Home > Interviews > Interview: Crystal Bowersox truly comes ‘Alive’ on new album

Interview: Crystal Bowersox truly comes ‘Alive’ on new album

“Even the bird with a broken wing sings from the ground,” murmurs Crystal Bowersox, rather wistfully, on a new song called “A Broken Wing.” The moment is blissful, too, lounging in forested imagery and the singer’s vocal sweet spot. Since appearing on American Idol many moons ago, her voice has aged like a fine merlot, roasted with a blackberry and chocolate finish: it can quench your thirst but beware, it has a mighty ferocious bite and can knock you on your ass. Recorded live at the Kitchen Sink Studio in Santa Fe, Bowersox’s upcoming record, aptly titled Alive (out June 16), captures the magical twilight and art of performance. With 60 fans gathered, over the course of three separate shows, Bowersox banters playfully, wisecracks about her love of bacon and invites you to pull up a seat. You are in for the ride of your life across 14 lusciously-orchestrated, stunningly-evocative stories. “Seen so much in this past year and now, I need to cry,” she opines on “Let Me Walk Away,” a moving downtempo recounting the destruction of a relationship, which sends her into a dark, treacherous spiral. “I’m not sure what I’m living for…but I’m alive today. Oh, there was once a time before that I would be your bride.”

Songs like “Arlene” (a song penned for a “tougher than nails” rock ‘n roll bus driver Bowersox met on Idol), “Marlboro Man” and “Dead Weight” hang thick and supernaturally in the air. Her phrasing is often delicate but always forceful. As she envelopes you with her smokey, hard-boiled interpretations, you get the sense she’s not only piercing your heart, but changing the world. But her journey had to first blossom from within; she reset her priorities, due in big part to her son, Anthony Levi Mason, and that’s when life seemed to click into place. She was then able to find herself and arrive at a place of joy, fulfillment and stability. “I’m making healthier choices, personally and professionally. I’ve surrounded myself with positive people who are doing good in the world,” Bowersox tells B-Sides & Badlands over a recent email.

“My priorities are in order, and I regularly check in with that inner voice to make sure I’m not only hearing it, but also listening to it and acting accordingly. I stopped drinking alcohol about a year and a half ago which has in turn amplified my ability to keep a clear head and a connection to spirit,” she continues. Subsequently, that spilled over into the music she was writing and recording. For the first time, “I feel as though I am fully living, now,” she says. “I am grateful for every waking moment, even the days when the rain seems to pour. I think that often times we forget how precious every gradient layer of life is. If it weren’t for the emotional pain we sometimes must endure, we wouldn’t have a darn clue how to appreciate the joy and fulfillment available to us in between the difficult times. Learning to live with an open heart is only terrifying if one is unwilling to see the valuable lessons that despair and darkness have to offer. I want to feel it all. To me, that is what it means to be alive.”

On the spellbinding “Marlboro Man,” Bowersox examines the harrowing and sometimes deadly side-effects of being alive. A solo write, which tend “to be the most cathartic” for her, she pours out a story about “a friend [who] had decided to end her own life due to relationship issues she was having,” she explains. “Simultaneously, I was going through a very painful break-up of my own and felt that if I continued down the path I was on, I could’ve come to the same fate. So instead, I write songs to get through it, and I always feel better.”

The singer, who turns 32 this August, armed herself with some of the finest songwriters around (including Lance Carpenter, Caline Welles and Garrison Starr, among others), a challenge she posed to herself–to expand far beyond the territory of her own pen for fresh insight. “I’ve had the privilege to work with a few amazing songwriters over the last few years and have taken notes. I used to reject the idea of collaborating because I had this steadfast belief that song writing could only be a deep exploration of my innermost self, and I couldn’t bring myself to trust anyone with that sort of thing. I’ve come to realize now that love can only exist in the absence of fear, and so I lay it down when I walk into a writing session and just let the songs write themselves.”

Through those collaborations and personal breakthroughs, she then began to zoom out, taking macro-shots of the world. Yes, still through her own lens, but that risk watered the stories to flower “from a different perspective, in more of a storytelling kind of way,” she says, citing the whiskey-soaked, saloon-fable “The Ride” as a prime example. “The story doesn’t have to be my own, but can possess personal elements. I had been dating a ‘bad-boy’ biker type and had been binge watching ‘Sons of Anarchy.’ Lance Carpenter and I sat down to write and ended up creating this female character who pursued a man who she knew was nothing but trouble, despite her mother’s warning. We ended up with a fun, gritty song about knowingly making bad decisions and being accountable for them, even enjoying it a bit.”

Bowersox also entrusted her artistry to such incredible and prolific musicians as Derek Louis (vocals/drums), co-writer David DePrest (vocals/guitar), David Freeman (vocals/mandolin), Evan Brown (vocals/bass) and Jason Crosby (keys and violin; his notable work includes with Susan Tedeschi and Robert Randolph and the Family Band). Through a headlining tour that zigged and zagged across the Rocky Mountains, the rag-time band of bohemians “were able to spend a good amount of time playing through the set for the live album in front of audiences,” she recounts, detailing each member’s status and hefty contributions. “By the time we got to Santa Fe, we were feeling pretty locked in. Evan and David Deprest were the newest additions to the band, so the material was pretty fresh to them. Jason isn’t a regular fixture in the band, and it was such a pleasure to hear the songs come to life with keys in the studio.”

The album was recorded back in December, and even now, the songs keep shape-shifting into new creatures. “On the record, ‘Let Me Walk Away’ was recorded as a delicate duo between the writer, David DePrest and I. However, the last few shows we’ve started playing it as a full band. It’s fun for us to keep things new and fresh,” she says. And it just so happens, “Let Me Walk Away” is her personal favorite of the bunch. “I didn’t write the song, but hearing it for the first time was a pivotal moment in my life. DePrest sang it to me in a hotel room the night we met in Connecticut. October 19th, 2016. It brought me to full-on tears. I needed to hear it in order to heal from what I had been going through, personally. Soon after was when I made the decision to do the live album, and thus began my journey back to life. It’s a very special song to me.”

As the listener witnesses on the record, each song bottles up the energy and hubbub of 60 audience members shuffling in their seats or chuckling at Bowersox’s brash and endearing personality. Before launching into the tender smolder of “He Calls Me Angel,” she asks the crowd: “who’s here on a date? Married dates count people…” Teetering giggles ripple through the room. “If you are here with your spouse, you are on a date,” she asserts. More uncontrollable laughter bubbles. “Who’s here with a friend who would like to be on a date? No one ever raises their hand…,” she smirks. It was all as ample introduction to the song, ribbing an ex, to whom she had scrawled out a metaphorical map to her heart. “I said ‘hey, this is how I need you to love me.’ But…right over that head.”

Each of the three consecutive shows, “had a different group of attendees,” she says. “The players and I were all exhausted for the first show as we had just arrived after a long drive from Colorado and had yet to play as a full band. The songs from that set were a bit more, lets say….cautious and mellow. The second show was later that same day. We were reenergized and warmed up from the first set. The next day, after we were well rested and well fed, we played the third show in the evening and it was spectacular. Almost all of the cuts on the album are from the third show.”

The Kitchen Sink, which has housed the work of T. Bone Burnett, Blues Traveler and others, proved to be the most suitable locale (with a rich heritage just waiting outside its iconic doors) for Bowersox to lay down her tracks. “Santa Fe is in the land of enchantment, and home to some of the best Huevos Rancheros known to mankind. Jono Manson and I had previously collaborated on a few songs that ended up on my last two studio releases,” she says. “We had talked about working together again in the future. Then, when the idea of releasing a live album came up, I had considered a few of my favorite venues, but ultimately decided that recording at The Kitchen Sink would allow for more sonic control than recording at a live music venue.”

A few weeks later, she and Manson returned to the studio to mix, shuffling through the three shows for the best and most authentic takes. “We treated each show as exactly that–there were no starts and stops. We played on through, do or die. I wanted ‘Alive’ to be real, and for listeners to feel like they were actually there with us,” she notes. “For my tour dates, I try to craft the set to start with high energy, slow down and mellow out midway, and then end the evening with a party. The album is truly a live show.”

On songs like “Marlboro Man” and “Let Me Walk Away” you can feel the brutal trauma in her voice, the way she phrases certain lines to squeeze out every last drop of emotion, to release something primal into the world. “Feeling the communion of souls in the audience” is, perhaps, the most crucial process of the live performance, as skillfully paints her portraits and landscapes with intense, raw, vibrant splashes of color. Go big or go home, as they say. “I can’t get that when I’m alone in a studio vocal booth,” she adds.

Bowersox’s current headlining tour continues June 10, but she ponders her trek so far. “Touring with this particular group of people has been so much fun. Every night is a little different. There are lots of laughs and other antics while on the road. One show that stands out to me was at a place called Seven Steps Up in Spring Lake, Michigan,” she recalls. “I can’t explain it, but there was just something magical about that evening. I reached new heights, vocally, the seats were sold out, and my band was on fire. It’s a smaller room in contrast to some of the theaters I typically play, but the love was overflowing.”

A few other shows–in Palm Springs, Calif., in Solana Beach at the Belly Up and in Tenn. at the Franklin Theatre–also hold great significance to her. “In Palm Springs, Evan introduced me to the crowd with sparklers and a strip tease. I’ve never laughed so hard before a show in my life. Belly Up was amazing, too. The venue let us borrow surf boards, and I saw a few dear friends that I don’t get to see regularly. And just recently, The Franklin Theater in TN. My son was with me and couldn’t help himself from coming out onto the stage during our performance. He can be quite the comedian. It was such a blessing to have him there with me.”

She continues, “I could go on and on about every show. There is always something to treasure and remember about each place we play. The best part about all of it is being surrounded by people who genuinely care about me, and to be able to shake the hands of the folks who keep coming to the shows. I wouldn’t be able to do any of this if it weren’t for the kindness and generosity of my fans. A million thanks to them, and to God for this life.”

Pre-order Crystal Bowersox’s Alive now on iTunes. Spin the lead single below:

Follow Bowersox on her socials: Twitter | Facebook | Instagram | Website

Jason Scott

<p>Editor-in-Chief of the Badlands, spinning those B-Sides. Love Parks & Rec. Addicted to high-priced coffee drinks, alt-country and synth-pop, and never know when to quit. Got a cat named Jake–and she doesn’t like you very much.</p>

4 Comments

  1. Your writting is amazing! You guys have a talent that’s for sure, I can’t wait for crystalbowersox album to arrive at my doorstep, I wish I could go buy it at the store today, she is the real deal you feel her music down to your soul and toes!!!

    1. Beautifully written commentary by Jason, and extraordinary depth, vulnerability and candor from Crystal. You can’t help but root for her in life, and identity with her quest to find her port of call while navigating the waters of strife. I’m very excited for this album.

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