Folk-pop duo Kris and Dee made Kingston their home seven years ago and couldn’t be happier about the decision. Kris Abbott, who spent years touring with Canadian power pop band, The Pursuit of Happiness, met Dee McNeil at a gig Dee was playing with her band at the time, The Strap Ons. A connection developed both musically and personally and the two began making music together as Kris and Dee. Since their move to Kingston they have released two albums. Their first, Still Here Inside (2011), was met with critical acclaim and gave them international recognition when it was added to the Starbucks Worldwide Playlist. The momentum has not stopped for these two women, who both work part-time jobs in addition to their music making. Their new album, Bloom, was officially released on March 26th and is already being met with rave reviews. Their Kingston release party will occur this Saturday night, April 27th, at The Mansion with special guests The Diaries. Door open at 9pm, $10 at the door.
1. You met while playing with the all-girl punk band, The Strap-Ons in London, later moved to Toronto for a period and then relocated to Kingston after getting married in 2005. What brought you to Kingston (or back to Kingston in Kris’ case) and what keeps you here? How does Kingston feed your artistic life?
We decided to move to Kingston primarily to be closer to our families but also because of the lifestyle we wanted to have. When we lived in Toronto, we used to vacation in Kingston and on Wolfe Island and we began to realize that the pace of life here really suited us, as did living on the water, the music scene, the restaurants and the fact that we could actually afford to own a home here! As for feeding ourselves artistically, we have time to create here that we didn’t have when we lived in Toronto and were spending a good part of each day just commuting around the city. Also, there are so many unbelievably good bands and musicians here and we’ve been so lucky to be able to play with a lot of talented people on our albums and do some shows together. People that come to mind off the bat are our bassist and good friend Wil McGonegal, as well as Mauro Sepe, Trevor Henderson, Sticky Henderson, Danielle Lennon, The Diaries and many others. We’re also fortunate to know many talented people in the literary and and visual arts scene as well. There are a number of writers and poets here that we are absolutely inspired by – Jason Heroux and Bruce Kaufmann to name two of our favourites. And we have met visual artists here who we have become friends with and who have inspired us as well like Bob Blenderman, Janice McLean who has designed both of our albums, Phileen Dickinson who did our website, and Connie Morris who did the artwork for Bloom. So I guess we just felt the draw to Kingston for a number of reasons and now that we’ve been here for almost 7 years and have met all these great people and become part of the musical scene here, it is definitely home and always will be. Being small town girls, it was probably inevitable that we would live in a smaller city rather than a larger one. We have a constant stream of friends from out of town who visit us and tell us how much they love it here and how lucky we are to live in Kingston (we know!) and it’s a nice thing to be able to share it with our friends.
2. You both come from pretty strong rock ‘n roll backgrounds, but both Bloom, and your first album, Still Here Inside, brim with ballads and medium tempo tunes with a gentle, folky feel. What inspired you to take such a dramatic turn in your music making style?
I guess the space where we do most of our creating is when we are very relaxed and we just have our guitars lying around and we can pick them up and start playing. So that chill, down-time folky feel is a natural extension of the head space we are in when we do most of our writing. Still, despite the folk label that definitely fits our music, you can definitely hear the pop-rock influences in most of our songs. The difference with our playing now, is that the pop-rock comes out as a moment and adds to the dynamic in the song and we use space also as a big dynamic and a way to shape the songs.
3. Kris, after your time with The Pursuit Of Happiness you put your guitar down for a while. Did you ever think you may not come back to it? What made you decide that making music was something that you had to do again? Was Dee an influence on this decision?
Kris: My TPOH years were amazing and definitely a dream come true in many ways but when it was over, I was done. I traveled the world many times over with a really nice group of people and learned how to be a solid musician but the music business on the other hand is brutal. When we became popular on an international level, it was the tail end of 80’s glam rock. We had a great label and management and a couple records produced by Todd Rundgren. But the record business changed all of a sudden. I remember being in a hotel in NYC when the moment of realization came that if you didn’t have a hit within 3 months of your release, you were gone. Bands were coming and going like crazy, digital music was coming in, the term ‘artist development’ had a whole new meaning, and bands weren’t being signed for multiple record releases and actually getting to make them anymore. Still, TPOH was somehow able to continue on for many years making records and being a band, thankfully because of our fans. But the time came for things to naturally slow down and everyone wanted to move on to other interests. So after more than a decade of playing TPOH songs every single night, and not having the time to have other interests, I felt lost and felt like I really needed to find out who I was and what was important to me. My journey needed to go outside of music for a while and live in the real world. So I came back to Kingston, went to school and then worked in software development for a while in Toronto, got some great Project Management skills and a few reality checks LOL. But that experience took every ounce out of me. For some reason I felt like I had to choose between my new life of surviving in the real world and music, probably due to the financial insecurity music had created for me and having a stable pay check for the first time. I could only see the tough parts of who I had been as a musician and not who I wanted to become. So I literally put my Les Paul in the case and did not open it for almost 3 years. I couldn’t even look at it. Until one day a friend insisted that we go out to see a band together on a Sunday afternoon and that was how I met Dee who was playing bass in The Strap Ons. They were having serious fun playing and long story short, but we exchanged contact info and eventually on a casual invite, I decided to play for fun and do some gigs with them. Dee and I hit it off personally and during that time of getting to know each other, we spent a lot of time talking about and listening to music. So yes, Dee is fully responsible for me picking that guitar up again. Had I not fallen in love with her and found a mutual interest in music, I might not have found a safe way to reconnect to that part of me that I had disconnected from. She wrote music every day and encouraged me to play with her. She wrote songs that were inviting to me and felt like a very natural extension of the conversation we had as partners. Literally, one note lead the way to another.
4. You’ve released two full length albums in a very timely manner. I even read a review from 2011 that forecast the release of Bloom for early 2013 – a difficult feat to predict for many independent musicians. What’s your secret? How do you manage to balance writing and recording while working part-time jobs?
Dee: Although we have put out two albums in less than two years, we actually don’t focus at all on the outcome of making an album or even writing songs. We focus mainly on the process of creating at first. We don’t say, “let’s sit down and write a song today”, we say “let’s make a pot of coffee and sit around with our guitars.” It’s all about getting into that relaxed space where the music just seems to come, and not putting pressure on ourselves to create, really, but just to show up. We work on something related to our music every day. I write every single day with pen on paper and Kris is always working on music, arrangements, productions, etc.
Kris: And after a while, the songs start to come and it’s apparent that they belong together in a group. And that’s when we start planning to make a record and setting some goals. From here it’s baby steps and the momentum starts to build and the pieces start to fall in place. I guess our backgrounds (me as an IT Manager and Dee as a physiotherapist/teacher) have taught us some project management skills that definitely help keep things on track.
Dee: Another thing that has helped maybe psychologically to keep moving forward is that we don’t necessarily record all the potential songs for the album, but rather only the songs that fit together as a concept. There were songs that we had written that we didn’t put on Still Here Inside because they just didn’t seem to fit in that musical statement as a whole body of work. So we had a couple tracks already for Bloom and it was a bit of a head start. The same thing is happening now as well. There were songs that didn’t seem to fit with the concept of Bloom, so we’ve already got a few songs that will be on our next album.
5. Kingston is rich in great recording studios and sound engineers. You have kept your music making local by recording both of your albums at The Bathouse – known for its work with renowned bands such as The Tragically Hip, Blue Rodeo and Sarah Harmer to name a few – with some instruments added at your own home studio. What keeps you going back to The Bathouse and what sets it apart from other studios?
Kris: There is something really exciting about all being under the same roof away from the world and focused fully on making music. That excitement has a sound and is magical, and that magic has a way of making its way onto a recording. The engineers at The Bathouse (Aaron Holmberg and Nyles Spencer) are fantastic and know how to use the sound of that house as much as the equipment, and also how to go along with the magic when it is happening. It is full of gorgeous wood and natural reflective surfaces that make for great sounds. There is just something about the wood in that house that has a tremendous influence on the sound and artist performance. And it overlooks Lake Ontario, which for Kris and Dee is a perfect setting.
Dee: Also, the house is so communal and comfortable. There is a real sense that you are away from the world and can just focus on making music, engineers and musicians alike. We all get up in the morning, leisurely have a cup of coffee and chat about the plan for the day. We’re all living in the same space for that week, working together, having meals together. It’s really laid back and so conducive to getting in the recording space, which is more than just performing the songs but trying to find some of that magic and connection with the others.
6. I understand that when you write, Kris is typically responsible for the music while Dee pens the lyrics, but surely it’s not quite that simple. What comes first? Where do your lyrical and musical ideas come from? Can you describe the process and evolution of a Kris and Dee song?
Kris: The main approach is that Dee starts with lyrics and melody and/or a song concept and then I work to find a musical metaphor to fit. The other method is probably closer to a stream-of-consciousness approach where we are working together and I find a riff or hook or rhythm and Dee tries to find the melody and lyrics that fit my idea. So with the first approach, it’s the lyrics, concept or melody that is the catalyst and with the latter, it’s the music that is the bed of inspiration. I always listen to her talk about the song concepts or listen for key words that trigger an emotion in me. That emotion always takes me somewhere musically. I also like to think in a production mindset early on.
Dee: Sometimes there is a concept that drives the song or a pattern or insight about life that I feel compelled to write about. Often it’s a word or phrase that seems to lend itself to a certain melody and then the writing goes forwards and backwards from that point. Or sometimes the ideas for songs just seem to come when I’m alone in my thoughts… either out for a walk in the neighbourhood, or cutting the grass or in the shower LOL. The songs that have been easiest to write are the ones that just seem to appear. The ones where I start out with a concept or idea are always tougher, always a struggle, and often end up being totally different than how they started out. These are the times that you have a song in your head literally for days and weeks and it can almost drive you crazy trying to work it out. I tend to do a lot of research and learning and fact-checking (I know that doesn’t sound very romantic!) I have learned to bring the songs to Kris at an earlier stage because she always seems to know exactly the right questions to ask to clarify what the song is about and she just knows how to get it unstuck, musically and lyrically.