A number of new, young soul singers with retro taste have enjoyed popularity since the start of this decade. Plenty of them—like Amy Winehouse, Adele and Duffy—are white, female and from the U.K. with voices that sound big and brassy, sultry and girlish, or a little of both.
Kristina Train—another new, young soul singer—shares a lot in common with them when it comes to race, gender and even collaborators. She used the same London-based producer as Duffy (Jimmy Hogarth), and one of the same co-writers as Adele (Eg White). “The funny thing is, we started working before Duffy’s success and Adele’s success came through …,” Train offers. “So I never once felt like, ‘Oh my gosh, my identity is being compromised.’”
But there are significant differences between Train and these other singers. “I’m more than flattered to be compared to those really great singers and those really great women,” she says, “because they’ve done so well for themselves … Hopefully each one of us—the soul girls, whatever we are—provides something a little different for the listener.”
A reverse Dusty in Memphis?
The U.K. has long been a welcoming home to soul music, but Train was raised closer to its original epicenters in the southern U.S.: Memphis, Muscle Shoals and Macon. “[Without] growing up in Savannah, I don’t think I would have had such access to southern soul and gospel, blues,” she reflects. “Whether you realize it or not, when you’re walking into a gas station, that’s playing.”
(Given her Savannah background, she was absolutely taken with a particular song she stumbled upon in the U.K. Needless to say, she recorded it: “On one of the first trips, I heard the song “Moon Rivers and Such,” and I thought, ‘Oh my god, I’m from Savannah, I’ve swam the Moon River, I’ve fished the Moon River, I’ve crabbed the Moon River, I’ve thrown shrimp nets in the Moon River, my uncle used to go over to Johnny Mercer’s house for lunch. I go across the pond and this is where it hits me smack in the forehead.”)
It’s evident, too, from the lead track on Train’s debut album, Spilt Milk, that she’s aiming for a different audience than her British peers—a more adult one. After a luxuriant jazz combo sways between two chords, Train makes her entrance, singing softly from her chest, clearly in no hurry. Reaching the chorus, she pulls off an uncommon feat: she balances her wrenching cries with brittle, self-doubting sighs, suggesting the beginnings of a refined, natural vocal delivery ala Dusty Springfield or Shelby Lynne.
“I definitely am not gonna be in your face, you know, riffing, trying to just kill it full force at every moment,” Train testifies. “I think the beauty of music is its dynamics. I love … holding back and then giving it all away …. Hey, look, if you can rip it, everybody will know that you’re great. But just because you can, doesn’t mean you have to at all times.”
The way Train sings and writes and her choice of instrumentation and arrangements (being a trained violinist herself, she gets quite involved)—subtle and relaxed, yet self-possessed, set to sophisticated chord changes and lush strings—lends the 20-something an air of budding musical maturity. “Because I did grow up playing violin,” she explains, “I always dreamed of having a heavily arranged album with strings and brass and all that. And I ended up getting that, which I’m so thankful for. The budget allowed us only so much [so] that we had three songs left over that we couldn’t have the whole orchestra in for. So I picked up my violin and we sat down, worked out some parts.”
Five years and a near-disaster
The music’s sound seems of a piece with the patience Train has exercised leading up to this point. Blue Note expressed interest in signing her right out of high school, but her mother, a teacher, wanted her to go to college before pursuing any such thing. And she did—for a couple years at least. Had she gone on and recorded an album in her teens, the result would have been different, no doubt, heavy, she suspects, on vintage cover material: “I think I would have made an album that was more … my love for American music. I think I would have made more of a traditional, like, soul, or a traditional sort of like blues or jazz record. I think it would have been a lot less of me.”
Five or so years later—after Train left UGA, turned seriously to songwriting and got a second chance from Blue Note—most of the near-finished album was wiped out in a computer glitch (on Friday, February 13, no less).
“I guess, like, the way I thought about it was … ‘Up to now every step, every step forward has been a challenge,’” she muses. “And I was just like ‘You know what? This is not gonna happen to me. I am not gonna let my album be erased and freak out and then not for some reason still have a great album.’ So when I went back [to re-record it], I went back with a little bit of a vengeance. Just really sang from the heart and it came out to be something that I love, and I don’t ever think about the other tracks.”
It’s not hard to believe her. Train, after all, is something of a uniquely unhurried presence in contemporary pop music. “The biggest thing I try to do,” she says, “is I don’t ever want to peak too early, in any situation in my life.”