The story of Morrissey and me

May 13, 2007


Morrissey's fans are a demanding crowd: They're passionate about what they like (the music of the Moz) and dislike (pretty much everything else), and winning them over can be tough for an opening act.

When she walked onstage at the Aragon Ballroom to launch Morrissey's rare one-off performance here last November, Kristeen Young was greeted with a tidal wave of indifference. But by the middle of her set, the New York-based singer and songwriter had turned a sold-out crowd of skeptics into converts, winning them over with her fiery vocals and aggressive keyboard playing, with only powerhouse drummer Baby Jeff White to back her up. Now, Young is returning to open for Morrissey throughout his U.S. tour, which stops at the Auditorium Theatre on Tuesday.

How did this little-known indie musician connect with the Master of Mope? "That's a good story," Young says.

"Tony Visconti produced his last record ['Ringleader of the Tormentors'], and Tony had recorded a show of ours on DVD that he would bring to the studio in Rome where they were working. They have a big screen there, and he went in early one morning to watch the film when Morrissey walked in. Tony didn't know -- Morrissey never came in that early -- and at the end of the first song he heard 'Who's that?' And there's Morrissey standing behind him. He had seen it and he said how much he liked it, and Tony said, 'Well, I'm doing their record next, so I'll send it to you.' But even before that happened, Morrissey called us up and asked if we could come over right away to Europe and open a few shows for him."

Because of his rapacious wit, many listeners think of Morrissey as an ogre, albeit a well-meaning one. "But I think he's misunderstood," Young says. "He does have that sharp wit, so everyone automatically jumps to 'Oh, he must be mean.' But he's completely the opposite -- the most loving and generous person I've ever met."

Half-Native American and half-German, the 32-year-old musician grew up as the daughter of Christian fundamentalist parents in Affton, Mo., 12 miles outside St. Louis. "I was adopted, and my adopted mother always wanted to play piano, so she gave me piano lessons. Of course, I hated it, but at some point it started sinking in. I tried to make it sound like the songs on the radio, but I'd get frustrated because it didn't sound like guitar, which is mostly what's on the radio. I think that was the seed that made me want my keyboard to sound like a cross between piano and guitar: It had to have more power, like the fire the piano used to have in the early days of rock 'n' roll, with Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard."

Young started playing her own music in the clubs in the early '90s, eventually performing as a duo with White after attempts to form a full band proved unsuccessful. "We've auditioned different people over the years, and we've never really been able to find someone I thought really fit in, so at some point, we just gave up. Plus, Jeff plays pretty busy, and I am very noisy myself, so there's not much room for someone else anyway!"

The band -- which, in the style of PJ Harvey, also goes by the name Kristeen Young -- made its recorded debut in 1997 on World Domination, the L.A. label started by Dave Allen of Gang of Four. Three more self-released collections of stark but riveting songs followed -- "Enemy" (1999), the provocatively titled "Breasticles" (2003) and "X" (2004) -- before Young linked up with legendary glam-rock producer Visconti for last year's "The Orphans." Musically, it's her most immediate disc, while lyrically, it's the most compelling and autobiographical.

"We kind of recorded it live, as much as we possibly could, because we really wanted to capture our sound onstage. When people would send me DVDs or videos they had made of us playing live, I always thought that was a better sound than anything else that I'd heard us do. So we actually used one of those small video-camera microphones for some of the recording and mixed that in. I don't know if it compresses the sound or what it does, but I really like it.

"On the past couple of records, I felt like I lost my way a little bit with listening to people who said what I should to further for my career or what I needed to do to get signed," Young says. "My first couple of records were so free -- I just wanted to make music that was natural to me -- but then I moved to New York and people started saying all of these things to me. For this one, I wanted to forget about all of that and get back to how I used to think before, and a lot of the songs are about my experiences with that."

Indeed, the album can be heard as a long, sustained scream of "Hey, wake up and pay attention!," delivered via a collection of tunes that find Young railing against any box that would try to contain her -- sexual, religious, musical or even geographical. Witness the song "Under a Landlocked Moon." "Middle America's conservative, right?" she howls. "I've seen what weapons clothes can be / And I know only devil music sets you free / And I had the kind of sex that says, 'F--- you!' / Under a landlocked moon."

"That song comes from a lot of different places, but I picked up some magazine once and they were doing a review of an album that said, 'I know Middle America will never get this.' I was so offended by that, because it's such the attitude of the East- and West-Coasters. They have no idea where St. Louis even is; they get it mixed up with New Orleans and St. Paul. They have this stereotype that goes back to 'Seven Brides for Seven Brothers' or something, and of course they think everyone is a big believer in Bush in Middle America. But I know from living there that anytime there is a strong authority, there will always be a backlash to it, and it will be much stronger when it comes from a place that is, on the surface, more conservative. The people that I know in St. Louis on the music scene or art scene, when they react, they do it much more definitively then people in New York or L.A."

This is certainly true of Young, and it's high time Middle America took note.


When: 8 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Parkway
Tickets: $27.50-$65
Phone: (312) 559-1212