Listening to Crystal Bright & The Silver Hands is like sitting around a campfire at night while reading “Scary Stories to Tell In the Dark” while catching flickers of shadow-puppet monsters lurking about, and haunting operatics playing in the background. It is creepy and captivating, like any good scary story.
Storytelling is an artform that manifests in many ways: spoken word, written prose, theatre, dance, art, and music. Crystal Bright’s work seems to encompass them all. The North Carolina singer-songwriter has a haunting yet whimsical gypsy-esque voice. She happens to be the Pied Piper of accordion, musical saw, concertina, piano, Taiko drum, adungu (Ugandan harp), and various other exotic instruments, too. Plus, she commands an audience like a ringmaster at a carnival. Her shows incorporate projections of macabre photos inspired by some of her songs—or dancers and aerialists who interpret the music.
Crystal Bright & The Silver Hands will perform at Palate on July 2, with Justin Lacy’s Show Dance opening the show (read more about Justin Lacy in this week’s Live Local column, here). Bright took some time to talk to encore about her unique music and what’s in store for the Wilmington show.
encore (e): Let’s start with your musical background and interests, and how those led to this unique operatic/carnival/macabre style of music?
Crystal Bright (CB): When I started writing music on the piano in high school, I was listening to a lot of Bjork, PJ Harvey, Tori Amos, Michael Nyman, Neurosis, Deftones, and other hardcore music. I had a stressful family situation, so playing the piano was my escape and therapy. I was drawn to darker keys and tones and ended up writing in a similar way.
When I went to undergraduate at UNCG for anthropology, music and drama, and Florida State for a Master’s in ethnomusicology, I was very excited about learning the music and culture from a variety of countries; and was able to play in a lot of world ensembles and sing in a variety of languages. Those experiences definitely shaped my style today, as well as listening to Tom Waits, The Tiger Lilies, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Eastern European music, Yann Tiersen, and Lhasa de Sela.
e: How does being from the foothills of NC factor into your musical interests and creativity?
CB: I grew up near Charlotte in the middle of nowhere, and it wasn’t very culturally diverse and pretty racist. I was very aware of that and sought out diversity where I could and was interested in world history and archeology, as well as being friends with a variety of people no matter the group in which they were a part. I tried to have as much variety as I could with art, musical theater, chorus, sports, jazz band, etc. I guess you could say instead of being a product of my environment, I was the opposite.
e: What is your fascination with the unsettling or macabre?
CB: It’s a part of life that a lot of people are uncomfortable with and that intrigues me. I don’t think it should be ignored.
e: Tell us about your songwriting process and how those songs are paired with instrumentals. How do songs transform into these visual stories?
CB: There are many ways I write songs. A lot of times it involves combining pieces of melodies from recordings I put on my phone with other inspirations from folk tales and photos, such as from DividingMe Photography [in Greensboro, NC,] for the most recent album, “The Absolute Elsewhere.” The stories already exist, and I make them my own and they take on another life. Sometimes it’s like a channeling process where I sit down in front of the piano and let the music flow out without thinking. I’ve also come up with melodies and whole songs in the shower or lying in bed, and then figure out the chords to go along with it on the piano or accordion. That gets me out of following a chordal formula, like you hear in much of mainstream music.
e: Can you share with us one of your favorite stories or concepts you’ve translated into song?
CB: One of my favorites is about Sherlock Holmes and how difficult it is being in love with a sociopath. It’s called “The End.”
e: How do they translate into live performances? Are you and your band especially theatrical?
CB: In some settings I’m able to have projections of the photos that inspired the songs, or dancers and aerialists interpret the songs and bring them to life. . . . Unfortunately there’s not enough budget or space to do that for this show [at Palate].
I’m probably the most theatrical with my facial expressions and gestures in order to tell the story that I’m singing about. I still have dreams of acting in film some day. Maybe I could do that in Wilmington somehow!
e: You had a music video contest for the song “Choke,” where are you in the process of completing that video and what was the response you got from fans?
CB: We still have one scene to shoot that’s a little more complicated and might involve me under water. There were so many people that came out to help shoot the video and make it happen on pretty much no budget. And we raised a little money through my website to pay for expenses, which was amazing.
e: What can you tell readers about the “Choke” storyline and how you envision its translation to screen?
CB: It’s full of gross, creepy and beautiful things. There is some aerial footage of an abandoned castle and a lot of creepy dolls. Part of it was filmed at Spooky Woods in Greensboro.
e: You’ve partnered with Craig Thieman from Wilmington for the video—can you tell us more about that partnership and connection to Wilmington?
CB: Craig is amazing to work with and he agreed to film the video if I would write some music for his full-length dark comedy “Suicide for Beginners,” so I can’t wait to see that when it’s finished! He saw me perform in Wilmington a few years ago and we kept in touch about the music for his film. Hopefully, we’ll make another music video together in the future.
e: Your last album “The Absolute Elsewhere” was released in 2014, is there a new project you’re currently working on? If so, what can you tell our readers about it?
CB: We’re working on recording a few new songs to release an EP before the end of the year. I’m working with my new guitar player, Jeremy Haire, on a new direction with more stripped down arrangements and different styles. I’m still open to the direction it’s going to take, and he’s going to sing some harmonies with me, which I can’t wait for everyone to hear.