Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit
The Kills
Nine Songs

The Kills Alison Mosshart talks Tyler Damara Kelly through the pivotal songs in her life, taking in her love of the road, the art of a cover and the transportive nature of music.

27 October 2023, 08:30 | Words by Tyler Damara Kelly

I meet Alison Mosshart the day after she and Jamie Hince host an album playback and acoustic show at Rough Trade East in support of their sixth studio album, God Games.

As I arrive at the rooftop of the Boundary Hotel, after bumping into Hince in the lobby, I spot Mosshart sitting in the furthest corner, smoking a cigarette with her hood up. She’s exactly as I expected as one-half of The Kills, whose music oozes a sense of untouchable cool, constantly adapting, always ahead of the game.

Surprisingly, when she sits down in-front of me with a glass of red wine, she’s incredibly disarming. We laugh about her hatred of karaoke, her love of cover songs, and she takes me on a road trip through her musical history, by way of some of the most influential musicians in history, from Nina Simone, Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits. Whilst there was no set theme that she had in mind whilst choosing her Nine Songs, our conversation appears to reveal an unconscious one: the complete submission to music.

As Mosshart is explaining her song choices to me – whether they’re songs she’s covered herself, or she’s chosen an artist other than the original writer – I ask her if any of the songs she’s chosen had influenced God Games, and she takes a moment to consult the list of songs, before confirming that Bruce Springsteen’s “State Trooper” was a song for her.

I covered that myself during the pandemic. I can’t remember why, but it is one of the first things I did with the keyboard, which made me realise how versatile it was and how interesting it was to me,” she reveals. “That’s always a nice place to start, when you're trying to discover a new style, to cover somebody else and see how weird it gets. Obviously, I do not perform, sing or do anything like Bruce Springsteen, so it was a really fun one for me to do. It’s like an “Alison's Version” of the song and felt like a good stepping stone.

On the subject of covers – as both The Kills and Mosshart have an extensive back catalogue of them – I’m curious to know if there is a song she keeps going back to, and if, on a less serious note, she might had a favourite karaoke song. Her reaction is comically physical, and I can see her tense up.

“I fucking hate karaoke – it's morally offensive to me,” she laughs. “I don't know what it is, but I'm so repulsed by karaoke. I think it's beautiful how much fun people have whilst doing it, but I have no friends that are actual musicians, or performers, that like to do karaoke. I can't find one, so I don't feel like a freak. Everyone’s like, ‘Oh, hell no’. That is the general consensus,” she says, ending her rant with another big laugh. Of course, surrendering to music does not have to involve karaoke. At all.

It’s tapping into a special part of yourself, and being able to unlock something magical, something other. This is what Mosshart and Hince signed up for, the day that they met over two decades ago. “There’s an undying support that we have for one another. There are no rules or boundaries in this band. That’s the way it started, and that’s the way it still is,” Mosshart tells me. “We made a pact to each other than we could do any kind of music; we can quit music altogether and just be painters – we can do anything,” she continues, adding that this ethos has meant that their creative partnership has always remained fun.

God Games is The Kills first full-length album in seven years. Whilst Mosshart has spent a lot of time working on her paintings in the interim, the band are not ready to call it quits just yet, and God Games sees the duo experimenting with their creative process, in another move to keep things fresh and fun. Writing began when they’d finished touring 2016’s Ash & Ice, after three years on the road. After a year of exchanging ideas, they were forced to halt their plans due to the pandemic.

Whilst Hince took up hobbies such as learning the piano, knitting and honing his production skills, Mosshart felt unable to give herself to music in the way that she normally desires. “I wasn't having life experiences with friends, or doing any of the things that really inspire me,” she explains. “I got into other things – I got really into making videos, I started driving across the country, and filming myself talking endlessly in the car for hours.”

Eventually when the pandemic eased up, Mosshart began to find her spark again. “After all my drives, I went headfirst into writing. I bought a $100 keyboard and it opened up the way that I wrote. My melodies were getting bigger, crazier, easier to access, and the rhythm of the songs was changing, because hitting things with your fingers is a little different than playing the guitar.”

Mosshart feels grateful for the time that they had to craft the world of God Games, and thinks it would have been a completely different album if it had come out two years ago. The Kills decamped to an old church where they took the songs they’d made in Hince’s home studio, and recorded them with Grammy Award-winning producer Paul Epworth, who was their first sound engineer in 2004.

“We wanted to use a producer this time, because we just really wanted to be a band. We felt really comfortable with the idea because the songs were done – they were written and pretty much produced”, Mosshart says, adding that it felt like they were “in safe hands” with Epworth, as he knows their way of working.

At Rough Trade East, Hince responded to a question about the album’s title, by referencing the act of playing The Sims, where there’s a higher power making decisions for every action, also referring to his desire to be in full control. Whilst not directly written with the almighty father in mind, God Games contains a series of godless gospel songs, which are elevated by the band’s own choir – multilayered harmonies which can be heard in the likes of “LA Hex”, “My Girls My Girls” and “Bullet Sound”.

Moving into a church perhaps subconsciously fed into the album’s title, but the main thread of the album, and also the band’s longevity, is their blind faith in each other. Twenty years on, they’re still as strong as when they met two decades ago “It's worked and continues to work because we really want it to,” Mossheart tells me. “We don't hate each other because we really want to like each other. We've grown up together; we've been around the world together a million times and we've had so many experiences.”

“I don't know what life is like without Jamie, and at this point, I don't want life to be without Jamie.”

“I Put a Spell on You” by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins

I remember Jamie turning me on to this song. We needed to do a cover for something, and when he played me that song, I felt like that was MY song. It was such an immediate reaction. It turned out to be one of my favourite covers we've ever done and one that we ended up playing live constantly, because it's such a performative song.

When I first heard it, I immediately wanted to sing it. I wanted to get inside of it so bad and sing these words and feel the things that Screamin' Jay Hawkins was feeling. He delivers the words as though he’s possessed. Still to this day, after performing this song many times, it remains one of my favourite songs to sing live. I've heard versions of the song that isn’t so much like that, but his is my favourite because I don't know where he's gone to and it’s really great. The lyrics and the vocal performance are what got me first.

BEST FIT: When you’ve performed this live, have your ever reached that state of feeling possessed by the music?

That is always the state that I am trying to get into, and usually I can get there. If a bunch of shit breaks on stage, or some fight breaks out, then I’m taken out of the dream. That’s the power of music. That's the audience giving you that energy. It's the energy in the room that heightens everything. It's way beyond just walking down the street. It's a totally other thing – it’s crazed and that’s the reason I do it. It is the most addictive feeling in the world.

“I Hope That I Don't Fall in Love with You” by Tom Waits

I've been listening to Tom Waits for a long time, but I'd never been roped into that song, even though it has got to be from my favourite Tom Waits record. That song came into my life around 15 years ago. I was doing lots of drives across the country – it always goes back to driving with me. I get really romantic about music in my car. I could just drive forever and ever and ever and ever and never get tired of it.

Someone that was close to me in my life sent me that song, and it made me reconnect to it, and now when I hear it, there's just no way for me not to remember that time. That’s how powerful music is – it's so sensory – all sorts of things in your life get attached to it like glue. It's all over it, and then you can't shake it off.

In a lifetime of memories, I hold this one dear. The song has a visceral magic to it for me and it gives me the feeling of driving through Louisiana late at night. I was painting at a recording studio in Louisiana. I had a bunch of friends who were down there recording, and I had nothing to do. I don't know what part of my life I’ve ever had nothing to do, and I don't know why I didn't have anything to do – it just can't be true!

But it was right when I was painting my very first art show for New York, and it was the first time I ever showed my paintings. That time was kind of a big deal. Even though I thought I was on vacation, I was painting an entire show – there were around 78 paintings in it for my first solo show.

BEST FIT: Is painting a separate mental process to creating music, or are they symbiotic?

I think they come from the exact same place. One has a lot more adrenaline in it than the other, which is much like a solo mission, and is very quiet. You show your work and you’re like ‘that is very quiet’. It’s all very librarian in my brain compared to being onstage, throwing yourself around and everyone being focused in a certain way. I love them both and I can’t live without either of them.

I really love painting on the road. It's a nice thing to do backstage, because there's a lot of strange, weird time where you can't leave the building – you’re trapped in a building, I might put it – and that’s a good time to paint, because you forget that you're trapped in a building.

“Lilac Wine” by Nina Simone

I can't remember when I first discovered her. It’s like Nina Simone has always been around. I always loved her version of this song. I also really loved Jeff Buckley’s version. It's the song itself that I'm in love with, but I wanted Nina because she could sing anything – she also did the most brilliant cover of “I Put a Spell on You”, of course – it's just like fucking voodoo, it's insane.

This is definitely one of my favourite songs; it's one of those things that was always there, so I don't know when I first heard it. The song is important to me because she was so important, important because no-one has a voice like she did. She was a giant, enormous soul, transcendent, deep truth and heart woman. If any beautiful lyrics should be sung, they should come from her. “It makes me see what I want to see and be what I want to be” – those lyrics describe the music I love the most, and that’s the feeling I’m always searching for.

If you're making something, you want to be like a super human; absolutely tapped into something. You want to see what you want to see, hear what you want to hear and you want to be the person that you want to be, and only then in that moment you can attempt to create.

Music is so powerful. I have so many experiences in my life ­– even as a kid going to punk shows and the bands weren’t very good ­– where I’ve been transported somewhere else and have been lost in my own daydream about cool shit, like who I wanted to be and what I wanted to do, and I think that’s what I meant by saying I understand that sentiment and it’s the feeling I’m searching for. I think we all search for a reflection of how we want to see ourselves and how we want to be the best possible version of ourselves when we’re not caught up or shut down.

BEST FIT: Touching on Jeff Buckley, as someone who has covered so many songs, how do you know when a cover is right for you?

He’s just like Nina Simone. He can sing fucking anything, and there’s just some of those singers out there. I’ll talk about Chan Marshall [Cat Power] later, and I think she's one of those singers that has this breadth that is so incredible. It is not easy to do. You really have to be inside a song and completely lose yourself. You cannot be you; you have to be the person who felt those feelings initially. You have to fully understand those words, and not many people can do that.

You would never want to replicate anything perfectly. You would want to be so far away from it – that's the reason to do the cover. You don't want to sound like the person that sang it; that already exists. You’ve got to find your own voice and you've got to live the song, to go through it and come out the other side.

I won't say it's like acting, but if you really are in that place, you really are that character and really are that person, feeling those emotions to get that story across, it’s ravaging! You don’t turn around and walk out the door and be totally fine. You’re like, ‘Holy shit, where did I just go?’ I think Nina Simone, Jeff Buckley and Chan Marshall are very capable of that… It’s hard to describe, because it’s like ‘How does magic happen?’ I don’t know, but it fucking does.

“She Belongs to Me” (Live at the Royal Albert Hall) by Cat Power

I just discovered this song as it came out recently. It blew my mind, I was like ‘Oh, for fucks sake, that is so good!’ I can't wait for the whole record to come out. I immediately texted Chan and I was like, ‘You're killing me. This is amazing’. She's got the magic and her voice slays me.

It’s such a beautiful song. I remember it from my teenage years and feeling like it was an amazing insight to an artistic, exotic, interesting, fascinating, intelligent woman that had her shit figured out. She was just like, ‘I'm doing this, I'm into this, this is what’s happening, and fuck everybody else’.

Hearing that being really appreciated, witnessed and sung about by Bob Dylan – and that might not even be what the song is about, but that's what it meant to me ­– I found it really cool. I love a female voice singing that song. It's like the girl in the song is actually singing the song, and it really excites me.

This is one of my all-time favourite Bob Dylan songs, because I feel like I know the girl in the song. And here is a man, really recognising her, really knowing her too, which I think is beautiful. This song has always made me feel like there is a place for me in the universe and other people who would be there too that I would get along with.

That’s how I felt when I first heard the song back when I was a kid. I knew that woman, I knew who she was, I felt like I understood her and I wanted her to be my friend – I felt like she could be me. You know, it was like all the shit that I cared about.

Growing up in a little town in Florida, there’s no art, there's no culture, there's no scene, there's no clubs, there's no nothing. When you hear a song like that, it's like you feel an incredible sense of hope that there's a world out there that is going make sense to you, and you’re going make sense to it.

“State Trooper” by Bruce Springsteen

I never listened to Bruce Springsteen. I knew that he wrote a Patti Smith song and that was as close to Springsteen as I got. It never fell into the genres or categories of things that I was into. It was so mainstream that I fully missed it.

I can't remember who told me to buy Nebraska, but I was playing it on my record player at home. This was a number of years ago now, but not that long ago, and I thought the record was incredible. I fucking love that song. It's just so simple, and I don't know if he does other songs like that. Now I know retrospectively that he was really influenced by the band Suicide in New York when he was making that record, which makes sense why I love that record so much.

I am sucker for all solo roadrunner songs. The driving, the thinking, the lawless freedom of it. This is a song I wish I’d written. I covered it not so long ago and once had the pleasure of singing it with Tom Petty’s band at a Porsche race. Singing this song to a bunch of race car drivers is something I’ll never forget.

BEST FIT: What do you think it is, from the listeners perspective, about how songs with just guitar and vocals can sometimes be more effective in drawing people in?

Two things. One: you can really focus on the lyrics and you can really hear what's going on. You're not being tricked or tormented by a bunch of production and a million whistles and bells. The other thing I think is really powerful about a demo is the feeling that you get just as a human being that you could do it too. I think it's simple. I think it lets our guard down. It could be the most brilliant song, but when you can hear just the bones of it, your brain starts to think that writing a really brilliant song is possible.

I love PJ Harvey’s 4-Track Demos. That was a thing that made me play guitar – although I could never play guitar as well as her, but it sounded to me like it was easy. Now I know that's bullshit, but it gave me the power to be like, ‘I'm going to do it and figure out my own weird style’. That was an amazing thing, and that's what that stuff does.

It's like finding notes for your favourite novel ever on a napkin and you're like, ‘Okay, well, that's pretty simple. Maybe I could be at a café one time and just write a whole novel.’ It’s inspiring. Velvet Underground tricked me like that as well, until I realised that no, it’s really not that easy. Your idea has to be fucking spot on, because you can’t hide behind anything.

“Kowalski” by Primal Scream

One of the first big tours across the UK that Jamie I did was with Primal Scream, and that was the first time I heard this song. They were performing it live and I was just in awe. It revved all my engines. I just thought they were so cool and powerful and seem to be referencing all the kinds of things that I loved, and all sorts of musical genres. I was 23 at the time, and it was so extraordinary to be watching Primal Scream every night and going, ‘Where have they been my whole life?’.

I always think music is better live. I’m much more interested in the tight ropes or circus act situations where shit can go wrong. The studio is really sanitary, sterile, and you can fix things. You can have the most impressive stuff and pretend that it wasn’t twenty tries, but you can’t do that onstage. If somebody pulls something off onstage, it’s an incredibly heightened, wild situation that only happens one time on Earth. That night is it. They’ll do it again tomorrow, but it will be totally different, and I think that’s the most beautiful thing about live performance. That is the reason that I do music, that’s the thing I love the most.

This song led me to my very favourite movie of all time, Vanishing Point. The film and the soundtrack are incredible. It really fed into my total obsession with muscle cars, the great American highway, and that lawless freedom feeling that I crave at all times. I’ve watched it too many times to count and bonded with many pals over it.

I have a Japanese film poster of the movie hanging in my studio in Nashville that Anthony Bourdain gave me after we discovered we shared a mutual obsession for this film. The film has inspired me musically and creatively a great deal, and the entire script can be found in my book Car Ma.

BEST FIT How did you meet Anthony Bourdain?

He did a Parts Unknown episode which was set in Nashville, and I helped produce the show. They wrote to me and asked me what they should in Nashville. I put together a big list and told them everywhere they should go, and then we worked together for about a week and a half. It was great!

One of the first conversations he and I had, we were talking about two things. It was like, ‘What's your favourite television show?’ And I said The Wire, and he was like, ‘Fuck off. That's my favourite television show.’ He's asked, ‘What's your favourite movie? I say Vanishing Point, and he was like: ‘Oh my god’. After working on this show with them, he sent me that poster as a gift, which was really nice.

What was your favourite memory of him?

I had lots of really, really fun times with him, especially making that show and working on that. We put on this massive gig in my house. The Kills played, The Dead Weather played, and it was so fucking epic, the whole thing and it was one of the most fun nights of my life. I'm really glad it was filmed, just in case I ever forget it.

“I’m So Tired” by Fugazi

Growing up, Fugazi was my very favorite band. When I was 11, I lived in a little square neighbourhood. Next to my house, there was a quarter pipe skate ramp, and a bunch of high school kids. I was even younger when I was sneaking over there and trying to watch them skate, listening to their music, and try to be cool like them – I was just obsessed with the older kids, like ‘Wow, they're allowed to do everything they want.’

They played amazing music on a boombox outside, so I would go over there after school and sit kind of close to it, or just as close as they would let me get to the boombox and watch them skate. Eventually, I had the courage to ask them to make me a tape of the tape, and they did! Fugazi were on that tape, and that's when I became a crazy person who studied everything and became so obsessed with that band.

When I first got my driver's licence, I followed them on tour – they’re the only band I’ve done this for. I literally drove around the country following them, and it was awesome. They were so sweet to me. I just wanted to see them every single night!

One of the only other movies I’ve watched 400 times, that’s inspired the hell out of me, is Jem Cohen’s documentary portrait of Fugazi. The film is called Instrument. When this film came out in 1999, I got it on VHS. I wore the tape out and bought it again. Then I wore the tape out and bought it on DVD. Then I moved to England and had to buy it again on a DVD that worked in the UK. Needless to say, my not so vast movie collection basically consists of this film.

I chose this song because I have such memories of that film because I watched it so much. It was so inspiring to me, and so inspiring to Jamie as well – it was something we really bonded on. When we met, when I was like 18, we talked about the things that we were into. It was Fugazi, it was Warhol, Velvet Underground, Edie Sedgwick – all the artists – but with Fugazi, he had it in his record collection, and I had it in my record collection, and it felt like we could start there.

BEST FIT: Would you ever do another documentary on The Kills?

Totally. What's really cool about that one, is that we filmed most of it. It was so beautiful, because we were the only people around and we had the camera and we filmed it. The whole interview sections that were put in are really hard for me to watch, but that doesn't matter as there's such beautiful footage in it.

I love looking back at it all of these years later, I'm not self-conscious in the way I would have been at the time making it, because you do sometimes think, ‘I said a dumb thing’, or ‘I don’t like that image’, whereas now I don’t give a fuck and that’s an awesome place to be. I’m really happy to have that documentary.

I think it's kind of always happening, now. We’re always being filmed and we're always doing stuff and that documentary was a culmination over the course of two years. It’s just about having the footage. You don't really go into it thinking, ‘I'm going to make a documentary.’ I'd rather something be a little bit more special than that. I do love capturing the history of the band, making beautiful imagery, and capturing the feeling of doing all of this, because it's pretty amazing.

I don't want to forget it, and I have a terrible memory, as you might be able to tell. There's a lot going on at all times, and there’s no way for me to look backwards. I just can never do it.

I wish that everything was being filmed all the time, but now everything kind of is with fucking phones, and it’s just ugly as hell. That didn’t exist back then, so you really felt the need to document things. Now, you can't walk down the street without somebody documenting you and it’s just too much information.

“Alison” by Elvis Costello

This song came out a year before I was born and thankfully Elvis spelled my name right! My whole life people have been singing me this song. It gets put on the jukebox when I’m sitting in bars. Strangers when they meet me, shake my hand and burst into this song. This song has been with me my whole life and although I roll my eyes during these awkward encounters, I love it, it’s a great song.

It’s always been there, and I can't get away from it. It’s totally fine because Elvis Costello is fucking awesome, so I'm so thankful it was him. I'm so thankful. The song is just funny to me. I met him one time in Tokyo, and I thought, ‘Am I gonna say it? No I’m not gonna say it.’ He was the sweetest, coolest person and was like, ‘The Kills!’ and shook our hands.

He’s another person that I’d really like to see play. My friend Charlie Sexton recently started playing guitar for his band in the past four years. One of these days I’m gonna go to a show. He will send me footage once a week of him rehearsing the song “Alison”, and it’s the sweetest thing.

BEST FIT: Is that why The Kills don’t have any songs with someone’s name in the title?

No, but that's such an amazing thing to point out, because I've never even thought of that. Not because of this song, but why don't we have a single one? I wonder if it is because we're a boy and a girl, and someone will just ask us endlessly who that thing is about, because people love that shit, so it’s probably just been avoided. Maybe we should make it personal…

“Dropout Boogie” by Captain Beefheart

I love Captain Beefheart with a fever. Captain Beefheart was another one of those bands that Jamie turned me on to. It will always bring me back to 2000 when I moved to London and listened to all his records over and over for what seemed like a decade straight. I absolutely fell in love with Don Van Vliet’s voice, lyrics, compositions, paintings and true mystery. The very first cover Jamie and I ever recorded was this song. We played it on stage for years.

I moved to London for no other reason than to be in The Kills. I met Jamie when I was 18. I was in a different band at the time, I was touring over here and we met and he encouraged me to start writing. I was just a singer in a four-piece band. I didn’t really write the songs, I just wrote the lyrics, and he really encouraged me to write songs, he said: ‘I have a feeling’ and he gave me this four-track cassette recorder. I took it off on tour with me and I brought it back with a million cassettes.

Polly Harvey was really influenced by Captain Beefheart and she's covered a couple of his songs. I fell in love with how strange and incredible is, and how he would write music in such a weird way. He would just shut his eyes and bangs things on a computer, and then tell his band to play it on guitar and bass – wacky shit. He was super experimental, and he was the most amazing painter.

The more I got to know about Captain Beefheart and the more I got to know about Don Van Vliet, the more obsessed I got with every single thing he did, because I thought ‘That's the kind of shit I care about, that’s the shit that I love’ – the multimedia, all over the place, full immersion of everything or making some form of art. He was really special.

I have Don’s book of paintings to thank for inspiring me to start painting seriously and show my work. One of his paintings is the first painting I ever bought from a fine artist. I saved my money for six years for a painting of his, and it continues to hang over my fireplace in London. It remains my most prized possession.

I found out who represented him – Michael Werner Gallery – and I went to New York when he had a show on. I couldn't afford anything in the show, but there were some works on paper that were decent size paintings. I had them pull them all out from the back, I picked my painting and I said ‘I'll be back – that’s it!’

BEST FIT: Knowing how affected you were by Captain Beefheart’s work, have you ever contemplated if others have reacted to your art in the same way?

I hope so, and in fact, I feel like I've heard that story before. In this life, if you are that passionate about things and put that passion, that love, for what you're making into things, I feel like that comes back to you and people respond to that. I've always responded to it in other artists.

God Games is out now via Domino

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