The opening song on “River of Light,” Kristina Stykos’ seventh album, could be construed in two ways: as a song about old cars or a song that is a metaphor for aging. Either way, this first track on her new album has great potential as a song that could boost Stykos’ audience, as it’s a solid country rocker.
Stykos, who seems to bare her soul and psyche on many of the songs, agreed with this writer that “State Line Diner,” is a commentary on her life. Over more than a decade, this now 61-year-old has been recording music with a very personal feel, music with lyrics that sometimes seem torn from her heart, palpitating with pain.
“I’m 61 and rejection is like a broken-down car,” she admits. “It’s a song about aging.”
Verse two of “State Line” leaves little doubt as to the metaphoric value of cars in discussing aging: “But she ain’t a clunker, not yet — knock on wood; She’s still got some gas there, under the hood; I really didn’t mean to run her into the ground; But reckless love can take you, take you down.”
Stykos, who lives in Chelsea in an off-the-grid house that also serves as the recording studio for her Pepperbox Studio, may see herself as an aging musician and artist with little gas left in the tank, but this album reveals a vibrant and creative performer with material that can touch even the most obtuse listener.
Stykos writes songs with themes that include the outdoor landscape or the pain caused by broken relationships. She often writes about the men in her life, present or past. Track two, “I Like a Hard Hearted Man,” is a great blues number featuring the rarely played mandola as the rhythm instrument.
What Stykos likes in a man is clearly stated: “I like a hard-hearted man, one with a smooth undertow; He’s got his finger on your redemption; Looks like he knows what he don’t know,” and further on, “I like a dastardly man,” and “I like an ambitious man.” This song has Bonnie Raitt written all over it.
“I usually start with a musical idea on guitar,” says Stykos, who has acquired a stable of guitars to suit the many tunings she plays in. “A song gets attracted to a certain type of tuning,” she explained.
Stykos, who does landscape gardening at upscale homes for extra income, says her ideas often “start with the landscape that I live in. Almost always the more gothic lyrical song starts with images from the great outdoors.” From this concept she has included five songs with this outdoor theme. “Walking These Ridges,” “In the Cleansing Rain,” “River of Light,” “Breaking Trail” and “Climb This Ground” evolved from her decidedly close relationship with her surroundings.
Stykos admits that due to the personal nature of her songs and lyric ideas, “Most of my songs, others wouldn’t want to sing.
“I’m a strong person emotionally. If you are sensitive and go through trauma you are going to either destroy yourself or rise through the ashes,” she said. For this musician, “artistic pursuit can help you process what you are feeling and we all do it in different ways.”
There is a yin and yang approach to her songs. “Some people have a dark journey on this earth. I am like that, but have a positive outlook. I’m grateful for the experience that brought me more insight as to how the world works.”
Never one to demur, Stykos readily admits, “I’ve had a complicated journey through life.” For a decade, the once youthful, pretty soprano voice of the earliest Stykos recordings has been replaced by a smoky, somewhat raspy, dark and often weary sound that now colors her songs. The change is the result of spasmodic dysphonia, a disorder in which the muscles that generate a person’s voice go into periods of spasm. This results in breaks or interruptions in the voice, often every few sentences, which can make a person difficult to understand. Singers Shania Twain and Jenny Morris also have the condition.
For Stykos, this debilitating condition has ended her performing career as a vocalist. She does on occasion perform as a backing musician for singers she records and friends who ask her to sit in. Yet, she continues to record her songs.
“It’s tricky. It happened over time 10 years ago when I noticed I couldn’t sustain a note any more. It’s not about technique. It’s why I stopped performing,” she said. Before the dysphonia set in she’d do a lot of takes to get the best vocal performance.
“As it deteriorated, I decided I’d have to talk,” Stykos said. As a result, her vocals often sound as if spoken, a conscious effort on her part. “I experimented with talking and the songs become more and more talking. There’s a lot you can still do with the voice. You have to forge ahead.”
Vocal issues have Stykos reinventing her singing style, but there is no thought of giving up recording her songs.
“If we want to be creative and write songs we use whatever means to convey the message,” she said. “I’m persevering. It’s been going on so long you have to put that issue aside and keep trying. You learn about your voice and the changes. You have to experiment and try different things and do what you can do.”
“River of Light” is a 13-song album, and Stykos has found in guitarists Steve Mayone and Val McCallum two excellent collaborators who weave both electric and acoustic guitar into the mix. Jeff Berlin handles the drums, and we get a few tracks with fiddler extraordinaire Patrick Ross. Stykos also plays guitar and keyboards. She weaves country rock with blues and folk music dynamics into the album’s program.
Because she is also a recording engineer, Stykos has impeccably recorded this album, one rich in sound quality. If you like how a CD looks, then this one is gorgeous. Photographer Jack Rowell’s photos are superb at conveying a sense of the outdoors and the look of a high-quality project.
Stykos said, vocal issues aside, she has a very full musical life. There is authenticity in her voice, a weary knowledgeability, which will probably continue to color her singing.
“I am trying different healing modalities, but singing is therapeutic in a way,” she said.
With seven albums of work Stykos said she has many projects that keep her busy. “I do a lot of producing, and my artistic energy goes into producing for other people and myself. I probably have 10 albums going on at the same time.”
She is also set to write a poetry book. “I’m going to continue to write, and not just songs.”
Stykos fans should note that her next album “might be instrumental.”
Whatever way she decides to record, Kristina Stykos sees a positive future for her artistry. “I’m sure I’ll always have a voice to keep on singing.”