Kyle Craft Discusses the ‘Ghosts’ That Haunt His Sub Pop Debut, ‘Dolls of Highland’

Also: "I’ve caught a coyote with my bare hands before."

kyle craft interview

Photo by Andrew Toups

Kyle Craft is about to release his debut album (Dolls of Highland via Sub Pop on April 29th), and he’s already trailed by more mythology than some artists accrue in an entire career. Dolls of Highland spills over with tales of spoiled love and bourbon nights, all sung in Craft’s distinctive wail (listen to ‘Lady of the Ark’). According to his Sub Pop bio, Kyle grew up “catching alligators and rattlesnakes” in Louisiana, and his music collection consisted of little more than a ‘Best of David Bowie’ CD. Later, he recorded Dolls of Highland in a laundry room, where he had an “intensely productive reckoning with his past” after the end of an eight-year relationship. Rolling Stone likened the album to “a swamp bar jukebox loaded with British glitter and Seventies Southern rock.”

At one point during our conversation, Kyle reflected on part of his story. “It sounds like this myth of a thing,” he remarked, “but I swear on my life – all this shit.” Read the full interview below to learn the story behind Dolls of Highland and much more.

Dan Redding: Your album title, Dolls of Highland, refers to the Highland neighborhood of Shreveport, Louisiana. How would you describe the neighborhood of Highland to someone who has never been there before?

Kyle Craft: It’s a gorgeous little run-down neighborhood. It’s pretty small, low-income for the most part. It’s where most of the artists live in Shreveport. It’s kinda split though – like a lot of towns in Louisiana are – you have the more run-down side of Highland and the more upscale part of Highland.

Your bio describes the album’s recording as an “intensely productive reckoning with your past.” What experiences from your past were you processing in these songs?

I feel like before I started writing these songs, the actual experience of them was like a dog chasing its tail. There were these failed attempts at romance that I had. A lot of it was based completely on infatuation. The album itself spans over a bunch of different experiences that sort of bounce in and out of each other. Some of that was great, some of it was not so great. I had this eight-year relationship that had ended. I had this wild time being free for the first time in my entire life – being a standalone human being. Then there was this infatuation I had that was absolutely blown to pieces, and at that point, the dog caught his tail, and realized the tail wasn’t all that interesting.

Can you elaborate on that – what do you mean by the dog chasing its tail?

When you’re dealing with infatuation, it’s this thing that typically never ends well. And relationships that last a really long time – especially when you’re young, you begin to take love for granted. The relationship I was in wasn’t some sort of crash and burn thing, it was just a drifting apart. But it was always me looking for something and wanting something that realistically was kind of always there. That’s what I mean by a dog chasing its tail. I almost feel like that’s my spirit animal or something. I can’t escape that sometimes, you know?

“I feel like before I started writing these songs, the actual experience of them was like a dog chasing its tail.”

Let me see if I have this right. You experienced the end of an eight-year relationship, then you recorded an album about it, moved to Portland, signed with Sub Pop, and now you’re gonna release the album and go on tour in support of it. Is that about right?

Yeah… there’s a little more to it than that. As much as I bounced around during that time, it’s easy to get confused on the whole chronological order of things. What happened was once me and my girlfriend had split up, I was in Shreveport, and I had kind of forgotten that I was even a musician. After a few months of that, I was in this position where I kind of had to be like, ‘Oh wait, I have these songs that I wanna record.’ I didn’t wanna do it in Shreveport – at that point, Shreveport was filled with all these ghosts, I guess. I had to split, and I was like, ‘I know a bunch of folks in Portland, I’ll give that a go, and try out the whole thing there.’ So I went to Portland and started to record. I spent a few months trying to record the album in a basement there. I didn’t fail, because I learned how the songs should go – but I did run out of money. At that point, I was like, ‘Well, I can’t stay in Portland,’ so a good friend of mine offered up his laundry room in Shreveport to record. I went back to Shreveport and stayed in this laundry room over the summer and recorded the album there. After that, I went and stayed in California for about a month, and then came back to Portland and put the band together pretty quickly. The band came together in a much more swift manner than I thought it would.

Can you paint a picture for me of this laundry room where you recorded Dolls of Highland? Where were you sleeping, and what were the recording facilities in there?

It’s in the back of this house, it’s this elongated room. In the corner of the room, there was a child’s bunk bed, which is where I was sleeping on the bottom bunk. There wasn’t enough room in there to have everything constantly set up. So I basically had to break down and set up instruments and amps and drums pretty frequently on a day-today basis because it was so small. The whole room was filled with windows, almost like a sun room – but in order to keep the sound down, there was all this foam in the windows, so there wasn’t a hell of a lot of light or anything. And there were all of these raggedy quilts hanging from the ceiling. The desk where I had my computer and speakers was almost a sock drawer kind of desk – it wasn’t a legit recording desk at all. It was very small but I made it work. There were parts in the floor where you could see the light through the floor. The house was set up on cinderblocks. A very small room, cramped and packed with instruments.

What were you recording into – a laptop?
Yeah, an old laptop I’ve had since 2007.

That’s amazing – the kind of music that you play has roots in the past, but that kind of DIY recording setup with a laptop is a very modern thing. It’s kind of amazing that you could make this kind of a record under those circumstances.

Yeah, I agree. I certainly knew what kind of sound I wanted – and I won’t say that I nailed it – but had I had the opportunity to do it any other way, I would’ve. I had no other options. All I had was this old laptop. It would’ve been a dream to have a band and record it to tape and do it live like I thought it should be done. But I just didn’t have the means of doing it.

So was this kind of a Shreveport relapse, in a sense?

Absolutely. Initially I wasn’t gonna call it Dolls of Highland at all. That song was actually written while I was recording. I was like, ‘man, this record really needs this one thing,’ and I wrote ‘Dolls of Highland’ while I was in Shreveport in the laundry room, recording. I was like, ‘wait, this is the perfect title track for the album.’

You talk about these ghosts of your past – while you were recording Dolls of Highland, were you hanging out with these people that you were writing about? Or were you just working all the time?

Well, I would record all day and then go out to this one bar pretty much every night. I would say I spent equal time sleeping in my van at the bar as I did in that bunk bed. You always see everybody you know in Shreveport. Especially if you’re out and about as frequently as I was. The only person I really didn’t see was my ex, who had moved.

You have a very distinctive voice that puts a unique thumbprint on your music. When did you first discover your singing voice?

I feel like I re-discovered my voice when I was fifteen probably. I started singing again. When I was young, I remember having this really, really intense experience where my mother and my aunt laughed at me while I was singing – and I quit singing for years. What they did was super harmless, but as a kid, I was like ‘Oh my god!’ I had headphones on, and I was listening to some soundtrack. I was really young and I had these big headphones on and we were on our way to Florida for vacation. I was in the back seat singing. They were cracking up, and I remember them being like, ‘Kyle, that sounds so bad!’ I was like, ‘Aaaah!’ It completely hammered away this idea that I could sing. I started singing again around fifteen years old – probably around the same time I started trying to play the guitar.

Why do you think that moment hit you so hard?

I think I was just easily embarrassed or something as a kid.

The song ‘Future Mid-City Massacre’ is a mournful and somewhat scathing breakup song that’s addressed to a woman. What does the title ‘Future Mid-City Massacre’ mean?

The title is very vision-based in a way. My ex-girlfriend had moved down to New Orleans and Mid-City was this neighborhood in New Orleans. There was also this infatuation I mentioned previously – who was also living in New Orleans. I knew that it was gonna turn out bad. I knew that there was gonna be all this incestuous shit happening if and when I went down to New Orleans. Sure enough, it did. The ‘massacre’ part is just a play on words. This chick I was infatuated with… every single guy that I would confess that I had a crush on this girl to, they would be like, ‘Oh god man, me too.’ And I would be like, ‘Dammit! What am I doing?’ On top of that, to have my ex around, it was just a very strange time.

How did the deal with Sup Pop come about?

About four or five years ago, I gave them an old demo, and later on they reached out to me. Nothing ever came from that – but it put in a root. I had the contact. I was able to reach out again and say, ‘Hey, I made this solo album, what do you think?’ And they liked it.

What was the name of the band you were in back then?

I don’t really like talking about it. It’s sort of a dead animal to me. I grew up so much since then… The old me died with the band. It’s like I’m a different person now completely.

When you found out about the deal with Sub Pop, were you elated? What was that day like?

It was pretty great. Me and the band were sitting around here in Portland. We had just finished practicing and we got the email that was like, ‘Alright! We’re doing it.’ We went to this weird tiki bar and it was pretty ridiculous. We celebrated wholeheartedly, I’ll tell you that.

When you were younger, did you have a relationship with the music that Sub Pop is known for? Were you a grunge fan or a Nirvana fan?

In the town that I grew up in, there wasn’t much music. Bands never, ever passed through. By the time I was about fifteen, I was into Nirvana, but that was it. Record labels weren’t really a thing – I didn’t think about that, I just liked bands. Most of the time, it was stuff that had already come and gone. Classic rock junk, you know? A child where I’m from has zero chance of exposure unless somebody goes away and comes back. Which is what happened later. A lot of my friends were older, and they went off to college. They would come back and be like, ‘Dude, check out this band and this band.’ I’d be like, ‘Wow, cool, there’s this whole other world out there that I didn’t know.’ Then I went to college, and that’s when everything pretty much changed.

Do you think that explains your taste – that you weren’t exposed to things that a lot of kids of in America of your generation were exposed to?

Absolutely. Yeah, for sure. I think it has a huge influence on me. I didn’t even understand what being pretentious was. When I went to college, you had these people that were like, ‘You’ve never heard of some weird band from the middle of Wisconsin that’s really pushing the boundaries?’ And I was like, ‘No! I just got off the train from nowhere, Louisiana.’

“My forte was catching snakes… that’s what I was wanting to do with my life when I was young.”

What were your other experiences musically as a kid – or was it just this one Bowie CD?

I sought out that Bowie CD. Basically, what happened was, I saw Labyrinth as a kid on TV. I remember going to K-Mart, and being like, ‘Hey, do y’all have the soundtrack from this movie Labyrinth?’ They checked their computer database and they were like, ‘No, we don’t have that but we have some CDs by the same artist.’ So my grandfather bought me some greatest hits albums by David Bowie. Had he known who David Bowie was, I’m sure he wouldn’t have bought those albums for his young grandson.

There was not really a lot of music in my house, I’ll say that. My parents never really were avid music people. My grandfather on my mother’s side, he was into bluegrass music and he could play guitar. But by the time he moved away and got sick, I hadn’t even played music… I didn’t grow up around a lot of music.

How does one go about catching an alligator? I live in Brooklyn and that is such a foreign concept to me. Is that really something that you did as a kid?

Yeah, early on, I caught snakes, mainly. My forte was catching snakes. I loved that – that’s what I was wanting to do with my life when I was young. Until I found the rock and roll, that’s what I wanted to do.

What – catch snakes for a living?

Yeah, actually. In some way, I wanted that to be what I did. I guess you have to be stupid to some degree to do that. I did some stupid shit when I was young. I’ve caught a coyote with my bare hands before. It sounds like this myth of a thing but I swear on my life – all this shit.

The first alligator I ever caught – my dad’s a fisherman and he was out fishing. I was in his boat with him. This alligator – it wasn’t too big, probably four or five feet. My dad lured it in with a top-water fishing lure. It swam right up to the boat and I just grabbed it out of the water. It wasn’t this intense thing. I think reptiles – these creepy crawlies – they give people the creeps. They strike fear into the hearts of many, and they’re so harmless. Snakes and alligators don’t want anything to do with you. They’ll run away.

What’s something that your audience doesn’t know about you that they might find surprising?

I dunno… I like to gamble. Is that surprising? I like playing poker. Texas Hold Em’ – let’s go.

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