Kristin Welchez is an uptown girl. Formerly known as Dee Dee, and currently making music under the take-no-prisoners moniker Kristin Kontrol, the musician has lived almost exclusively in Harlem since she schlepped her life across the country some five years ago. Lately though, in a ritual that can only be called New York real estate palm reading, she’s been asking locals to guess what Brooklyn neighborhood she should move to. (She suspects the answer is Crown Heights—although mainly for financial reasons.)
As we strut around her old neighborhood, Welchez looks every bit the rock star—hair in a high bun, black cat-eye sunglasses (which stay on throughout the afternoon) and gold necklace with a small gold D.
But her joy is evident. As we continue the tour, she often breaks into present tense, the verbal slip linguistically staging her recollections as though they’re still occurring on the area’s yoga studios, bars and vegan pizza parlors. She stops in front of a brownstone, the kind of nondescript building that universally symbolizes the New York working class. It’s her and husband Brandon Welchez’s (Crocodiles) first home in the city before they journeyed even further north.
“We were the top floor,” she recounts. Her laugh is the very definition of rueful. “The whole top floor. This is where I was when the earthquake hit. And I thought the building was just falling. I’m from California and it didn’t even compute. I just thought ‘Oh my God! They dynamited the Second Avenue line and our building is fucked up!’ I couldn’t find the cat and I hysterically took the stairs down. I thought I was experiencing vertigo. Then I could see the building was shaking. Okay! The building is falling! So texted Brandon. ‘See you in the afterlife!’ Which we don’t believe in, so ‘Never see you again!’”
It’s that kind of openness that makes Welchez the kind of person you wouldn’t mind having around, the sort of forthright, honest friend who you probably wouldn’t hate when she informs you that yes, those jeans do make your butt look fat. (For what it’s worth, I apparently missed my chance for proper New York shoes when I passed up a $20 ankle-cracking pair of blue suede platforms during an impromptu secondhand shopping trip.) She calls herself private but punctuates her stories with side notes about missing headphones, community service gigs (she tries to log time at St. Bart’s food kitchen when she’s in town) and visiting a psychic as a non-believer.
Cue the surprise: It took Welchez the better part of 10 years to extend the same kind of honesty to how she presented her music.
Record screech. Clarification: No one is calling her time with the Dum Dum Girls inauthentic. Formed on the heels of what Welchez calls her involvement in a series of “really horrible rock and roll bands” Dum Dum Girls was nurtured by Zoo Music, Art Fag and Captured Tracks before ultimately signing with Sub Pop in 2011. Welchez presented the project as a band, filling out her ranks of her unfunkwitable girl group with a rotating cast of friends. But at its core, Dum Dum Girls was ostensibly a solo project with Welchez, as the badass Dee Dee writing songs of freewheeling garage pop. When the ghosts of relationships past crept in, she wrote about them. When her mother (from whom Welchez borrowed her stage name) passed away, that too got folded into the music, informing 2011’s heartbreaking Only in Dreams. But ultimately, all that singularity in the crowd became wearing.
“I had maxed out Dum Dum Girls, what it meant to feel like there was an archetype there that I couldn’t really navigate around musically or aesthetically; a lot of that was I set in motion,” Welchez explains over almond milk lattes at Cafe Jax, her voice rising over the omnipresent hiss of the milk steamer. “That’s fine. But also, it was like what do you expect? If you do everything, of course you’re going to hit a limit. I’m not that great of a musician. I can write songs for sure. Other than bringing in people. And I don’t want to make a record that sounds like U2 or whatever. I didn’t want to make a big, bright, guitar pop record. Because that’s just not my purpose.”
Certainly changes in direction aren’t unprecedented. Beck, David Bowie and Iggy Pop have all made handsome careers by regularly throwing the baby out with the bathwater. But Welchez quickly came to another important realization—in her case, this might be a lot to ask.
“It’s bigger than me at this point,” she recalls. “Not even in an ego or fame way. It’s a living, breathing thing, and I’m not going to fight it. I’d rather respect it. I’d rather leave it intact for its history and its fans instead of being like, ‘And now I’m going to change the whole infrastructure.’ It’s a whole different project. It requires different instruments. Different kinds of players. I’m not going to dismantle what Dum Dum Girls is, replace it with a new band and have a completely different sound.”
Although supportive of her creative shift, Sub Pop initially didn’t take to the idea of a name change. There were casual fans to think of—culled from Dum Dum Girls’ appearances on Orange is the New Black and Gossip Girl, there was no guarantee they’d follow Welchez beyond a name change. (“You have this brand that we’ve all worked,” she jokes. “You mean band right? You mean band. Tell me you mean band!”) There were legal tangles to consider. Thanks to the glut of musical Dee Dees already in the world (“All amazing soul singers from the ‘70s,” Welchez clarifies) preemptive trademarking could delay the release for up to a year. And without the creative capital of a finished album, Welchez had nothing to back up her claims that this was indeed a new chapter.
Fast-forward to a year and over 50 songs later. (“They’re all rejects!” Welchez declares, confirming that prolific doesn’t mean perfect.) The only thing standing between her and the mastering process is naming the baby…or rather herself.
“I asked a few friends what they thought I should do,” she says, setting the scene. “My options were Dee Dee, Dee and Dee X. I don’t want to do Dee Dee Penny, but I need a last name. Quite a few people said, ‘Just do your name. It’s time! Be yourself! You’ve done Dum Dum Girls for 10 years! It’s clear that you want to break out of that, so why create a whole new thing? Be yourself.’ It’s easy to say that, isn’t it? Then all of a sudden I’m like ‘Holy shit, I’ve been sitting on my name for 12 years.’”
The answer, Kristin Kontrol, was born of a nickname/insult she received while hanging out with a crew of San Diego DJs known as Skull Kontrol. An alcohol-soaked late night email exchange acted as her final baptism.
“‘If it has to be Dee Dee Penny, okay then,’” says Welchez dramatically reenacting the exchange. “’But I feel so strongly that this needs to come out as something else, but I will make that compromise if that’s what we need to do to move forward. P.S. But, what about Kristin Kontrol? Emoji winking face.’ Jonathan, the head of Sub Pop, immediately wrote back. ‘I love it! It makes me think of T. Rex, it makes me think of David Bowie, whatever.’ I was like, cool—did we just decide something? He said ‘I think we did. Awesome, I’ll tell everybody in the morning.’”
And just like that, a new artist was born. Again.
If Dee Dee was the queen of the garage, a rough-and-tumble punk queen in love with Iggy Pop and girl-group harmonies, Kristin is more of a genre chameleon. “I can finally show you the real me,” she sings on guitar-driven scorcher “Face 2 Face.” One gets the feeling that Welchez can apply the phrase to her record collection and diary pages in equal measures. X-Communicate, her debut under the moniker, is the rare album that can actually claim influence from Krautrock, bubblegum pop and Enya alike without eliciting eye-rolls.
She talks about uncertainty in the process. She mentions frustration. She even jokes about questioning herself. (“When I was really little, before I had debilitating self-esteem issues I was like ‘I was a star!’”) But Welchez’s friends are more complimentary. Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Nick Zinner, who offered an assist on the first Dum Dum Girls album and recently recruited Welchez for an all-star musical covers concert, praises her singular vision—rare in today’s musical landscape.
“I think she has a fearlessness in her that I really respect in artists—it pushes her to make difficult and uncomfortable choices while taking chances,” he explains. “That allows her to stay completely true to herself, whatever the risk.”
Andrew Miller, who Welchez tapped to produce the album, praises her as a likeminded spirit. It’s Miller—who Welchez calls her person and jokes that he’s the almost Johnny Marr to her Morrissey—who truly helped kick off the process.
“We have similar musical backgrounds and we love a lot of the same corny shit, which pays off,” he explains. “Also, we’ve been down pretty divergent musical paths over the years, so when we come together to make something, we benefit from familiarity, but probably more so from the musical languages we don’t share…Every artist is different no matter what, but Kristin is pretty unique in that most people don’t have all of those brains to use. She’s a force.”
Since Miller lived in Los Angeles, the trio—rounded out by other producer/brain trust member Kurt Feldman—would decamp to his cousin’s Tribeca loft, a lush setting that featured an elevator opening on their floor and actual art on the walls. Tired of the preciousness of previous recording sessions, Welchez would come with fully recorded demos and allow her team to write and rewrite as they saw fit.
“It was almost like I was a little kid watching a movie,” she recounts. “I’d sit on the floor and watch [Feldman] and he’d play me things. At a certain point he remembered he had a chair that he got when he was in Tokyo. One of the floor chairs. Super comfortable. But would be up really high. So the joke was this time around he bought a chair. I had an office chair with an ottoman. But I’m still sat this far behind him. With my feet up.”
The trio jigsawed together Welchez’s ideas, writing new parts when necessary. Along the way they discovered elements that would have never made the cut in a Dum Dum release: The Kinks-inspired guitar of “White Street.” The haunting vocal effects of “(Don’t) Wanna Be.” The champagne grace of album closer “Smoke Rings.” Distinctly different, each track has a unifying factor. They’re all about love. Welchez describes the thematic thread as unintentional, but welcome.
“At a certain point, when I had 10 songs done, I was like ‘oh wow,’” she says. “They’re all different snippets or perspectives. You’ve got family, you’ve got friends, you’ve got lovers. Whatever. They’re not all about boys I have crushes on. They’re not all about my best friend moving to another city. As full a spectrum of love as I think I was capable of. I was like ‘Maybe I should write a song about something else! Fuck!’ But then I was like, ‘why? I don’t want anything forced.’ That was a rule—I’m going to work super outside my comfort zone on the music side, but lyrically I’m not going to interfere. I’m just going to let it happen.”
Yes, this time is personal. (But then again, isn’t it always?) Welchez assures that each story, from sadness to redemption, has some grain of truth. And it seems the vulnerability suits her.
“I clearly wrote personally for Dum Dum Girls overall,” she says. “I think on this record though, it felt more direct. I think it was a psychosomatic thing. I really wasn’t worrying about how it was going to come out, or what it was going to look like or whatever, I was having a much more direct connection with music. On Too True, which was a much more fragmented record, which I’m hugely proud of, it was a weird thing because on that record, I was also feeling the tension of what I can and can’t do with Dum Dum Girls. I’m going to take this sound as far as I’ve taken it before, maybe as far as it can go. But I was really deliberate about it. So I surrounded myself with specific music and specific books. Because I really wanted to make an album that was this thing. And I think that because of that, it was a little tunnel vision. This time around, I didn’t want to force anything. I just wrote whatever was happening. That’s also not the right word choice. I’m not sure what the word is. I’ll have to get out a really large thesaurus! But you get what I’m saying. It’s more natural, not so forced. I didn’t write the title of the essay first and then outline the essay and fill it in. I just wrote. It was more organic.”
It’s an accomplishment to write an album, let alone make a career in the arts. That’s a fact that doesn’t escape Welchez. She describes her parents as some of her biggest fans, her father going so far as to join her on a European tour to sell merch. (“I’ve never made more money than when I had my father hocking my wares,” she recalls.) These are people who thrilled when she played Jimmy Fallon for the first time and began to take her endeavor seriously when she described it as a small business, payroll and all. But as Welchez describes it, any of them could have been in her place.
“My dad’s entire family, they’re all dormant artists,” she explains. “Musically, that’s where it comes from. Any of them could have pursued a singing career. My dad sounds like Frank Sinatra. My brother sounds like Sinatra or Morrison depending on what mood he’s in. My dad’s a woodworker. My dad’s older brother is an incredible photographer, but they’re both Depression-era babies. You enlisted. You got married, you had kids. You picked a trade, and that was what you did. What you didn’t do was indulge your artistic passion. You put that to the side. That’s what my uncle did with photography. That’s what my Dad did with music. He was a public high school teacher. He taught shop. He did construction work in the summers. But he could have been a furniture designer or something on the creative side. But he wanted to be a teacher. He and my mom were called to do that.”
Does she feel privileged, that she’s in the first generation to be able to go after her dreams—no matter how pie-in-the-sky they may seem?
“Either that or we’re delusional,” she retorts. “My dad’s like, ‘what? Pursue something with no stability? Are you insane?’ It’s a joke that my backup plan to be a librarian is maybe harder to do. My librarian friends have been out of work for a year. I have a friend that couldn’t find a job for a year and ended up taking a job that’s only sorta related to library science. He’s happy, but it’s not what he anticipated doing. Wow, it’s harder to be a librarian than a musician, great backup plan! But both my parents were teachers. I toyed with the idea. But I couldn’t handle young adults. I really like taking care of kids. Maybe I’ll be a nanny. I drunkenly tweeted that childcare is the coolest and hardest thing I’ve done in my life. Why did I do that? I don’t know, I really don’t know. But in this reboot of my career, I’ve definitely lost the more secure position that I had with Dum Dum Girls. I’m on the hustle. Nothing is guaranteed. I’m excited. I’m good with that. I need to work hard for myself. Motivation.”