As loaded questions go, this one packs a full clip. The woman firing it is sitting against the wall in a candlelit loft on the top floor of a crumbling brick building in the River Market. The room is filled with hipsters and amateur humanitarians, but the woman's aim is directed at Krystle Warren, who is perched on a stool a few feet away. Warren is hunched over her guitar, her face contorted with effort as she sings and scats and clears her own path through the peaks and valleys of Loudon Wainwright III's "Suicide Song."
She is going to be superfamous, isn't she?
Maybe. But speculating on the future yield of Krystle Warren Enterprises takes all the excitement out of watching Krystle Warren in the here and now. She's a paradox: sophisticated songstress and hard-drinking hippie, mild-mannered folkie and rabble-rousing firecracker, humble young heartland woman worming her way into the Big Apple.
She may become famous, or at least as famous as a girl from south Kansas City can get throwing Billie Holiday and Bob Dylan and Count Basie and the Beatles into a sinewy acoustic stew served with Popeye's Chicken and a chilled glass of Patrón. Or maybe she'll just be that friend who sits on your front porch strumming and humming "I Am the Walrus" while you smoke sticky icky and laugh hysterically about old Simpsons episodes.
Three months ago, Warren joined the great diaspora flocking from the backwoods, suburbs and cities of the Bible Belt to New York City and Los Angeles, those cultural beacons bookending the dreams of America's artists. Warren has set up residence in the East Village, gamely wading into the river of musicians, writers, actors and artists posing as valets, waitresses, delivery drivers and dishwashers.
But now she's made a trip back home. A few hours before her appearance in the loft, she is sitting at Minsky's Pizza in the River Market, giving a rough synopsis of her life while Mister Mister's "Broken Wings" drifts through the restaurant. The 22-year-old is a Kansas City native. She's a singer. She's a songwriter. She fuses elements of folk and jazz music. She has short hair. She's female. She's African-American.
Oh. She's Tracy Chapman.
"I fucking hate that," Warren says. "I absolutely loathe being compared to Tracy Chapman."
She gets that a lot. The comparison is groundless to most who look past the obvious similarities and realize that the two really have little in common. Warren can talk passionately about the Beatles and 40-ounce bottles of Ballantine, discuss the Shins and the spicy chicken sandwich at Wendy's, opine about racism and gentrification and broken homes with the same fervor with which she discusses Gates barbecue sauce, The Big Lebowski and the police warrant with her name on it.
"Let's just say it's very easy to end up in legal hot water for inciting a riot," Warren says with a laugh.
Later, she elaborates on her legal wranglings while sitting in a friend's parked car, passing a bottle of Early Times whiskey. It seems that Ms. Warren's raucous 21st birthday party (which featured a hired dwarf) prompted a visit from Kansas City's finest. When one of the officers threatened to mace the partygoers if they did not disperse, Warren vigorously questioned the legality of such a maneuver and was promptly placed in handcuffs. She subsequently missed several court dates after moving to New York City, which led to the warrant. (Warren eventually appeared in court and earned a sentence for community service.)
Beat that, Tracy Chapman. The cheese-and-wine affair at the loft is ostensibly a benefit for villages in Kenya and Tanzania, but the congregation is decidedly more fixated on Warren than on building Third World classrooms. People stand at the fringes of the large, empty room and sip cabernet and chat politely as Warren sits on a stool by the window, crooning "Eleanor Rigby," her eyes shut in a wince: Ahhhhh, look at all the lonely people ... where do they all belong?
Warren was seventeen years old when she bought her first guitar and began teaching herself to play by emulating Revolver-era tunes. She'd left home two years before, supporting herself by working at Burger King, living with relatives and foster families, and shuttling to four high schools in two years.
She was a coffee-shop fixture by the time she graduated from the Paseo Academy for the Fine and Performing Arts. Bassist Solomon Dorsey introduced Warren to jazz, and she began easing her way into open-mic sessions at the Blue Room, where she steadily improved and slowly began to weave her sound into a jazz-folk hybrid.
Warren's transient childhood had already helped pour the foundation for her eclectic taste and her ability to establish a rapport with just about anyone. She is funny and polite and courteous and friendly, and there's a gleam of wildness in her eyes.
Her guitar-picking is relatively pedestrian, but it's her soaring voice and her eye-catching ability to wed jazz with folk that have made many people do triple takes. Her adaptability has also allowed Warren to avoid being another deer in New York City's headlights.
"Kansas City is a little big city, and New York is a big little one," Warren says. "Musicians in New York seek each other out. They're almost forced to meet each other, because they're all fighting for the same gigs. So there's a lot of networking that makes the city not seem as big as it is."
Warren has quickly adapted to subway rides and curbside chili dogs, to high prices, expectations and pressure. She is learning New York through its open-mic nights, meeting musicians, performing shows, wowing audiences and making connections that have allowed her to perform with Cody Chesnutt in an opening slot for Erykah Badu.
Which isn't to say a powerful voice, an acoustic guitar and some dingy New York City bars make a lucrative formula. Warren has been baffled by the fierce competition for part-time work as, among other things, a dishwasher, a waitress, a baby sitter and a dog walker.
"It's hard to find a regular nine-to-five, but it's not really hard to do music or to dance or draw or write, because there's someone just waiting to discover you," Warren says. "You could be hopping on a pogo stick, eating fire and singing the national anthem, and there'll be somebody who's like, 'I looooovvve that. Where do I sign up?' So there's a lot more support out there than I anticipated."
Not that you'll see Warren on MTV any day now. She is talented, no question. She's also rough. Raw. An open canvas that could become a Picasso or an Etch-a-Sketch. Most people in Kansas City have never even heard of Krystle Warren. They might someday.