The urge to create is a recurring sensation for Chrystabell, inspiring her spasms of far-out, avant-garde pop, of torch songs and art-rock twang, as it returns her again to a microphone located on Cemetery Lane. She has a small demo recording studio there on property inherited from her father, amid the gravestones and open fields way out in La Vernia, Texas. It’s a peculiar comfort zone for this forward-leaning singer, whose international tour dates typically stretch from the U.S. to the Balkans, but it’s somehow fitting for an artist widely known as collaborator and muse to filmmaker David Lynch. He’s been a key figure in the twists and turns of her creative life, helping to launch her solo career with a torrid pair of alluring and challenging albums before casting Chrystabell as FBI Agent Tammy Preston in Twin Peaks: The Return in 2017.
Her plot of land 30 minutes outside of San Antonio is the site of a “natural burial” cemetery called Countryside Memorial Park, where no one is embalmed, fermented, or otherwise preserved unnaturally. It was in the cemetery studio that Chrystabell began sketching out songs and ideas for her new album, Midnight Star, which trades the smokier sounds of her past for something “sparkle-tastic” and infinitely danceable. Its 11 retro-future songs are layered with echoes of ’80s synth-pop and modern electronics, a blend that songwriting partner Christopher Smart describes as “sci-fi intergalactic spy music.” “In my mind, it's the 2080s—not the 1980s,” Chrystabell says with a laugh about the sound. “It’s got some Xanadu and some Cher, and I’m not afraid of that at all. I love the theatrical part of it.”
The album was completed at a full-service studio in Austin, and released in January on Love Conquered Records. The finished tracks include a sparse, shimmering cover of The Psychedelic Furs’ 1982 classic “Love My Way,” along with the bright robotic beats of “Suicide Moonbeams.” All of it suggests a flair for strange, angular melodies, not unlike those of fellow Texan St. Vincent (who’s been known to cover Depeche Mode). “If I want to write songs that people want to dance to, I can, and that's a conscious choice,” says Chrystabell. “What if we explored music that was uplifting? It's always going to be a little weird because I can’t really escape that.”
“In my mind, it’s the 2080s—not the 1980s. It’s got some Xanadu and some Cher, and I’m not afraid of that at all. I love the theatrical part of it.”
At the moment, the singer is far from her Texas burial grounds, raising a wine glass in celebration in a restaurant on the Sunset Strip (fittingly, her glass is filled with a drink called Whispering Angel). With the new album out, and after months of COVID uncertainty, her postponed European tour will finally begin in June. During these recent travels through Los Angeles, she visited Lynch at his home studio in the Hollywood Hills, where the director spends his time locked away from the coronavirus making art. “He’s content—he was in his wood-making workshop,” she reports. “He was working on lamps. They were beautiful, very breasty.”
For most of her life and career, the singer was known as Chrysta Bell—but she’s now altered her name to read “Chrystabell,” helping to eliminate the usual confusion that’s had some journalists and others thinking her last name is Bell (it’s actually Zucht). She was named after an epic poem her mom discovered in school: “Christabel,” by the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, first published in the early 19th century. “My parents were just strange, eccentric. So there was no other path for me,” she says of her creative pursuits. “When I told them I wanted to be an actress or a rock star or whatever at 18, instead of going to university, they’re like, ‘That's a great idea, honey.’ Really? Worked out so far.”
Her very first sessions behind the mic came at eight years old, in a studio in San Antonio owned by her mom and stepfather, who was a composer for radio, television, and film. She moved to Austin 10 years later with plans to become an actress. Her shift into singing began unexpectedly after applying for a cocktail waitress job at the Caucus Club, an upscale jazz club for Texas politicians in the state capital. At her job interview, Chrystabell mentioned that maybe she could also sing occasionally with an accompanist. It turned out that the woman at the club’s husband’s band, 8 1/2 Souvenirs, was in search of a new vocalist. So she sent Chrystabell to audition. The band played a jazzy, swinging kind of multinational pop, which required a vocalist to perform in French, Italian, and German. Chrystabell already spoke Spanish and high school French, and got the gig.
“My parents were just strange, eccentric. So there was no other path for me. When I told them I wanted to be an actress or a rock star or whatever at 18, instead of going to university, they’re like, ‘That's a great idea, honey.’ Really? Worked out so far.”
8 1/2 Souvenirs were signed to RCA Victor Records, and they toured the world with their gypsy swing, including one high-profile gig in 1999 on Austin City Limits. But within a couple of years, 8 1/2 Souvenirs split apart, and Chrystabell was on her own. The band’s manager, Bud Prager, still saw something in the young singer and imagined big things for her. He’d enjoyed huge success working with Foreigner and Megadeth, and managed to get Chrystabell in front of talent agent Brian Loucks, a trusted friend to David Lynch. The filmmaker had a long-established musical obsession, collaborating with the likes of Julee Cruise, Trent Reznor, and Roy Orbison before fully emerging as a recording artist with the release of his Crazy Clown Time album in 2011.
The day he met Chrystabell, they wrote their first song together. They continued to work with each other at his Asymmetrical Studio whenever she was in LA, but it took a decade to complete her 2011 debut, This Train. The music was eccentric and gorgeous, all smoky rooms and frayed nerves, torrid and hypnotic. A followup EP, Somewhere in the Nowhere, arrived in 2016. “I was ecstatic about what we were making together, and it just happened to be that it was David,” Chrystabell says of their friendship. “He gave me so much. I really did feel very fulfilled.”
Chrystabell’s next collaborator was John Parish, producer-guitarist for PJ Harvey. The result was 2017’s We Dissolve, recorded in Parish’s mostly analog studio in Bristol, England, and set her otherworldly mezzo-soprano against some organic indie-rock shadings, which shared some evocative twang and smoke with the Lynch aesthetic.
None of these unexpected detours prepared her for what Lynch next had for her: a prominent acting role on Twin Peaks: The Return. Most of her scenes would be with Lynch, reprising his role as FBI Deputy Director Gordon Cole from the original series. “I asked David, ‘Should I take some acting lessons?’” she recalls. “He was like, ‘No! I don’t want to have to unteach you all the stuff that they’re going to tell you to do.’ Ultimately, David wanted me.” She learned that the role of Special Agent Tammy Preston was written with her in mind. “All the dynamics that Gordon and Tammy share are what I share with David. That’s the most extraordinary part of it. He uses the things in his life that have enriched him personally.”
“I asked David, ‘Should I take some acting lessons?’ He was like, ‘No! I don’t want to have to unteach you all the stuff that they’re going to tell you to do.’ Ultimately, David wanted me.”
Her appearance on the acclaimed revival of Twin Peaks brought a new wave of attention and followers, along with the inevitable online trolls, who attacked her performance much as Sofia Coppola was attacked (even more viciously) for her 1990 role in The Godfather Part III. Chrystabell reached out to a filmmaker friend from Texas, director Robert Rodriguez, who said her natural performance would have appealed to the great Stanley Kubrick, who interestingly once declared Lynch’s Eraserhead his favorite film.
The connections made sense, and knowing of Lynch’s mission to bring Transcendental Meditation to the masses provides a bigger context for everything. “He’s literally trying to make world peace—with every cell of his being, he believes that TM could create a better world,” Chrystabell says. “He’s made his art. Now he’s making some breast lamps. He’s not concerned about what's on Reddit.” FL