The right kind of friction creates glorious sparks. Coursing within the heart and mind of singer-songwriter Kristen Rae Bowden is a beautiful turmoil of tenderness and willfulness. It’s a paradoxical sentiment also evident in her artistic sensibilities. Her latest series of singles is centered around the sparring of conscious and subconscious memories, and in the rub between the earthy and the electronic.
"My music expresses the contradictions I feel within myself: inner struggles between heart and head, emotions, and logic,” admits the Charlottesville, Virginia-based artist.
Kristen’s music exhibits a bold vulnerability. She’s a confessional storyteller with a theatrical flair who draws from a wide swath of influences. For her latest program of singles, Kristen took an impressionistic approach, pulling inspiration from an imaginary world grounded by real feelings. Fittingly, her Americana songcraft is lavished by otherworldly textures, recalling the ethereal and emotionally evocative work of Phoebe Bridgers, Radiohead, Madi Diaz, and Kate Bush.
"I see songwriting as a kind of alchemy. With music, I can turn a bad situation that I may regret into a worthwhile endeavor, after the fact,” she confides. "My attitude is: if I write a great song about it, it was worth doing. I take all my problems to the piano.”
The catharsis in her music is physically evident in her piano playing, and her emotive and dynamic vocals. Kristen plays the piano like she’s mad at it; her full body pulsates with rhythm as she attacks the instrument. Her vocals sweep upward from richly expressive lower-register belting to a soaring angelic soprano. Her phrasing swaggers with mama lion toughness, playful sass, and sweet sincerity.
Kristen’s current series of singles dives into a dream state of memories, both real and imagined. Themes of nostalgia, distance, independence, and self-revelation are explored through Kristen’s timeless songcraft and poetic and metaphorical lyric writing. “Sometimes when you remember something, it’s not as it really was—the actual events may shuffle around, the colors change, and people’s faces are hard to make out. These songs are like an abstraction—looking at the past through a fisheye lens with things all blurry,” Kristen says.
The ethereal indie-pop single, “Hard to Love,” goes from earth-tones to neon, and it is a love letter to all the cynical and jaded dreamers who bristle at commercial romance around the Valentine’s Day holiday. The track features a steady heartbeat of muted electronic drums, a vintage-y analog synth, silken guitar filigreed, and Kristen’s layered harmonies on the anthemic chorus. The stately piano ballad, “Marry Me Once,” is an empowering slow-burner that addresses societal pressure to get hitched. Kristen sings: It’s taken a long road/To feel like I stand alone/And when I carry a heavy load/All I think about is going home/And I know you mean it/But what can I say/I’m afraid of being needed/And of losing my own way.
Kristen’s debut album Language And Mirrors, released in 2019, is a vibrant mix of complimentary stylistic explorations. “The country songs evoke the mountains where I grew up, the smell of damp earth, and childhood memories. And the orchestral songs are about the drive to be independent and let go of the past to move forward,” Kristen explains.
Throughout the album’s twist and turns are Kristen’s timeless songcraft and poetic and metaphorical lyric writing. “I prefer using metaphors, rather than being literal, because a literal description will explain what happened, but a metaphor can paint the way it felt,” she details.
Select album standouts include “Driven To Roam,” “Party On The Mountain,” “Solid Ground,” and “My Father’s Daughter.” “Driven To Roam” opens with a lilting melancholy piano figure, ethereal guitars, and smoldering vocals. Its orchestral expanse surges upward dramatically as the song unfolds, lending the feeling of an emotional odyssey. The country-tinged “Party On The Mountain” pines for those carefree nights of yore drinking in the fields of her hometown of Boone, North Carolina with her high school buds. “It’s one of the few songs I’ve written not inspired by feelings of frustration,” Kristen says with a good-natured laugh. “Solid Ground” is the crossroads where Kristen’s earthy folksiness melds with her brazen prog-rock sensibility.
The poignant and autobiographical ballad “My Father’s Daughter” might be the closest song to Kristen’s heart on Language And Mirrors. Her father passed away when she was 18 (her father was 61 when Kristen was born). The track details the complexities inherent in having a relationship with someone with a similar story, and touches on the meaning of the album title, Language and Mirrors. Kristen expands: “The album’s concept centers around how the people closest to us reflect ourselves. They are our metaphorical mirrors.”
Kristen showed great promise as a musician from an early age. She wowed her family as a 5 year-old picking out the melody for "The Rose” on piano. When asked how she learned the music, she proudly proclaimed "I eared it out.” As a child, Kristen also showed prodigious talents as a harmony vocalist—she recalls harmonizing with the garage door as it opened mornings before school.
Home was the optimum place for Kristen to nurture her nascent talents. Her father was a charismatic musician, and his infectious love for music made an indelible impact on Kristen and her siblings, many of whom today are professional musicians (her brother, Richard Bowden, is Ryan Bingham’s touring fiddle player).
With a well-received debut album, a growing buzzed-about reputation for her live performances, and her current fleet of new singles, Kristen takes pause to thoughtfully ponder the impact of her music. "Few things can create an intimacy between strangers as well as a song," she says. "I hope people feel like these songs ‘know them,’ like someone far away feels exactly as they do.”