If there’s a theme to her latest recording, Kristie Stremel said, it’s implicit in a ballad called “Sun Sky and the Moon.” “It’s about being on the road,” she said. “Missing the people you love, missing birthdays. There’s a whole push-pull on this record about family life and life on the road. Maybe it’s me thinking subconsciously, ‘How and I going work this out?’ ” It’s a fitting theme: Family is on her mind a lot these days. And the road has been part of her life since she was in her 20s.
“Sun Sky” is one of 10 tracks on “Kristie Stremel,” her sixth solo recording and the ninth of a career that is closing in on 20 years. The album was released in early April, less than four months after Stremel turned 39 and nearly six months to the day after she and her partner, Lori Isabell, welcomed their adopted son, Charlie. Like most first-time parents, Stremel was as boggled as she was smitten.
“The weight of bringing a new, little creature home was a little overwhelming at first,” she said. “But it has been everything I wanted it to be. I’ve always wanted to have a child. Sometimes, desire is all it takes. If you desire it, it will come to you.”
And sometimes you have to navigate the darkness to see the light.
Songwriter from the start
Since she picked up a guitar and started a band, Kristie Stremel wanted to be a songwriter. “I never wanted to sing,” she said. “I just wanted to write songs.”
When she was about 15, living in Hays, Kan., Stremel recruited several friends to start her first band. “We all got together for the first time in this storage unit we’d rented,” she said. “We were this kind of garage band called Downfall. My mom didn’t like it. She thought the name represented the devil. At our first practice, I looked around and realized, ‘Uh ... I forgot to get a singer.’ So I started singing. And then I kept on singing.”
In 1995, when she was 21, her music career took a pivotal swing when she joined the band Frogpond, a dynamic four-piece, all-female band from Kansas City via Warrensburg. Frogpond generated enough critical acclaim and attention to land a deal with the Tristar label, a subsidiary of Sony. Stremel was part of its debut full-length album, “Count to Ten,” a collection of noisy, bristling and infectious alternative-pop/rock tunes. “Frogpond was my rock ’n’ roll experience,” she said. “Just weeks after I joined, we were opening for bands like Everclear and the Toadies.
“What did I learn? I learned about (guitar) distortion. I learned about being on the road and managing that. I learned how to drink pretty good. It was a free-for-all wherever we went. It got to feel so crazy and unmanageable. I was drinking a lot.
So I quit. I wanted to do my own thing.”
She started her own band, the thrashy rock trio Exit 159. “I really wanted to write songs again,” she said. “That band was me trying to write my own songs.” After two albums, she ended Exit 159 and started her solo career. But she hadn’t vanquished her drinking, and it started to take over her life.
“My drinking was a symptom of what was really going on with me, the darkness in me that I had to sort through,” she said.
Chris Meck was one of Stremel’s primary collaborators during the earliest part of her solo career. “It was a good fit,” he said. “We became fast friends.”
Meck introduced Stremel to Lou Whitney, a member of the Skeletons and Morells, who’d been engineering, mixing and producing bands in Springfield since the early 1980s. By then, Whitney, too, had become aware of Stremel.
“I’d heard about her before I saw her play,” Whitney said. “So when I saw she was coming to play a gig in Springfield, I went over to watch.” What he saw and heard, he said, was raw but promising.
“I thought she had all the ingredients,” he said. “The songs were poppy efforts to write songs that might actually do something. She was writing personal stuff but couching it in this rock-pop way.”
In 2001, Whitney produced Stremel’s first full-length, “All I Really Want,” for Slewfoot Records, the start of a working relationship that, 13 years later, has flourished into a deep friendship. “He’s my mentor, a father figure,” Stremel said.
“Lou’s a very no-nonsense producer, with classic tastes,” Meck said. “It’s a great fit for the sort of no-nonsense pop/rock stuff that Kristie writes. She’s very much of the raw emotion school of songwriting.”
Meck eventually moved on, and Stremel’s drinking had a lot to do with it.
“We had some bad times for sure, but we had some great ones too,” he said. “She clearly was struggling with alcohol, and it was a difficult thing to go through with her as we were so close. I was also in a long-term relationship with someone struggling with the same demons at the same time so it was a double whammy for me.”
The encouragement she was getting from Whitney inspired Stremel to confront those demons. So did the loss of Meck. “He was my partner, my sidekick,” she said. “I was heartbroken.”
So at the end of 2003, she quit drinking. “I had to get sober,” she said. “I decided I had to take music really seriously. Because, what else was I going to do?”
A baby in the picture
There’s a track on “Kristie Stremel” called “Well Alright,” and it’s a uplifting folky-country ballad that Stremel says is about “seeing things the way you want them to go instead of maybe how they are, writing about what you want
to come true.” But from the beginning, the song’s approach is personal, and it frames her relationship with Isabell, her partner of three years and someone who initially seemed vastly different:
“Oh, you are a stubborn girl, wrapped up in a corporate world / And I’m an indie child, with a streak of wild / They gave us looks and they had their doubts / We were set to figure it out / I said ‘We’re different songs,’ you said, ‘Won’t it be fun?’ / Well, alright.”
“We are very different in terms of what we do for a living,” Isabell said. “I’m corporate America and more straight-laced. She’s a musician. But our backgrounds are similar. We both come from very conservative, hardworking families. Our parents are still together. It’s a very family-based background. So we have a core that is very similar.”
They also shared the deep desire to raise a child.
“I’ve always wanted children,” Isabell said. “I’m 42. I’m surprised I waited as long as I did.”
“I’ve always known I wanted kids,” Stremel said. “I didn’t know how it might happen, and I almost thought maybe it wouldn’t, and that would be OK, too. But I’ve always had the desire.”
They had to wait longer than expected to bring a child into their lives after suffering a failed adoption.
“That was wicked grief,” Stremel said. “It took a while to get ourselves back together emotionally.
“It’s a long, crazy process. We had the FBI and the KBI and the state of Kansas all looking into our lives.”
But they tried again.
They adopted Charlie in October. “We got to hold him a couple hours after he was born,” Stremel said. But there was another wait to endure: The birth mother had 48 hours to change her mind.
“We kept on telling ourselves it would be all right, but we were sweating in the hospital for two days,” she said.
“And we respected and honored all that. What do I know about childbirth? I don’t know his birth mother, but "of all the people I don't know, she's my favorite person in the world."”
As it turned out, everything was all right. There’s even a line in “Well Alright” that turned out to be prophetic: “The baby came right on time.”
Chris Meck returns
Stremel had a couple things in mind when she set out to make her new album. She wanted to record it in her new home studio. She wanted to make it with people she was familiar with. So she recruited some longtime musician friends from around her hometown, guys who would “leave their egos at the door”: Lance Gilchrist, Jason Hammond, John Hobson and Ryan McCall.
And she asked Meck to join the project.
“I was worried about that,” Stremel said. “Chris was around for the worst of my drinking. I wondered if he’d hung on to that. I was over the moon when he said he’d play on this record. I think he’s the best guitar player in the city.”
At the time, Meck’s wife, Abigail Henderson, was reaching the final stages of her five-year battle with cancer. She died in August.
“Kristie reached out to me a couple of times over the years, and to be honest, I was hesitant for a long time to work together again,” Meck said. “It was a difficult time for me when we parted and I still had some raw emotions I didn’t care to revisit. “But I was in a more reflective state of mind this time, working through a lot of personal things as Abigail’s health was failing, and I thought it would be a good thing for me to reconnect with a bit of my own past. I was a little nervous but it just felt natural. We picked right up like it had only been a few months, not more than a decade. I”m really proud of the work we did.”
The music on “Kristie Stremel” is more of that mix of rock and pop with some country accents that intrigued Whitney more than 10 years ago. And it bears her many influences, songwriters like Tom Petty, Paul Westerberg, Joan Jett, Chrissie Hynde. It also shows off the studio skills she has picked up. With help from Meck and Hobson, Stremel recorded the album and took it to Whitney for mixing. He recognized some of her techniques.
“Kristie is sharp and has always been interested in how I did things and why I did things and what certain devices did,” he said. “She did real well with this record. I felt like I was mixing something I recorded. And I felt really good about that.”
For Stremel, who celebrated her 10th year of sobriety in December, the greatest reward was making music in her home with longtime friends who are as close to her as family. “Maybe it comes with age,” she said. “But these days, I just want to have fun. I don’t care much what anyone thinks. I just want to connect with people and create and co-create.”
And keep making music, no matter how many children she and Isabell end up raising. There’s a song on “Kristie Stremel” called “Breaking Up With Dreams” that addresses that issue: when to sacrifice music for family. “I’ve met a lot of musicians, mostly guys, who had to quit music because they started families,” she said. “I could kind of get that in my head, but I couldn’t understand why they had to quit completely when they were so good at it. “I have a different perspective now that I have a kid, and maybe it will change. But I can’t see giving up music for anything.”
Kristie Stremel and her band perform at 6 p.m. Friday at the Replay Lounge in Lawrence and 7 p.m. Saturday at the RecordBar, 1020 Westport Road.