Speak With Your Craft: Kristen Graves

Welcome to Speak With Your Craft, a (semi-)regular feature that profiles the many creative individuals in my life and my attempt to shed light on what inspires them. I also want to expose readers to crafts, talents, and skills that may be slightly offbeat or unusual. Today's profile: the wonderfully talented Kristen Graves! Kristen is an accomplished musician and singer-songwriter, even gaining the attention of and sharing the stage with the late folk legend Mr. Pete Seeger and the acclaimed Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul & Mary fame). She currently serves as the Connecticut State Troubadour (kinda like a poet laureate, but, you know, with music). She uses her platform as an artist to advocate for social change, and she even has her own (faux) political party, The Just Be Nice Party. I got to know Kristen through her efforts with Simply Smiles, including her work teaching music to children on the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota. Around this time is when I also learned about her Green Bay Packers fandom and witnessed her flawless rendition of Flo Rida's "Low" (yes, this). Read more about Kristen, listen to her mad musical skills, and learn more fun facts about her here:

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Share a few brief words about what you create, or a quick, whimsical fun fact about you or your artistic skills.

I create a few things. One is obvious - I create music. I write songs and share them at my shows. The second thing that I create is a connected experience. My songs tell of life, love, hardship, and hope. At my shows I share a lot of stories, some personal, some from friends, and these become my tools to help connect a room full of people. One of my favorite folk singers of all time was Pete Seeger, and he used to say that "a world that sings together, is a world at peace." I agree with that 1,000% and try my best to contribute to a peaceful world through shared music.

A fun fact about myself? I have a pet frog named George, and he’s 24 years old.

When did you first realize that you liked to create? 

I’m not sure that I ever consciously realized that I liked creating things. It was just something that I always did. I can remember a few things that specifically led to this particular life of mine:

  1. As a kid, I begged for piano lessons. And as soon as I started, I began making up songs. The first song that I ever wrote was about a leaping frog. My mother still has the sheet music. I was 6 years old.
  2. My parents bought me a karaoke machine for my birthday one year. I was in fourth grade, and I really liked the song, "Baby, Baby" by Amy Grant. I sang it over and over in the basement. I can remember after singing it for a few weeks, coming back upstairs and my mom telling me, "You’re sounding pretty good!" I felt like a star.
  3. When I was in college, I was a music major. This is a field of study that strikes fear into the heart of parents, I’d imagine. Not a lot of job security in the singer/songwriter industry. Anyway, during my second year of college, we were on winter break, and I had a bunch of friends over to my parents’ house. I sang my newest song for them (which was called, Something) and after my friends left, my dad pulled me aside and said, "You’re gonna make it, I just know it, you’re gonna make it!" I remember that moment so clearly. I try to remember it every now and again, on days when I need some encouragement.

All this to point out: I don’t know if I ever realized that I liked creating things, but I remember very specifically when I knew that I could create things. For real. To make my life and to make people happy.

Who or what has influenced your style or musicianship? Music or non-music related, what/who inspires you?

Style-wise, I’m inspired by everything. I know that feels like a cheat of an answer, but I mean it. I listen to a lot of different styles of music - as long as it’s good, I like it. I love some top 40, super popular music, as much as some super obscure folky stuff.

As an independent musician, I meet a lot of other independent musicians, so most often I listen to a lot of my friends. With that said, my favorite singer/songwriters and folk musicians that I try to be like are: Pete Seeger, Peter Yarrow (Peter, Paul & Mary), Dar Williams and Joan Baez. Truthfully, I am as much of a fan of their personalities and activism as I am of their music.

Social justice is obviously a significant element in your lyrics, your life, and your consciousness. And, folk music has proven to unite people through song, which is something that I think we need now more than ever in such a divisive political and social environment. Can you discuss why you went down the folk music path, and how it’s sort of guided or influenced your creativity or other elements of your life?

It has not been an intentional stroll down the folk music path. I loved Mariah Carey as much as the next 90’s high school student, but what really struck me as a teenager was Lilith Fair. I was a HUGE Sarah McLachlan fan, so when Lilith Fair came to town, I had to be there. (Somehow my parents let me go to Lilith Fair with friends that could drive, and we traveled in someone’s beat up van from Green Bay to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I have no idea how that came to be…)

Sarah McLachlan, Jewel, Sheryl Crow, Paula Cole, Dixie Chicks, all of these female singer/songwriters on stage, playing their own instruments and singing songs that they had written - something clicked, and I realized that was the type of music I wanted to make. 

 When Kristen is not traveling and performing, she spends her time teaching music camp on the Cheyenne River Reservation with Simply Smiles. In August 2015, the kids got to perform and close out the show at the Black Hills Unity Concert!

When Kristen is not traveling and performing, she spends her time teaching music camp on the Cheyenne River Reservation with Simply Smiles. In August 2015, the kids got to perform and close out the show at the Black Hills Unity Concert!

I wanted to sing my own songs. Just as I started really writing my own songs, I also started volunteering at a children’s home in Oaxaca, Mexico. Both things started taking over my life at the same time. I started writing music all of the time, and I spent the rest of my time working at and raising money for the children’s home. So, I wrote songs about what I saw and what I knew.

Spending time in this environment shifted me towards writing songs about social justice, and the idea of humanity, which pushed me down the folk path.

 When Kristen is not traveling and performing, she spends her time teaching music camp on the Cheyenne River Reservation with Simply Smiles.

When Kristen is not traveling and performing, she spends her time teaching music camp on the Cheyenne River Reservation with Simply Smiles.

What impresses me about you, and I’ve witnessed this firsthand many times, is that you can unite a room. Example: By the end of one of your recent house concerts, you had a stoic, conservative-type man (complete with a pink pocket square) belting out This Little Light of Mine. I mean, not like Aretha Franklin-belting out, but he was clearly into it. I don’t know if I have a definitive question for you, but what’s your thought process when you go into a performance or write a new song? Is it to win over or connect with a mass audience, or is getting the message of the song across more important? Or, is it a little bit of both?

First of all, thank you. I try really hard to accomplish what you just mentioned, and I totally remember pink-pocket-square-man! I approach performance and songwriting with two completely different goals. When I write a song, I try to write exactly what I’m thinking/feeling/observing in that moment. My goal is to be as honest as possible, and make sure that I’m being totally open. 

So, I don’t write for people, or to connect with a mass audience. I write what I need to say, and then I trust that if I’m thinking certain thoughts or processing certain feelings, there’s a pretty good change that other people are experiencing or living the same thing. With that said - not all songs are meant to be performed at all concerts.

When I head into a performance, I try to sing the songs that I’ve written (or in the case of folk music, that someone else has written) that can help us all unify around a central theme or idea. Or can help us focus on an issue, pose a specific question, or take us on a musical journey together. When I’m putting together a set list, I try to choreograph an approachable and intentional show. Then, if I change song order in the middle of a set (which happens often), it’s because I’m reading the audience, and seeing how we’re connecting. I like to watch the direction that an evening is going, and respond to that out of my repertoire.

As I’m singing, I’m watching the audience and feeding off of their energy as much as I hope they’re feeding off of mine. There’s a special thing that can happen - an elusive alchemy - when we’re all in sync. I’m constantly seeking that synchronicity. 

Listen to/watch Kristen's special Valentine's Day version of her song "Swing." She recommends to always #sharethelove!

You’ve recently given your take on that elusive concept of “making it” in the music industry - and, more broadly, in life - and it’s a really sensible notion: you, and only you, can define your success. When and how did you come to this conclusion?

This was such a wonderful realization! It’s one of my favorite things that I’ve ever figured out. I opened for Pete Seeger in 2013, which completely changed my life.When Pete Seeger opens the door to the folk world for you - you’re in. He was pretty much THE guy.

I realized, that this show, where I played three songs, was paid nothing, and actually ended up getting a $115 parking ticket (which I have saved in a memory box) was, to date, the best show of my career. On paper, it was one of my worst, and that’s where you define your own success, and decide what paths you’re going to pursue.

I’ve had had other moments like that: in 2002 when I decided to put out my first CD, just because I wanted to. (Also, it had never crossed my mind that I couldn’t.) And, in 2008 when I took my first cross-country tour.

For my entire career, I’ve done what I’ve wanted to do, and I’m living. I take chances when they make sense to me, and I make decisions based on what I think is right. That, to me, means that I've ‘made it’. I’m making my own destiny, and I am ‘making it.’ It’s a pretty great feeling.

What’s the latest project in the works? A hip-hop album, perhaps? (Please say yes. Bonus follow-up: What would be your hip-hop name/album title/both?)

Yes. Name: Krazy KG. Album Title: To Pimp a Butterfly (That’s not taken yet, is it?)

Then, after that…I’m always working on new songs, and am actually in a super creative time right now. I’ve just booked some studio time for the spring, and am looking to have a new album out in the next year or so. In addition to that, I’m looking to create an acoustic piano album, an album with a guitarist friend of mine, and a sing-along album to go with my faux political party, The Just Be Nice Party.

What is the best piece of advice/quote/image you’ve received about creating, or, conversely, what would you recommend to other creative types?

The best piece of advice that I’ve ever gotten was from Dar Williams (one of my favorite singer/songwriters) when we were talking about making decisions and working with people, she told me: "As you gain momentum, you’ll start to attract people. Some of them will be right and some will be wrong. Say no [or yes] in your mind, from your core, and from your inner self, because you need to trust yourself to know."

As far as what I’d recommend to creative types - I’d recommend being kind to yourself. On some days I’m my biggest fan, but more often than not, I’m my worst enemy. And what I’ve learned is that telling myself that "I’m the worst musician in the world" get’s me absolutely nowhere. However, being gentle and kind to myself brings me back to the piano, my guitar, and the road every time.

How can people check out your work or connect with you?

The best spot is on my website: www.kristengraves.com. That is the hub, and where it all happens. In addition, I have a new subscription community, where people can get all of my new music, and I’m also on all of the social media channels, so basically- we can connect everywhere!

Bonus: If you could be any character from a crime-detective show (a la Law & Order: SVU, Bones, etc.), who would you be and why? It can be an existing character, or one that you’d like to see - the world is your oyster.

No contest - Lieutenant Olivia Benson. Law & Order: SVU. (Another fun fact: I met Elliot Stabler at a restaurant once! I know that’s not his real name. And Chris Meloni was very kind.) 

Thanks, Kristen! As she said, check out more of her music, upcoming shows, background, and latest musings on her site: kristengraves.com! There, you can sign up for her e-mail newsletters (which include a free song!) and find links to her social media accounts to follow her on her creative endeavors. 

Have an idea for Speak With Your Craft? Know some interesting makers, crafters, cooks, bakers, food growers, woodworkers, herbalists, photographers, writers, actors, musicians, painters, fiber artists, and creative forces in your life? I have friends lined up in the near future, but I'm open to suggestions! Leave a comment or contact me: speakwithyourfood [at] gmail [dot] com. Remember, makers or creators need not fit into a neat box to be featured. So, here’s to more creating, crafting, listening, learning, and collaborating!