Alison Mosshart, Rock's Leading Femme Fatale
There are great voices and then there are great rock voices. Alison Mosshart, lead singer for the Kills and the Dead Weather, absolutely resides in the latter group. Her dramatic gift isn’t confined to scorching blues-inflected rockers, as evidenced by the fine Ash and Ice, the Kills' latest album and fifth of its 16 years as a band. Compare and contrast the gorgeous gospel-tinged standout track “Hum for Your Buzz” with something like Dead Weather’s menacingly chaotic “Hang You From the Heavens,” and it’s abundantly clear that Mosshart knows her way around a rock song, no matter the tempo.
Along with guitarist and insanely dapper Brit Jamie Hince, Mosshart powers the Kills to exciting highs and lows that sound too damn good to be that low. Recorded partly in a rented house in Los Angeles and also in the legendary Electric Lady Studios of New York City, the new record is full of prime live show material, yet aesthetically is the farthest-ranging record of the Kills' career thus far. The duo hits Houston this evening at White Oak Music Hall with openers Kim and the Created; the Houston Press caught up with Mosshart in her L.A. hotel room last Friday, a few hours before she and Hince were to perform on The Late Late Show With James Corden.
Houston Press: Your paintings are starting to get a lot of attention. Does painting provide you with an outlet for different emotional terrain than writing songs does?
Alison Mossheart: It feels like it all comes from the same place, really. With painting, there is vulnerability because all of a sudden, you’re standing there in a gallery alone while people walk around and stare at your stuff on the walls. It’s just you in the scenarios; there’s no band to hide behind. A painting is like having your insides ripped out and displayed and not having anywhere to hide. It’s pretty extreme, but it’s pretty great too. I paint and play music, and it's all mixed up throughout my day. It’s not like I go do one for months and months, then switch to the other thing for a while only. It all comes from the same place in my brain because I like making things and I like being creative at all times. I’m not good at being still or relaxing.
You and Jamie reworked the songs on Ash and Ice a good bit before finally releasing it. What kind of changes did a song like “Hum for Your Buzz,” which is a really unique song in the Kills' catalog, require?
Actually, nothing for that song needed reworking! Other songs needed some reworking, but that one’s exactly the way we recorded it. It’s the simplest song on the record, and we recorded it while looking directly at each other as I was standing in a bathtub in an old Spanish-style house. There’s no real beat in the song; eye contact and my own heartbeat helped get that recording right on the money. I actually wrote that song really quick, in just a few minutes, so thank God I had Garageband going [laughing].
You’ve mentioned recently that “Whirling Eye” is your favorite song to perform from the new album. What is it about that song that’s special in that way for you?
It just has a really great energy for playing live. It’s hard to describe, but it’s got a great vibe, and I get really excited when we play it. I worked on that song for so long and I was proud to have it end up on the record. The first time we rehearsed it, it was like an explosion went off.
When you come up with a melody or work on lyrics, do you know immediately if it will be for a Kills song, or a Dead Weather song?
Not really. That decision comes down the road, because you have to play it for someone else and see if you can get your point across. Sometimes the other person just doesn’t respond to a specific song. I write a lot, so there are a lot of songs that don’t really ever get worked on much. There have been times when Jamie hears one of my demos and says, ‘This is great; we should record it.’ And then I say, ‘I’m glad you like it now, since I played it for you like four years ago!’ Some songs just need time to make sense or to fit what we’re doing. It’s all about timing with music.
Your voice has been featured on a number of cool songs from other notable artists. What’s your process for collaborating with others in that way?
It works in different ways, and sometimes I know the artist really well, and sometimes I don’t know them at all. I really enjoy doing stuff for television, where a music director sends me some music and I get to write for it however I see fit. That’s fun because it can be hard, and I like taking someone else’s music and doing something totally different with it than what the artist originally intended. The song I did with Cage the Elephant ["It's Just Forever," from 2013's Melophobia] was cool, but it was already written for me, so it was easy and it only took me an hour or something like that. I usually prefer the creative challenge and fear of doing things like that myself. I really enjoy the recording process, so if I like the song, then I’m in.
A few years back, your song “Future Starts Slow” was used for the intro to the television show Political Animals. I thought that was a cool use for it that I certainly didn’t expect.
Oh, I loved that too. I’m always thankful when our music gets used in new ways like that. No one wants to have the exact same fan base for the rest of your life, so it’s cool to have people discover your music in those ways. It’s delightful when something you’ve done gets used in unexpected ways, whether it's in movies or even commercials. I’m fascinated by that, and I like being a part of it all. I like being a part of the world. The world is great, you know?
The Kills and Kim and the Created perform tonight at White Oak Music Hall (downstairs), 2915 North Main. Doors open at 8 p.m.
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