Chrysta Bell on David Lynch’s Process and the Music of Twin Peaks: “The soundtrack of my lifetime”Photo: Suzanne Tenner/SHOWTIME TV Features Twin Peaks
Chrysta Bell’s speaking voice is uncannily like a harpsichord made of solid, hammer-warmed honey. There is ample melody in it, even when she’s not making music. Originally from San Antonio, Chrysta Bell (C.B.) is a singer-songwriter whose field of play is usually referred to as “dream pop,” but like a lot of genre-welding, that term’s not quite right. It’s a label, a term we used for a sound-and-feeling which hangs somewhere between the frolic of air and the business of fire.
The spring of 1998 saw the singer making a major appearance on the television show Austin City Limits with her then-band, 8 1/2 Souvenirs. She released two albums with them. Her solo issue This Train appeared in the fall of 2011. C.B. is most famous for her partnership with the artist-for-all-seasons David Lynch, with whom she’s been collaborating sonically since 1999. She had a rush of additional fame after starring as Tammy Preston, the new FBI agent in this summer’s Twin Peaks: The Return.
I met C.B. through a mutual friend. The time seemed right for an interview. The singer has a new album (We Dissolve, with John Parish), a tour coming up in November, and had an engagement the evening we spoke, but still found time to recollect by phone. During our conversation, she unspooled her adventures filming the series.
Other writers have touched on the character of Tammy, the quality of the relaunch, and C.B.’s performance. As a fan of Dale Cooper and all he illuminates, this reporter’s bias was obvious, indisputable. My interest from the beginning of the interview was C.B.’s artistic experience, and the stop-and-go process of Lynch’s design and vision. We have reams of speculation on what Lynch might mean, less on how he does what he does. There are at least ninety-dozen ways to describe the Eagle Scout from Missoula. Given his history with secret woods, I prefer to think of him as a mammoth pine tree, indifferent to axes, sheltering and giving freely, nourished by a hundred streams.
There is something undying in the man. And the people around him.
I asked C.B. about the process of being brought into the world of Twin Peaks.
“I’ve been thinking about this,” she said. “David and I make music together, and we were in the final session of Somewhere In The Nowhere, which is the EP that we released in 2016, and we have this kind of ritual where I come to Los Angeles, and he will make space in the recording studio, create time. Then we spend whatever time he’s available, and that involves hanging out and talking about life and other dimensions, and we have conversations about our beliefs, and then we make music.
“So, he plays a track for me and I listen to it—and if we both love it, and if sounds to me like it’s a great song for great CD… then he’ll either write lyrics on the spot, or he’ll go down to the Black Box. And you’ll get some writing for the CD that he’s done in the past. We decide what we feel like will work with this kind of music, and then we just kind of sit together. And the whole thing takes shape and starts to have this life. And then, in between, if I’ve been in there for a while singing and my team needs to do some blending, David and I will take a break and we’ll go outside and smoke a cigarette, drink a coffee.” That was standard for them, she said.
“In one of these breaks, David, quite out of the blue said, ‘I think there’s a role for you in my new project.’”
I. How to Dream
“I’ve always been intrigued by intuition,” C.B. said, speaking of the creative process. “There’s pervasive instincts… I kind of think of intuition as a muscle that you can flex, and more and more you kind of pay attention for the little wisdom.” Instinct, she said, is inherent, “but intuition is like a more sophisticated exterior thing that can be cultivated by using the muscle.”
As in: ”’Okay, I’d like a lick of this, maybe I should do this, maybe I should call this person, maybe I should ask this person to be a part of this project.’ And I feel like David has that muscle and that lets you feel things that instincts might not.
“He didn’t even say the words,” C.B. continued, “and of course everyone knows David’s new project. By now—by this point—the news is rampaging among the fans. There’s actually a possibility that Twin Peaks is going to turn up.” C.B. said she was aware of Lynch’s time constraints. “While I was pushing for our recording session to happen, I knew David was about to become extremely busy, if this was going to happen. I didn’t want to be bugging him trying to get time from him while he’s making the new Twin Peaks.”
She had no expectations about him “asking me to be involved,” she said. “I’ve been so fulfilled from the time that we’ve spent together, and I’ve been unbelievably fortunate to make two records with this wonderful person… When he said, ‘I think there’s a role for you in my new project,’ I was just like ‘Really?’ because he couldn’t say the word, but I knew what he was doing.”
“And then he kind of sat there and looked at me. And he has this look on his face which was just him thinking about it. And I knew that he wouldn’t have even just said this, if he hadn’t had a lot of consideration.”
C.B. emphasized this point: “David’s not a kind of person who will say that something is happening and then retract it. He knows how big of a deal it is to someone… and still, he just doesn’t say things unless he’s really given it a lot of thought. And even still, I could tell he was like ‘Okay, I think Chrysta Bell is right for this,’ like he was still letting his confidence crystalize, like he was making the right choice… But then, when he said it to me, I knew it was a part of the project, like he said it out loud. I don’t know if he told anyone else about it, I don’t know if he discussed it, I don’t know … but he was like ‘I think there’s a role for you’ and I said ‘Okay’ and in that moment, it was so unexpected that I didn’t even know.
“Of course, I was intrigued, but I didn’t know if this [role] was as a musician, I didn’t know if it was a big part or a small part. I didn’t know if it was a walk-on for a minute. I had no idea it could be anything and that’s all he said the first time he mentioned it.”
II. Getting There
“The next time he mentioned it, he gave me a little bit more information. At that time I hadn’t watched Twin Peaks since the original airing.”
She’d been twelve. The plot, characters, dialogue and storylines were not always understandable. The soundtrack, however, was a different ballgame. “I was totally into the music,” she said. “Music has always been the expression that resounded the most deeply to me, and the expression that I’ve chosen to deal with life personally. And the music in Twin Peaks—in particular the theme song, and the way that it’s blended with the visuals and the energy that it conveys—there was something about it… I was taken to a new place in my little being. I carried that to this day.
“And that was ironic,” she said. “About nine years later, when I went to make music with David, the music David played for me on the day that we met was absolutely reminiscent of the Twin Peaks sound, because David was working with Angelo [Badalamenti] very closely. And even though Angelo was not a part of the music that David was composing at that time, the essence…
“There was that thing, that thing was in the music, and so I can say that as a child, this thing was awakened by the music of Twin Peaks. And then, as I was arriving into womanhood later on, it stimulated the next cycle of my awareness. And then we were making music for a decade, that would then take me into adulthood. So, the music of Twin Peaks—David’s particular aesthetic—the music that we would make together… It’s been the soundtrack of my lifetime.”
Regarding her role, she said, “David knew I had confusion. He didn’t care that I hadn’t seen it in twenty-five years. David doesn’t get sensitive about that kind of thing, which I love about him. He doesn’t think [that], like, I’m more worthy because I was a Twin Peaks fanatic.
“It was just like he got a little voice that said, ‘This is the part for Chrysta Bell.’ And he listened to it… and he told me about it, and then over a period of time it solidified.”
There was a surprise on the way. “And then before he shared with me everything that I was going to do, he said ‘You’re going to be on screen with Gordon Cole. You’ll be doing things with Gordon Cole.’”
“And at that time, I still hadn’t re-watched Twin Peaks, so I was like, ‘Okay.’ I was like, ‘David, I don’t know, I don’t know who that is, but I’m re-watching the show right now, and getting caught up,’ and he was like, ‘Okay, no problem.’”
She re-watched the show for the first time in years. “After that meeting, of course, I’m in my house and watching Twin Peaks on Netflix, and it was like two in the morning and I’m relaxing… I’m on the couch and I’m watching episode five and then Gordon Cole comes on the screen and I sit upright, and I’m just like ‘Holy fuck! He’s got to be kidding me!’
“And then I just had this flood of appreciation for David’s personality, like he was so coy, he played it so cool, like he didn’t give a tinkering. I just didn’t know, and he let me discover it… and for whatever reason I didn’t Google it. I think that whole process was just a sweet gift. There’ve been so many gifts of the whole process of being a part of Twin Peaks.”
III. Making It
At first, it was hard to tell if the show would happen, C.B. said. “Like you just feel like maybe it’s not going to happen, and then it was going to happen, and then David said it wasn’t going to happen—it was like a roller coaster. I still don’t know the extent; it’s like how I found about being a part of Twin Peaks: The Return.” The waiting “was as nebulous and continuous and bizarre and chaotic as anything, it was so appropriate.”
Even if the show had never come out, it was such a full and rich experience. “Before I even got a script, before I even knew the name of the character—even if it had never come out… just knowing that David honestly just wanted me to be a part of it, I felt so honored. It was such a big deal that he would see me that way, which was very special. I already felt so much appreciation for this person, that he would even consider me.”
Eventually, the matter worked itself out: The Return would be filmed. Non-disclosure agreements were signed. “We couldn’t discuss it with anyone… there’s that part of the process where we just had this secrecy and the mystery, which was so appropriate for Twin Peaks as a whole.” Not only with the script and the plot, she said, but the very experience of filming and acting in the show. “These characters have all of these revelations, and internal tricks, and extra-dimensional experiences.”
Life mirrored art, she said. The cast felt what their characters did: “The same thing was happening with the actors who were about to play this role.” She described the experience in terms of abundance. The experience was “so rich, as far as the different levels of activity on all of the levels of being. It’s indescribable, clearly, because I’m not able to do it.”
“But there was this understanding as well, that all of this was a part of the process, like a roller coaster. Not knowing that it was going to happen, the lockdown of information.” The cast knew a little, but they were obliged to remain mute. “We were discouraged from even talking about it with the other cast members, because they know stuff that we don’t know, and then we might put things together. It was so dramatic… and yet there was this feeling that we were a part of something that was very unusual and somehow important.”
They were stakeholders in a great becoming, passengers in a vessel both strange and beautiful. That’s what the process of filming The Return had been. The mystery and the seriousness “was okay because there was a beautiful drama about it. Like, yes, let’s take this to the limit, because maybe—will we ever have this opportunity again?”
It sounds a bit like falling in love, I said. You don’t know where it begins.
“Yeah, there’s something to that… even though it’s potentially deep in emotion both positive and challenging, you cannot help but give yourself over to it fully… you’re invincible and it’s full.” And then, she said, you discover, “’Okay, I’m in.’” It was “transcendently beautiful. Yeah, like falling in love.”
IV. Being There
There’s a scene where Agent Preston, a stoic and serious personality, fully smiles—as the singer describes it, “this smile comes to blossom fully on my face.” And Angelo Badalamenti’s music plays, a leitmotif keyed to Tamara Preston’s grin. “And the thought of Angelo writing to my smile was—I mean, it’s difficult to process the gratitude that I feel to be a part of the show like that.”
She sat in awe of the system around her, and of what David had manifested on screen. “I don’t know about you,” she said, “but ‘Part XV,’ with Norma and Ed, with Margaret Lanterman… The show is so powerful [on] so many levels and there’s such reverence and beauty here.”
“I get really proud of David for being the captain of this ship,” she said. “It’s so risky, you’re bringing back one of the most loved—coveted—shows ever. Like, who would do that?” David would dare, she said. “It’s risky to have to hold all of these ideas and understandings, it’s kind of a responsibility inside. I think that’s part of what happens when you meditate for forty years; you have a more pristine access to what is meant to unfold.” As a filmmaker, she said, Lynch had experienced “enough of the things that did and didn’t quite come together—he knows how precious it is when something does work, when it works, when whatever you’re doing has all of these things that support it. David called that ‘having the support of nature.’”
That’s why it was art, not science. “Like sometimes, there’s projects that you start, that just kind of just fall apart on every angle, and you’re kind of always struggling to put that together. Yet sometimes, you have to pull yourself up when something’s not quite right, you’ve got to refigure and reconsider. But then there are times when things just go together in a way that we couldn’t quite have planned, or really pulled off… but there’s a kind of other momentum carrying it and holding it.”
She was glad to have been a part of the entire experience: “That was not a given, that was something he earned; he worked so hard, I’m so glad he did it.”
I thought of those later episodes, “Part XV” particularly: with Nadine and “Ed you are free,” good old Ed Hurley and Norma; and Otis Redding’s telling us he’d “Been Loving You Too Long,” and the look of recognition in Agent Cooper’s eyes as the world finally broke through. And I thought of the slow gentle warmth in my chest as the lights of the Log Lady and the Log Lady’s cabin went out at last, not all at once but bit by bit, and isn’t it funny how each and every part of the world, even a make-believe one, is connected by invisible strings to some human heart out in the wide dark possible, and when they hit us just right the moving pictures on a screen are a mirror of all the words you’ve never said but felt, and in a very fast life a slow town in the deep woods can be as real as sky, it can be there for you whenever you want it, it’s there right now, even after 25 years, because nothing is lost, but just changes form—I can’t really talk about those episodes, about my emotions, I said: It’s like trying to eat a watermelon in one bite.