When you think of America’s artistic hotbeds, you probably don’t think of Indiana as being particularly fertile ground for creative activity.
“It’s true!” singer-songwriter Krista Detor laughed over the phone from her home in the heartland recently. “But Bloomington is a little fertile dot! It is quite something.”
Detor, who performs Saturday night at the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts, has lived in Indiana for nine years. Though she’s not a Midwest native, her music draws from the rich soil and small town lives of the region, so much so that it sounds as though she’s been a lifelong resident.
“In a lot of respects,” she said, “this has been a really fertile place for songwriting inspiration. I’m in the middle of farm country, but it’s also many generations who have lived here and not left. So there’s a historical context to this place, not as thick and layered as when I was in Louisiana in the Mississippi delta, but there still is all of that ghostly history. Just to drive into town for me invariably involves various and sundry critters crossing the road in front of me. And I’m here with some great writers—actual authors and short story writers. There’s a great university here.
“I’m involved in a project called Wilderness Plots. It’s Carrie Newcomer, Tim Grimm, Tom Roznowski, myself and a writer named Michael White—we’re in a songwriting group together. There’s an author in town named Scott Russell Sanders who wrote a book called Wilderness Plots, which is vignettes about the settlement of the Ohio River Valley. And we all took three or four short stories and wrote songs. They came out so well that we turned it into a stage show which is touring this year.
“That’s been another amazingly wonderful development about living in Indiana—running across these really talented folks who are out there putting their talents to all kinds of uses.”
Though you’d never know it from her original compositions steeped in the melancholy milieu of the country’s midsection, Detor grew up in Southern California. But she always felt a little out of place.
“My parents were both Midwestern,” she said, “so what I did get from them was the Midwestern work ethic. They were both salt-of-the- earth kind of people, do what you say you’re going to do, solid Midwestern values. I got a lot of that from them.”
She started playing piano at the age of seven and “took piano lessons for five years, long enough to play and sing to the stuff that I was listening to on the radio. Eventually I went to music school and got a degree in classical music performance.”
That classical training is what sets her music apart from that of other artists who are lumped into the “folk” or “Americana” categories. Her mesmerizing use of thematic repetition and circular patterns led me to call her “a folkie Philip Glass” in my review of her album, Mudshow, two years ago. She agrees that she’s more Philip Glass than Woody Guthrie.
“In the folk tradition, what I don’t have is the narrative vagabond, roaming down the highways and the byways hopping freight trains. I tend to be in one place at one time.
“The sources of my music are very visual, the way a certain light hits something, or some relationship that’s presented to me. It comes from all kinds of places. But for me, it tends to be in a snapshot-vignette kind of way. I’ll see a thing or I’ll hear a story or a line in a movie or poem that will spark further exploration. And then I try to sketch out an idea. I try to color in a kind of musical landscape.”
She has the ability to take other people’s stories and make them her own.
“When I’m writing,” she acknowledged, “I tend to actually try to physically stand in the shoes of the person and sit where they might be sitting in my mind’s eye and look out their window, and see what they might be seeing.”
A beautiful example is “Abigayle’s Song,” with its plaintive chorus: “I know the names of the unfaithful husbands and who leaves my neighbor’s backdoor/I know just about everything that there is/But I don’t want to know what I know anymore.”
“That’s Midwestern small town,” Detor explained, “and that’s my friend Abigayle Gore. That’s one of those snapshot minutes. We were waitresses at the time here in Indiana—of course I was a waitress because I was a musician! Everybody who walked into this restaurant, Abigayle knew. And she’d take me aside and say, ‘Oh my, did you hear? His son’s in jail...again.’ But it was never mean-spirited. She was never one of those backbiting, vicious, gossipy women at all. She just happened to know everything, and everybody told her everything. And everybody adored her. And they still do—she’s still waitressing.
“I remembered her saying, ‘God, I wish they would all stop telling me everything!’ And it just sparked a song.”
Mudshow is a remarkable recording—hypnotic, poetic, poignant, evocative, captivating. It did especially well in Europe where it was number one on the Euro Americana chart. Her latest CD, Cover Their Eyes, due out in the States in April, has already been released over there, and she will spend a large chunk of time this year touring Holland, Germany, Belgium and the UK. Though she’s now put down roots in Indiana, she’s spent much of her life on the road.
“I was traveling, traveling, traveling,” she said. “I’ve been a gypsy and I moved about every two years. This was my mother’s hometown. I had gotten divorced in Florida and was in one of those freefalls where everything that I thought was true about the world and love kind of came crashing down around me.
“I came here because my mother was here and she had a basement that was vacant. So literally, I moved into my mother’s basement for six months and I was gonna do nothing but lay down tracks for the album that I had never done and hibernate for a while. I was planning on going back to the west coast—the northern California coast. I looked up a couple of years later and I owned a little farmhouse; I looked around and realized that every single thing that I could possibly want—life, quality of life, music, the arts, the university—was here. The ocean’s not here, but I can visit the ocean. So I don’t intend to move now.”
Saturday, February 16 – 8:00 pm
Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts
copyright © 2008 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.