England-born, Toronto-based singer-songwriter David Krystal achieved much of his early success writing jingles for commercials. Now, he is exclusively dedicated to writing serious music. His song “Say You Love Me” blew up in Europe thanks to the music streaming site Jamendo, and he just released his latest EP All the Colours on June 19. He is in town this week for the Victoria Jazz Fest. The Martlet caught up with Krystal ahead of his June 19 performance.
Your new EP was just released. Was that today?
I think it was, yeah!
How do you feel about that? Was it a good end product?
Actually, when you’re in the middle of it, it’s just like one big giant jigsaw puzzle. You just have to mix all the parts. I’ve seen other artists put up on big black boards and then… each song, what they mean. So when you come to the end of it, I did it so fast ‘cause I wanted to have just the EP or something here. So it really, over the last month and a half, even though I’d taken about a year and a half to do it, it was suddenly ‘bang, bang!’ So I haven’t really had time until probably this week. And it was on the CFAX Radio. I did an interview with them before it came out, and I was going, “Okay, that’s not bad, I like it.”
I was just listening to it on the way here. I like the filter that you used for a lot of the vocals. I thought it was really interesting.
Oh, yeah, I use a harmonizer. But then I… add on with the real vocals. So that’s what it is. And a lot of falsetto singing.
And it touches on different lyrical subjects than your previous work. You said you wanted sort of a triptych kind of thing.
This will be my third album, so it’s like a triptych . . . And what I always say is that it’s really about loss, hope, love, love from many different angles. You know, superficially, a lot of the time a lot of people think my songs, which very much have love in the words – the lyrics, sometimes the title — are all about romantic love. But it’s not just about romantic love. It’s also about love for even lost parents, like I have — both my parents died — my children, kids, you know. So it’s a love that encompasses everything. And the need of human beings to have love.
But it’s not just about romantic love . . . it’s a love that encompasses everything.
Was there anything specific around this time that prompted you to explore these subjects?
Uh, no… As I said, this is the third album, and it’s continued on those themes. I think maybe… let me think about this one. Although I did kind of veer off on the song “Resurrected Czar,” — I don’t know if you remember that one — that’s a little bit different. But I think it’s still on the umbrella of the same ambitions.
And you have an album coming up this fall, correct?
Yeah. These songs will be on there. And who knows? I’ll see what happens. In terms of difference from the others, I think on the sonic colour palette, that’s where it kind of changed. Maybe not with the content so much, I don’t think, but really… for years I was doing commercials, films, TV, lots and lots of those. And when we first started out, it was synthesizers up to [hand gesture] . . . We used to take them to the studios, then I got my own studio, and I just had enough of using synthesizers. And just decided five or six years ago, I just consciously, after I saw my company, that my new album, the first album, [is] not gonna have any samples at all . . . Now, kind of, I’ve gotten back into, on a couple songs [such as] “You Don’t Have To,” where I’m now using sort of programming and getting back into that as well. Which I really, really enjoyed. Mix and matching. So yeah . . . That’s the real difference as well as . . . [playing] live is always crucial to what we’re doing.
You went to Mexico to do some of the recording?
Yep. For the last four years, I’ve been going there for a month. And working on a couple of albums. This is the second album. With a good friend of mine called Billy White, who’s a Texan musician. And he’s also a programmer and we record in his little place. And I’m talking a small place that he rents out overlooking the mountains. Below, he rents from a Mexican family. You walk in the place and there’s nothing in the hallway but a raggedy kind of loveseat with five Chihuahuas. And then you kind of walk by them and go upstairs, and he has a wonderful, beautiful setup, and we just work on pre-production and production or just starting . . . on the songs. On about half the songs, I start there. Then, I take them back to Toronto and work in a couple studios—two, three studios there. And then sometimes I even come back with the same song . . . I think one song I had, “And I Will Be Yours,” I completely changed the chorus, and the bridge, and we redid that. So that’s what I do . . . and we play live there as well sometimes.
Do you think geographically it had an effect on your sonic palette for this?
Well, “Resurrected Czar” was very interesting. I had a cold and I couldn’t really sing. And we rented a friend’s unbelievable place which was forty-foot ceilings, big stone, and . . . I could only sing in the falsetto voice. ‘Cause I couldn’t sing full voice . . . so there, the influence of that was I don’t think I’d ever have written that song if it wasn’t for Mexico.
So “Say You Love Me” is pretty big in Europe. Why Europe, and not here?
Well, I had a guy put the song up on a European site called Jamendo. And it just blew up. Even yesterday . . . I got a Facebook message from a Spanish guy who wants to use it for a video. So it’s still happening. It’s just incredible.
Yeah, it’s just one of those things.
Why do you think that song in particular?
I think — and there’s another one. “Say You Love Me.” It’s actually about a really good friend of mine who was in a psych ward when we were about eighteen years old. And he fell in love with his nurse. So if you examine the lyrics, he’s definitely insane. And he’s just looking desperately for love. And he’s just putting it on a nurse who doesn’t even have any feelings towards him. So . . . the song is all about that. But that particular song? I think it’s just a great groove, a great melody. It’s a song I love to perform, as well. And my upright bass player. He blows away people because he does a solo at the end. It’s on my live album, actually. And . . . he does this really fast high-up-the-neck stuff. And we were in a small little concert place. I could see people’s jaws dropping. It was great. So I think people like that.
So it sounds like your songs generally come from a very real place, would you say that?
Yeah, I think so. I’ve always said this to everybody: You have to be honest about it. If you’re not honest, people know. And it’s the hardest thing to be. Both lyrically and musically, you have to be honest. And that’s . . . Only be that. And all the great ones, that is, without question, what they have. And you don’t care. You gotta have where you don’t care about what people think about you. If people like it, that’s great. If they don’t like it, you have to go, “Okay, that’s fine.”
You have to be honest about it. If you’re not honest, people know. And it’s the hardest thing to be.
You have to be honest about it. If you’re not honest, people know. And it’s the hardest thing to be.
That’s interesting considering a lot of your first success and probably financial success was based on commercials.
Yeah! Absolutely. And it took me a good two years to get back into not being just a gun for hire. And starting to internalize who I really am as an artist again. I started out that for many, many years, but then a huge gap — I was always writing songs, I was always signed . . . But to really mine yourself, that is hard. And I definitely needed the time for that.
Do you think it was disheartening to see you getting more recognition for that side of your work rather than for your more serious music?
Well, I didn’t try to be doing the other side, really. I wasn’t bringing out albums. And I think you can’t play at being an artist. So I had to completely [say], “That’s it. I don’t want to see another client” five years ago. I had to [do] a little bit of it, ‘cause that was under the contract of my agreement of selling to the company, to look after my client, so I would come in once, twice a week, then it was once every two weeks, then the third year it was like once a month or something. So yeah. No interest in doing that anymore. I’ve done it. I still like doing it. In the beginning days, it was like mini songs. So it was great. It changed.
Is it interesting whenever you hear the Excel commercial?
Eh. I can’t even remember doing some of them. It’s amazing. Some of them, really, ‘That was good. I like that one.’ But it’s more enjoyable doing songs.
You mention your iPhone in a different interview about how integral it is to your songwriting and capturing a moment. Was it hard before this kind of technology was available? What did you do?
Uhhh, what did I do? I just remembered everything, I think. My memory’s not as good, obviously. But sometimes we’d put it down to little cassettes and tapes and things like that. I would definitely do that. But the iPhone has really . . . I sometimes write with a friend in Harbour Island and we would write two hours of songs, and boom! We’d do three versions on the iPhone. And sometimes it’s so hard to recreate what you got there. But that’s where the magic was, in the beginning. You know, you just get so excited about a song, and then you might just . . . Lyrically, there’s nothing coming out. Maybe there’s a little bit there, but it’s the rhythm of the words that I used to just mumble. And it’s great. There’s always something. I think it’s very important. Very, very important.
Yeah, technology can be great.
It can be detrimental.
It can be detrimental. I think it’s really important for everybody to learn their instruments as well. I mean, not everybody. There’s hip-hop guys. But even some of the . . . The guy I use, the hip-hop guy, Kyle K-Notes Smith, he’s actually a really good piano player. And he’s a hip-hop programmer. So I think it’s really good to have knowledge. Always.
Why do you like Retrograde so much, by James Blake? Speaking of technology.
Oh, fuck. It’s just unbelievable. Do you like him? James Blake?
Yeah. He’s one of my favourites.
Oh my god. He is something else. I love — absolutely adore his vocals. I love his stripped-down version, I love his melodies . . . and it’s always so simple, and he’s actually stretching music in different directions that nobody else is really doing. And what’s his name, James Vincent McMorrow is kind of doing it. Bon Iver is another one. It’s just . . . fucking mind-blowing. It’s just unbelievable. I love it. And that’s why “Resurrected Czar” . . . I’m happy that it worked on that falsetto.
So would you say you were influenced a little bit by these guys?
I think so. Yeah, a little bit. It’s still very different. But I would definitely say that.
Do you listen to a lot of current music?
Not incredibly, no. But do you know my daughter? She’s a really, really good musician. She was up for a Juno in the electronic category, [and] she’s up for a Polaris on the longlist. Lydia Ainsworth’s her name. You should check her out. She’s really good. But we listen to things together. So yeah, sometimes. But when you’re in the zone, you’ve gotta . . . put the blinkers on. So you just try not to be too influenced.
Have you played with [your live band] for long?
Gord was with me for years — Gordon Sheard. And from the late eighties, for about ten, twelve years, we worked together at my music production company. And he is an unbelievable musician. He went on to get his PhD in Brazilian music. He’s now head of Composition at Humber [College]. Just a wicked keyboard player. George Koller is probably Canada’s primo upright bass player. And he’s amazing. He’s [a] very, very different bass player than most upright players.
How did you connect with these guys?
Well, Gord I’ve known, as I said, since the late eighties. Someone introduced us when I had a little band. He joined my band. And then we were in the studio all the time. Every day. So I’ve known them for a long time. And George we used all the time in the studio.
Is there a lot of improvisation at your shows then?
Yeah! There’s much more so than obviously [on] the album. Those guys, you just let ‘em go. I love it as well. You’ve got a song, and then you let these guys go off on a tangent. It’s great.
What about you?
I started as keyboards, but I play a lot of guitar. And there’s another keyboard as well. But they’re so amazing [laughs] I let them do it. I really do. I like to jam as well — improvise on keyboards more. And sometimes guitar.
Yeah, I mean I’ve always been good on keyboards, but Gord is . . . those guys are top in the country. And it’s jazz. And they’re jazzists. [laughs] I’m not a jazzer.
Do you ever think you’re gonna branch out into that realm?
A little bit. I mean, some of the songs . . . have a jazz bent. But no. I know that ship, whatever, passed me by. I mean I love it. I really love a lot of it. But I’m the singer. I’m not a jazzist.
Guitarist as well?
Yep. I love writing on guitar. A lot. And I started just doing it on the acoustic, but now I’m bringing electric into my shows. So I brought my Strat out. As well as the Ed-Sheeran-little-practice-Martin-guitar, which fits in the overheard. So it’s great! I used it on the show a couple of weeks ago. I bought it and it’s fantastic. I love it. So I’m using that as well.
Is there anything wild planned for you performances here?
D: Don’t think so. Wild . . . Not gonna . . . [if you] have any fireworks — that could be deadly. Not that I think of. But you never know. You never know.
Guess you gotta keep everyone on their toes.
Gotta keep ‘em on their toes. I’ve started using the harmonizer box, which gives you two [harmonies.] So I can recreate things on the record on some of the songs. That always surprises people. And we just fell upon this little item. I think I sent out an assistant from the studio and I said, “Just get me a harmonizer.” And it’s an amazing one. It’s great. So that, I love. That surprises some people.