Sometimes there are serious advantages to not really knowing how bad an idea is. Take singer-songwriter Kyle Craft’s visit to Sub Pop Records, for example. Sub Pop is a label that specifically tells people on the FAQ section of their webpage that there is very little chance that a band will ever get signed by submitting a demo, and that they should never bring in a physical copy, implying that it will just get thrown away.
When Kyle Craft walked into the label’s offices a few years back, he was vaguely aware of that policy, but all he knew for sure was that this was the place that Nirvana, Beach House, and Fleet Foxes called home. He and his girlfriend and best friend had formed a band back in Austin, Texas, and they’d embarked on a tour on something of a whim, though Craft calls it more of a road trip than an actual string of concerts. After some arm-twisting, Craft walked into the building behind someone who’d actually been buzzed in, dropped the demo CD off, and made a run for it. Sub Pop reached out a couple of weeks later.
And his debut album, Dolls of Highland, makes it clear why they did. A 12-song collection of rollicking electric folk-rock that puts Craft’s Lindsey Buckingham-meets-Ryan Adams wail up top, keeps the proceedings loose, and stacks evocative lyrical images on top of one another, conjures mid-’60s freewheelin’ Dylan, early Bowie, and the Band while never seeming nakedly imitative. He’s a confident singer and an inspired lyricist who favors impressionistic images over straight-ahead storytelling (“Where the world saw you as a phoenix on the wind with wings of fire/ Oh, it’s plain to me, you’ll always be a sparrow/ Singing softly on the wire,” he sings on “Balmorhea”).
After letting off some steam with the all-covers Girl Crazy in 2017, Craft enlisted the Decemberists’ Chris Funk and recorded a more rock ‘n’ roll-oriented album, the just-released Full Circle Nightmare, which cranks the guitars and adds some twangy country grit for good measure. As for how he hooked up with Funk, it was something of a happy accident, like many of the things that have happened in his career.
“When I first moved to Portland I met Chris a few months into living there,” Craft says. “I showed up at his wife’s birthday party and me and him got drunk together and became pretty good friends from there on out. And at some point, he came across this really awesome opportunity to produce out of this one studio, so he asked me, ‘Hey do you want to make a record?’ and I just happened to have the songs, so I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.'”
It’s one of many examples of how Craft doesn’t really like to plan things out too much. Case in point: Full Circle Nightmare has a raucous, unpolished sound, and that’s because it was largely recorded live in four or five days. And it was done that way because “I just wanted to try it,” he says. “I’d never done it before. And I really enjoyed it. It was a different experience.”
It’s a sort of “Let’s just see what happens” approach that Craft has learned to trust, simply because it’s worked for him so well over three albums.
“When you’re younger you’re more open to being naïve about things,” he says, “and those naïve kind of decisions are what set the ball rolling. I try to keep in touch with that unknowing side. If I was too cool to do anything, I could’ve been like, ‘No I’m not going to go in there and hand off my record,’ but considering I was just a dumb kid, it worked. It was a happy accident — total luck and youthful chaotic freedom. For me it’s better to not know. In fact, if I cared about what was cool and not about what I do, I would probably hate it. I wouldn’t be able to see the merit in what I do.”
That’s not to say that Craft takes a laid-back approach to his songwriting, however. He labors a great deal over his lyrics, drawing inspiration from some serious heavyweights.
“I have a lot of admiration for lyricists like Dylan, Neil Young, Lou Reed, Robbie Robertson, all those old-school rock guys,” he says. “It always seemed like they felt those lyrics, and I feel mine because a lot of the songs I write are from firsthand experience, in the immediate vicinity of those experiences with friends and lovers or whatever.”
Once the work is done, however, Craft doesn’t think too much about the finished product. In fact, he heard those all-important songs from Dolls of Highland recently, and was somewhat surprised by how much they’ve changed since he started touring with a full band.
“I accidentally listened to some of the record the other day in D.C. when they were playing it over the speakers as we were setting up,” he says, “and it was the first time I’d heard it since it came out. And I realized the songs had really taken on a different character. Once records are out in the world, I hate hearing them. It’s fun to listen to it until release day, and then it’s like letting a bird go; you don’t expect to ever see it fly by again.”