Alison Krauss has the most beautiful voice you could ever wish to hear. Soft, high and ethereal, it has earned her 27 Grammy awards over the past 26 years – more than any other female singer in American music history. Yet the 45-year old’s new album, Windy City, is her first solo recording since the last millennium and her only release of any kind since 2011. What took her so long? The truth, she tells me, is that in recent years she has been having chronic problems with that voice.
“They call it dysphonia, which is a fancy word for being hoarse,” she says. “Your throat will tighten up. It’s like you’re singing through a little teeny straw. It drives you crazy.” She tried physical therapy but to no avail. In 2015, she even lost her voice on stage at the start of a gig in Utah with her five-piece band Union Station. “I got up to sing the first verse, opened my mouth and… nothing,” she says. “It was terrible, embarrassing.” Her bandmate Dan Tyminski stepped in to save the day.
Krauss, who also has a long history of debilitating migraines, belatedly came to the conclusion that her vocal problems were psychological as much as physical. “You hear about writer’s block. Well, I think there’s singer’s block too,” she says. “I just couldn’t get clear enough to give a true performance. It would feel contrived to me, and I couldn’t stand to hear myself.”
During recording sessions for Windy City (which began in 2013), she became so frustrated that she went to see the renowned Nashville vocal coach Ron Browning. “It took him about two minutes to tell me exactly what it was,” she says. “He just said, ‘You’ve got too much on your desk, you’re too distracted, that’s why you’re creating false emotion.’ And he was right. It’s a mental thing that causes a physical thing.”
Windy City – a gorgeous collection of bittersweet numbers from the Fifties and Sixties which this week went straight to the top of the US Billboard country chart – suggests that her ongoing work with Browning (and her following of his advice to declutter her life) is already paying off.
When I meet Krauss in a London hotel, she looks fantastic, with the piled-up hair and accentuated make-up of a classic country diva. “I don’t usually look like this,” she protests, laughing. “I did television this morning, so you’re seeing leftover face and hair.”
She laughs at the idea that big hair is de rigueur for country music stars. “Maybe that’s what’s giving me headaches,” she jokes. “I need to rest my hair. It’s so big, it’s putting a strain on my neck.”
If Krauss is not exactly a household name in Britain, it is probably because she operates mainly in bluegrass and country roots genres, where she is recognised as a virtuoso fiddle player as well as a vocalist. Growing up in an artistic household in Illinois – her mother is a painter, her father a German teacher – Krauss learnt classical violin but switched to fiddle at the age of eight, joined a band aged 12 and signed her first record deal at 16.
Although she alternates between solo and Union Station projects, she considers herself part of an ensemble. “My home is with the guys in the band,” she says, “and everything I do includes them.”
She was prominently featured on the multimillion-selling soundtrack to the Coen Brothers film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, but it was her 2007 duets album with Robert Plant, Raising Sand, that brought her to a wider global audience. “I thought the different tones made such a romantic sound,” she says about the experience singing with the former Led Zeppelin frontman. “It became something bigger than two people.”
Krauss is effusive on the joys of singing harmony. “You’ve really got to zoom in, trying to match instincts,” she says. “Singing is such an emotional part of somebody. You can hear them click their teeth together, or their nasal cavity open and spit flying out of their mouth. It’s pretty intimate.”
The tracks on Windy City are all cover versions, as Krauss has never been a songwriter. “I wanted songs older than myself,” she says. “There’s a romance in that detachment, like when you think about what the world must have been like when your parents were growing up. It’s a whole different atmosphere in my mind and my heart.”
She ascribes her attachment to roots music as a feeling that she “was born in the wrong era”. She grew up listening to AC/DC, Foreigner and ELO, but gradually gravitated towards bluegrass. “I loved the subject matter of the stories, a simple life and beautiful value system: God, family, home and the land.”
Krauss, who has a teenage son from her four-year marriage to musician Pat Bergeson that ended in 2001, recalls a semester of opera singing lessons at the University of Illinois when she was in her teens. “They were underwhelmed,” she says, laughing. “I get it. What were they going to do with me, seriously? I’m not an opera singer. I had nothing to offer.
“I don’t have a huge range,” she says. “I can’t sing falsetto. I’m not over-emotive, I don’t do a lot of moves and tricks. I love when people can, it’s just not what I’m good at.” She relays all of this with an undercurrent of amusement bubbling beneath a deadpan expression, as if she finds life inherently comical. “I’m kind of a stoic singer. I think it’s my job to tell the story, so to get too emotional wouldn’t be real. It’s just not who I am.”
Krauss has a voice that moves people – Adele has declared herself “obsessed with her” – and it starts with the personal connection she makes with songs. “I have to be present. And then I start to see the story, I see pictures, and that’s when I know it’s real. Sometimes, it’s just like you’re a passenger on this thing. There’s nothing you can do to achieve that state; it’s more like you have to get out of the way.”
When I ask whether she now trusts that voice to be there when she needs it, Krauss says that she has developed a unique routine for warming up. “I was in Portland, Oregon, and I felt my throat starting to close up, so I called my voice coach and said, ‘I’ve got to play in 40 minutes, what am I gonna do?’
“He goes, ‘Well, I want you to get angry and keep saying No! like you’re telling somebody what for. Don’t be fake about it.’ So I went outside and I thought what the hell am I going to yell at? I found this tree and started pointing and saying, ‘No, no, no.’ I thought, ‘This is insane.’ My band are looking at me like I’ve gone crazy. But I kept doing it and you know what, we did the show and everything was fine.”
The explanation her voice coach gave for this apparent miracle cure was that “people don’t have any problems talking, they only have problems singing. When you’re angry, it opens everything up, it’s a place of being strong. So now, before a show, I just go out and yell at a tree. It really works.”
Krauss laughs. “I wish I’d known that before. I’d have taken a little bonsai around with me. It’d be all withered by now from being shouted at, can you imagine? So funny!” She pauses. “Not so funny for the bonsai, though.”