Cristina Black
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Cristina Black

New York City, New York, United States

New York City, New York, United States
Band Pop Singer/Songwriter

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"Alex Chilton and Cristina Black, The Ditty Sessions"

Though a disturbing fact regarding the late Alex Chilton’s lack of health insurance (which was picked up by A.V. Club, Huffington Post, and Rolling Stone last week) from Keith Spera’s brilliant Times-Picayune article on Chilton’s life in New Orleans has been making the rounds, part of me fears that a politically apropos angle like that diminishes part of the piece’s biographical significance. Particularly the fact that Chilton partook in a number of notable musical collaborations in the Crescent City during his final so-called reclusive years. Enter Cristina Black.

Black writes for Village Voice, Nylon, Dazed & Confused, and edits the entertainment section of Foam. She also recorded an entire album with Alex Chilton in her backing band last fall. Wait, what? You heard right: Black broke the news on Sunday (via her official site’s blog) that her new record, The Ditty Sessions, was recorded with guitarist Alex McMurray, keyboardist Brian Coogan, and the former Big Star/Box Tops frontman on the bass.

As Spera’s piece reported, Chilton remained in New Orleans’ Treme during Hurricane Katrina, and was eventually flown out of the flooded aftermath by helicopter. Black’s record draws inspiration from the same event: “I remember thinking if I just had something to hold on to, a stick or something, maybe I could pull myself up out of that mess,” she writes. “That metaphor became the first line and theme for ‘All I Want.’”

Are these the great Alex Chilton’s final studio recordings? Perhaps. Either way, it was hard to tell — while streaming previews on her MySpace — whether it was Black’s wonderful songs and voice or the prominent mix placement of Chilton’s bass performance here that made these recordings such a thrill to hear. - TwentyFourBit


"Q&A Cristina Black"

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. - TwentyFourBit


"Alex Chilton Tracks Unearthed for New Cristina Black Album"

Some of Big Star founder Alex Chilton’s final recordings are part of singer Cristina Black’s new release, The Dirty Sessions. Chilton plays bass on the new EP, which was recorded last September in Black’s former hometown of New Orleans (where Chilton lived until his death last month). The album was produced by Galactic’s Ben Ellman and features Black on ukulele and lead vocals. Alex McMurray (guitar) and Brian Coogan (keys) also contribute to the record.

“I first attempted songwriting from a puddle of mud,” Black writes in her blog. “I’d fallen there on the sidelines of a New Orleans parade in 2006, during the first Mardi Gras after Hurricane Katrina busted up the city. I remember thinking if I just had something to hold on to, a stick or something, maybe I could pull myself up out of that mess. That metaphor became the first line and theme for ‘All I Want,’ and stayed with me for months after I returned to New York City, my home since 2004. The song, by then fully formed, was playing over and over in my head, its aching, minor-key melody pushing me through the confusion of post-Katrina life.

“That tune and the rest of them found their way out of me through a hundred-dollar baritone ukulele, which I took up later that same year, inspired and schooled by Brooklyn singer-songwriter Michael Leviton,” she continues. “I’d been a musician all my life. I’d studied classical piano, harp and voice as a child and made my living as a professional music critic for about a decade. But it was only when I learned to serenade my friends on that little axe that I realized my own melodies were valid, and so were my thoughts on things like love, money, class, death and disaster. Finally, I merged the two, and that’s why The Ditty Sessions exists.” - Jambands.com


"Alex Chilton and Cristina Black Made Some Beautiful Music Together"

Let’s delay the speculation over whether or not these are in fact Alex Chilton’s last recordings and just appreciate these songs for what they are: One, they’re soft jams the likes of which we’re definitely not treated to everyday. Two, in addition to celebrating Chilton, they showcase Black as a talent in her own right. Black, a writer for the Village Voice and Nylon (as well as countless other publications), announced the The Ditty Sessions EP on her blog this past weekend, and noted Chilton backing her on bass from her time in post-Katrina New Orleans along with Alex McMurray on guitar and Brian Coogan on the keys. The EP is available now or you can get a primer on a few songs on Black’s MySpace. Take a listen, if nothing else to hear the least awkward eBay reference to date on “These Days.”


- The Fader


Discography

The Ditty Sessions, 2010

Photos

Bio

The gorgeous, dark-tinged tunes on Brooklyn singer-songwriter Cristina Black’s debut The Ditty Sessions are catching on with critics and fans for their clever lyrics and pretty arrangements. Recorded in fall of 2009, the album represents a magical collaboration between Black’s ukulele-driven confessional songwriting and an all-star backing band. Often compared to Nico and Joni Mitchell for her smoke-and-honey character voice, Black maintains a cabaret-like propriety while drawing on the curious looseness of her former home, New Orleans. Standout track “Purple Houses” describes the anxiety of watching Hurricane Katrina swirl towards the Gulf Coast, and the cover photo depicts Black as a drowned bride in a bathtub, wearing a garland of dried flowers. The set also addresses drug addiction on “These Days”, infidelity on “All I Want” and the plight of the wealthy on “Drunk Rich People,” which was recently featured on NBC’s prime time hit Parenthood. Black is confirmed to appear at the 2011 Bonnaroo Music Festival.

A classically trained harpist and pianist from age 4, Black turned to pop songwriting more recently when she took up baritone ukulele. “I’m really only interested in magical instruments,” says Black. “But I wanted to play something small and simple for once.” Inspired and schooled by fellow Brooklyn singer-songwriter (and now band mate) Michael Leviton, she began writing her own music after learning to play current hits by quirky solo artists like Rufus Wainwright, Fiona Apple, Feist and Regina Spektor.

Bruised from the events of Katrina and their collateral damage, she began to channel the experience of loss into her own compositions. “The horror of that ordeal created a hole in my life so deep I had no choice but to sing my way out of it,” Black explains. She conceived her first song after falling in a puddle of mud on parade sidelines during Mardi Gras. “I remember thinking if I just had something to hold on to, a stick or something, maybe I could pull myself up out of that mess,” she recalls. That metaphor became the first line and theme for “All I Want,” its aching, minor-key melody pushing her through the emotional confusion of post-Katrina life.

Soon, Black found herself back in New Orleans recording at Number C Studios, the home base of venerable funk band Galactic. With saxophonist-producer Ben Ellman at the console, the sessions were scheduled around the recording of the Grammy-nominated Trombone Shorty album Backatown. Black asked old friends Alex McMurray (guitar), Brian Coogan (piano, Wurlitzer, B3) and Alex Chilton (bass) to back her. “Chilton was the last piece to fall into place,” she recalls. “I needed a bass player in New Orleans who really knew pop music and he was the obvious choice.” Chilton passed away suddenly last spring. The Ditty Sessions were the rock legend’s final studio recordings.

Black continues to perform in support of The Ditty Sessions with her New York based band (Michael Leviton, keys, guitar; Chris Van Voorst, upright bass). Hopping from ukulele to keys and back, she plays regularly at beloved Manhattan and Brooklyn clubs such as Rockwood Music Hall, the Mercury Lounge, Banjo Jim’s and Union Hall.