Though we first discovered Cristina Black’s debut EP, The Ditty Sessions, after catching wind of the album’s brilliant group of collaborators (Galactic producer/multi-instrumentalist Ben Ellman, guitarist Alex McMurray, keyboardist Brian Coogan, and the late, great Alex Chilton), Black’s catchy songs and gorgeous voice were — as the Tripwire also noted — not to be overshadowed by her estimable backing band. Black is an experienced NYC-based journalist, who has written for the likes of the Village Voice, Nylon, Dazed & Confused, Time Out New York, and edits the entertainment section at Foam. Her songs, however, were recorded in and inspired by her former home of New Orleans, LA. The Ditty Sessions have been stuck on repeat around here as there’s something truly magical about these recordings which I’ve been struggling to fully understand. Needless to say, a number of questions have been floating in my mind for the past month, so you can imagine my delight when Black graciously agreed to answer them…
TwentyFourBit: Listening to the EP, I’m finding it hard to put my finger on any specific influences. There’s a timeless quality to the songs which makes it hard to pinpoint an artist, modern or older, where you drew inspiration from. (My only guess is that the ukulele somehow played a stylistic role.) Stock question, sure, but who are your influences?
Cristina Black: I love modern female songwriters like Nellie McKay, Regina Spektor and Fiona Apple. Also, the Kinks and I share an obsession with class and money. Others have pointed to Steely Dan because my songs, though they sound harmless, address some really seedy stuff. They’re pretty and evil at the same time. Who doesn’t love that?
TFB: Bob Dylan wrote at length on New Orleans in his memoir. “A lazy rhythm looms in the dreamy air,” he said, “and the atmosphere pulsates with bygone duels, past-life romance, comrades requesting comrades to aid them in some way… Somebody is always sinking.” This quote resonates to me with regard to the first line of “All I Want” about pulling yourself up out of the mud at a parade during the first post-Katrina Mardi Gras. The Ditty Sessions is an optimistic collection, in my opinion, but to what extent was it inspired by this disaster striking your hometown?
CB: There is one song (“Purple Houses”) about watching Hurricane Katrina swirling into Louisiana on the news. I could see that my life might be about to shift in ways that I didn’t want it to, but there was nothing I could do about it. The horror of that event would create a hole in my life so deep, I had no choice but to sing my way out of it. It’s just how I dealt with the confusion. It is safe to say this album would not exist had Hurricane Katrina not hit New Orleans. It wouldn’t have needed to.
TFB: In your time in music journalism, not to mention growing up in such a musical city, you must have made some great contacts, which begs the question: How did you team up with Galactic’s Ben Ellman, Alex Chilton, and this brilliant backup band for recording sessions last fall?
CB: I didn’t actually grow up in New Orleans. I grew up in Pittsburgh and lived in N.O. from 1994-2004. Those guys are all dear old friends from that period. I am just goddamned lucky that, when it came time to make my first record, I happened to have friends who will show up at a studio and take solos that make you weep.
TFB: These songs sound as though they were recorded by the band live. As a recording musician, I’m dying to know what the process was like. Did Chilton and the rest of the band collaborate in arranging their respective parts?
CB: They did! I can’t tell you how fun and amazing it was having them learn my songs and try stuff out. Producing that group was like driving a muscle car. Totally intimidating, yet utterly exhilarating.
TFB: For a debut EP, this is such a wonderful start. What are your musical plans for the future (touring, live shows, LPs)?
CB: Thanks. I’m really happy with it! I’ll have shows in New York and New Orleans soon, with a different band and some new songs. And there is another record in the works, a full length.