Crystal Bright & the Silver Hands, led by singer/songwriter, ethnomusicologist, composer, multi-instrumentalist, Crystal Bright, has an eclectic, haunting but yet whimsical, carnivalesque world folk sound, dubbed “kaleidophrenic cabaret.” She plays accordion, musical saw, concertina, piano, Taiko drum, adungu (Ugandan harp), and various others, leaving people captivated with her operatic and soulful vocals and virtuosic command of her exotic instruments.
Her 2012 album Muses and Bones received glowing reviews in the United States and Europe, as well as radio airplay in the US, UK, & Canada, including NPR and BBC appearances. Crystal Bright & the Silver Hands have played over 400 shows from Canada to Austin to New Orleans to Nashville over the past four years, sharing the stage with the likes of Beats Antique, Autumn Owls, Holy Ghost Tent Revival, The Love Language, Adam Arcuragi, Larkin Grimm, Pearl and the Beard and many more.
Bright performed with the North Carolina Symphony in 2011 on an arrangement of her song “Toy Hammer” and has performed at various festivals around the country including SXSW, Savannah Stopover, FloydFest, DragonCon, Midpoint Music Fest, The Steampunk World’s Fair, and Shakori Hills. She took Runner Up for On the Rise at Floydfest 2013 for a return set in 2014, and was named Best Songwriter 2014 in Greensboro’s Yes Weekly.
The latest collaborative visual album, The Absolute Elsewhere was released locally Nov. 22, 2014 at the Carrboro ArtsCenter with a multi-media performance including aerials, acrobats, and other dancers and is scheduled for a national release on May 19.
Ghettoblaster recently caught up with her to chat about it and she had this to say.
When did you begin writing the material for your most recent album?
Actually, the material for this album has a large range of birth dates. I pulled a piece that I had written in high school and revamped it with new inspiration from Rusty’s photo “La Dona D’Aguia.” I started writing another song seven years ago and couldn’t finish it, until I saw the photo “Of Sirenuse.” It took on a new life and I was able to finish it, which felt really good. The rest of the material was written between the summer of 2013 and August 2014.
What was the most difficult song to take from the initial writing stage through recording and mixing? Why was it so troublesome?
It was definitely the tango “Bajando La Luna.” I’ve been incorporating a few songs in Spanish in my set since I started this project. I used to sing in a Mariachi band, and it was so fun that I wanted to keep some of it alive. This was the first song I’ve written in Spanish, though, so I wanted to make sure I got the translation right, so that was time consuming. Also, it was a more specific style, and I started the song by writing the bass line, and had to figure out how to fill out the texture and the sound so it wasn’t boring. I wasn’t happy with it up until the end when it all came together and the horn was added. The horn part is my favorite part of the whole song.
Which of the songs on the record is most different from your original concept for the song?
“Of Sirenuse” is the one I started writing seven years ago, and it started out being about the folk tale about a seal skin woman. I really wanted to finish it and include it on the new album somehow, and when I saw Rusty’s photo titled the same thing, I changed it slightly to be about sirens and it was a perfect fit. It practically finished itself.
Did you have any guest musicians play or sing on the record?
I had many guest musicians including a klezmer violinist in Boston, who recorded the parts in his bedroom and sent them to us, and a violinist friend who also plays in the Greensboro Symphony, and a trombonist in Greensboro who now occasionally plays live with me as well. There was also a friend of Jim Boitnott’s (producer), Kevin Dollar, who played some nylon string guitar parts, which are a few of my favorite bits on the record. Randy, the engineer, played drums on most of the songs and bass and vocals on a few. There were also a few musicians from Greensboro that sang backup vocals. One of the most fun experiences of having a guest was having Rusty (DividingMe Photography,) who made the photographs that inspired the songs and the album, and his wife in to sing backup on a couple. They had never done that before or been in a studio, and they had so much fun. It made me really happy to be able to complete the cycle of collaboration and have them actually present on the album.
Who produced the record? What input did that person have that changed the face of the record?
My good friend Jim Boitnott, who is currently VP for Presonus in Baton Rouge, helped me produce it. The idea for writing songs to Rusty’s photos came up in a conversation and we actually followed through with it. That seemed like a logical next step since he had done all of my album covers and artwork. First we picked out a group of photos with Rusty and met up quite a few times to talk about tempos, keys, moods, and content and how to make the photos come to life through the songs. Jim has written movie soundtracks and written and performed with Cirque du Soleil, so he really helped me focus more on keeping melodic motifs simpler. And I think for the most part this album is more accessible to listeners because of that. He also gave me chords for a couple songs to work with and said “Do something with these,” and I ended up fleshing out one of my favorite songs on the album “Fall of the Seraph” with the four chords he suggested. Plus, the album would have never happened if it weren’t for our collaboration. Randy Seals, the engineer, co-produced the album and really helped fill out the sound and textures of the whole thing. He always has great ideas and is amazing to work with.
Is there an overarching concept behind your new album that ties the record together?
The album is inspired by and about Rusty McDonald’s (DividingMe Phorography) series of photos and land he created entitled “The Absolute Elsewhere.” Jim and I picked out some photos, which was really hard to narrow down because he has so many now and they are all so good. So, the album artwork includes the photos that inspired each song and the lyrics to accompany them. We took it to another level for the local CD release show with projections of the photos during each song and dancers, acrobats, and aerialists bringing another level of life to the stories in the photos and my interpretation of them.
Have you begun playing these songs live and which songs have elicited the strongest reaction from your fans?
We’ve played all of them live at this point but can’t do some of them consistently without a string section, which only happened during the CD release show. The most emotional song “Fall of the Seraph” is the one that has elicited tears, startles, and silence for a good five seconds after the song is over. It was also the most emotionally draining song to write, because it was one that I also attached my story to, making it personal. I had to take myself to a place of rage and despair and transcendence and peace throughout the whole process, and would sometimes have to leave the piano because it was too much. So, I’m glad that when I play it live, that response lives on through the listeners.
(Visit Crystal Bright & the Silver Hands here: http://crystalbrightandthesilverhands.com/#absolute-elsewhere.)