Hudson K’s Christina Horn pursues her own sound, at last

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The woman who just finished making a highly-electronic rock record, themed around the conflict between nature and technology, has been fighting technology for about three hours. Specifically, a tiny bent plug prong. It’s preventing her computer from connecting properly to other equipment so her band, Hudson K, can share the debut of its newest video live at the Pilot Light.

Advertised to start at 8 p.m., the show also features performances by three bands, all to celebrate the kickoff of a pre-sale for Hudson K’s self-titled album.

It’s 7:53, the sun is going down, there are two people in the bar besides front woman Christina Horn, and she is starting to come unglued. Seems like she might have to project directly from the laptop, by having a very tall person hold it up in the air.

“I need a drink,” she says, but adds, “Something always goes wrong. It’ll work out.”

Horn doesn’t break a sweat. Her freakout is so subdued it’s mostly apparent in how tensely she holds herself as she strides back and forth in a stiff black leather jacket, dangly silver tassel earrings brushing her shoulders. Her plume of pink-streaked hair is swept into a ruffled spray.

With the help of (extremely tall, but not holding the projector) Pilot Light owner Jason Boardman, she seems to get the situation resolved. The projector arrives wrapped in towels inside a vintage suitcase, and is rigged up to deliver the goods. Horn dives into her “backstage”—a canvas bag containing a mirror, baby wipes, a phone charger, two umbrellas, and fluorescent green ear plugs. In a few moments, she’s shouting. Her sister yanks the earplugs out and Horn bursts into laughter when she realizes her volume had been mis-adjusted for half-deaf musicians.

The crisis has passed. After all, that kind of snafu is not uncommon when you have no handlers or employees. Regional musicians like Horn must become skilled problem-solvers who can extend their onstage adrenaline to an enthusiasm for taking offstage chances. “You make every little decision, and it’s really stressful,” Horn says.

Horn’s experience making, marketing, and touring for the band’s fourth record provides an example of the challenges and contradictions faced by today’s bands. With no record label, Hudson K has true creative control over its album. “This record just really sounds like us,” Horn says.

But in exchange, it’s stuck in charge of every mundane detail, too. Musicians are dependent upon technology for distribution—yet technology makes it ever-harder to make money from distribution. Add to that being a woman in a man’s business, and you get another vintage suitcase full of outdated struggles.

It’s perhaps no coincidence that both Horn’s approach to music itself, and many of her songwriting themes, are about technology—and on a deeper level, about fear and overcoming it.

Steve SoaringOak
Turning It Up

Although she loves performing live, Horn was nervous about showing the video. “Standing in a small room, while a bunch of people I like are watching this thing I made, is just horrifying for me,” she said the previous week. “I probably need a therapist at this point.”

But Horn is willing to try anything. Writing, recording, and producing her own record and then marketing it herself? Yep. Remodeling her garage—behind a stucco house in North Hills that was previously owned by another long-time piano teacher—into a soundproof studio, with no previous experience? Check. Playing the part of an alien in a duet with the Knoxville Symphony? Sure.

A frequent refrain in Horn’s explanations is, “I’d never done anything like that before.” It’s always spoken with enthusiasm.

It took years to build that confidence. Horn and her drummer Nate Barrett say Hudson K’s latest record, which Horn produced, is the first that fully represents their layered electronic yet visceral sound.

The video finally plays: Horn is meandering through run-down buildings, then into the woods, shedding trendy clothes and jewelry. “Mother Nature, you’re a cruel creator,” she sings, slathering herself with thick mud. Interspersed are silhouettes of Horn with a face made of leaves or filled with sky.

Horn writes the songs and arranges all the electronic sounds and samples using a keyboard and her computer, calling them up during live performances with her keytar—basically, an elaborate remote control that looks like a cross between a guitar and a keyboard.

That live energy kicks in when Horn steps onstage later, after shedding her jacket for a sleeveless shirt that shows off her muscles and a tattoo of gears.

A group of UT professors and staff who play in a band called Cheese and the Worms sit together near the front to watch. They’ve never met Horn, but their dream is to open for all Hudson K’s Knoxville shows. “We like the open experiments she does,” says Matthew Gillis. “She’s an explosive performer.”

As the first song launches, Horn triggers so much stage fog (lit a menacing, deep pink) that she can barely see her audience as she howls, “I come from the mud and a million stars above.”

The audience weaves, trance-like. Many of the new songs require some digestion and are less bouncy than crowd favorite “Stuck on Repeat.” But they’re still driven by Barrett’s drumming and Horn’s gutsy, powerful voice, interwoven with space-like synths and seasoned with a splash of punk energy.

Later, when Horn announces, “We’re going to end our set with a few songs about death. Death makes us face life and really live it, right?” Gillis starts cheering, “Death! Death! Death!”

The decade-old band has always offered a conceptual and musical mashup—even its name is a combination of the Hudson Valley in New York, where Horn grew up, and her adopted home of Knoxville.

Hudson K has re-invented its sound on every record. In past years, Hudson K has included a cello, guitarist or bassist, and even another vocalist for what Barrett calls a more acoustic “coffeehouse” feel. Over time the band pared down to Horn and Barrett, who have played together since 2005. Horn started experimenting with all the sounds she could get from her keyboard, while the live drums keep the sound urgent.

“This album was sort of us turning up,” Barrett says. “The piano virtuoso is still in there, and we’ve always prided ourselves on the arrangements. But we’re expressing a combination of our love of the use of electronics while making it more of an instrument… as opposed to all this digital. We don’t want to be an ’80s throwback.”

Barrett calls Horn “a one-man army” whose songwriting ability powers the band.

“At the end of the day, it’s mostly her vision. It’s kind of a tennis game, and she always serves,” Barrett says. “I listen to her ideas and translate them to percussion. A lot of the time that’s a big of a challenge, because she has a digital bathtub full of Legos, but that keeps me on my toes.”

This record is the first that Horn produced herself, recording at newly-local Top Hat Studios. Founded by husband-wife team John Harvey and Mary Podio, Top Hat moved to Knoxville from Austin, Texas late last year. (Hudson K’s next local concert—not counting the sold-out album release show July 6 at the Pilot Light—will be Aug. 10 at the same venue as part of a summer series that combines Knoxville and Austin bands to celebrate Top Hat’s 20th anniversary.)

Many first albums are self-titled. Although “Hudson K” is the band’s fourth trip to the studio, “This is the first one that I didn’t take any shit,” Horn declares. In particular, she says, her last producer, Jason Rubal with Pennsylvania-based Seven Wave Studios, would not let her in on the mixing of Ouroboros and the Black Dove and refused to make any changes afterward.

After that experience, Top Hat was a perfect fit.

“Our philosophy is to make people as comfortable as we can, and they’ll do the rest,” says Podio. “All the people that we work with have been burned by record labels at one point. When we opened, it was kind of the beginning of the end of the old music business, and a lot of artists coming to us were doing it specifically to take hold of their own experience.”

Barrett says the self-producing was a necessary step. “Working with a producer is a great experience if you had the right producer, but you know it’s one more thumb print that goes onto the record,” he says. “This record is really important to just really show what we can do.”

Steve SoaringOak
Pay Me My Money Down

Podio points out the trade-off for today’s regional artists: You get to make the creative decisions, but you’re stuck with all the housekeeping tasks too.

For example, to promote Hudson K, Horn personally wrote, stuffed, and mailed letters to everyone who bought her last record, also through a crowdfunding campaign. This time Hudson K treated it as a “pre-order” via pledgemusic.com, with options to buy CDs, one of 300 red vinyl albums, or band swag and experiences. But since the album was recorded in March, Hudson K was on the hook for the costs no matter how it sold.

That’s no small risk, because fewer people are buying CDs. Barrett points out that many people don’t have CD players any more and most computers no longer have disk drives. Most young people are listening to music on Spotify. Horn says the band makes one hundredth of one cent on each Spotify play, and about half the proceeds from iTunes sales, which have dropped in popularity. The best bet seems to be selling vinyl as a souvenir of a concert. “My vinyl records are the pieces I really cherish,” Horn says. “I think that’s why people buy vinyl, is the urge to collect what you love.”

Top Hat emerged at the moment when computers were making recording more accessible without highly specialized, expensive equipment. “Everybody has turned into their own record label,” Podio says. “But then you also have the problem of there being so many things out there, it’s really hard to get noticed. It’s a double-edged sword, I suppose.”

Bands have struggled with how to promote themselves, with crowdfunding being the most recent trend, Podio says.

Horn had to handle all the logistics, and is grateful for the help of friends in the music community like prominent local drummer and bassist Susan Lee, who helped design the band’s website and crowdfunding page as well as the album cover: a silhouette of Horn studded with a computer chip pattern.

There have been many complications. At one of the band’s first television appearances, the station botched the sound feeds and Horn says the performance sounded terrible. As she prepped for the tour to help promote the album in July, Horn realized she needed to replace all the van’s tires at the same time several key Saturday night shows were canceled.

The cancellations arose from the risks a band faces when booking distant shows with no publicist. Horn started looking for Northeastern tour bookings in December, but found many venues wouldn’t return her cold calls. So she had to arrange gigs mostly through partnerships with local bands known to the clubs. Recently some of those bands were offered more lucrative gigs and ditched their shows with her.

“That’s the part that makes me want to shed tears,” Horn says. “Touring as a small independent band with no publicist, you’re getting $50 at the end of every night, driving through the night and sleeping in the van…. But if you want to get your music out there, there’s no better way than getting on the road.”

A few days before the end of the album pre-sale campaign, the band had only met about half its goal. Brainstorming ways to build social media buzz, Horn invented the concept of a Facebook Live variety show/telethon, featuring musical performances, interviews and a panel of women in the Knoxville music scene. After several false starts, it helped the band meet 99 percent of its pre-sale goal by the next morning.

Girls in the Boys Club

Many of the songs Hudson K performs from the new album seem to embody a contradiction between the subject and the delivery. Horn’s voice distorts to a metallic, robotic edge as she sings, “We’ve always been wild.” She dances with sinuous arms and slinky hips while conveying a physical aggression.

This tension between flirtation and anger is no accident. She tells the audience, “This song I wrote about being female. Many females will probably relate. The rest of you… I love you.” Then she growls toward a chorus that chants, “If we continue to obey, we continue to be prey.”

This is the first Hudson K record that didn’t make Horn either feel that she had been rather lost, or been some kind of prey.

“I have so much baggage, especially with men, in this industry,” she says. “This record was me going: [she kicks a foot into the air at the level of her face] Fuck you!”

During the Facebook Live telethon, Horn hosted nine local female artists and musicians for a conversation in her living room about women in the music business. First, local jazz favorite Kelle Jolle played “Pay Me My Money Down” on the ukulele. Then the women discussed the pitfalls of behaving with macho bravado to hold their own with the men surrounding them (and to avoid getting attacked on dark streets after gigs, which some had experienced). Horn talked about her understanding from childhood that she would have to choose between a creative life and having a family—a choice men rarely face. “We have to remind young women that we’ve been fighting and we’re still fighting,” Horn said. “Because it’s not equal. It’s not equal.”

As a UT student, Horn recalls being the “only girl” in the jazz ensemble, and all her professors were male. She says she constantly encounters sexism when playing clubs. The sound guys—“they’re all guys,” she notes, “it’s in the name”—assume she’s just a singer and that they need to consult Barrett about inputs and electronics.

“Every time I walk on stage, I have to deal with male ego,” Horn says. “I have all this baggage of distrust, and I’d like to not feel that way. I go in on the offensive, assuming I’m going to be taken advantage of and made to feel like shit.”

Barrett has become more aware of what women in the industry face. “I have to realize that I get passes on things: I don’t have to worry about getting hit on at the clubs or walking behind the clubs,” he says. “These things do happen, with people in the audience all the way up to management. It’s disgusting and it’s there.”

He’s also seen the band consigned to the “girl ghetto,” with venues only interesting in booking Hudson K for a night of all-girl bands. “It’s like, ‘Let’s give the girls a chance,’ and that’s kind of insulting to me,” Barrett says. “It makes almost the same statement if you just book us with good bands.”

Horn wrote on her “She Persisted” blog that working with a female sound engineer for the first time was liberating after being “advised” by a male “expert” to change her sound. (Only 5 percent of sound engineers are women, Horn notes.) Not only is Podio talented in her own right, but “I didn’t have to worry about her trying to sleep with me.”

It had happened before. A man in a position of power over a previous Hudson K record propositioned Horn, after the band had recorded but before the product had been delivered, upping the pressure. She says he had also puffed up his resume when he first offered to work with her. The whole experience left her feeling entrapped and less confident.

“He made me feel ‘discovered,’” Horn says. “When I went alone to meet him the first time, I had a weird feeling, but I didn’t go with my gut.”

She sighs. “It always goes back to listening to my own voice.”

With Podio, Horn writes, “I want to say that she allowed me to do one simple thing that I’ve wanted to do my entire life: Trust myself and my own voice and talent.

“DAMN. Isn’t that everything?”

Hudson K can be purchased at hudsonkmusic.com. Orders will be handled via pledge until the band returns from its tour; those who pre-ordered will get their albums first.

Featured Photo of Hudson K by Steve SoaringOak, courtesy of Hudson K.

Bill Foster

Sidebar:

Genre-Bending on the Mothership

Many aspects of Hudson K’s new self-titled record have come together because of Christina Horn and Nate Barrett’s camaraderie with other musicians in Knoxville, a city often praised for having a musical community more supportive than competitive.

Horn believes in cross-pollinating the musical landscape through relationships with bands in other cities and musicians outside the rock scene. That’s part of why she invited two bands from out of town to open for her video release party, one having been vouched for by the other.

“It’s all about trust and developing relationships,” Horn says. “That’s how every good thing has happened for me in music.”

On a day in May, she’s in her studio prepping to play a solo with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra in “Mothership,” a piece written by composer and d.j. Mason Bates for the YouTube Symphony Orchestra. It depicts the journey of a ship docking on alien planets, then having musical conversations with the locals. The aliens are depicted by electronic instruments played by local musicians, who auditioned. Under music director Aram Demirjian, the symphony has also been incorporating pieces that cross genres an effort to attract non-traditional audiences.

Horn is in her dimly-lit studio in front of a life-size mosaic of a nude woman, watching the YouTube video on her computer to practice her entrance and experiment with the notes and sounds of her solo. (The metallic yet gentle pings of an Asian stringed instrument? A 1980s vibe?) Her riff is much more stripped-down than the version on her audition tape, which she decided was too fussy.

Horn thought her initial rehearsal with the orchestra the previous day didn’t go well. “I couldn’t hear them and they couldn’t hear me,” she says. “They were looking at me like I was an alien.”

Fitting, in this case. But Horn is no stranger to classical music. She first came to Knoxville to earn her bachelor’s degree in music and a master’s degree in pedagogy and literature at the University of Tennessee, and she teaches about 30 students piano and keyboard.

Horn worries about what to do with herself onstage until her solo begins. “I wanted to be lowered from the ceiling, and [Demirjian] just kind of laughed at me,” she says. But she’s still mulling ways to embrace the role. “Believe it or not, there are many Pinterest pages devoted to alien makeup,” she says sifting through them with a glazed look. “Maybe I should just go for it.”

But the next night, she wore an understated swirl of silver across her face when she strutted to the front of the orchestra in a sequined blazer and silver stiletto boots. Her pink hair streak was braided next to her scalp, exposing her half-shaven head.

The music of “Mothership” pulsed with suspense, xylophone tweaking until the docking beep. Horn bent into her keytar solo, which seemed to echo the beeps and play with a bluesy reverb—different from what she had practiced the day before. In the audience, some of the gray-haired regulars nodded along, while others looked skeptical (and a few sneered).

“For me, this is the penultimate, where I can bring electronics back into the type of music I started with and still love,” Horn says. “Aram and I talked about how do we combine the ‘classical’ music world and rock. But it’s all just music. Instruments and computers, they’re all just tools for getting a sound.”

Steve SoaringOak

S. Heather Duncan

S. Heather Duncan has won numerous awards for her feature writing and coverage of the environment, government, education, business and local history during her 15-year reporting career. Originally from Western North Carolina, Heather has worked for Radio Free Europe, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London, and several daily newspapers. Heather spent almost a dozen years at The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., where she spent most of her time covering the environment or writing project-investigations that provoked changes such as new laws related to day care and the protection of environmentally-sensitive lands. You can reach Heather at heather@knoxmercury.com

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