Earlier this week at London’s Royal Albert Hall, emerging artist Kristel ‘Kris’ Berry supported industry heavyweight Gregory Porter as part of his Nat King Cole tribute live tour. Appearing not with a 45 piece orchestra, as the headliner would, but with only piano and voice – on songs such as Lazy Kisses and She Knows, from her forthcoming Berry Street set – she captivated a sell out crowd who were there primarily to see the main act.
Already onto her second major collection of songs, following her Marbles album released on Wicked Jazz Sounds recordings, we wanted to find out more – about the person, about the artist and what makes her tick.
What is your earliest memory of being excited and inspired by music?
I remember visiting my grandma and I wasn’t allowed to play the stereo on a high volume, so I played it anyway, but on a really low level. And I remember laying down facing the speakers, really close to the membrane and equalising the bass more up so as to hear more from that low volume. I could do that for hours. With songs like “Twilight Time” from The PlattersAlso, since I was a little girl I would listen with special ears to lyric and melody, always have. The old children’s nonsensical tune called ‘Go get the Axe’ was a good example of how infatuated I was as a child with the meaning of lyrics through song. I remember the line: “I fell from a window, a second story window; why did they build the shore so near the ocean?” And I remember really digging deep into analysing that sentence – and its possible meaning – and my mother couldn’t answer that question, because I was too young a child to be having a philosophical debate with. My mom also reminds me that she played me a bunch of classical music while I was in her belly, but I can’t say I remember that.
How does the process of songwriting start for you?
In the past it started out as an inspired young lady, who’s always loved poetry, lyrics, writing and jazz-music, listening to the likes of The Nat King Cole Trio, Ella & the Chick Webb Orchestra, Gershwin, Nina Simone etc. Once upon a time I had an ambitious corporate job (i.e. not a day job, just a completely different career) and at one point purely coincidentally I started to pen down what was on my mind. This was 2010. By 2011 I quit my job, and before I could even acknowledge it, I found myself taking a giant leap into the unknown, because what I had written down came straight out of my heart, resulting in my very first record.
In terms of the present, songwriting is a very sensitive process to me. I need to feel everything at once, emotions and thoughts and feelings, penning down mostly right in the middle of it, as it was with writing Perfect Storm and many others. And some other songs I work on in a more fragmented way. Sometimes it’s a topic area that touched my heart or inspired me in some way; I tend to write down every feeling relative to that topic and just structure it into a song.
I write in a mostly intuitive way. Melody leads me, as I tend to keep the chords simple and open in the beginning so that there are no boundaries to where I want to go next, melodically and rhythmically.
What would your advice be to young artists starting out in the music industry now?
To always be true to yourself, finding out what being true to yourself means is part of the artists’ process. And to know that what is to be has always been there – it’s not about trying to write the perfect hit in my humble opinion, it’s about tuning into your sense of purpose. About tapping into that intuitive knowing that is music.
How has your upbringing in the Caribbean influenced your music?
In so many ways! Curacao is my island of birth, the little rock I was raised on by very open-minded mom Omayra and Stepdad Eugene Berry, hence the artist name, we’re a blended family like the Brady Bunch. Curacao, if you are open for these things, is not only a most beautiful piece of natural perfection with its pristine bays and rich historical “melting pot” culture, but it has a kind of magic to it. If you want to see it, it is there. I try to use a piece of that magic whenever I sing. It is always with me.
Can you explain your connection with the Netherlands?
Haha. Sure I think so! I went to University in The Netherlands, which seemed like a logical step as the islands were part of the Dutch Kingdom (in terms of the Monarchy) and after having lived abroad for studies as well as work, I came back to make a good start in my corporate job, based in Amsterdam. I’ll always have some connection with The Netherlands, but my home is where I am happy – that could be Los Angeles or New York next year, let’s see how this unfolds.
Your new album Berry Street has already had great success online with 4.5m streams – what do you put that down to?
I am proud of what we’ve recorded in New York (on Berry Street in Brooklyn). I feel blessed every time Spotify reminds me of the marks Berry Street has been making over a certain timescale.
How is the tour with Gregory Porter going so far?
It has been an amazing experience; I’ve learned so much about myself, not only through the music and musicianship, but also from the incredibly generous audience that came to listen to Gregory Porter and took the time to chat with me afterwards and support my music.
Time flew by like an arrow. Three weeks have passed and I cannot wrap my head around the fact, because it really feels as if I’ve only just begun.
What’s next for you as an artist?
I truly love this country (UK). I hope to be back in the near future, but next up it’s making more music.
You have cited Erykah Badu as an influence – could a collaboration happen?
Wow. I’ve seen this type of thing happen in my dreams, “Let the river flow, she knows where she wants to go” (She Knows, Berry Street 2017). I trust that anything awesome waiting to happen, will.
How important is it for children to learn an instrument?
I think it is important. It is a pivotal guide to the secrets of life, it can help ground a person and activate parts of your brain. But what I believe may be appreciated even more is that the most beautiful instrument ever made is the human voice. This is an instrument that can transcend, heal, configure and open the mind, body and soul in ways that have this inexplicable magic to it, an energy form that can never die once you tap into it. It can only change with time. And just like an instrument outside the larynx, it needs to be practised to remain up to par. Note to self!
Where do you stand on the promotion of music via social media such as Twitter and Instagram – is it something you embrace?
I think social media is fun, but as with everything, balance is needed. It is the same with face to face contact. We must understand that, although these are Web platforms, communication is still communication. Meaning is still meaning.
I find it important to keep my followers up to date with my life as Kris Berry, that definitely means “keeping it real” so sometimes I’m sharing artwork and music, and sometimes the story’s about what is really happening in my life. My personal life is a major part of what makes up Kris Berry as an artist, and so I believe it’s fair to be open like that. I try to not be glued to my iPhone and disconnect sometimes and I hope my followers see that as part of my reality with social media. That truth, i.e., my truth, is also social media.
Is it much harder to make money from recorded music in the age of “democratisation” on the Internet?
Living in the Digital Age, and in the same way that the Internet can transform economies by enabling companies to work more efficiently, it has also shifted and changed the relationship between the industry and the artist, down to the users. And if you apply this to – not the truth, but your truth, it can be for the better. Also, we just have to go with it, don’t we? Always look for what’s possible, and when things go wrong, well, don’t go with them.
Can you describe the feeling when you’re performing your songs in iconic venues such as London’s Royal Albert Hall?
It’s a huge honour to open for Gregory Porter, overwhelming, extremely humbling, memorable, an experience of a lifetime. I will most definitely live to tell my grandchildren about how this all came to be.
How important is it to diversify as an artist these days – have more than one strong to your bow?
I believe it is important to know who you are as an artist, to know your purpose, and to effectively convey your message. Some are able to do it by using seven instruments or just one, others have a certain presence in their tone that doesn’t require more than good posture, such as Gregory. I see that as a huge manifestation of the energy that can move mountains just by being present. As my mother would say it: ‘his presence is a present to the world’.
What keeps you awake at night, and what inspires you to get up in the morning?
Awake at night: ideas for songs, over analytical thinking. Constant self-doubt. I have that side.
Inspiration to get up: the little things. The feeling of satisfaction when I know I have the time to put on a vinyl record, the birds chirping, sunlight, music in my head, the smell of ground coffee, the idea of taking an early morning walk, breakfast, an inspiring conversation with a friend, creating, loving.
Kris Berry is on currently tour with Gregory Porter and second album Berry Street is out now.