The Texan musician and David Lynch collaborator discusses new album We Dissolve, owning a natural burial cemetery and keeping her role in the new series a secret
Fans of David Lynch’s cinema might know Chrysta Bell’s name from “Polish Poem”, the bewitching ballad that memorably soundtracked two scenes in the director’s 2006 film Inland Empire. The spellbinding and celestial qualities of “Polish Poem” would set the tone for the music that Chrysta Bell would subsequently release on her 2011 debut album This Train and its follow-up, last year’s Something in the Nowhere EP. Both were written and produced with Lynch, part of a creative partnership that began with their first meeting in 1999 and continues today, with Chrysta Bell set to play an as-yet-unspecified role in the new season of Twin Peaks, debuting on Showtime tonight (May 21).
While Chrysta Bell’s name is linked with Lynch’s, there’s far more to her career than that. The Texas-raised singer comes from a musical family – her parents owned a recording studio that was mostly used to record commercials and jingles, and she started singing as a session vocalist aged just 13. She released two albums with the group 8 ½ Souvenirs during the 1990s and toured as a lead vocalist for Mass Ensemble, a group known for transforming concert spaces into room-sized musical instruments.
Now, Chrysta Bell is releasing her second album We Dissolve. Unlike her previous solo releases, We Dissolve was made without Lynch, swapping the filmmaker’s sunny West Coast studio for the somewhat greyer climes of Bristol, England, where she recorded with John Parish, best known for his ongoing collaborations with PJ Harvey. We Dissolve is less dreamlike than her work with Lynch, taking in more rock, soul, jazz, and dub-inflected backing and featuring additional appearances by Adrian Utley of Portishead and Stephen O’Malley of Sunn O))). But it’s Chrysta Bell’s voice that remains the star of the show.
“I have these singers that really get to me – Nina Simone, Marvin Gaye, Julie London, Eartha Kitt, Rosemary Clooney, Annie Lennox,” she says over Skype. “The biggest inspiration was to make a strong record that really was something I could sink my teeth into as a singer and as an artist. I know that sounds pretty basic, but in terms of the journey of the singer, I really wanted to find my voice now and who I am now.”
We caught up with Chrysta Bell to talk about her new album, acting in Twin Peaks, her spirituality, and what it was like to inherit a cemetery.
It’s been a while your debut album came out. How long have you been working on We Dissolve?
Chrysta Bell: It’s been a few years since This Train came out, but David and I actually had another release (Something in the Nowhere) in 2016. So that was only five years for five songs – that was good for us, that was like the fast track. (laughs) But as for this album, some of the songs were written a long time ago and some of them were written up to two weeks before we started recording, which is all part of the fun, excitement, and terror.
How did you approach the album differently to Somewhere in the Nowhere?
Chrysta Bell: With David, we’ve had our formula together that really started the day we met, so it never really deviated from that. If you find someone – a musician, a collaborator, or a producer – and it works, you protect it. For the most part, when David’s got a bit of music, something he feels is good for my voice and vibe, he’ll play it for me and if I have something that stirs in me, then we’re cooking. He writes all the lyrics and my voice is the instrument, and I create the melodies and compose in that way. With John Parish, it was a much different approach. There were just copious amounts of songs written and then sent to him, and then he pulled from the material that was being sent. From there he picked 10 or 11 songs and said, ‘This is what’s speaking to me, this is what’s calling to me, this is what I feel will make a great body of work.’ On this new record, I’ve written a lot of the lyrics. It’s much more of my internal voice.
John Parish is a musician’s musician and he’s able to conjure in those ways. David is the consummate artist, period. While David doesn’t have the same command over the instruments, he’s got more than enough artistic sensibility to be able to create feeling. They go about it in different ways, but there’s a strength there and a confidence that is wonderful to be a part of. There are some differences, too. With David, we were in the Hollywood Hills, and with John we were in Bristol, so it’s a very different environment. Both were very inspiring though – there’s so much that goes on in both places. Of course, in Bristol, I’m just thinking, ‘Portishead, Goldfrapp, Massive Attack, PJ Harvey.’ I was thinking that just by virtue of being there I’d be able to get some of that on me and in the music. When we got Adrian Utley to play on a track, then that’s even more vibrant. The geographical shifts are also reflected in the music, you know – the sensibilities of the West Coast vs. frigid Bristol. All of those things are a part of it.
What does We Dissolve as a title mean to you?
Chrysta Bell: I’m really into cycles of life, the perfection of nature, transformation and transcendence, the connection to all that is. We Dissolve covers a lot of that territory. One of the first things that comes up is ‘dissolving’ into a lover and becoming a collective entity through the portal of love and passion. So that’s a sweet one. Then there’s ‘dissolving’ into humanity and realising that all these little separate, isolated things and thoughts we have are all an illusion. It’s about allowing yourself to dissolve and surrender into all that is.
Then there’s a more insular ‘dissolving’ into earth. My other business that I own, that my father left me, is a natural burial cemetery. I’m a proponent of the positive death movement and returning bodies to the ground without embalming or any types of real manipulation to the body, taking care of our dead in home funerals. It’s about physically and physiologically returning to the earth and dissolving into that from which we came: the ground. Dust to dust. And then there’s becoming stardust, ultimately, dissolving back into our universal genesis and returning to all that is. That’s kind of my jam. I explore all that in the record in a number of different ways.
“If had to talk about the things that really get me going, it would be Transcendental Meditation and bringing more awareness to the end of life ritual” – Chrysta Bell
A cemetery is quite an unusual thing to inherit.
Chrysta Bell: My father was a very eccentric person. Every day I learn more about what an extraordinary human he was, and he continues to influence me. We had a cemetery for a long time on a piece of property that he had bought. There were historical graves on the property, so he had the county come in and deem it a historical cemetery. It was not doing a whole lot for a long time, but toward the end of his life he said, ‘Chrysta Bell, I want to have our cemetery be a natural burial cemetery. I want this to be our family legacy.’
In my mind, initially, I was thinking that music was going to my legacy – thanks dad! But as it progressed, I realised how fucking amazing this was. He wanted not only natural burial, but affordable burial. He didn’t want anyone to have to choose something just because they couldn’t afford a plot. So the cemetery was incorporated and now it’s a natural burial cemetery. My family is helping me run that business, because I’m a little bit all over the map, but it’s something that’s close to my heart.
If had to talk about the things that really get me going, it would be Transcendental Meditation and bringing more awareness to the end of life ritual – just bringing it more into the conversation, because I think it could be this really beautiful thing instead of this frightening thing that people turn it into. The more we talk about it, the more beautiful an experience it can be for everyone. I hope that there’s more awareness around that, because all throughout human history the end of life ritual has been dealt with so much more gracefully and fulfilling for all involved. We’ve somehow got away from that.
Twin Peaks airs so soon now. Are you looking forward to the secret finally being out?
Chrysta Bell: You know, I’m actually in a mixed place. How often do we get to have a secret like this? Once it’s out, it’s out! I’m coveting the last moments of it being this sieving mystery. Of course I’m excited beyond words, but it’s also been going on for so long that I don’t think it’s really going to sink in until it’s happening. Everything in my life has been an exercise in unreasonable amounts of patience, everything that I’ve waited so long and patiently for has always been so worth it, so I know this will be no exception. I talked to David and asked him, ‘Where do I go from here?’ and he just said, ‘I don’t know!’
Have you seen any of the show yet?
Chrysta Bell: It’s all going to be a surprise. I guess Kyle (Maclachlan) has seen some, and of course (network president) David Nevins at Showtime has seen it. I’m sure Mark (Frost, series co-creator) has seen it. But really, it’s such a small group of humans who have seen it. We’re as excited as anyone else. There’s this intense emotion, these butterflies MMA fighting in my belly.
“We’re all on this journey. Sometimes you feel like you know where you’re going and sometimes you don’t, and that’s okay. Eventually we’ll just dissolve into all that is anyway, so let’s just enjoy ourselves along the way” – Chrysta Bell
What was it like working with David as a musician compared to working with him as an actor?
Chrysta Bell: There are very strong similarities. We actually filmed a good amount for Inland Empire that ended up not being in the film, for reasons beyond all of our control – but that’s a different story. So I have worked with him in that capacity before. As far as directing for the music or on-set, you’re always looking to David as your beacon. You’re not getting a bunch of details and direction. With David’s presence, there’s this understanding. It’s kind of other-dimensional – as long as you don’t think too much or try too hard and just acknowledge that you’re there because you’re supposed to be there, then it just happens. A good 60 per cent of that is just him being there in the room.
Do you find that acting and music come from a similar creative space?
Chrysta Bell: I would say there are absolutely similarities in where you draw from to get the juice for both endeavours. An album is like a film, but performing live is much more similar to theatre. I think in acting and singing, you’re looking for this place within to draw something from. I’m obviously a lot more versed in the music part of things and more at ease jumping into new worlds and territories in music. Acting is much more tenuous for me, I’m just kind of hanging on for dear life – but I’m really enjoying it.
One very strong connection is in the beat and timing. A song that’s a great song somehow does what it’s supposed to do at exactly the right moment and then flows in a certain way so you can feel it and connect to it. With acting too there’s this flow, and it has to be as natural as possible to land correctly. Both of those things have a beat. I would think about certain things always as music. It’s all music to me. Sometimes you’re singing and sometimes you’re not.
Is there a song on the album you’re most looking forward to people hearing?
Chrysta Bell: One song that’s particularly close to my heart is called ‘Half Asleep’. I don’t know if we’ll be doing this one live because it’s a bit of a sleeper, but the chorus goes: ‘Now and then I feel a boundless ocean flowing over me and I just disappear / Now and then I know exactly where I’m going.’ It’s just that we’re all on this journey. Sometimes you feel like you know where you’re going and sometimes you don’t, and that’s okay. Eventually we’ll just dissolve into all that is anyway, so let’s just enjoy ourselves along the way.
Chrysta Bell’s We Dissolve is released via PledgeMusic on June 9