“Sometimes delirium is good,” singer Chrysta Bell tells me. The Twin Peaks actress and longtime David Lynch collaborator, who made two albums with the filmmaker (and wrote a song with him the first day they met), is talking about the hazy space between sleep and wakefulness. It’s a topic perfectly suited to her appearance on the cult series resurrected by Showtime, which played out on the threshold of consciousness. The actress stars as FBI Agent Tammy Preston in the series, alongside Lynch as FBI Deputy Director Gordon Cole and the late Miguel Ferrer as FBI Agent Albert Rosenfield. The trio goes down the rabbit hole during an investigation that includes nightmarish doppelgängers, multidimensional beings, and metaphysics.
Since the show, Chrysta Bell released her first solo album, We Dissolve – a similarly moody work compared to the Lynch tracks, but based more in rock, soul, and jazz. Her voice is as intoxicating as ever. The album – recorded with John Parish, best known for his work with PJ Harvey – features contributions from guest artists Adrian Utley (Portishead), Geoff Downes (Asia, Yes), and Stephen O’Malley of Sunn O))) fame. Chrysta Bell will make her Café Carlyle debut on Friday, November 3 and embarks on a European tour through the month. She also just released a new track called “Undertow.”
We spoke with the artist about the best way to experience the new album, her nearly 20-year friendship with Lynch, spirituality, and her feelings about the word “muse.”
Flavorwire: There is a David Lynch quote that often precedes articles about you. He says, “The first time I saw her perform, I thought she was like an alien. The most beautiful alien ever.” Tell me more about the meeting?
Chrysta Bell: When I read that quote, I was as intrigued as anyone else might be. [laughs] This dance has been ongoing. It could have been when I was filming for Inland Empire. When I met him, this was around 2000, I was performing with my band 8½ Souvenirs. I don’t think he came to one of those shows, but he may have come to a show in Los Angeles a long time ago.
I think this is maybe an impression that he is giving words. When David and I have conversations, we go into some pretty unusual places. We tend to talk about the beyond, other dimensions, and things that are, kind of . . . extraterrestrial to some degree — as in just out there. A lot of times it’s about meditation, where my head or mind is, and then maybe we get into some esoteric pathways, and it takes us to other places. There is this kind of other-dimensional connection that we have because we’re both super intrigued by things that aren’t easily explained and the cosmic nature of life. Our association harkens to this otherness, and maybe that’s how he explained this otherness, by making me an alien.
When I read that quote, to me it was the nicest thing that anyone’s ever said about me. David knew that I would get it. I thought it was so special.
He seems extremely intuitive and intimate when it comes to his performers. He needs a certain familiarity to work with someone — especially on something like “Twin Peaks.” How did he raise the subject of you joining him on the series?
It’s been 17 years now that we’ve had this friendship and creative collaboration. It definitely started with music. We came together initially through an agent, who is the same agent that introduced him to Rebekah Del Rio, Karen O, and Lykke Li. This was 1999 or 2000, in that time frame.
During one of our final sessions for the second release that we had, Somewhere In The Nowhere, we were just making music and doing our thing, like we do. At some point, we take a break, and that’s usually when we go have a smoke, have some coffee, and talk about aliens. This time, he was like ‘You know, Chrysta Bell, I think there’s a role for you in my new project.’ There is no inkling that this is coming. He’s never really let on that he necessarily saw me that way, as an actor. He’s never told me anything contrary, but it hadn’t come up. But he doesn’t say anything else. He doesn’t even say the words “Twin Peaks.” I knew what his new project was, but that was how it was initiated. It was this moment, shrouded in mystery, utterly appropriate for the circumstances.
So you went into the role as a first-time actor, and you had no idea where this was going. Did you find it difficult or was it freeing since you could respond to the role from an intuitive place?
I think in your finest moments, that’s what you’re trying to get to, being utterly present in the moment. I knew it was very important to David that the lines be perfectly memorized. I worked very hard on that. But I’m not an actor. I didn’t necessarily have an understanding of the context for what I was reading and how that would play out. Sometimes you’re doing things, and you don’t realize David has ideas for what’s going on. So you don’t find out what’s happening until you see it, just like everybody else. For me, because I was so far out of my comfort zone, it became comical. I just had to go with it. Throughout all of it, you’re like, ‘David thinks I can do this, and I’m here because David has confidence in me. If I don’t hold a space of ‘yes, I can do this,’ then the alternative is unthinkable.’ You’re spiraling into oblivion, you’re double-thinking, you’re mired in self-doubt, and that’s no good. You can’t really work in that space. I don’t know what the middle is. I didn’t have anything to ground myself other than these ethereal tools.
I asked David if I should take acting classes. He said, ‘Don’t you dare. I don’t want to have to unteach you things that you’ll learn.’ At the end of the day, he didn’t want what an experienced, cultured actor might have brought to this. I think what was super important to him was the dynamic that we cultivated over the years of knowing each other. To be in a room with David, it just takes a minute to not be giddy. There’s a little bit of a hazing you put yourself through just being around him. It’s a full package. I had a long time to work that out, so we have a dynamic that was part of why it was appropriate to be Tammy. We have a built-in ease.
A lot of people feel Tammy is performatively feminine. I think she’s also androgynous. She’s an archetype of the ‘40s femme fatale, but also has a very innocent quality. How did you develop her character or were you being closely directed by David?
It’s fun to hear your interpretations and the word ‘innocent’ and things like that. For Tammy, it was a combination of things. I was surprised by people’s reactions to her, but I am definitely a performer. I’ve done a lot of self-reflection since all this has happened. Sometimes we have a blind spot when it comes to ourselves.
It was almost like getting Tammy to take over. There’s no Chrysta Bell there. David knew he wanted something, but he didn’t really say ‘Do this or that’ or ‘Tammy’s like this or that.’ It was this very, ‘Ok, I’m dressed like this. I’m walking here with this bag and these heels with this happening all around me. And David’s next to me. Oh, that’s Gordon. Ok, that’s Gordon. And Miguel. Oh no, that’s Albert.’ And then there’s a camera, you’re on set, and you’re filled with this desire to be wonderful — not even for yourself, but so that you’re not the bruise on the apple. You’re completely participating to the fullest of your ability. When all of those things were swirling in my body, that’s what I did. That’s what Tammy was.
People sometimes ask me, ‘At one point before you walk on stage does the stage persona happen?’ I can’t identify that either. It’s like trying to figure out when you fall asleep. Something just happens, and then you’re in it. It’s the alchemy of the audience, music, your band, and your willingness to be in the moment and your excitement. It’s the same for Tammy.
I was reading comments [online], and then I stopped . . .
Yeah, don’t do that.
I’m in a phase where I’m not reading comments. It’s very freeing. People say things like, ‘Tammy’s trying so hard’ or this or that. It wasn’t my approach to the truth. If anything, I guess I could have been more Tammy and less Chrysta Bell — or maybe not. Maybe Tammy was supposed to be Chrysta Bell. I think Tammy is very different from Chrysta Bell in so many ways. I wanted some of Tammy to rub off on my own life, but it turns out it doesn’t work that way.
You said something interesting about trying to see yourself. It reminds me of hearing your own recorded voice for the first time. It’s a bizarre feeling. ‘Is that really me?’
You also related the performance aspect to falling asleep. That’s a really beautiful way to put it. You do seem transported to another place when you’re on stage. Do you do any rituals or meditations before you perform, music or otherwise?
Yes. Before Twin Peaks, I did my TM [Transcendental Meditation], because we had some time in the trailers. The production was super fast and remarkably well organized. There was not a lot of time where you were just sitting around. You generally had some time after makeup to go and get dressed. I would use that time to meditate. That was self-preservation. Really, you just want to be as in the moment as possible. My TM was my bigger weapon.
Before I go on stage, what I do is a process called cleansing and sealing my aura. This is something that has helped me tremendously. Some people will just be like ‘What is she talking about?’
I read somewhere once that some people pretend their body has a zipper. They zip up their body before going into situations where they’re going to be around a lot of different energy.
Yes, this is exactly what it is. In my visualization, instead of the zipper, it’s a sparkling, cosmic, golden salve.
That has saved me. I used to get off stage after a show and be utterly depleted. I couldn’t even form full sentences. It was a weird thing. A beloved friend who is also a very gifted healer told me to cleanse my aura. I was like, ‘Talk to me!’ It’s changed my whole post-show demeanor and feeling. Nobody has to take on any of my energy. I don’t have to take on anyone else’s. It’s a clean exchange. And then the music and performance can be center stage — not people’s stuff. As I’m talking, I realize I should be doing this with my cyber aura. [laughs] I should totally have a cyber cleanse and aura seal. I’m a big believer in visualization and the power of visualization. It’s free, it’s easy, it’s your imagination that gets sparked, and that’s always good. There’s no downside to it.
A lot of people have called Tammy the new Cooper. Now that David’s piece of art is out in the world, do you feel some pressure to live up to this since Coop is so beloved by fans?
No. It’s interesting, it’s almost like everyone’s love for Cooper was transmuted into this hate for Tammy. That thought never came to me. If anything, I feel like Cooper would be a mentor in Tammy’s wildest dreams. And she’s her own person. She really just wants to be helpful and move things forward. She has this drive to discover, investigate, and be curious. It’s inherent within her.
We don’t know what’s happening to Tammy. She lives now in our imaginations. People are already giving these characters other lives and dimensions, taking those liberties. That gives me so much excitement. As far as pressure is concerned, I went into the project with the full awareness and understanding that it was a big deal. I took it extremely seriously — and then I tried to remove all the seriousness. I didn’t want it to be heavy. I wanted it to be light and real, without a bunch of baggage. I didn’t feel pressure. I went through cycles of terror like ‘what am I doing?’ And that’s ok. There’s a beautiful parallel there about discovery between Tammy and Chrysta Bell. Tammy being asked to join the Blue Rose Task Force felt the same as me being asked to join Twin Peaks.
I love the video for your “Falling” cover. It’s so perfectly haunting. What was it like to tackle such an iconic David Lynch song?
I had less investment in people’s reactions to that. I did not think that “Falling” would be the theme song for the new Twin Peaks. In my mind, I don’t know why, I just had the wild hair that it would be something else. No one had sent me a memo. I decided to do that cover long before Twin Peaks came out. It took a long time to come to fruition. It was out many months beforehand, but [the song] had just been featured in the Guardian. It was [an article about] David and Angelo, their stories around the music, and the Julee Cruise song “Falling.” I had the opportunity to give my respect to this song. I have so much respect for Julee.
It was always risky to do it. I had a lot of second thoughts, but it had all this momentum for it. At first it was going to be scaled down. I was going to sing it maybe to one instrument, almost acoustically. Then this amazing producer came to my show in Los Angeles. I was going to get him to mix this little version that I had. Then he said ‘Do we just make a track?’ At that point, we thought it was just going to be me in a room with some cool light, and then this amazing director said he wanted to make a music video for me. You can’t say no when these things happen. You know how precious it is when people are interested and willing.
If anything I hope that it would send people to go listen to the original again.
A lot of people have described you as a muse, because of your relationship with David. How do you feel about that label? It has some strange connotations. Often, it describes a woman who is passive in the creation process or only references her beauty.
At first, it was this interesting thing. It was not something that David said. It was something he didn’t try to push down. I don’t think it’s untrue, but he doesn’t need a muse. We are collaborators. There’s definitely an alchemical process when we get together. We are mutual muses. To some degree, I’m a protégée or someone who is working in a capacity to create with someone who is an artistic powerhouse and mastermind. But what the two are bringing, all of it is necessary for what’s being created. It was a minute before I could really acknowledge myself in the process. [David] was always so helpful telling me ‘you’re doing great and this sounds great. Let’s do more of this.’ It’s a big deal, to make a beautiful song. We both know that it doesn’t just happen. It’s a really precious thing, even for David. That’s part of what makes David really special. No matter how many great themes or moments he’s created, every one of them is significant. He has a reverence, no matter how far he’s come. There’s always excitement for the next new idea. It’s always about moving forward.
The muse thing . . . I always thought of it as Alfred Hitchcock and Grace Kelly. To even think of myself in that dynamic with such a wonderful person like that was fun, but as far as who we are to one another, I guess I’m super solid in that dynamic and never felt bothered. I guess eventually I felt like it was a little tired. It’s run its course, but it’s very easy and juicy, so it has this kind of appeal. There are new places to go now to describe our dynamic.
Women artists have fought that kind of categorization all their lives.
There’s something about humanity in this moment that’s having to deal with this weird thing that’s never been like this before, because of technology. We’re the pioneers of figuring out how to gracefully handle it. These things need to be brought up because people need to think about them.
What does it look like for you to create? What are you doing and feeling, and where are you?
The moments of creation are the ones where I’ve allowed myself to unplug. Some people create in the chaos. That’s generally not when I do it, as far as music is concerned. Other things happen in different ways, but a lot of it happens in the car when I’m driving. I’m from Texas. There’s been a lot of driving in my life and a lot of this idea about the open road, getting myself somewhere, and having a moment where I’m in control of my vehicle. But I can’t be thinking about too many things because I need to be centered in my process of driving. Something about that really helps ideas come through and take form. Later, I’ll hold them and let them develop, but that’s always a quiet space.
The number one thing that gets everything flowing is transcendental meditation. The only problem with TM is that I have these creative ideas, and I just want to do them right now. I also have these things like, ’It’s time to letter to your aunt and tell her how much you love her.’ And then you go back to your mantra. [laughs]
I also get great ideas right before I go to sleep. It’s when there’s openness. When there’s space for them to come, that’s when they come. Those are my nurturing moments. I can take an idea from there and work on it.
Sometimes it’s the studio. We have a fertile environment there.
The Lynch collaborations feel very ethereal, but “We Dissolve” has an earthier, assertive, dark vibe. How would you describe the album? Where does it come from?
I get turned on by certain things creatively. There are certain things that light me up. It goes in cycles. Right now, there’s a lot of . . . not existential, but maybe getting caught in a feedback loop. Maybe getting pulled into some darkness. It’s kind of sexy, it’s very real and disturbing, but there’s always a ray of hope somewhere. I like drama. I like thinking about things in a heightened way.
“We Dissolve” — that’s a ghost who is flirting with her love when he’s gone to visit her at the cemetery. I adore this idea of a love affair happening from different dimensions. “Beautiful” is a murder ballad that ends up in these shrieks and screams, but it’s also about someone realizing they’ve done something terrible. They’ve created their own hell for themselves. I know that’s dark, but there’s also this beauty that pervades it and lifts it up.
We Dissolve, as a concept, is very much about this dissolution into the greater-ness — the dissolution of individuality and isolation into this grander sense of connectedness, and the dissolution of a body in a cemetery back into the earth. You don’t understand where one person starts and the other person ends — a swirling of a feeling, dissolving into another person.
There’s all these different kind of things that We Dissolve sparked for me. One of the songs that gets me every time that may be representative of the whole thing is “Half Asleep.’ “Now and then I feel a boundless ocean over me, and I just disappear.” There’s something so infinite about that. I’m sure that’s the meditation to some degree. In the same song, this person has multiple lifetimes of heartbreak, and they just have to keep doing it until they figure it out. Eventually surrendering to the nothingness and the everything-ness is your ultimate escape, but it’s also the transcendent place you get to when your journey is done. Also, it’s just beginning.
How do you want people to experience “We Dissolve”?
I kind of see We Dissolve as really great listening on a train or while you’re in motion. There’s this feeling to it that it’s about digging a little bit deep, an excavation, but it’s not weighed down by a lot. There’s not a bunch of instruments. There’s a purity to it. That’s John Parish. There are no electronic plug-ins on this entire record. I can’t tell you how unusual that is. John and David share the same thing. They don’t have to add a bunch of stuff. With David, yes, he does the vocal effects, the delay, the echo, and all that stuff, but there’s not a bunch of instruments that are there. Everything is well considered. You don’t want to cover them up. You’re looking to invoke a mood. I took that from my experience with David. A lot of the music is about invoking a mood and then not ripping you from that experience. It’s holding you there.
We Dissolve . . . I think about rocks under a stream, and you’re just in it. You’re going along with the music and feeling things and experiencing parts of yourself that the music and words are opening something up in you. You’re just in that moment. If you like those associations, then you play those songs again — and then you make a friend with the music. That’s going to feel familiar and end up creating this memory around this feeling and this music. Then maybe you’ll go see this person live and it’ll have that extra dimension.
That’s my dream situation — if someone connects to the music and then they come see the show live. David has his ideas about how Twin Peaks should be watched — a quiet room with no lights and big speakers. I have my own dream for that. I’ve been moved so much by those experiences in my life that if I can offer that to other people, that’s the good stuff.