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Kyle Craft Sings His Bowie-Filtered Version of the Blues on ‘Dolls of Highland’

Kyle Craft is a 27-year-old singer/songwriter from Louisiana, who in his past life was either a glam-rock idol or frontman for a power-metal band. His sound is a swampy ’70s boogie that splits the difference between Dr. John and David Bowie — Craft’s January 9th birthday even puts him right in between the anniversaries of Bowie’s birth and death — but his voice is a captivating, armor-piercing howl that gives his first album Dolls of Highland its own character, and keeps it from ever feeling explicitly retro. The engrossing LP, recorded in Portland with two members of Sub Pop veterans Helio Sequence helping to mix, has more of an out-of-time quality to it, with the moseying piano shuffle of “Eye of the Hurricane” and the chilling Spectorian balladry of “Lady of the Ark” existing as standards in some alternate-universe classic-rock canon.

We’re premiering the excellent Dolls of Highland — out April 29 on Sub Pop — below, and we caught up with Craft over the phone to discuss recording his debut effort, sneaking into the Sub Pop offices, and generally being born to roam.

It says in your press material that you got interested in playing music after you found a David Bowie tape at a Kmart. What’s the story behind that?
I would not say that’s what got me interested in music. That was just a [formative experience]. I mean, it was my first album. I wouldn’t say that it didn’t change me, but it wasn’t like I listened to it and was like “I have got to pick up a guitar tomorrow.”

What was your music taste like before that?
I’m from a really small town that didn’t have very much exposure to the outside world and what is happening, you know? So, mostly friends… a good friend of mine bought an electric guitar, got it for Christmas or something, and I messed around with it and thought it was really fun.

What was the first song you remember singing?
Oh God, that’s hard to remember. I would say probably something ridiculous like “Welcome to the Jungle.”

You have such a distinctive voice. Did that take a while for you to kind of discover, or have you always belted out like that?
It took me a while. I feel like I’ve always been a bit of a… you know, a power [singer], I sing really loudly. I guess it took me a while to discover how to utilize that in the way that is me, you know, and not being contrived or anything.

Has anybody ever tried to talk you into being a metal singer or a punk singer, anything like that?
[Laughs.] Oh, no. I don’t think anybody could talk me into anything like that.

Is there anybody that you look up to in terms of vocal style?
Yeah, Bob Dylan, he’s a big one as far as vocals go. I know he catches a lot of flack for [his vocal style], but he’s my favorite vocalist, I would think. Him and John Lennon.

How did you come to sign with Sub Pop?
Well… there’s a rock’n’roll sort of myth, story for [that]. So basically, six years ago I snuck into the Sub Pop office, and dropped off a demo of some stuff. And a month later they called me and were like ‘Hey, what’s up, what are you doing, is this something you’re looking at continuing doing?’ And they never really said anything back then, but that was the sort of foot in the door, so to speak. And then, whenever I finished this album, Dolls of Highland, I sent it over and was like “Hey, here’s this.” And they liked it.

Did you record the album mostly on your own, or did you have a full band?
No, I did it all on my laptop that I’ve had since 2007. I did it all in my laundry room, mostly by myself. There were some things I didn’t do, like I didn’t do a trumpet track, I didn’t do an upright bass track, you know? And then, after that we did some re-tracking with the Helio Sequence guys in Portland, and that’s pretty much how it came to be.

Was there anybody in particular you were listening to a lot while you were recording Dolls of Highland?
Lot of Dylan, a lot of Bowie, a lot of Beach Boys. You know, I usually stick to my guns. Father John Misty was pretty cool [to hear], cause there wasn’t really a lot of people doing that whole lyrically thick kind of throwback sound. Which is what I knew I wanted to do, as soon as I started this thing… You know, it was nice to know someone else was doing that.

Jonathan Wilson too, the guy that recorded Father John Misty’s album, I was listening to that as well. Gentle Spirit, the first album he had, it’s really good. Yeah, I like his style, really smooth. It sounds like Los Angeles. Now, I don’t think that I could ever have a sound so smooth, but… a little torn on the edges.

Do you feel like that lyricism of Father John Misty is sort of lacking in modern music, modern rock particularly?
I would say so, yeah. I mean, you listen back to the old Neil Young, and Dylan, even the Band, some of the lyricism… it still was thick, you know? It painted these kind of pictures, in a way that wasn’t too self indulgent.

I think that today there’s this lacking of lyricism. And in my opinion, there’s a way to do it that doesn’t have to be like the guy with an acoustic guitar, at the party playing, and everybody’s like “Oh my god, shut up.” It doesn’t have to be like that, you know, you can still play these songs, it just has to be good.

Do you think you’re gonna hang around in Portland?
You know, I’m not sure, man. I don’t wanna say that I’m gonna stay there forever. I’ve been in Portland now for about as long as I’ve been anywhere, after I left my hometown. You know, I kind of get the old traveling bone. I think [touring] will probably help that, but yeah, I wouldn’t mind living in a few other places. There’s certainly places I would like to try out.