Not long ago, Kristin Diable experienced an epiphany. She’d just moved into her current Bywater home, and with the work done there was time to reflect on where life and music had taken her. “I sat on our roof in the Bywater, about a block from the Mississippi,” she recalls of the moment. “You could hear the boats going by, hear the train rumbling in the distance—I could see it all clearly. It’s not like the world had changed overnight, but there were a lot of life transitions going on and I was feeling kind of grateful. I could see that all the hard work and love and passion that I’d put into everything was really evolving and that life was really coming on.”
That night, she wrote “Make the Most,” one of the key tracks on her new album. A strutting rocker with encouraging lyrics (“When you feel defeated, just remember you ain’t beat yet”), it’s the sort of song that many writers would create to give themselves a pep talk. But for Diable, the song celebrates the determination that’s gotten her this far.
So it’s no wonder that she’s given the album a title as confident as Create Your Own Mythology. That title says a lot about the way she looks at the world, not just her career. “I feel that everything around us is mythology,” she explains, “from the Bible to the idea that you have to have a college degree to have a job and a livelihood, or that people in offices are the only ones that hold power—that’s all something that somebody made up. I think that everybody has the power to create life for themselves and to create the world they want to live in. You can’t change the macro or change the world overnight, but you can create a better world for yourself. I remember writing that phrase down sometime in the past year or two; it’s something that kept coming back to me and led to this record. The songs are about finding freedom and getting away from the futility in life. I wanted it to be empowering and to have a message.”
Confidence and determination are, of course, good things, but a striking singing voice is something more rare. Diable’s got one: a seductive Southern drawl with the mystery of a Lucinda Williams and the exotic pop appeal of a Stevie Nicks. On her previous album with her band the City, the voice was offered mostly straight-up; the songs there were long, austere soundscapes, mostly without production frills or even drums. The new album is a full-fledged pop album by comparison. Produced in Nashville by Dave Cobb, Create Your Own Mythology presents the songs full-dressed and generally upbeat; all 10 tracks are short and punchy enough to be radio-friendly. Still, Cobb isn’t a mainstream Nashville producer—his best-known client is alt-country maverick Jason Isbell—and this isn’t a mainstream country album. Instead, Cobb gives it a layered sound with hints of a Daniel Lanois approach, with string arrangements that verge on psychedelic.
“Yeah, nobody’s going to know what this music is, so we’re screwed,” Diable notes. I bring up one of my favorite passages on the album: A wordless, ecstatic vocal bit that she breaks into on the otherwise straightforward rocker “Driving in Your Car,” a left turn that comes just when you’re expecting to hear a guitar solo instead.
“You mean those noises?” Diable responds. “Yeah, there are a lot of noises on this record—I wasn’t afraid to go with what’s in my head. The songs in me always dictate how it should be produced and what the arrangements should be. The newer ones as I heard them in my head were bigger and more lush for a band, but with spirit and soul, I didn’t want to take those out by overproducing it. It’s a pop record in a lot of ways, not that it’s a Rhianna record or anything. More in the slick ’70s pop sense, like Tom Petty or Fleetwood Mac.”
A couple songs harken back even further—notably “Eyes to the Horizon,” which borrows the rhythm loop, with its bassline and heavy breathing, from the Zombies’ “Time of the Season”—a reference that Cobb mixed in and out of the track so it’s more subliminal. Another reference was unintentional, as she wrote a song called “Bird on a Wire” without remembering the Leonard Cohen song of the same title. “When I wrote it I was thinking, ‘Man, that title sounds familiar,’ and I’m a huge Leonard Cohen fan,” Diable says. “There a lot of times when I’ll write a song and wonder if I’ve just ripped somebody off, but it’s usually alright. But this time I looked it up and said, ‘Oh, shit’—but I left it in because that’s what it’s supposed to be called. There are worse people to unintentionally steal a title from.”
Album opener “I’ll Make Time for You” is an obvious single, a pledge of love with a gorgeous tune and a vocal to match. Like most of her love songs it’s open-ended; vowing to be present and back off at the same time (“I’ll be there for you, but I will not hold you down”). Diable, who’s in a committed relationship, says that the ups and downs in her songs are all true. “Absolutely, that’s how relationships are,” she says. “Whether I’m writing a positive song or a down and brooding one, what I like is to find the truth in the situation. Even when it’s challenging, you can find some beauty in the darkness and get some clarity. In the past, I’d cut certain songs out if they didn’t belong into a box I was supposed to fit in—I didn’t do that this time. So I’m not really a country artist, not really a blues artist—I’m Kristin Diable, that’s who I am.”
Since her early childhood in Baton Rouge, Diable never harbored any doubt that she was going to be a professional singer: “I always knew it, and it was the only thing in my existence that was absolutely for sure—I change my mind about everything else all the time.”
Never mind that there weren’t a lot of opportunities to perform in Baton Rouge, and that the first band she admits to loving was Hanson. “Hey, they were young and popular and they all wrote music,” she explains, “so that got me thinking that it could be a real occupation.” And never mind that her first songs were strictly formative: “My sister and I sang together, and our biggest song was called ‘Excuse You’—it sounded like something a 15-year-old would write. Our first show was a battle of the bands at the YMCA in Baton Rouge. And I’m sure we were horrible, but the feeling that happened when we were performing and sharing the songs—it was the way we could connect to the world, and everything suddenly made perfect sense.” Diable was equally determined to get her songwriting together.
“I never did other peoples’ music, even when I was 15,” she says. “It just never occurred to me to do that.”
Knowing she wasn’t about to get discovered in Baton Rouge, Diable entered college a year early but dropped out of LSU and relocated to New York City at age 19—making the move without a band, a manager, or any other connections. “I don’t know what I was thinking, except when you’re that young and naïve you’re bold enough to try anything,” she says. “Being this little babe in the woods, the city was a sensory-experience wonderland for me. I started playing shows and got connected to the community of songwriters and musicians; it’s not like I was trying to grow up a little but it happened that way. And I spent a lot of time just walking—I’d cover miles every day, just to get the lay of the land. And it was great for people-watching.”
Yet she wound up getting major-label interest after just a few months in NYC, to the point where then-Sony Records head Don Ienner called her into his office. The Atlantic label’s alternative imprint Lava made overtures too—nothing developed at either label, in large part because Diable wasn’t starry-eyed over the possibilities: “I did the phone calls with all the labels, but the timing wasn’t right and that’s fine. Lava wound up signing another female songwriter and, of course, all female songwriters are supposed to be alike. And to be honest, they probably wanted me to have better songs. So I’m glad that nothing came of that—I wasn’t a fully formed artist yet, and I would have gotten stuck into the machine too early.”
That wasn’t the only time she’s said no to a big deal. In 2012, she was famously courted by NBC-TV’s The Voice, which offered her a long-term contract that she turned down. Three years later she’s got no regrets: “I guess I’m big-headed sometimes, but it was a shitty deal; if it was a good one I might have considered it. But they’re not out to give an artist a career—they’re selling TV advertising, and you’re a pawn in somebody else’s game. And you don’t get to own your publishing, which is a big thing for me. I know people who’ve been on the show; they’ve got a few more social media followers, but they’ve also committed their lives to the show for months—so financially, it doesn’t help. Everybody thinks you’re famous when you get on television, but that’s irrelevant to me. The point is building an audience and having a career.”
With that in mind, Diable finally moved to New Orleans six years ago and gave herself an ultimatum: She would survive only on music and not take a day job. “It was a real sink or swim, but it worked,” she explains. “And I feel that everything started solidifying when I moved to New Orleans. I spent so much of my time in New York waiting tables or doing part-time jobs, and didn’t have the time to focus on creating.” And of course there was a lot of music to absorb. “I’d say that the soul of New Orleans influences me more than the sound does,” Diable says. “When I think of New Orleans music, I think of funk and soul and those kind of elements. Maybe I have a tiny tinge of that, but it’s really the essence of the city that I’ve absorbed.” There’s something haunting in her voice that speaks to New Orleans. “I think that I’m a pretty smiley and well-adjusted, happy person,” she says. “But I can definitely relate to some kind of eternal longing. That’s in my voice and I think it’s in a lot of the songs.”
One thing that hasn’t gone unnoticed over the years is Diable’s fashion-model good looks, and I ask if that’s been a help or a hindrance in getting her music across. “Well, it’s not like anybody is going to complain about being good-looking,” she says. “And I think it matters less now that I’m grounded in myself and more comfortable in my skin. It is something that I considered more when I was younger, because I cared most about the songs and about making something useful to people. Because I didn’t go to a major label I avoided the pressure for the most part. But I was a little afraid of getting too gussied up or looking too good because I was afraid people wouldn’t take the concept seriously. But, you know, that’s bullshit. People can be fabulous in infinite ways. And everything I do is about making something worthwhile and meaningful, so if I look good on the album cover, that’s fun. David Bowie didn’t look like shit either, and Michael Jackson was like a god. Or the Rolling Stones—they’re pretty flowery and made-up, too. But when Mick Jagger walks around stage in women’s top hats, it’s still pretty awesome.”
Diable is proudly awesome on the cover of her own CD. “When something looks good, people are more likely to listen to it, that’s true,” she admits, “but it’s been at my own discretion. The new music is more mature and more sleek and grown-up, and the artwork reflects that. Nobody pressured me to poof up my hair or put on more eye makeup—that was all me. And being a fan of music, I love that element of it, too; it’s all part of being an artist. You’re not supposed to look like you’re shopping at Wal-Mart.”
It’s no coincidence that each half of Diable’s album ends with a song about saying goodbye to a partner and going out on the road: That’s going to be her life for the next few months, and she’ll be on tour during Mardi Gras. “Yeah, I’ll be out of town, probably in the snow somewhere in the North,” she says, “but I know I’ll be celebrating in some kind of ridiculous gear somewhere.”