This past February, millions of people heard Kristin Mooney sing. However, they didn’t actually see her, let alone hear one of her own songs. Mooney was just doing a day-job session gig for the TV show “Judging Amy”, on which an actress lip-synched her vocals.
Mooney’s now getting her own turn. Though her new self-titled, self-released disc might not reach an audience of millions, it’s a beautiful blend of pop, soul, country and jazz.
The disc’s dusky desert-noir sound — it was recorded in Tucson, Arizona, with some of that city’s finest musicians — is a long way from St. Paul, Minnesota, where Mooney was born and raised along with ten older siblings. After a post-college stint singing in a Nashville cover band, Mooney moved back home and became immersed in the vital Minneapolis music scene. She sang on albums by Martin Zellar and other local songwriters, and spent several years in Peter Himmelman’s band.
She also started writing and performing her own songs. Her 1998 debut album Living Alone served as a culmination of her Twin Cities years. Back then, she didn’t play an instrument, so she was reliant on her collaborators, various members of Semisonic and Trip Shakespeare, to bring her songs to life.
It was only after finishing the album that Mooney bought her first guitar. “That completely changed things,” she admits. “I always had complete songs in my head, but before I had a guitar, in order to translate that, I had to depend on other people. So it was very frustrating. Even though my skills on the guitar are very limited, it was very freeing. It changed everything for me songwriting-wise.”
Her self-taught guitar playing has helped to shape her songs’ unique qualities. “A lot of times I’m just pressing two strings and making up whatever sounds good,” she says. “I don’t know what to call what I’m doing.”
What ever she is doing, it sounds quite enchanting. Her smoky, soulful vocals wrap around her dark-hued songs of romance. On “The Cheating Game”, she tells a tale of infidelity from the perspective of a woman dating a man who is living with his girlfriend. The stirring “Deliver Us From Us”, which paints a tableau of a troubled relationship, draws inspiration from a Lee Krasner art exhibition, while the slinky “Julie Christie” uses the movie Shampoo to look at love.
Central to the disc’s appeal is the interplay between Mooney and her backing musicians — chiefly Calexico’s John Convertino and Joey Burns, as well as her husband, pedal steel guitarist Eric Heywood (who has played with Son Volt, Richard Buckner and Alejandro Escovedo).
Heywood’s evocative playing is particularly vital to the disc’s sound. On “Dolls”, it heightens the song’s disquieting, Lynchian ambiance. “Everything just came together really organically,” Mooney says when asked about her working relationship with Heywood. “I couldn’t have dreamed it up. Had I never met him, I never would have thought, ‘we need pedal steel on this,’ but it definitely works.”
Although Mooney had met Heywood briefly when she lived in Minneapolis, it was only after she returned there for a session gig following her 1999 move to Los Angeles that something kindled between them. A long-distance romance ensued. When he asked about what she wanted to do with her own songs, Mooney told him about her longtime desire to work with Tucson group the Friends Of Dean Martinez. She had seen them perform in Minneapolis years earlier and thought to herself, “This is the band that I’ve been looking for.”
“Let me give them a call,” Heywood replied. As fate would have it, he knew Convertino and Burns, who had been in that original incarnation of the Friends Of Dean Martinez and now headed up Calexico.
A trio of trips to Tucson resulted in an album that’s earthy and exotic, organic and alluring. Taking more control of the recording process this time, Mooney produced the disc. To achieve its rich sound, she used analog equipment at Tucson’s renowned Wavelab studio, with engineer Craig Schumacher at the controls.
Since making the album, which came out in March on the fledgling Los Angeles label Sin City, Mooney and Heywood’s relationship has flourished, professionally and domestically. They have gotten married and set up home in Los Angeles’ Highland Park area. In addition to playing her own shows, Mooney also has been performing as a member of Rusty Truck, a band fronted by Rolling Stone photographer Mark Seliger that released its debut album last year.
While excited about getting her music out to people, Mooney isn’t letting her head get lost in the stars. “It’s not rocket science,” she says. “It’s pretty simple — you want people to relate and get it.”