Today we shine our Spotlight – Kristen Merritt. We sit down with Kristen to talk about her musical influences and how she got where she is today. Her newest release I Don’t Think About You is a mix of range and emotions showing off the depth. Check out the conversation now.
You’ve been described as a musical storyteller. With every song, a new picture is painted. Do you derive those inspirations from your own life? Or are you more creative coming outside yourself and telling stories from the world around you?
I blend a mix of stories from my own life, the lives of my close friends, and even from dreams of no one in particular (though I’ve heard it said that every character in a dream is you, so maybe that means a lot of self-exploration!) The majority of the stories told through my lyrics are thought-dump expressions of my innermost vulnerable feelings. Feelings that I have a hard time expressing in conversation but just spill out of me with the right melody.
The stories I’ve told that narrate my friends’ lives have been what I’ve come to understand as advice I may withhold, understanding that this person is closer to discovering and embracing the answer to their challenge for themselves (so I express my true feelings/opinions on the subject in question, through song). And the ones from dreams, I’m sure, are just more good ol’ subconscious goo that sticks together to tell a story that I feel has been gifted to me by the dream space, but I guess is also just an extension of my life and deeper feelings.
What artists did you listen to growing up that really fueled your love for music?
When I was a kid, I absolutely loved listening to Take 6 with my mom on car rides. I believe their music is why I am so interested in harmony – layering it and playing with it in my own music. Lyrically, I loved the power of thought conjured up by lyrical stylings of Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, and India.Arie. Where the lyrics took me often on a journey of self-discovery and exploration (I’m looking at you India.Arie on “I am not my hair” 😉 ).
Your new album drops in September. What are your biggest fears, and also your biggest excitements from this upcoming album?
My biggest fear, prior to really just sitting down and embracing whatever comes based on the work I do and the joy I feel about the project, was just not having a lot of people listen to the album. I realize now, though, that if I keep working on this project with joy and positive energy, that it will be received with those feelings. Sometimes, I have to remind myself that it’s not just about the quantity of listeners. It’s how deeply you have moved those who do listen. If people can really hear themselves and their feelings represented in the stories/lyrics, moving them as they’ve moved me, I’ve done a great job! Excitement wise I am hype to perform the songs live!
From the released tracklist on the new album, what is your favorite song? Which one is the most vulnerable to you?
My favorite song would definitely be Breathe. It also happens to be my most vulnerable song (but I Don’t Think About You was a close second!) Unlike some of the other songs (let’s be honest, most of the other songs) that explore love external to self, Breathe explores internal love, and loathing for that matter. The song kicks off with the line, “I’m sorry to be honest, but I’m so tired of the way I make myself feel.”
I meant that when I wrote it and I was so fed up with feeling self-conscious and hopeless to a degree. I was treating myself so poorly. So I was honest about that from the drop. As the song progressed, I delivered to myself simple instructions to get out of that negative headspace. Just breathe. Really pay attention to my breath so that all of the fears and concerns that are just thoughts, not reality, can become a bit quieter. So, this song functions as a vulnerable exploration of self and a guide for removing myself from the dreaded negative thought spiral. Also, I like that I was able to add some elements of funk – I love me some funk!
“I don’t think about you,” your newest single has an amazing range of vocals. What kind of vocal training allowed you to perfect your voice to this degree?
So I actually haven’t had much formal vocal training (save for a semester in college). I think my practice of singing daily has helped me strengthen my tone and expand my range. I am singing something all the time, literally every day. More recently during these little singing spaces, I will actually practice more consciously things like runs and lilts and vocal control. A little work everyday has not only maintained my voice but also helped me improve it steadily!
I am obsessed with the visuals for this music video. It is simple yet elegant. The camera angles, lighting to your own positioning its perfect. Tell us about who you worked with to put it all together. How much of a hand did you have in the directing of this video?
Well, first off, thank you, I loved the way this video came together as well! I worked with the fabulous Marissa Yates. All videography of all my MV’s for this album, as well as the photography! I came up with a storyboard for the song and did the editing myself, wanting the camera to move further away from me as the song went to represent being able to see the full bigger picture with an exploration of my true feelings in the lyrics. Lyrically.
I start off denying the feelings I have for the person in question. As time and thought progresses, I come to understand at a larger scale how I really feel and accept it. I wanted the song to feel as though it was exploring the stages of grief. Letting go of the dishonest illusion of my feelings being resolved, to come to the conclusion, “no, I actually really do still think about you,” with the visual complement of letting the space and gravity of that honest reflection sink in.
The soul genre has a lot of cultural significance. Starting in the 1950s with R&B as a parent. Do you feel connected to these deep roots?
I will admit there is still very much a need for me to explore the musical roots of all the genres my music falls into, but I do feel quite a connection. There is such a soul to the music of the late 20th century, often simple but deeply moving. That soul/spirit of the music really nourishes something deep within me. I use a lot of metaphor and turn-of-phrase in my songs, and don’t get me wrong, I love that. Still, something can be said about the power of these older tunes that were superficially more “simplistic” than your average modern-day hit (i.e., fewer instruments/automation).
How do you get the creative juices flowing when you are in a rut?
This is a great question and something I am still working on. I have taken a bit of a break from songwriting at the moment in order to get everything in order for the album. At first, I was nervous that my creative cup would dry up, but I’ve come to understand that the fear of that happening is what fuels the drying effect. So I keep calm and recognize there are different types of creative flow. Some will be expressed through music and songwriting, and some will be expressed through other mediums! I can allow myself to have a bit of a break on the song creation creativity and shift it into something like design creativity for branding or videos, or creative problem solving/ideation for the business side of things!
I noticed you like figure skating! How long have you been a skater?
Ah-ha, my figure skating! I had a very short stint of skating lessons when I was around 12-13 (I moved from big city MD to small-town NC where they didn’t have a rink, so I couldn’t continue). But I have gone skating at least once a year ever since my lessons, and even started teaching myself some new tricks this past year (t-stop gang where you at? – for all those not affiliated it’s when you stop on ice with your feet in a t-position. Great workout on the quads.) I can happily report I can still spin, do basic jumps, and some wildly graceful arm movements that make it appear as though I have more skill than I actually do ;). But I’m still learning every time I lace up!
As a self-produced artist, how do you manage your time writing, performing, and editing from home?
I am still definitely getting the hang of this, but my basic schedule has been to write when I am particularly interested by a melody in my head or something I come up with messing around on guitar, editing my music after work in the evenings, and then performing a bit more seldomly!
To be honest, I’ve been working to overcome slight anxiety around performing again, so I haven’t hit the pavement quite as hard on that as I could’ve, but working through it, I am! I think fear of performance, or fear of anything for that matter, really can stem from just not doing it. But once you start doing it and doing it more frequently, you get into a groove where your banter is on point, you feel competent playing guitar, and you enjoy how it feels to sing! I said “you” for all of those things, but I’m just projecting – I mean me, haha.
What advice would you give to a beginner musician who wants to find their people? Find the crowd who resonates strongly with their music and begin to build a platform?
I am still working on this for myself as well, but I’m learning that it starts with being your authentic self and putting yourself out there whenever you can. I was always concerned that my authentic self would come off as too corny and that my stage presence was lacking. But I learned that my people are just gonna be those people who enjoy the occasional pun and fast-talking niche humor. That just adds to my set, and it comes from a real place – and I think people resonate with that. Also, engage with people on your music. Ask them how a song has made them feel, chat with them about your music/music in general after your performances. I love this part of the connection because hearing how the music moved someone and what stories/feelings it brings up for them is fascinating!
The majority of your songs are so plaintive and mellow. Do you find you have to enter an emotional headspace to write and perform your music? What emotion takes center stage in your creativity?
I do like a good mellow tune! – She says with an added exclamation mark. Emotional headspace-wise, I just really try to let the story/feelings flow out of me. Not trying to correct, change, or modify during the first “round” of thought dump. Once I get the feeling out on paper/in my notes app, then I start working on shoring up the metaphors and flow of the song. I want to make sure that the story is coming from a really authentic place. While there may be some modification here, changing a word there, adding a rhyme here, the core of the song is really whatever was spilling out of my subconscious that day, filtered only through occasional grammatical modification.
Are there any plans for a tour after the release of this album? (How about coming up to Ottawa so the Hidden Beats team can come to see one)
There aren’t any plans quite yet (I’ve been working as a solo artist and trying to find a dope band), but there surely will be! I’ve never done an official long-form tour, so I am excited to check the first one off my musicians’ bucket list! And for sure, Ottawa has made it onto that list. I grew up in Detroit, so while I was proximal to Canada, I never got to venture much past Windsor. I’d love to see other parts of the country!
You majored in music for post-secondary. What were the most helpful things you learned? Did school play a big part in launching your solo career?
So funny thing, I actually majored in Geology! I was fortunate to take a few music classes during my time at college which was wonderful in helping me boost some of my skills (I took guitar, piano, a semester of vocal lessons, and music theory)!
Finally, are there any small businesses, causes, or events you wanna give a shout out to?
- Thank you for putting in this shoutout section! I’d love to shout out first and foremost the musicians on the project with me. Brendan Helm @bhelmdrums, Ian Wright @ianwbass, and Seth Schreiber @schrachee! Next are the other wonderful creatives I have been working with – my photographer/videographer Marissa Yates @yatesmarissaphotography my designer Marisa Paipogna @mpaipongna and my stamp/merch creator Marina Fleites @marmadethat!
- Next is a really dope collective, @more.than.local, that is creating a space for up-and-coming artists in NYC to perform with a focus on women, black and LGBT artists! I am performing at their first show in Washington Square Park on Aug 28th!
- And last, but certainly not least, the Loveland Foundation and Therapy for Black Girls. Two wonderful organizations aimed at destigmatizing mental health/therapy and providing resources and assistance to black women in need of therapy services.
Spotlight – Kristen Merritt is now complete. Big thanks to Kristen for taking the time to chat with us
I Don’t Think About You is out now
Keep up with Kristen right here
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