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Krista Detor


Published at and Southern Illinois News

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

by Dr. Randall Auxier, Author of 'Time, Will & Purpose'

Krista Detor, Flat Earth Diary (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013). 228 pp. Paperback, $18.00; and Flat Earth Diary musical recording (Tightrope Records, 2014). Compact disc, $14.98.

It must be daunting. Nobody told you when you decided on a creative career that you would have to pull genius out of your ass on command. Well, either that or languish…or both. Krista Detor is the best songwriter you probably never heard of. Bar none. Hands down. Her body of work over the last two decades was appealing and ingenious and polished and perfect enough that it might have vaulted her to the top of three different musical genres (the same ones Norah Jones has dominated). Alas, the earth is flat. Spell-binding performances across the world, critical acclaim, and the unmixed admiration of her peers have not, somehow, done their work. The public is but dimly aware of one of the jewels of Generation X. But there is still time.

Detor’s latest project is a new album of original songs, joined to a book, both entitled Flat Earth Diary. Her previous CD (Chocolate Paper Suites) was a recording I would regard as among the five best singer-songwriter albums in recent history. A lot of people, including a lot of critics, concur with my superlatives. Topping that musical feat wouldn’t be easy. The best strategy under such circumstances is simply to do something like apples to those oranges.

Flat Earth Diary nominally chronicles Detor’s creative process as she writes and assembles the music for her new CD. But she doesn’t want to write the music for a new CD; rather, she has to because it’s been too long and she’s a songwriter. Even if the wolf isn’t at the door, one can hear him howling in the distance and taking down the neighbor’s livestock. So it’s album or be a lupine lunch. Detor carried out the required drudgery while sailing along the shores of Lake Superior in July with two friends who had signed on for the duty. While her able crew tacks and jibes and beats from one obscure port of call to the next, Krista does something similar in the temperamental waters of imagination and memory. “The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down…” but fortunately The Witch of November did slumber and Detor got home safely after a month or so, with a draft of a book and a collection of finished songs.

The book is for those who might be curious about how songwriters do what they do, and I am onesuch thrill seeker. It’s also for people who enjoy intelligent journaling and who aren’t overly fixated on symmetrical order. The narrative oozes back and forth in time and topic without warning or evident planning. It’s similar to Mark Twain’s autobiography. What will Krista think of next? Whatever comes up as she travels, journals, and leafs through the notebooks of material she brought along. These notebooks contain pages and pages of fragments, ideas, poetry (some old, some new), emails, letters, pictures, ruminations, essays, and just about anything else that might assist a reluctant genius.

My spouse and I decided to listen to the songs one by one as we read out loud the entries in the diary pertaining to them. This approach seemed to work alright, until I listened to the CD straight through afterwards. Then I understood what we should have done. It’s better to listen to the CD several times, forming an auditory impression of the relation between the music and the lyrics, but don’t analyze anything. Then replay the songs that most appeal, and perhaps glance at the lyrics to those songs. Then go away from the CD for a few days and repeat the process upon returning. You could do this several times, and if you like Detor’s music as much as I do, it doesn’t feel like an assignment from the teacher.

Now that you have your own ideas about the songs and you’re more stable impressions of the music, it’s time to read the book. But this is like the special features section on a DVD. You wouldn’t enjoy watching those clips and interviews and featurettes and voiceovers, yada, yada, yada, unless you saw the movie and had some sense of it. But the best special features are those you watch after seeing the movie in the theatre, rewatching it on Netflix, and then breaking down and buying a DVD for your permanent collection just in order to have the special features. That’s what this book is.

A good deal of ink is devoted to the inspiration, history, refinement, editing, and revision of the lyrics to Krista’s songs. Not a lot is included about how she writes the music – just occasional observations about the feel she looks for. In a way, this is a shame, because Detor’s songwriting is successful precisely because the music carries so much of the meaning. Her producer and husband Dave Weber –in my opinion, one of the finest producers in the genre– favors blending Krista’s voice into the music so that the lyrics become a rhythm instrument while her voice is a melody instrument. One experiences the lyrics and their intelligence without conceptualizing the narratives and lists and details of the poetry. I am often surprised when I finally study the lyrics, to discover what the song is about.

A good example from Flat Earth Diary is the song “Hear That.” I think this is one of the most moving songs I’ve ever heard. It’s in the plaintive register Krista uses when she sings between the breathy and sensual alto of her “indoor” voice and the soaring soprano of her “stadium” voice. This register, which she uses for some of her saddest songs, tends to mask the actual connections among the lyrics. “Hear That” is about sneaking out of the house silently to get into trouble as a teenager. But I never would have guessed that was the scenario. I heard existential yearning, loneliness, and the loss of childhood – not an ounce of mischief survived the musical setting.

Reading about that song in the book does bring the story together in a gratifying way. It reveals a yawning chasm between what Krista thinks she is doing and what she is doing. It might be better not to know just how specific and mundane the back story is –and this applies to all of the songs on the album. It removes the mystery, but it doesn’t rob us of our own interpretations. Detor is a good writer. She realizes that telling the story in her own way has to be open-ended and suggestive. The book doesn’t spoil the movie or vice versa, so to speak. The relationship is interesting but indeterminate.

A surprising third experience, completely unlike reading the book or listening to her recording, is what happens when Krista Detor performs. You will understand every lyric while the music surrounds your body, and no matter where you are, from a noisy bar to an elegant theatre, everything goes completely still. No one wants to move when Krista is performing, and yes, you can hear a pin drop as the last chords fade away and before the audience is willing to break the mood with applause.