This is Part Two of a six-part series on South African Vocalists
Continue to Parts: 1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5 / 6
Like most critics, South Africa’s are never lost for words. But now they’re struggling to describe one of the freshest voices to emerge on the country’s indie rock scene in recent years.
The representation that appears to have resonated most was in a recent issue of the South African edition of Rolling Stone magazine. It said Lucy Kruger’s voice hovers somewhere between those of celebrated English songstress Kate Bush and Irish chanteuse Dolores O’ Riordan, of hit-making 1990s pop outfit, The Cranberries.
“If I’m going to be compared, those are the kind of artists I want to be compared to. What I like about them is that they are difficult to define as singers,” Kruger told VOA. “If it’s difficult to categorize my voice, then it means I’m occupying a space that’s not pop and not completely rock or grunge. So not being able to describe my voice is actually a great compliment.”
Both Bush and O’ Riordan have a high-pitched quavering timbre in their voices that instantly sets them apart from other female rock and pop vocalists. Bush especially transcends these music genres to such a degree that she often veers into classical operatic territory.
Kruger also has a distinctive, eclectic voice that’s mature beyond her 23 years. It has an ethereal quality and rings to the point where it’s almost an instrument of its own.
“I’ve just always sounded like this. When I was a kid I wanted to go to vocal training but my mother told me I’m not allowed to because it would ruin any uniqueness that I had, and now I’m very grateful to her because she was probably right,” said the songwriting singer and guitarist.
Kruger studied music at university but is emphatic that making pop and rock music cannot be learned. “I actually just learnt the rules of music to be able to break them,” she said.
She’s convinced that her true musical education happened when she was a little girl, when she, her siblings and her parents would gather together to listen to recordings such as Joni Mitchell’s Blue.
She described hearing one particular track from the Canadian singer and songwriter, “A case of you,” as the “definitive moment” when she decided to try to be a professional musician.
Sense of wonder
Kruger’s debut album is called Cut Those Strings, a line from one of its tracks. She explained, “I thought it was a nice title for a debut album, for someone just starting a career in music, embarking on a radical new, brave adventure.”
Courageous the work certainly is, and it’s a strong testament to Kruger’s individuality. In a parody of others who sacrifice their integrity on the altar of acceptance, she sings, “Dance, dance little puppet / To the rhythm of the shallow heartbeat / And remember / It’s catchy phrases that sell….”
Cut Those Strings is largely an album of infectious pop hooks, sunny choruses and double-tracked vocals with a warm ambience. It’s uplifting and happy, and its creator often embarks on a gentle stroll to ponder her place in the world. “Lying on the grass / Staring up at the moon / I want to question the universe / And everything in between / Is it black or white / Or a shifting shade of grey?” Kruger sings gently.
In her songs beautiful dreamers are encouraged to continue on their righteous paths, and cynicism is rejected with contempt. Most tracks are endowed with a sense of wonder and innocent, simple messages – which isn’t surprising given that they were largely written when Kruger was still a schoolgirl and during her early years at university.
She sings, “Isn’t it true / That we’ll know what we know…We’ll go where we go / I’ve learned / That we’ll see what we see / So let’s not worry / And let’s just be.”
Kruger’s first record is optimistic, even naïve. But it does at times steer into darker, rougher waters.
On one track she employs an Australian didgeridoo – a long, cylindrical, wooden wind instrument – that clouds the song with an ominous, eerie drone, as an acoustic guitar is picked almost classically and Kruger sings in a pristine tone, “Will I leave this place / With my heart in a suitcase…. I wrote you words / They were selfish….”
She is willing to experiment with her voice, distorting it through a fuzz box, making it almost psychedelic, moving away from pop exuberance and into the realm of rock.
The singer acknowledged that she feels uncomfortable with her music being branded indie rock. “It’s been very difficult for me to put myself in that particular genre because before I recorded the album I played solo acoustic stuff, and so I guess I was more in the singer/songwriter genre than anything else, with more of a folk-based style, although the writing wasn’t completely folk,” she said.
Kruger said she doesn’t write and perform music to fit into a bracket.
“I’m not too stressed about what people hear in my music,” she said. “I do think that what’s happening with regard to my music is that there’s an honesty about it that hasn’t been forced. When I started writing when I was 16, I wasn’t writing for an industry, I was writing because I was playing guitar and I loved singing. And I try to stick to that.”
She was quick to add, “But is true that the album has gone more towards a slightly rockier sound, but it’s not hardcore rock. Given that indie is short for ‘independent music,’ I suppose it’s an appropriate label because that’s what I am doing at the moment.”
Writing songs paramount
“Four white walls” is the album’s first single and it is undeniably pop music. With its catchy chorus of “Four white walls / you’re too small…. Four white walls / I need more / But I am stuck here to this floor….” It’s a great pop song that’s receiving airplay on radio stations across South Africa.
Kruger explained, “I wrote that in my third year of university. Every year I moved house. I was sitting in an empty room when I wrote it. I had taken down all the paintings and so on from the walls. It was an empty space where I felt a sense of memory that wasn’t quite there. It’s about wanting more and feeling trapped by a system. That’s where that song comes from.”
She insisted that writing songs is the most important process in the making of her music. “I get very excited when I write new songs. I don’t think it’s escapism necessarily for me; it just feels comfortable and right. It’s a thing that makes me feel like me.”
Kruger added that song writing is also “scary” because it makes her feel vulnerable.
“It’s quite a revealing thing. You’re sharing stories that you wouldn’t necessarily [normally share]. People would probably be uncomfortable if you told those kind stories in a public forum, but somehow to music it resonates with people a lot easier.”
And “communication of feeling” is what Kruger said she’ll continue to love, no matter the vagaries of the music industry, and no matter how large or small her audiences become.
“I trust my product, I believe in my music,” she said.