February 9, 2018 | by C.M. Crockford photo by Sarah Cass
“Sorry if I'm a little out of breath, I was just… screaming my lungs out.”
Indeed, for a guy whose singing voice is like an instrument unto itself, “bombastic,” as he admits, as charged up and wild as a train running off the tracks, Kyle Craft's actual speaking voice is calm, a little hazy — like he's always in the midst of a daydream. On the phone he sounds like a thoughtful, easy man, not a singer-songwriter writing about strippers and being gripped by the heaven and hell of rock 'n' roll life. Yet here he is, rehearsing with his band in Portland, getting ready for a tour in support of his sophomore record Full Circle Nightmare out now on Sub Pop (this is if we don't count last year’s lovely, surprising Girl Crazy singles as a second album).
Nightmare is a proper companion to 2016's Dolls of Highland, both springing from the same feelings of heartbreak and operatic oblivion that Craft uses in his songs to enormous effect. “The Rager” is a ballad that's closest to “Lady of the Ark” from Dolls in its tenderness, its measured depiction of a drug dealer thriving in her element: “Now it's search and destroy / For the player of the playboy / For the walking apocalypse / And the heels she staggers on.” There is a religiosity to his songwriting, an undercurrent of awe and high drama similar to Jim Steinman; he notes Dylan as an influence. “Dylan on the writing side, John Lennon maybe on the attitude side,” he tells me. Still he downplays himself as an author.
“It's not telling stories so much as getting the emotion behind the story… the inflection behind the vocals matters as much as the lyrics.” While Craft takes his writing seriously he seems surprised at the audience who identifies with his work. “There's a degree of ambiguity in my lyrics so people will sometimes come up to me after shows and go, 'Oh this song is so meaningful to me' and I say, 'Ohhh, sure.'” Craft likes what he calls “vivid ambiguity” in lyrics, something specific and obtuse at the same time. He mentions “Visions of Johanna” and we both name it as our favorite Dylan song. “'Visions of Johanna' is the perfect song, it inspired “The Rager,” y'know, there's that opening guitar? It's based on that — I wanted that song to sound like midnight.”
He tells me a story about how he was in the middle of a park in Phoenix, Arizona, feeling like shit, when he saw a security guard clicking his flashlight, making him think of “Visions” and the night watchman who must “ask himself if it’s him or them that's insane.” I wonder if for Craft music bleeds into life and vice versa. Highland and Nightmare are both heavily based on the breakup of a relationship and the subsequent fallout.
“It wasn't until here in the last year,” Craft says, “that I was in a stable frame of mind, and so I was just kind of like bouncing in and out of these relationships or wild party vibes, I was just all over the place. So Full Circle Nightmare is sort of looking back on the initial dissolve in Dolls of Highland, these kind of crazy nights that were post breakup.” Whereas Highland was recorded entirely by Craft in a friend's laundry room on his laptop, the new album uses a full band, all recorded live and produced by Craft and Decemberist Chris Funk. This was fully intentional — “I'd always wanted to record with a band live, kind of do it with everybody in the room, the drums bleeding into the guitar mics… and that's how we did it. I didn't want it to sound overproduced.” He and Funk were also already friends which didn't hurt.
Nightmare is indeed “the raucous, raw, unhinged thing” Craft set out to make, more like the soundtrack to a dark and bitter party of ex-couples than the sometimes romp Highland was. There's a little of Exile on Main Street in the mix, but less muddy, more concentrated: there's even room for some gorgeous, bloody psychedelia in “Belmont (One Trick Party).” This is a musician pushing himself and peering into his music, seeing what he can come up with, and he seems satisfied: “Had I the ability to do Dolls of Highland like this I would've... I was on my last limb with that [album].”
He's hitting the road soon, visiting all major cities with his band. Then what? Craft is thinking of a move to L.A., as much as he loves Portland (“I kinda plan on it in the future.”) And he hints at future projects. “It's [Nightmare] a closure album, the door shutting. I feel like there's a book, and Dolls of Highland is Part I and Full Circle is Part II, and I'm done with that book.”
So what comes after that book? I can almost hear him grinning then, and I half wonder if some of the more dangerous characters in his songs are Craft himself in different, playful guises. “I think I have an idea… but I can't speak too much on that. But I'm excited for the future, the next book… the next Part I.”