Chrysta Bell has hair the same ruby-red color of freshly spilled blood. Her gaze is hypnotic. Everything about her seems mysterious. Her close collaborator is David Lynch, the film director and musician who has always had a similar air of intrigue. Lynch produces Bell’s music, and a recording of his voice introduces her on stage: “Wow! She sings like a bird! Isn’t she unbelievable?” A purple velvet curtain billows behind her, with black-and- white images projected onto it. The projection stops and thereafter the show is all about Bell: her voice, her theatrical hand movements, her tears. There’s a splendidly eerie feeling in the room when she performs.
Bell’s album, This Train, is the result of working with Lynch for more than a decade. The journey takes in guitar-covered cloudscapes, reminders of a golden age of jazz divas, trip-hop and blues. Lynch’s musical direction sets the pace: slow motion, super-slow motion, emergency stop. In Lynch’s studio in Los Angeles, as in all aspects of his work, transcendental meditation creates the vibe. He plays a song sketch, pulls a sheet of paper with words on it out of a black case and then asks Bell to come to the microphone. He gives instructions, along the lines of: “Imagine you’re a sports car!” “He would feed me, basically,” she says. “Whether it would be with anecdotes about other things that were completely separate, or by bringing associations like Elvis Presley or Elizabeth Taylor or a classic car or a certain way the night air felt—this would all be food for my process.”
When the first of these sessions took place, in 2000, Lynch was yet to out himself as a solo musician. (After various collaborations, his first solo album, Crazy Clown Time, came out in 2011; a second, The Big Dream, followed in 2013.)
Bell was the vocalist in a swing band that regularly played the Continental Club in Austin. As a child, she hung around her stepfather’s studio and became a session singer in her early teenage years. She worked as a model, then gave acting a try and played a small part in a Jet Li kung-fu movie. In 1998, at the age of 20 and with her first record deal, her agent set up a meeting with Lynch so that he could hear her demos. The career she had always really wanted was under way.
“I live for being on stage,” she says. “The exchange with the audience, the rush of not knowing if you’re going to fall on your face or soar to the skies, is all very appealing to me.”
She certainly has the personality to go with the looks and the voice, touching everything with an elegant hand of darkness. Her favorite drink is unfiltered sake, she named her 2010 debut album Bitter Pills & Delicacies, and her record company, La Rose Noire, has a tear on its logo. What is it for her that makes the bitter so sweet?
“I’ve been with many people through the death process,” Bell explains, and that gaze of hers leaves no room for doubt. “I’m good with death. Tears for me are not necessarily a sign of sadness. I believe in reincarnation. I do believe that there are cycles.”
Bell’s current cycle is one of touring. She has performed in 27 countries during the past two years. What she’d most like to do is give a weekly concert in the same location, ideally in Berlin. It’s the perfect place for someone who so readily brings to mind images of that city in the wild 1920s, an era in which femmes were so much more fatale than any wrecking ball is today.