Without extensive knowledge of poetry–or at least album liner notes–one could easily listen to Kris Delmhorst’s Strange Conversation from start to finish without realizing that several of its 12 songs were begun over a century ago and completed only last year. Without extensive knowledge of poetry–or at least album liner notes–one could easily listen to Kris Delmhorst’s Strange Conversation from start to finish without realizing that several of its 12 songs were begun over a century ago and completed only last year. The Massachusetts-based singer/songwriter isn’t usually the co-writing type, but she left a lot of the lyrical ideas for her fourth album to the likes of Robert Browning, George Eliot, e.e. cummings, Rumi and Walt Whitman.
Though the collection of poems-turned-songs sprang from the pages of the Norton Anthology, a mammoth high school English textbook, they sound anything but staid, spiritless and academic; that’s because Delmhorst took the liberty of tweaking and updating the language as needed, when it was clear that words were too cumbersome for her warm, honeyed soprano to comfortably carry.
“I didn’t really set out with any rules, but as soon as I got kind of deep into [this project], I definitely made the conscious decision to not be too precious about the poems, just to let them change where they needed to change–because what makes a good poem does not necessarily make a good song,” she explains. “They’re totally different formats, even though I think they’re related. It’s like adapting a book into a movie, you know? You just have to make changes to make it work in that medium.”
For some songs, such as the sleepy, surfeited ballad “We’ll Go No More A-Roving,” taken from Lord Byron’s poem of the same name, Delmhorst left the original poem completely intact. But when it came time to flesh out Robert Browning’s ode to a long gone, colorful, bustling Venice, entitled “A Tocatta of Galuppi’s,” she went so far as to transform the overall sentiment of the poem from one of irreversible loss to one of enduring optimism.
“When I read the poem, I felt like he was talking about a guy who’s been dead forever, but [who’s] still alive because of the music and because of Robert Browning’s writing,” Delmhorst recalls. “So I was really kind of shocked when he stuck the ending on. He just dwelled on the fact that everybody was dead. How much more alive could you want to be–that people are still talking about your work and enjoying it? That was one of the few changes I made that I [realized], ‘Some people might give me some shit for this.’ But I didn’t really hesitate. He’s entitled to his ending and I’m entitled to mine.”
Delmhorst is generally thought of as a folk singer/songwriter, but that doesn’t mean that she always takes her cues strictly from that idiom. “Sometimes I feel like I’m not really worthy of that title. I don’t know, to me that seems like a specific thing, and I’m not sure that what I do is that–or it’s certainly not always that.”
True enough. The songs on Strange Conversation traverse the vast territory between swelling, epic acoustic pop; spare, heart-heavy balladry; languid Dixie horn band jaunts; and raw, churning blues-rock. Her three previous albums, 1998’s Appetite, 2001’s Five Stories and 2003’s Songs for a Hurricane, are no less colorful and nuanced.
Five Stories marked the beginning of her relationship with independent New England singer/songwriter-friendly imprint Signature Sounds, a label which–it turns out–is sympathetic to seemingly outlandish ideas like literary concept albums. For a good while, Delmhorst cultivated her music in Cambridge, Ma., making a name for herself as a fine craftswoman of vibrant, intelligent fare. She has since relocated to a tiny western Massachusetts town and married fellow tradesman, Jeffrey Foucalt, one of her collaborators in the folk trio Redbird.
New England is fertile ground for singer/songwriters, and recent years, Delmhorst has seen three of her Signature labelmates–Lori McKenna, Josh Ritter and Erin McKeown–go on to sign with larger labels and enjoy increasing visibility. Delmhorst herself has expanded beyond regional artist status to playing countless festivals and regularly crisscrossing the country.
“I think in the long run, the writing and the recording are the most important things to me–in that twenty years from now, I hope I’ll still be performing in some way,” she muses. “But I don’t imagine I’ll still be playing a hundred-plus dates a year on the road. That doesn’t sound too appealing to me long-term in my life, but I can’t imagine ever not writing or recording.”