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Interview: Kristin Diable 

Talking with the New Orleans musician whose new album is Create Your Own Mythology

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PHOTO BY JASON KRUPPA

Kristin Diable drove her Toyota Prius through Nashville while her hometown was dusting off weeks of glitter. She missed Mardi Gras. "Don't even tell me about it," she says. "I'm on the road forever, it seems."

  Then there's the weather: "Real winter," she says. "It was 15 degrees when I got to New York."

  The singer-songwriter — on tour throughout the Northeast and the Midwest before her journey back to Louisiana — releases Create Your Own Mythology (Speakeasy/Thirty Tigers Records) on Feb. 24, and she performs an album release show Feb. 26 at One Eyed Jacks.

  "I hope everybody hasn't forgotten me," she says, laughing. "I've been gone so much, I feel like a deadbeat New Orleanian not being home very often."

The album follows her well-received 2012 Americana-styled album Kristin Diable & the City, but it's a far cry from that album's stripped-down, country-influenced rhythm and blues. With Nashville producer Dave Cobb at the helm, Create Your Own Mythology reveals Diable's powerful, tender voice and confessional songbook.

  "I didn't censor the songs," she says. "Usually if I couldn't fit a song into a particular box or a particular idea of what I thought I was supposed to be recording or what I thought I'd sound like, I'd be less likely to record it. On this record, the songs that didn't fit in the box, I didn't censor them at all, and I went with what I felt right, and I went with the songs that were the most vulnerable, the most honest, the most connected."

  Cobb's golden touch produced Jason Isbell's 2012 album Southeastern and Sturgill Simpson's outlaw country revival on 2014's Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, both critical hits hailed for Cobb's meticulous production. For Create Your Own Mythology, Cobb borrows the kind of no-frills '70s gloss that gave Nashville its pop sheen, with lush string arrangements and backing vocals that sound as big as a gospel choir. "I'll Make Time For You" opens the album with a swirling minor-key organ, slap-echo guitar riffs and a rolling, deep-in-the-pocket groove pulled from the Stax archives. Diable recorded the album at Cobb's studio in West Nashville, where Diable says she got out of her Americana pigeonhole.

  "I sent him some tracks and ideas and thoughts about what I wanted to get out of a studio in Nashville. We chatted a while, he played a bunch of tracks — songs from Alan Lomax recordings, Nancy Sinatra, some funky Serge Gainsbourg stuff — some really cool shit, and not Americana at all," Diable says. "What would you do about this song? How are you doing to make this sound like that? Right away he was f—ing brilliant and bigger and better and more interesting than anything I could've come up with.

  "A lot of times I tend to overthink things too much — I want to explore every single option, and think about which one's best. You don't need to do that in music. Once you've evolved your craft and you know your sound and you know who you are and what you're trying to say and what you can do, you roll with the feeling."

  The album's full-bodied soul and rhythm and blues — touches of Lee Hazlewood and Dusty in Memphis — give Diable room for her wound-cleaning, heartbreaking voice. She sings in present tense — she's biding her time, driving in your car, hanging on, falling, a rolling stone and giving all her loving. She pleads for love and hopes for the best no matter how hard it hits. "In the breath in between what was and could be, I'm walking a fine line from some kind of love and simple longing," she sings on "Bird on a Wire."

I wonder sometimes: Is this talent or is this insanity? It's a fine line.

  "The idea of longing is always a recurring theme for me. It comes up in different stories and different ways. That's just a part of my being — I can't get rid of it no matter how satisfied I am," she says. "A lot of the record is about learning that being able to let go of things is when you really connect with them the most, and relinquish the idea that we have total control over everything. We're only responsible for our own decision and our own lives. The rest of the world works how it works, and you have no idea what's actually going to happen."

  She laughs. She knows how bleak she sounds.

  "It's terrifying, but it's beautiful," she says. "It's exciting that we don't know what's going to happen. If we knew, there'd be no point in living. No matter how much you plan or think you know what you're doing, life hands you unexpected things."

As a child, Diable learned to write songs listening to Madonna and the Jackson 5. She obsessed over a Jackson 5 made-for-TV special about the band and family's rise to fame.

  "When I heard the Jackson 5 sing, it was like I heard Jesus talk or something," she says. "It hit me so hard, it was such a mesmerizing thing. Melody and voices like that just really knocked me out. It was the most amazing thing in the world."

  In middle school, Diable saw Irma Thomas perform at the Morgan City Crawfish Festival.

  "I heard this voice and it was like out of a movie," she says. "I was in a trance. The songs and melodies and her voice — everything. Everything changed. The world opened up after hearing that."

  At 14, she learned to play guitar and started a band, Meridian Jane, with her sister, Erin.

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  "I wanted to write songs but it wasn't about being a rock 'n' roll guitarist, or anything," Diable says. "I just always loved writing songs. I did it since I was a little girl. It was something that... I don't know, it was a natural thing. I don't know how I got the idea. It was just like breathing. I wanted to write songs, so I wrote songs.

  "I have songs running through my head all the time. Maybe I have a mental illness or something," she adds, laughing. "I wonder that sometimes: Is this talent or is this insanity? It's a fine line. Maybe it is insanity. If someone told me it was I wouldn't disagree necessarily. But it's a preferred type of insanity."

  Diable attended Louisiana State Univer-sity, but she pounced on an exchange program that sent her to New York. At the end of the semester, she dropped out. She remained in New York for six years and moved to New Orleans in 2009.

  "New Orleans was a revival for me," she says. "It's easy to lose sight of your foundation in New York. I felt like my spirit was kind of devoid and had wilted away because I had been in New York so long. I had been so busy and working my ass off, I didn't realize I was miserable."

  Diable found her band, The City, which included Casey McAllister (now playing keys for Hurray for the Riff Raff) and bassist Justin Hilbun. She moved into a loft apartment in the Upper Pontalba building above Jackson Square.

...I went with the songs that were the most vulnerable, the most honest, the most connected.

  "You can be drunk all day and be lazy and never accomplish anything, but I had a pretty clear picture of what I wanted to be doing and I worked really hard," she says. "I wasn't going to jump off the deep end and end up on the barroom floor — I mean, I was pretty drunk the first few months. ... It was a little Fear and Loathing in New Orleans for a minute, but I didn't get into too much trouble. I found my equilibrium."

  Hilbun, a longtime Baton Rouge musician, had convinced Diable to move to New Orleans after the two shared beers and biked around town. Hilbun also introduced Diable to her bandmates. Five months after Diable moved to New Orleans, he was killed in a car accident.

  "It was really, really difficult," she says. Her voice sinks. "He was such a great person and a great guy. You talk to anyone who knows him and they just loved him. He was just one of those people. It was really hard losing him as a friend and a bandmate. It was a hard hit."

  In 2012, Diable released Kristin Diable & the City, recorded in her Pontalba apartment with McAllister and bassist Charles Lumar, who also plays alongside Diable on Create Your Own Mythology. On her New Orleans debut, Diable chugs "Water Keeps Rising" to the bounce of "Born on the Bayou" and adds country twang to "I'll Be Leaving" and horn-stabbed soul on "True and Natural Man."

  But that year, Diable had auditioned for NBC's The Voice — and passed. The producers gave her a ticket to Los Angeles where she would formally compete on the singing competition in front of millions of viewers. She turned it down. Diable didn't need the show — she already had a band and confidence in her upcoming album.

  For Mythology, Diable wanted to go somewhere completely unfamiliar. She wrote several songs while touring Europe and Africa in 2013. Her manager convinced her to stay in Nashville and work at Cobb's studio.

  "It was important to me that we leave my regular environment — a totally fresh place where my mind and thoughts are all brand new, so I could bring something new to the recording with that frame of mind," she says. "I didn't worry about fitting into an Americana box or, sometimes as an artist, whatever box you think you're supposed to fit into. I write a lot of different kind of songs, but they all sound like me. I don't think they sound out of place. The record is more ... 'who I am' sonically than anything I made before, because of that."

On Mythology, Diable doesn't hide that she's going somewhere, or fighting to get there. She admits she's a road warrior, or a rambler, whether it's to forget a broken heart or sell some records. On "Eyes to the Horizon," borrowing the breathy beat from The Zombies' "Time of the Season," Diable sings of "going to a place I've never been" though "there's miles of road in getting there."

  "I'm going to the place where I was born, long before this old world was my home," she sings. "I gotta go, but I don't know where."

  On album closer "Honey, Leave the Light On," Diable sings of another road, one that "leads us far away" and "brings me back eventually" — but, "if rock 'n' roll don't save my soul, I don't know what I'm gonna do." The album title is just as straightforward — Diable wants listeners to forge their own path, even if it means breaking some hearts to get there, and even if it's just finding your way back home.

  Diable goes back on the road for a spring tour following her album release and returns to New Orleans to perform at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival on Sunday, April 26.

   "The whole dream is to be on tour all the time, but it's very grueling," she says. "When you have more money everything gets a little bit easier. Money greases the wheel and makes the hotels nicer and gets you a driver. It's a shit ton of work. ... That's what the job is, so that's what I do. But I hope we get to that tour bus scenario sooner than later."

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