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.
On her masterful debut, Language and Mirrors, she fluidly, and authentically, inhabits earthy Americana and majestic orchestral rock.
“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. Select wellsprings of inspiration include classic rock like Led Zeppelin and Fleetwood Mac, experimental alt-rock such as Primus and Radiohead, classic singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell and John Prine, and the iconic musical theater composer Stephen Sondheim.
“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.
Language And Mirrors 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. This gift is
evident on her gorgeous harmony layering on album tracks such as “Solid Ground,” “Driven Just to Roam,” and “Doesn't Make Sense.”
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 sister, Amy Bowden, and her brother, Richard Bowden—Ryan Bingham’s touring fiddle player—guest on Language And Mirrors).
In 2019, following the release of her debut, Kristen teamed with guitarist Joe Lawlor (Egypt, Dave Matthews Band), bassist Dane Alderson (Yellowjackets), and drummer Nate Brown (Everything) to begin work on her sophomore record.
While posed for a promising career with the release of her debut, and new music on the horizon, 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.”