Out Boy’s Patrick Stump). Late in 2010, Young split with White– “Jef was a really bombastic drummer, which I loved, he played very loud and intricately, but maybe in some venues it was a little overwhelming, and I think people are getting a better idea of the songs and my voice now,” she says–and did solo residences in New York, Los Angeles, and in Europe.
It was a dark time, she says. “I knew people around me lost faith in me, and I could feel people slipping away. I think when things aren’t happening for you, when things aren’t looking good, people start to feel sorry for you. Like, ‘Oh, the poor thing.’ They’ll write you messages, and I really hate it when you can feel the pity. I remember at some point a couple years ago, I had a rash of people coming up to me after shows saying, ‘You know, I just don’t understand why you can’t make it….’ And it made me feel horrible. I know they were just trying to be nice, but it makes you feel like a huge loser. I was upset about it in the moment, but then I got over it. I’ve always been able to get over things pretty quickly.”
In 2011, she issued possibly her best work to date: V the Volcanic, a vibrant, clever, electro-rock EP with songs written from the perspective of supporting characters from such movies as The Wizard of Oz, Dracula, and Blade Runner.
“When I was in my writing period for that I was so tired of what I’d done before,” says Young. “I was sick of me and everything I’d been through, and I just needed a break from myself and what I’d been. So I was inspired by watching old movies and wanting to be other characters and writing through other characters, and the music ended up being different and everything felt really refreshing.”
Artistically rejuvenated, she also finally buried the hatchet with Morrissey, who remains an ardent fan of her music and stage presence, and he invited her to open some dates for him in 2011. Since then, she’s once again become his permanent opening act.
“I think it was important for me to go back. I mean, the way it ended, there was no closure in the way it ended. Personally, it was important for me to go back to sort of prove a point, like, ‘I made it through it, maybe I’m better for it.’ I think it was pretty apparent from the feedback that opening for him was a good fit, and it felt good to be back. He kept giving me more shows, and thats how it’s kind of gone.”
Young’s currently working on new material–she describes one song as “real uptempo, a little rockabilly but with electronic stuff in there, too”–and will perform some of that stuff when she opens for Morrissey tonight at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. She hopes to record the new songs soon–she’s aiming to issue an LP before the end of the year–and plans to play some of her own shows this year as well. “I’m not gonna lie: I’d like to headline, I’d like to have a big hit and go out on my own,” she says, “but I love opening for Morrissey and we’re so happy with this set-up, so we can’t imagine changing it right now.”
She says she’s noticed a difference in the way Moz fans have been treating her this second go-around. “It’s really incredible how the whole experience has turned. The audiences have become warmer towards me and more responsive, and I’m getting a lot of messages from people saying they’ve just now heard of me and are hearing the music for the first time and they’re crazy about it.”
And she’s sure that long-sought breakthrough is finally close at hand. “‘I’m feeling like, ‘Oh, something’s different now.’ People around me are feeling that difference, too. Morrissey was just saying the same thing to me. It could be for many reasons–maybe I’m writing better, maybe it’s because people can hear the songs better, maybe it’s just timing. It’s hard to say. I always thought I could do things my way and do what I liked and people would like it, and I was surprised when it didn’t work out,” she says, letting out one last, big laugh. “But I’m glad that it’s coming together now. All you have to do is wait 15 years.”