When she was growing up, Lauren Krum imagined herself as a jazz singer, thanks to a cartoon character.
“It was kind of a childhood dream, to be a singer and a veterinarian, even though I didn’t really know what being a singer was like,” she said. “But I’d heard phrases like ‘lounge singer’ and I had this idea of what a singer was. I don’t know, I think it had something to do with Jessica Rabbit (of ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit?’).”
Krum is living that singer dream these days, performing jazz standards and reinterpreting pop songs at various gigs around Kansas City. It’s one of three music roles in her life. She is half of Ruddy Swain, an old-time country duet, and she is a singer and songwriter in the country/rock/soul band the Grisly Hand.
The projects bring out different facets of Krum’s voice, which inspires effusive praise and admiration from those who sing with her.
“Some people can really hit all the notes, and that’s great,” said Jimmy Fitzner, songwriter and her vocal partner in the Grisly Hand. “But there’s something Lauren was born with that you can’t teach. It’s her timbre, the sound of her voice. There’s some life lived in her voice, and that really comes through.”
“She’s a great harmony singer,” said David Regnier, her partner in Ruddy Swain. “She has a great ear for a good melody. There’s no genre she can’t do. Her palette is large.”
Krum didn’t start singing seriously until she was an adolescent. A piano teacher overheard her “goofing around” and suggested she pursue something vocally. So she did: choir at Grace & Holy Trinity Cathedral, then musicals in high school, including the lead in “Mame.”
Both of her parents are musical, and they introduced her to a variety of genres, but Krum grew up a fan of women singers and pop divas like Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Jewel, the Indigo Girls.
“I liked the lady stuff because they were women singing about female emotions and experiences common to me,” she said. “It was so much more accessible.”
Then country music came into her life. Krum was enrolled at Columbia College in Chicago in 2006, focusing on vocal performance, when she saw an insurgent country/honky-tonk band called the Hoyle Brothers.
“I waltzed up to them one day and said, ‘I want to sing with you,’ ” she said. “And they said, ‘OK. Next week.’ And I said, ‘Are you sure?’ And they said, ‘You wouldn’t ask if you couldn’t do it, would you?’ So I did.”
She performed only a few gigs with the Hoyles, but they kindled Krum’s interest in country music.
“Country was the religion I found as a form of rebellion,” she said. “I didn’t really listen to much growing up. My mother had a Patsy Cline tape. But that was one slice of country that I was kind of fascinated by.”
While working at Reckless Records in Chicago, she assigned herself to the country inventory because “no one else wanted it.”
“It showed me country was a wide-open field to get to know,” she said.
Krum attended Columbia College for a year and started the Strumpettes, a band with four women singers.
“I kind of got in over my head,” she said. “It ended abruptly and traumatically.’
In the fall of 2009, she returned to Kansas City, where she and Fitzner immediately started planning to start a band.
“We’d done some one-offs when she came back to Kansas City for a visit,” Fitzner said. “I knew I really wanted to sing with her.”
In 2010, the Grisly Hand released the first of its three recordings, “Safe House,” a seven-track EP that showcased Fitzner’s songwriting and the pair’s harmonies.
“She makes my voice sound so much better when she sings with me, more than twice as good,” Fitzner said. “She always makes something good happen.”
After she and Regnier discovered they shared a mutual fondness for old-time music, they started Ruddy Swain, a duo that strips songs like “Wildwood Flower” down to two voices and one acoustic guitar, leaving the vocals exposed and vulnerable.
“David and I are such good friends, but out of everything I’ve done in Kansas City, (Ruddy) has taught me the most about singing,” Krum said. “We challenge ourselves all the time. Every time we do a show, I remember why we stick with it. It’s so fulfilling.”
“She is so diverse and so much in control that we can be really adventurous and stretch out a little bit,” Regnier said. “And I know I won’t sing anything bad because she will, in a kind way, nudge me in the right direction.”
Joel Nanos has produced two of the Grisly Hand records, including the new one, “Flesh and Gold,” and some Ruddy Swain tracks. He said one of Krum’s strengths is the listener always knows it’s her voice.
“She has a unique voice,” he said. “I think that’s more important than great pipes. It makes the music more personal and emotive. She is diverse … but we always hear not just another strong singer but her personality.”
That diversity is evident in some of the session work Krum has performed. Brad Cox enlisted her to work on a track that also included Krystle Warren and Barclay Martin. Nanos produced that session.
“Everyone in the room said at some point they wanted to hear more Lauren, more Lauren — not louder Lauren, but more of her just being her because that is ultimately why she was asked to be included,” he said.
Brandon Phillips of the Architects asked her to sing on the band’s ambitious “Border Wars” project.
“Lauren sang on a couple of songs, one of which was ‘Raise Up,’ ” he said. “That song has a very gospel vibe to it, and so we knew that it would benefit considerably from her fingerprints.”
She has plenty of projects of her own to work on. Ruddy Swain also has a recording in the works. Saturday night at Knuckleheads, the Grisly Hand will celebrate the release of “Flesh and Gold.” Another full-length album is scheduled to be released next year, and both will be released as a double-LP on vinyl.
One of the “Flesh and Gold” songs is “Brand New Bruise,” a song about domestic violence. Fitzner wrote it especially for Krum’s voice.
“She delivers that song almost like she lived it,” he said. “She goes beyond just singing someone else’s song. She really owns it. It gives me the chills.”
Over the past several months, Krum has been busier pursuing that childhood dream, singing jazz at Ça Va in Westport and the American Restaurant. It has taught her some things.
“I really enjoy doing the more relaxed stuff,” she said. “But the biggest thing I take from (jazz) is, since I’m on my own, I really have to carry the melody and make the song exist in its entirety. It makes me look more closely at how I want to do it and define it.”
Krum entered the jazz world with some trepidation but has figured out a way to give her shows a different spin.
“I definitely started out being fearful of Kansas City jazz,” she said. “The thing is I’m not Shay (Estes) or Angela Hagenbach. I’m not going to do what other people are already killing. ”
So she compiled a play list that includes some jazz standards plus some pop hits.
“She and I had a blast putting together the book for her solo set, performing traditional jazz standards alongside songs by Split Enz, Leo Sayer and Prince,” said Mike Stover, a fellow Grisly Hand member who accompanies Krum on guitar at her jazz gigs.
“Her vocal skill is undeniable — commanding here, soft and vulnerable there — but my favorite part of working with Lauren is the choices she makes, whether it’s during the songwriting process or selecting cover material.”
The jazz gigs have benefited her in many ways, Krum said.
“It has allowed me to do things that we can’t do as a loud band,” she said. “And I can go back to my lady roots.
“And it has made me a better singer, better at controlling my voice and informing my decisions on what I choose to do. I’m more acquainted with not just what can I do but what can I do well, what can you do without straining yourself, what should you not do. It allows me to act like singing is a real thing, like it matters, because it does.
The Grisly Hand will celebrate the release of “Flesh and Gold” on Saturday in the Garage at Knuckleheads, 2715 Rochester Ave. Showtime is 9 p.m. Tickets are $12 in advance.