Kyle Craft has the kind of backstory musicians usually need to invent. He still doesn’t seem very impressed by it. “Oh, I had a bunch of snakes,” the singer says matter-of-factly over the phone, recalling teenage summers spent catching reptiles off the banks of the Mississippi River. “I had a couple of alligators at one point. I almost went to school for that. I probably would have been a game warden or something.”
Instead of a herpetologist, Craft became — or is on the road to becoming — one of the South’s most intriguing new rock stars. In April, the 27-year-old’s debut album, Dolls of Highland, earned almost exclusively positive reviews, following a simple formula: Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde crossed with David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. Despite the transparent approach, he produced not a familiar sound but rather a cryptic sort of glam Americana that defies expectation, which he’ll bring to Mercury Lounge on August 11.
Craft’s high, nasally voice recalls Of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes, and songs like “Gloom Girl” come out sounding like “Ballad of a Thin Man” narrated by Billy Joel — lilting, humanistic renderings of barely human events. Lots of piano and organ, too. “You can hear the influences,” says Brandon Summers, of Oregon duo the Helio Sequence, who helped mix the album. “He wears them on his sleeve proudly, and very transparently. But the thing that makes it come across is that he’s always filtering it through himself first.”
That filter is deeply Southern: Craft was born and raised in Vidalia, Louisiana, a small town across the river from Natchez, Mississippi. As he remembers it, most people listened to one of three genres: “pop radio shit,” “shitty radio-rock kind of junk,” or “whatever that stuff is that people call country nowadays.” His own favorite music came from the river: Most mornings, a Mississippi steamboat enchanted the town with an onboard steam organ — a calliope — audible all the way to shore. “It sounded like carnival music,” Craft says. “I remember that pretty distinctly, thinking the circus was always coming to town.”
As a kid Craft abided by shitty rock radio, but through Guns N’ Roses he discovered the Beatles, and through the Beatles he discovered Dylan, still his greatest source of inspiration. Bowie had entered a bit earlier, after an eight-year-old Craft fell for Labyrinth and went to Kmart to buy the soundtrack. “They didn’t have it, so the woman searched in the computer and came back with his greatest hits,” he says. “I think if my grandpa knew what it was, he wouldn’t have bought it for me.” Craft began writing his own songs around the same time he started driving, leaving town as soon as he could to go to college in Mississippi.
Eventually he moved with his girlfriend to Shreveport, Louisiana, and it was the subsequent dissolution of their eight-year relationship that inspired his debut LP. But, he says, Dolls isn’t a breakup album. “Sure, there are elements of the breakup, but there are also elements of me just exploring being alone for the first time in my life.” This freedom — a traumatic one — is the basis for songs like “Future Midcity Massacre,” which ends with the singer stumbling away from his lover holding “a bouquet of dead flowers and a thirst for twisted nights.”
After the breakup, he spent many of his own twisted nights driving to and from New Orleans, where he had met, as he puts it, “the only chick that coulda kept me in Louisiana.” He listened to his old favorites Dylan and Bowie during the five-hour trek, and as soon as he got home, he’d channel those influences into the songs that wound up on Dolls, recording them instrument by instrument — covering guitar, bass, and drums but outsourcing trumpet — in a friend’s laundry room. According to Summers, the record didn’t require much additional work. “We just wanted to take the self-done demos and make them sound a little better, not adding anything flashy,” he says. “And we wanted to make sure you could hear his lyrics.”
The process was more DIY than we usually expect from glam, which may be why Craft has trouble with the term. “People consider Bowie and Marc Bolan glam, but those are two vastly different sounds. I don’t think I have that aesthetic, but for some reason people say that a lot. I don’t find myself very glammy.” Glam is mostly a style thing, though, so what does Craft wear? “Right now, red cowboy boots with a blazer,” he admits, perhaps realizing he’s hurt his case. “Usually I’m wearing a suit…a velvet suit.” Summers says his young daughter once saw a picture of Bowie and, mistaking the rocker for Craft, said, “Hey, Dad, it’s your friend!”
And the snakes — that’s, in a way, a bit glitzy too, though perhaps Craft isn’t as far from his Mississippi roots as his style and growing acclaim would suggest. “Honestly?” he says, “to this day, I still might know more about herpetology than I do music.”