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KristinaTrain_SpiltMilkGoing right back to the beginning, when did you first express an interest in music?

My mum took me to my first violin lesson when I was three. We did a mother-daughter violin thing and I ended up playing violin but the funny thing is that my favourite thing was always singing and I always knew that and she always knew that. My house was very musical growing up. I remember my mum’s records playing all the time and she was always singing and she would sing me to sleep when I was a kid. She told me she had to stop, though, because before I could speak I would start humming everything back to her and patting her on the back and wouldn’t go to sleep because I’d end up singing the songs back to her. So that was a problem (laughs).

What sort of music did you hear around the house?

My mum loved Joni Mitchell, Karen Dalton and Sandy Denny, and she listened to a lot of jazz – I remember that’s how I first heard Herbie Hancock – and she listened to a lot of old soul and blues. She also liked ’60s rock, crooners and also old school country music; Patsy Cline, Kris Kristofferson, and John Prine. So it was very, very colourful, and very inspiring and always alive with music.

Which musicians have had a big influence on you?

There are so many but for me as a singer in particular I really focus on singers whose tone I find interesting. So for me that’s Dusty (Springfield), and I love Aretha (Franklin) because everything she does is so tasteful and it’s so monstrous that I can’t actually believe that she’s physically capable of making these things happen: it’s a blend of not only ability but also taste and tone. And when you have that kind of tri-sector, it’s a powerhouse combination. So I love her as well as Bing Crosby, Nat ‘King’ Cole, Ray Charles, Gladys Knight and also Roy Orbison – he’s somebody I really love, the tone of his voice, and I also love a little bit of Elvis.

How did you come to the attention of Blue Note Records? Did you go the normal route with demo tapes?

Yeah, I was playing in a band and we were opening for Little Feat. So this producer who used to work for Blue Note in the ’70s was there and said “man, I’ve got to get you up to see Bruce Lundvall (then head of the label).” So the next week we flew up (to New York) and I sang in this really small room. It was Bruce, (producer) Arif Mardin, and me and I just sang with a piano and then got signed.

And of course, Arif Mardin produced Aretha Franklin and Dusty Springfield as well.

Yeah. It was incredible and I’ll never forget his words: he had this really strong accent and he said “my darling, you have a beautiful voice and a very special talent. Use it wisely.” Blue Note were very protective of me and I had a great experience with them. My mentors, Bruce Lundvall and Arif Mardin, signed me when I was 19 and my mother – she was also a schoolteacher, so academics always came first – really didn’t want me to do it. At the time that there were a lot of very, very young singers and pop stars and my mum never really wanted me to be exposed to that world. She wanted me to grow and wanted me to live life and absorb experiences and so she made me go to college. So I had to tell Blue Note that I couldn’t really take the deal and couldn’t make an album. So I went to college and tried to please her but realised it was completely the wrong choice and said “look, I’m going to do this with or without you.” Then she jumped back on board and then I went back up to New York met with Blue Note and said “will you guys give me another chance?” Then they re-signed me (in 2008) and I made my album (‘Spilt Milk’).

Did being on a label like Blue Note with all its history put any pressure on you at all?

No, I don’t see it that way. There’s such an incredible legacy there and all of my heroes were on Blue Note but I think you always want to keep passing the torch and want to keep it alive and want it to keep growing: especially jazz as it’s something that’s malleable and should continue to breathe and live and grow. So it was very exciting and empowering to know that I was walking in the footsteps of these people who were my teachers.

So why did you leave the label?

The headline in the New York Times right before my album came out read “bloodbath at EMI.” I don’t know if you’re familiar with the whole EMI collapse but basically it happened right when my album was coming out. Unfortunately that meant that Blue Note’s hands were tied and everything stopped at EMI. I made a great album that I’m fiercely proud of even to this day but we couldn’t do anything with it. It was scary times. I would call up and ask to speak to someone at the company and I’d be told that they weren’t there anymore. Everyone was gone. So it was so upsetting and very disheartening and it turned out to be a Blue Note that I didn’t recognise. I realised that it was my time to leave and so I went to Bruce Lundvall and said “Bruce, if you think there’s a way that I can stay with you and you guys can really help me to keep going and help me have a career, I will stay with you till the end. But if you don’t or can’t then please could you let me go?”  He said “yes, you can go” and they let me go and they gave me back my music and it was very, very respectful and wonderful. I’ll always be grateful to them for that.

Given your new situation, do you think it was a blessing in disguise in a way?

Yeah, I do. You never know why things happen and I thought that being on Blue Note was the best thing for me but it turned out to seem almost the worst. I never really expected that at 30 years old that ‘Dark Black’ was going to be my big break. But the beauty of it is that art has no timeframe or age limit and there are no restrictions. If you believe in what you’re doing and your work is quality and you push forward then eventually someday might hear you or see you or be interested so that’s what I’ve learned from it.

One final question: do you think living in London has affected your music?

I do. I am probably considered to have a traditional American sound as far as my voice goes but I think that being in London together with the way I approach my songs and especially the way I approach production has allowed me to become something new. You know when you talk about something and you say oh it’s vintage or it’s retro or it’s old school or it’s classic? It seems that everybody’s always looking behind them but for me making my album in London has allowed me to look at myself now and also at myself in the future. I don’t feel that I’m just trying to re-cut the same sounds that have already been made. I think I’m definitely tipping my hat to the past but I’m doing it in a very modern way.