Crystal Bright may not be a “storyteller” in a traditional sense, but she’s the most intriguing I’ve encountered in quite some time. Bright is the leader of Crystal Bright and the Silver Hands, a Greensboro, North Carolina band that whimsically (and at times abrasively) combines elements of dark cabaret, mariachi, musical theatre, folk, gypsy punk, and nearly every other sound associated with subcultures with a taste for the organic (both literally and figuratively). Her sounds have had her appearing on the stages of things like DragonCon and The Steampunk World’s Fair, in addition to a set alongside the North Carolina Symphony and bills with Beats Antique, The Love Language. and Pearl and the Beard. Beyond her work as a singer/songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and composer for her own band, Bright is additionally an ethnomusicologist, performance artist, and nutritionist. Crystal Bright and the Silver Hands’ third LP, The Absolute Elsewhere, is out today (although it was first performed as a multi-media event last November.) The album was inspired by the desire to collaborate with DividingMe Photography and a recent interest in soundtracks. Over the weekend Crystal Bright took some time to tell me about exactly what led to The Absolute Elsewhere, which the band will be touring through the end of the summer.
Izzy Cihak: You have a background in a plethora of not only genres, but artistic mediums. Is there anything that you think is especially important for listeners to know about your approach to creating art?
Crystal Bright: My experience and interest in multiple disciplines has led me to collaborate with many artists and performers for live shows and my latest album, The Absolute Elsewhere. As artists and musicians know, inspiration can come in many forms, some of which can be unpredictable. The cycle of inspiration that occurred during the creation of this new album began with me wanting to take my collaboration with DividingMe Photography to the next level. We picked out a variety of his photos from his series “The Absolute Elsewhere,” and I created the songs and soundscapes to amplify and bring out the stories in his photo art. My friend, Jim Boitnott, VP for Presonus, and an amazing musician, helped me get started with his experience with creating soundtracks. Through the album release show experience of reaching out to dancers, aerialists, acrobats, and many more, and working with them to bring the songs and stories to life even more, an even deeper appreciation and different perspectives of the songs came to fruition. One of the main functions of music is to bring people together, and that is definitely one of my goals through the whole process of making music.
Izzy: I love that you’re an ethnomusicologist. I’m really intrigued by that as a humanities professor, who spent the majority of my grad school years studying semiotics in the context of 20th century musical subcultures of the Western world. How did you get into that line of studies and what exactly does that even entail, for those who might not be entirely familiar?
Crystal: I was interested in music performance, playing the piano since I was seven, but I didn’t want to study primarily classical music. I was also interested in archeology and found out about ethnomusicology through an anthropology teacher, and I began taking independent studies with the ethnomusicologist at UNCG and went on to get my Master’s at FSU. It deepened my understanding of all of the many aspects of culture, society, economics, etc. that surround music. Of particular interest to me was how environment and music cyclically influence each other. My thesis was on anarchy, value, and community in a Brazilian style protest drum corp group and how all of those things influence the sound and structure of the music making and vice versa. Also, during my studies I was able to play in many different world ensembles and expanding my musical vocabulary and ability on different instruments, which has influenced my writing.
Izzy: What would you currently consider to be your most significant influences, regardless of what mediums or aspects of life they might come from?
Crystal: Photos, movies, being outside, sounds in general (I constantly find interesting rhythms and melodies in everyday sounds, such as printers, animals, dishes, two people walking together, water, etc.) and collaborating with other musicians and performers.
Izzy: The Absolute Elsewhere, is about to be released. How would you characterize the album, compared to previous releases, whether relating to its sound or the process of writing and recording it?
Crystal: The songs are definitely more focused and mature than my previous album, because I had the photos and their stories to work with. It’s a concept album in that I had a theme to work around, instead of just putting a bunch of songs together that I’d been playing for a while. I also wrote more of the parts for this album, such as the string sections for a few of them. There were a lot more guest musicians on this album that have never played live with me before, although some have. I think the musicianship is stronger and tighter. Also, I collaborated with Jim Boitnott, who I mentioned earlier, in the beginning phases of the writing process, which was really fun. It’s always nice to have an outside perspective on if something will work or not and to support you along the way. He has been a huge supporter and it was an honor to work with him.
Izzy: Have you had any particular favorite reactions to it, since you debuted it live last November? Do you, personally, have a particular favorite track?
Crystal: There are two songs that are very dear to me, “Crescent Moon Bear” and “Fall of the Seraph.” Both of those are similar in that they have very fragile parts and extremely intense parts, and the story and lyrics really resonate with people. Almost every single time I play those live there is about five seconds of silence at the end, when I guess people are feeling emotional and are trying to come back to reality, then they go crazy and I hear a lot of exclamations. It’s a really good feeling when you can use music to help create a moment that induces an intense emotional response from the listeners.
I am fond of so many of the tracks on the album, it’s impossible to pick a favorite. The ones I’m most proud of are so different from each other, which I think represents that my future sounds could go in many directions. I love the melody in “October,” and I love playing “Forest of Dreams” live because it gets people moving and the melody sticks with you. I also love “Fall of the Seraph” because of how intense it is, and “Bajando La Luna” because it’s my first song I’ve written in Spanish, so I’m proud of that.
Izzy: You have a number of upcoming live dates that go through September. What can be expected of the live experience?
Crystal: As an independent artist, I can only bring a four-piece on the road with me, instead of the bigger group I prefer with the additional aerialist, acrobats, and dancers. I am very fortunate to have amazing multi-instrumentalists playing with me and we can generally fill out the sound to create a dynamic live show. I like to switch instruments a lot, which keeps it interesting for me and visually for the audience. Also, be prepared for an emotional roller coaster and some good old story telling.