Inching toward the big-time
by Shelton Hull
Crystal Stafford’s first album, A Timeline, is due to be released in January 2006, some time later than originally projected. “I didn’t think it would be as difficult as it was,” she admits. A well-received run in New York last summer took up a great deal of her time, in addition to the hours spent in-studio. “I think the biggest challenge was trying to figure out how I wanted the songs. Up until now I’d played them acoustic, kind of the same way every time, but I didn’t want to record them like that.”
She’s about finished with ten tracks so far, with dabs of polish upcoming. In regard to the album’s probable title, she said that “I kind of wanted to arrange the songs in the order they were written, so it shows the story of what I’ve gone through. … I didn’t want to name it after one of the songs or anything like that.” Solo versions of eight songs are available for download via her www.crystalstafford.com.
Stafford is most often seen locally in duo settings with people like Nick Kypreos, Stan Piper, Paul Sikivie, Billy Thornton (unrelated to “Kool” Keith Thornton) and as Jear Let with the late Doug Riefler. She’s also worked in the group Soul Vine: “That was a full-on band, and I love playing with bands,” she says. “That’s my favorite way to perform, but it hasn’t worked out.” Instead, she’s decided to build her band around the arrangements, rather than the reverse.
This studio group includes Jared May of Ariel Tribe and drummer John Farmer, who’s also producing the tracks. “It’s going to be my dream band up there with me, so I’m really excited.” Other possibilities include keyboards and strings. While Stafford herself plays guitar and piano, her affinity for the bass is clear. In duos, she typically uses her guitar as a rhythm instrument, leaving the lead to be articulated by the bassist. That approach had astonishing effect in her Jear Let gigs, and continues so in duo with Thornton.
For Stafford, the music is just one part of an integral vision for helping to make the world — and her city, in particular — a better place. Stafford was born in Jacksonville in 1978, and graduated from Nease High School before attending the University of Hawaii, earning a BA in Environmental Studies. That training was put to good use working for various non-profit organizations back in Jacksonville, where she was a co-founder of the local Green Party. Activism remains a key part of her identity.
The reality is that, while local media gets over its issues with local music, there is little option but to travel, if the advancement of one’s art is a priority. Stafford has come to recognize the underlying dynamic acutely: “It’s my hometown. I love the people here, all that. But sometimes you don’t get as much support, playing here.”
Stafford’s late-summer New York stint included performances at Crash Mansion, Rockwood Music Hall and The Bitter End. “I was nervous, at first, going up there, but everybody was extremely supportive, really into it. It made me feel so much better about myself as a musician. She was also part of the 9/11 Memorial at Herald Square. Her year included gigs at Miami’s Jazid and Purdy Lounge, in addition to more than 65 shows in northeast Florida with half a dozen collaborators.
Her sound has proven itself adaptable to all types of settings, from the TPC to Hemming Plaza to the 9th and Main “Chaos Fair.” The music is clear, coherent and played professionally; the listener is left free to focus on it, or not. Stafford’s voice — a crisp, bell-like contralto — is like the first break of dawn over newly liberated peoples. It has been described by one listener, some time ago, as “bottled sunshine.” But it’s not all sunshine. “There were times when I was gigging five nights a week, and my voice — it was really hurting,” she admits, adding props for Throat Coat (slippery elm) tea and whiskey.
Crystal Stafford played Fuel on November 29. She actually canceled a booking at the venerable (and, at present, still open) CBGB to do it because, as she puts it, “I’m not going to go back up there until the album’s done.” She is otherwise slowing her schedule to concentrate on recording, although she will be doing her regular duo gig with Kypreos (an exciting young guitar whiz with a streak of strong dark humor) at Mudville Grill.
Crystal Stafford: www.crystalstafford.com