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Kansas City-born, Paris-based songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and powerhouse vocalist Krystle Warren’s Three the Hard Way is an elegantly bare testament to the complex resonances of Black music and to the traditions of incisive commentary and spiritual seeking that have often walked with them. These are songs of earth and soul, of poetic protest and potent grooves.
Warren speaks boldly, going far beyond glib pop posturing on civil rights, empowerment, and personal commitment. She witnesses an apocalypse of brutal revelation, the depth of injustice, and anxiety smothered in the slick surface of today’s words and deeds. The deep past underpins and warps the frenetic present, when Biblical devotion becomes a hot love affair (“Nae-Nae and Ruthie,” a blues-inflected reframing of the Old Testament story) and when questions of faith and doubt (“I Hope He Comes Back”) resolve in the eternity of a single tree, toughing it out in the middle of a city (“Learn to Bend”).
For Warren, this was familiar territory, yet she had never worked so explicitly with these musical influences in her earlier, singer-songwriter work, music that caught the ear of Rufus Wainwright. (Warren toured with Wainwright’s band and opened for him.) “When [longtime friend and Grammy Award winning producer, engineer Ben] Kane and I began talking about this project, I immediately started thinking gospel,” a sound that bursts through tracks like “Move!” “I grew up Southern Baptist, with an incredible choir at church. I started listening to old recordings of various gospel choirs... I began learning the language again. It’s always been a part of me.”
Warren and Kane (D’Angelo, Emily King, PJ Morton) worked in dialog to find just the right sound. “It was very clear that this would be the album to do together,” Warren notes. “We pared it down to two minds, navigating through and figuring out what we wanted to say.”
The instrumental voices speak in a language taut and lean. Gospel, early R&B, and raw blues couple with the lush intelligence of artists like Nina Simone and Pharoah Sanders. They form the bedrock for Warren’s sometime provocative, sometimes tender commentary on injustice’s persistence, religious estrangement, and profound relationship. “Historically, the blues and the black church have provided soulful responses to suffering and oppression,” Kane says. “Krystle is using this musical language to reflect on our modern-day pain and madness.”
As Warren and Kane explored this language, they started with “Thanks and Praise,” where tight bass and guitar bounce beneath layer upon layer of Warren’s rich, sinuous voice. “That was the starting point,” adds Kane. “The song really tilted the direction of where we could go with this album. It’s an important departure from that folk world Krystle has been exploring for the majority of her career.”
With Kane as a sounding board, Warren was encouraged to move into new places, playing bass, drums, lap steel, piano, guitar, and vocals directly to analog tape. She and Kane recorded in Villetaneuse, France, a small town on the outskirts of Paris in a vintage 70s era studio that offered just the right, rich sound to suggest the musical foundation for the record, and to do justice to the duo’s carefully balanced arrangements.
Some of these arrangements open up into ecstatic choruses and irresistible grooves. Some stay stark, startling. Take “Red Clay,” Warren’s shiver-inducing homage to those who suffered one of America’s most shameful eruptions of racial hatred, the Tulsa Massacre of 1921, also known as the Massacre of Black Wall Street, in which a prosperous Black community came under merciless attack.
“I started thinking about those early gospel songs. In deciding to play with the minimal sound of a simple guitar and voices - very work song, early gospel, I knew that the subject had to match it,” explains Warren. “The massacre in Tulsa is something that a lot of people aren't aware of. I felt it was time to write a song about this awful thing that had happened, to write from the perspective of someone who had lived it, endured it.”
Gospel’s abiding devotion to the elevated moments, the cornerstone of the spirit, also resounds in Warren’s songs, but not without wry questions. “I’m not passing judgement, though I myself have doubts and concerns when it comes to organized religion,” Warren muses. “I wanted to start a conversation about spirituality. To loosen the binds of organized religion and flip some ideas on their heads. Essentially, I wanted to challenge, without being too rough. It may be a shove, but it’s a loving shove. “
releases August 18, 2017
Produced by Krystle Warren and Ben Kane
Recorded, engineered, and mixed by Ben Kane
Written and performed by Krystle Warren, except where noted
Assistant engineer, tape operator: Manuel Aragon
Assistant mixing engineer: Jackie Sanchez
Technical services provided by Ricky Begin
Mixed at The Garden, Brooklyn
Mastered and cut by Alex DeTurk at Masterdisk
Album cover art: Kyra Termini