Meet Kristen Ford, a one-woman looping artist and musician. She creates full-bodied masterpieces layering harmonies and melodies on to one another using looping pedals, a guitar, and drums. She's rearranging the way we perceive pop compositions, one effects pedal at a time. Find out more about Kristen's music, her gear, how she writes a song, and why a one-woman band is the way of the future. Listen to Kristen's latest album Rend & Render and catch her on tour. Words by Casey Stohrer, photos by Ron Manville.
Having a looped, one-woman band has streamlined my sound. I have a sound now, that I feel is very much my own.
The crowd at the Basement’s New Faces Nite mills around as Boston native Kristen Ford arranges her pedals and various instruments on the small stage. Instead of four or five sweaty dudes scrambling to get their Fender amps in a row in the quick turnover time between the twenty-minute sets, Kristen is a well-oiled machine that lays out her set-up automatically, as if she were simply clocking in for work. She is new to Nashville but does not possess the nervous energy of many of the other performers making their Music City debut.
“I’ve been touring as a one-woman looping band for three years,” she explains. She is serious and confident, but she can’t help but crack a smile. "I am so stoked to be in Nashville. I have been to every major city in America and this was the place. I wanted to be surrounded by the best players, studios, writers and industry that [you can’t find] anywhere else. I'm here to get a team, write hit songs and become famous.”
This is the mission statement of many fresh-off-the-bus musicians in Nashville, but Kristen possesses a warmth and confidence free of pretension, and rooted in true-grit experience. She knows how to get where she needs to be. She is a go-getter in every sense of the word. She knows how to talk to her peers, work a crowd, and deliver her art efficiently.
As a one-woman band especially, these are key skills to performing. In this day-and-age of technology and bedroom recordings, many artists are indeed "one-person bands,” in the respect that they record all instrumentation by themselves, but to actually perform this way is something entirely different.
I asked Kristen what made her decide to give up playing in full bands and do her own thing.
"I have played as a drummer in a few projects, as a hired gun bassist, and most of the time fronted The Kristen Ford Band on vocals and guitar. I wrote the songs, booked the shows, promoted said shows, paid for the recordings and also paid the band. I loved having such talented people behind me, we were anything from a trio to a seven-piece band: drums, bass, keys, lead guitar, cello, rhythm guitar and violin. My motto was always to be the worst member of the band, so they would be pushing me to get better and better.”
"It's an epic and awesome feeling being part of a big wall of sound, but ultimately so tough on the bottom line. If you want to play with professional musicians, they need to be paid. If you split $400 seven ways, it's still not enough to compete with a wedding or corporate gig they might get from another project, so there's the [process of] going down the line of second and third and fourth calls when your main band can't make it to a gig, getting subs up to speed, and scheduling rehearsals. Touring was always a puzzle. I wanted to live out of a van and tour full time. Even a trio was going to be logistically impossible. Once I committed to being a one-woman band, everything was so much simpler. Money, scheduling, creative decisions, getting along, there are many advantages. I'm also a person who loves every musical style under the sun. [In a band setting] the press has described me as bouncing all over genres, which makes it difficult to connect with one audience and to market the music.”
Kristen takes the stage and launches in her song “Radio,” a pop song about rejecting pop music, a catchy autobiographical tune about the primordial reasons for creating music while inherently eschewing what’s cool, “never gonna, never gonna dance to this/ they’ll be looking at their phones, never gonna, never gonna call it a hit/ you won’t hear it on the radio”. In the verses, Kristen takes us on a personal journey, looking at her past and future as a musician, all the while delivering an insanely catchy universal hook. Songwriting 101. She starts out the song on guitar, then halfway through she switches to her snare drum, all the while layering her vocals with the looping station. It seems like such a simple, fun song, but the art of looping makes it rich and complex.
"Having a looped, one-woman band has streamlined my sound. I have a sound now, that I feel is very much my own,” she says. She has a diverse range of influences, from Ani DiFranco, to Modest Mouse, and Radiohead. The looping technology gives her songs an electro-pop feel, while the guitar sits at the helm. Her song “El Camino” features layered guitars that sound vaguely like The Strokes, with a trademark repeating mantra taking us out as she adds layers and drum sounds, slowly building up, as if she were erecting a skyscraper.
The culture of one-person bands has been a tale as old as popular music itself, with many performers creating their own multi-musical contraptions before the advent of digital technology. In the 1920s, Fate Norris, of the old-timey band the Skillet Lickers, developed a mechanical invention that allowed him to play guitar, bells, bass, fiddle, autoharp and harmonica simultaneously. In the 1950s, Jesse Fuller invented his “fotdella,” consisting of bass strings and foot pedals and operated somewhat like a piano, with the pedals striking the strings, and accompanied himself on a 12-string guitar to achieve a rich, full sound. Blues musician Jessie Mae Hemphill, in all her rhinestone cowgirl glory, would simply attach a tambourine to her high-heel boot and stomp her foot in time to her guitar playing. Bob Dylan’s harmonica and guitar combo is even considered “one-man band” territory.
Looping technology has elevated one-person bands to subcultural heights, with KT Tunstall and Jon Brion bringing its popularity to the mainstream. Violinist and songwriter Andrew Bird has often performed with looping pedals, and indie artist and fellow Massachusetts native Audrey Ryan, whom Kristen cites as a huge inspiration, has perfected the art of looping with her lush, atmospheric arrangements. Kristen says, "She was the one who illustrated how it could be done, and be fucking awesome."
The writing process now is twofold for me. Creating the structure of the song, then building up loops within that structure.
So what is the actual process of looping?
"I play acoustic and electric guitar, I sing and do some beat-boxing, I also play drums with my feet using the kick drum and hi-hat. I have a snare setup and once I have loops going, I'll often drop the guitar and pick up drumsticks to rock out. I use a Boss RC-300 loop station, but I started with an RC-20. I also use a Boss VE-20 vocal effects pedal. This allows me to change to a ‘tripled' vocal which just boosts everything. I can also do a loop over a loop, unchained to the guitar loop. I run the guitar and vocal out of the RC-300 in stereo, which allows the vocals to go right into the PA and the guitar right into the amp. I like having them separated. I hate the sound of vocals through an amp, and electric through a PA. You need those tubes! Going from the RC-20 to the RC-300 was like going from a Kia to a Ferrari. I can do so much more now. I also used to use two loopers that weren't synched, so my timing had to be right on and I could only go a few rotations. I feel like I’m cheating now. I also use an octave pedal to play the bass part, I have distortion and delay for textures. In the future I wouldn't mind adding a POG pedal to give me an organ sound or adding an E-bow for sustain like a violin, and a second kick pedal that hits a tambourine, but I'm pretty close to saturation with gear."
I asked Kristen if her writing process has changed now that she has so much technology at her disposal.
"It's about how you use it, and how they serve the song. It's a pretty lame show if you're just staring at your feet clicking pedals all night. The writing process now is twofold for me. Creating the structure of the song, then building up loops within that structure. I always feel the loops should support the song, otherwise it's just musical masturbation. I think many people make the mistake of having the loop be too long. If it's four bars, you'll know exactly when it will come back around, how quickly your harmonies will stack, etc. I also go for either an A-B feel, with B being looped, big, little, loud, soft. Or you can do a build at the end and never have to come out of it. I am limited but I also find it freeing. I am always pushing myself. If I can't play a beat with my feet the same time as the guitar rhythm, I'm dying to nail it. If I can't get that button pushed in time, how can I rearrange my body to nail it?”
Kristen, the diabolical octopus-like mastermind behind her various instruments onstage, also has far-reaching goals in her new life in Nashville and beyond. Though technically doing it all herself onstage, she has someone to help with all the extracurricular vagaries of being a musician in the new century. "Deirdre is my partner in love and in life. She also tour manages, getting all the details in order and getting me places on time dressed appropriately. She also sells merchandise at the show and does publicity if I'm extra nice. We both hate that part.”
Kristen is currently working on a book about DIY touring, putting together full-band side projects, and has started planning a double album, with one record having a full band and the other with looping versions of the same songs, to be released on vinyl. "I'd also like to hire a 3D animation studio to make a realistic dinosaur music video. I want to live with dinosaurs so bad!”
The dedication it takes to commit to the songwriter's life is undeniable. The skill and patience it takes to perfect a one-person band stage show adds another layer to the practice. With the help of looping technology, maybe we'll see more one-person bands come out of the woodwork, perhaps as a response to the increasingly isolating social and economic sphere that today's musicians live. Kristen's infectious optimism and hard-working attitude transcends any sort of dystopian echo-chamber feeling, and instead wrangles the technology and uses it to make a sincere connection.