Kristen Ford, a one-woman looping band, describes her performance look as “practical, sexy, fun, and authentic. I’ve always been a Tomboy. I like dressing kind of androgynously.”
When dressing for a show, Kristen combines artistic choices with practical considerations like heat in the club, performance length, and the ability to move freely.
“I’m sitting there with my legs spread, hitting drums and stuff. I get really hot on stage so I don’t want to be wearing too much. Sometimes I think about how an outfit is going to unlayer itself. At what point is it going to make sense to take that button down off, and then what’s going to be under it?”
Her standard outfit includes: “leather, boots, bandana, belt buckle, skinny jeans. The more important the show, the tighter the jeans.” It’s a look that’s well suited to Ford’s new home base, Nashville, TN.
Before settling in Nashville, Ford and her fiancé Deirdre Doran toured non-stop for two years, averaging 250 shows a year. Ford’s style during that time was more streamlined: three pairs of pants and a blazer. If the place was classy, she’d wear the blazer. “I got kind of a bigger tattoo a couple of years ago and I feel like it’s made dressing for stage a lot easier because I can just wear a tank top and BAM - I got some color from my tattoo.”
Ford is currently writing a book based on her touring experiences, with an expected release in early 2017. “It’ll be all about DIY touring and, as an independent artist, how to get all your shit together, so that you can be taken seriously and start making money. I feel like that doesn’t really exist. It’s like, ‘Go get a manager.’ Or, ‘Have a bunch of money.’ I feel like those are the books that exist.”
For Ford, fashion choices can also be a way to connect with her queer community. “I love how having a particular haircut is kind of a beacon to people to be like, ‘Hey I’m family. Hey, I’m non-traditional.’”
But making these choices is not easy, especially as Ford continues to expand her sphere beyond the female-created spaces and festivals that nurtured her early on.
“When you’re a performer and female, it’s all about being a sex object first, and then being a performer or musician. So if you are outside of the gender norms or the hetero-normative cookie cutter, then what the fuck is the industry supposed to do with you?”
Ford traces concerns about how her queer identity would affect her chances at success to her early childhood. “I was always focused on being successful, whatever that means. I didn’t really see how being queer would work out in terms of success. So I think I wasn’t very open to the possibility of exploring that at all, and I was in very much denial just of my own feelings that were going on.”
“I think it was just kind of a slow evolution of self-acceptance. I think it really helps that I grew up right next to Northampton, the gayest place on Earth, and that my parents were supportive. I knew lots of lesbians. I had lesbian teachers. My dad had lesbian co-workers. The lesbians ran the rock and roll camp I went to. I had some boyfriends and I’d been with some guys and I was like, ‘Alright, this is whatever.’ When I actually had my first relationship with a woman, I was like ‘Okay! I’m gay.’”
Being biracial is another aspect of Ford’s identity that she continues to navigate. Ford’s parents, a white woman and an African-American man, divorced when she was 10. She spent time with her dad, but was mostly raised in predominantly white spaces. “I was raised around all other white people and I never had really any black culture that I was immersed in. It’s been kind of like something that I can’t really figure out - how I’m supposed to be true to both communities.”
That process is complicated by the fact that other people often don’t recognize that Ford is biracial. “It’s like you’re a vegan but nobody knows. Are you supposed to go around being like, “I’m vegan. Nice to meet you.” And when she does mention her heritage, other people often disbelieve and challenge her. “I think I’m in kind of a weird area where you can see what you wanna see.”
Ford notes how this propensity for the dominant culture to see what it wants to see contributes to cultural appropriation in fashion or music. Styles and musical genres that originated in black culture are often used to elevate the careers or goals of white performers. “You’ll hear an amazing soul singer and you find out it’s a British white boy who’s 15, and you’re like, ‘Okay. Why didn’t they put a black person on the radio who sings just as good as him? Because it’s harder to sell it?’”
Ford grapples with her own experience straddling communities that still tend to be separate. Ultimately she looks forward to a time when artistic resources and expression will be available to all, without erasing the history of where they came from or the people who created them.
“We live in a very diverse country. Hopefully we’re just coming to a point where it doesn’t have to be so segregated. What people can like, where they can hang out, and who they can be friends with. Same thing for queer people. Like we shouldn’t have to just be going only to certain bars and living only in certain neighborhoods. We should all be able to do whatever we want.”
That’s one reason Ford is excited about her new collaborative hiphop project, The Blu Janes, which gives her a chance to collaborate with another woman of color, MC Genesis Blue. Ford hopes the music will be accessible to people with a wide range of identities and experiences, including the queer community. Music videos for their songs, “America,” which was created after the Pulse shooting, and “Man’s World” are available on YouTube. Their debut EP will be released in the spring of 2017.
Ford’s most recent solo album, Rend and Render, is an apocalyptic concept album. “I wrote a lot of the songs to have double meaning. Am I talking about vampires, or am I talking about civil rights? Am I talking about gun control, or am I just talking about a protagonist in a scene?”
Ford is already contemplating the look for her next solo album, when it comes. “Maybe I should have more of a ridiculous persona on stage. I’m mulling over that idea. Perhaps for the next record release, it’ll be a full distinctive image choice.”
In the mean time, Ford continues to orient to the music scene in Nashville, which is a complicated mix of competition and nurturing. “You have more of a jaded audience in Nashville, because everyone is a critic. I’ve been to a free festival on the green with 14,000 people, and no one even clapped when the band finished a song. You could almost hear the snarky-ness, ‘Well, we should be on stage, not these guys.’”
“There’s this weird dichotomy of people who will probably give it two years and then sell all their stuff to the pawn shop and leave. And then you’ve got the people who are so incredible, and so incredibly talented, and you’re like, ‘How do I even touch this?’”
With the glut of talent, “the chance to get inspired is really great. You have all the performing rights organizations in Nashville. You can meet other writers. There’s sort of a mentorship thing happening, where it’s like, ‘Okay, you could improve that song, let’s talk about how you could.’ I think it’s a great place if you have an open mind, and you’re willing to learn and improve.”
Ford is trying to set concrete goals for herself, such as her current goal to hit 3,000 likes on her Facebook band page by the end of the year. For a performing musician, more likes and followers translates into more performance opportunities. “A lot of times the way that people decide who gets booked to play festivals, it’s just a numbers game. They just look at how many followers and likes you have and YouTube plays. So those numbers actually matter a lot. It’s also a cool way to stay in touch.”