Krystle Warren's "To the Middle" is a song that sounds a little like a carnival ride, but it's actually her love song to Kansas City. Written when she lived in New York, the lyrics express a deep longing for the mainstays of her hometown: toothy smiles, tree-lined avenues and Gates barbecue. In the chorus, the chanteuse demands to know, over and over, Why you wanna go away, Why you wanna go away, again?
"I missed my hometown and it felt like Kansas City was kind of scolding me for leaving."
But if anything, the singer-songwriter's only gotten further from home.
Her career has grown into an international phenomenon, with prominent folk musician Rufus Wainwright calling her one of the greatest living singers of our time, and major newspaper reviewers dropping references to untouchable vocal talents like Nina Simone, Tracy Chapman and Aretha Franklin when describing her sound. Something she says she never could have imagined as a kid in south Kansas City.
Now, she's an expatriate musician living in France, just outside of Paris, part of a long tradition of African-American musicians finding freedom and refuge abroad. But her unlikely resettlement abroad wasn't a planned move; it was an accident, and it involved barbecue of all things.
It started when her label at the time, a French label, flew her to Paris for some recording. What they didn't purchase for her was a return ticket, and as a working musician, she didn't have the cash to spare on a return flight right away. So she stayed a while, but her plan was always to come back home.
"I was feeling pretty alone, actually. You fall into another culture that's not your own, you're miles and miles away from Kansas City."
The hardest adjustment for this Kansas Citian abroad was getting used to the overall personality of Parisians.
"They're not cuddly. They're not cuddly people. Just yesterday, I was walking down the street [in Kansas City] and this older gentleman was sitting in his driveway and he said good afternoon. And I said good afternoon. And I was like, Gosh, I love my town. You know? Just something as simple as that. [In Paris], that doesn't really happen."
But just as the time neared when she was supposed to head back home, she met someone, and eventually, the two got hitched.
"I've become an honest woman," Warren jokes.
It happened like this: She was at a concert, and during intermission, she spotted a famous French actress in the crowd.
"As I'm thinking Oh my god that's Isabelle Hubert, Van sees me and she goes Oh my god, that's Krystle Warren, and her uncle said, Who?" (Warren particularly likes that the love of her life included that part in the story, the part about her uncle having no idea who Warren was. "It's grounding," she says.)
They got to talking and ended up sharing a cab ride home. When Van was getting out of the car, Warren realized she had to see her again and invited her to a barbecue that Friday. As soon as the cab door shut behind her, Warren texted all of her friends to be sure there was, in fact, a barbecue when Van showed up. And the rest, as Warren says, is history.
But do Parisians really get the whole barbecue thing?
"They do now," Warren says with confidence.
Kansas City is still home, even though Warren's found an artistic freedom in France that's allowed her to flourish. She especially appreciates that pop music doesn't follow her into grocery stores and elevators.
"I have peace and quiet and I don't feel that I'm competing in any way with Lady Gaga," she says.
Maybe that's why the artist sounds more like herself, these days, than she ever has.
Her musical beginnings were in the Southern Baptist home where she was raised, in south Kansas City, which she says was a sleepy place back then. She grew up on Gospel music, and loved to emulate the voices she heard, from Anita Baker to Stevie Wonder. She was a natural when it came to mimicry.
She left south Kansas City for Midtown when she went into state custody as a teenager.
"I left home when I was 15, emancipated myself," she says.
Did it feel like freedom?
"Yes and no. Actually emancipating yourself, being in front of a judge, and being quite young and holding strong to go forward with your decision, and at the same time feeling ... you grow up faster. The emotional process of it is something that I don't think anyone's really prepared for. It's a divorce. It's severing a tie. And that's not terribly easy."
But when her journey eventually led her to an independent living program, which set up qualified 18-year-olds in apartments, that's when she landed in Midtown.
"I remember thinking What is this magical place?" she recalls. "It seemed like I had found my people."
That's around the time she was gifted her first guitar, from a good friend.
"It was one of those rinky dinky, maybe 10-buck guitar with a bird on the pick guard. From there I graduated to getting a Fender Squire from a pawnshop," she says. It took her a couple of years just to figure out how to tune the thing.
It was as a high school student at Paseo Academy of the Fine and Performing Arts that she started to gain confidence in who she was, as both a person and a musician.
"I felt a touch of freedom. I felt like I was becoming myself, that I had this room to grow. For me, it was a growing confidence in something as minute as my appearance, my sense of style," a style she describes today as Plain-Jane-Meets-Oscar-Wilde. "In any other environment I could have been perceived as this strange, weird, quiet kid. There, I was celebrated for being a singer, being a musician, being different."
She's still celebrated for those same things every time she returns home from Paris, playing to intimate crowds who can honestly say they knew her when.
Gina Kaufmann is the host of Central Standard. You can reach her on Twitter: @GinaKCUR.