From Paris With Love: A Kansas City Musician Gets Distance And Perspective

May 25, 2017
Originally published on May 26, 2017 2:20 pm

Singer and multi-instrumentalist Krystle Warren has been compared to artists like Tracy Chapman and Nina Simone. The latter comparison is particularly intriguing: Not only does Warren share that icon's talent for evocative storytelling, but she also lives in France, as Simone once did.

It's a long way from her native Kansas City, Mo., which Warren left in her early 20s to pursue her music career. On her forthcoming album Three The Hard Way, Warren pays tribute to her roots.

Warren tells NPR's Audie Cornish that she has been feeling the pull of home more than ever. "When I'm home — and when I say home, [I mean] in the States, but specifically Kansas City — there's a part of me that's just invigorated, and feels very much a part of everyone and everything there. And then at some point there's the other half of me that really pulls to be back in France."

Hear their full conversation at the audio link, and read on for highlights.


Interview Highlights

On her song "Red Clay," about the 1921 riot in the Tulsa, Okla., neighborhood of Greenwood, then known as Black Wall Street

[The] community was completely leveled by the Klan, and this song is basically telling their story. ... My mother grew up in Spencer, Okla., along with her 10 other siblings. So in the summer I would head down to Spencer. So I'm well-acquainted with the red clay. However, I didn't know the story of Greenwood until maybe five years ago. It's just something that wasn't really spoken about in my family. And so, finding out about one of the worst attacks on U.S. soil — I really had to dig to find out about it. And oftentimes that's a story with so many things that have happened in our country. Some of the worst atrocities are between nationals, fellow countrymen.

On observing events in the U.S. from a distance

I feel that I'm getting a healthier dose of the news through television. As far as news from France [goes], there's nothing partisan about it. And so we're trying to put an album together that is going to touch on things politically, spiritually, whatnot — I think a great deal of distance was needed. Being far away, I guess, I can see things a bit more clearly.

On her two homes of Kansas City and Paris

I do come back to the States as often as I can, but like it or not, a lot of [French] culture has seeped in my veins just as much as Kansas City is. I mean maybe in some years' time, if and when I become a parent, then France will be home home. But in the meantime at least — I'm a bit split at the seams, but it's comfortable, as well. I like that I can't be someplace for too long without missing the other. It's a nice feeling.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Singer Krystle Warren has been compared to artists from Nina Simone to Tracy Chapman.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

KRYSTLE WARREN: (Singing) I was lost, yeah, I was wandering, came so far to be all alone.

CORNISH: But the Simone comparison is intriguing because Warren not only shares that icon's evocative storytelling, she also, as Simone once did, lives in France. It's a long way from her native Kansas City, Mo., which Warren left in her early 20s. She pursued her music career. Now she pays tribute to it on her latest album "Three The Hard Way." She told me that lately she has felt the pull of home more than ever.

WARREN: I feel like the baby that King Solomon has said go ahead and split up (laughter). Half of me is over in Frenchyville (ph) and the other half of me is in Kansas City.

CORNISH: Really?

WARREN: Yeah. Well, I'm being a bit facetious about it, but yeah.

CORNISH: Well, I figured with the cutting part. But I just meant that you felt almost a dual identity at this point.

WARREN: I do actually. I do. When I'm home - and when I say home in the States, yes, but specifically Kansas City, there's a part of me that is just invigorated and feels very much a part of everyone and everything there. And then at some point, there's the other half of me that really pulls to be back in France.

CORNISH: And I guess, perhaps, the Missouri part of you went out for this album?

WARREN: Yeah. The Missouri part of me really dug deep.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RED CLAY")

WARREN: (Singing) How many souls? How many souls? How many souls did you leave on the ground face down in the red clay?

"Red Clay" is about the Tulsa riot of 1921 in Greenwood. It went for several days. A community was completely leveled by the Klan, and this song is basically telling their story.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RED CLAY")

WARREN: (Singing) Three to a grave, three to a grave. Three to four men stacked in a jagged box four to one in red clay.

CORNISH: This was known, I think, as Black Wall Street...

WARREN: Yes.

CORNISH: ...Because of all of the kind of black middle-class businesses that were there.

WARREN: Yes.

CORNISH: And you're from Missouri, not from Oklahoma, but what was it like to kind of dig into this regional history?

WARREN: Well, my mother grew up in Spencer, Okla., along with her 10 other siblings. So in the summer, I would head down to Spencer. So I'm well acquainted with the red clay. However, I didn't know the story of Greenwood until maybe five years ago. It's just something that wasn't really spoken about in my family.

And so finding out about one of the worst attacks on U.S. soil, I really had to dig to find out about it. And oftentimes, that's a story with so many things that have happened in our country. Some of the worst atrocities are between nationals, fellow countrymen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RED CLAY")

WARREN: (Singing) The devil inside without its sheet to inch out every soul on the street, and it took to the sky, throw up bombs to defeat the innocence of Greenwood street made it fall to the ground (unintelligible) in the red, red clay.

CORNISH: I am interested in the red clay as a phrase because it's so vivid and so evocative and kind of grounds both you and the song in that place.

WARREN: Yes. So for those who haven't been to Oklahoma, if we want to get, like, literal about it, the soil is essentially red clay. It will destroy your shoes. It will destroy everything you're wearing if you decide to tangle with it. So the red clay became the focus for me while I was writing because it would place the listener there.

Even If they had not visited Oklahoma, it's such a characteristic of that state that my mind immediately went there. I've had to describe the place in time.

CORNISH: And in this context, it evokes blood and violence.

WARREN: Exactly, exactly, exactly. Actually, I should be asking you what comes to your mind when you listen to it?

CORNISH: Well, the thing is it actually made me wonder is you're doing this as an expat, essentially - right? - like, how your perspective has changed from this distance.

WARREN: I will say that living overseas - I feel that I'm getting a healthier dose of the news through television. As far as news from France, there's nothing partisan about it. And so we're trying to put an album together that is going to touch on things politically, spiritually and whatnot. I think a great deal of distance was needed. Being far away, I guess I can see things a bit more clearly.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

WARREN: (Singing) Oh, now it's peaches - peaches and cream. It's just the way it's been told to be. So it's saying we'll be all right. People rise and fall in pieces, but that's the prize for being free...

CORNISH: I was reading that essentially, you've got a one-way trip to France that your record label sent you there...

WARREN: Right.

CORNISH: ...And then you basically couldn't afford to come back.

WARREN: Yeah. That's me being a bit cheeky.

CORNISH: (Laughter).

WARREN: I was planning on heading back to the States - I guess I'd been over there for about two years, and I was very unhappy with the label that I had signed to as most artists are. And then I ended up meeting my better half, and we got married. So it's a good thing I didn't have that ticket after all. Wouldn't you say?

CORNISH: Very romantic.

WARREN: Yeah.

CORNISH: So you meet this woman, but that doesn't mean you necessarily have to stay, right? Like, what is the thing that made you want to make that place your home?

WARREN: She and I coming together and creating a home there - I do come back to the States as often as I can. But, you know, like it or not, a lot of that culture has seeped in my veins just as much as Kansas City is. I mean, maybe in some years' time, if and when I become a parent, then France will be home home.

But in the meantime, at least, I'm a bit split at the seams, but it's comfortable. It's well. I like that I can't be someplace for too long without missing the other. You know, it's a nice feeling.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

WARREN: (Singing) Move, move, move out, make way. Move...

CORNISH: Well, Krystle Warren, thank you so much for speaking with us and for letting us root around in your history a little bit.

WARREN: Thank you for having me, and you can root as much as you like, so cheers.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

WARREN: (Singing) We going to move, move, move out, make way. Move, move, move out, make way... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.