Hudson K may intimidate the weak. It's not just that Christina Horn is an especially talented vocalist, pianist, and songwriter. Standing at her keyboards, she wields her ice-blonde persona like a stiletto, as if maybe she'd kill you if doing so weren't such a bore. Though the scar tissue that remains of her heart is unreachable—to you, anyway—she summons it for her moody songs in punched-up minor keys about love lost. As she gazes disdainfully at the evening, at life, maybe at you personally, she can convince you that she deserves better. And she'll find it, but first you're going to have to pay. Nate Barrett, the journeyman percussionist and sometime choreographer who may be the only guy cool enough to be allowed in her presence, serves as her drummer, and maybe her hit man.
They make a striking duo, and it's not surprising their recent video, "Fade," got some attention on the independent-film circuit, including honorable mention at the 2011 Los Angeles Reel Film Festival. Shot about a year ago at Relix Variety Theatre in Happy Holler by local filmmaker Matt Cikovic, it depicts a weird cabaret of perverse magicians and sleazy show folk.
Offstage, Horn is friendly, open, unpretentious, and sometimes even practical. If you call up Hudson K's website this week, you'd find a lengthy and clear-headed analysis of our screwy medical system, with a thoughtful recommendation for people who don't have employer-provided health insurance, a rather large demographic group that includes most professional musicians. Horn knows something about the subject, having dealt with surgery to remove a malignant melanoma.
"All my musician friends don't have any health insurance," she says. "They just hope that nothing will happen to them. When it does, they organize a benefit to pay medical bills. But it's never enough." She recommends a health savings account, with instructions about how to proceed. It's not the sort of advice you expect from a dangerous beauty who sings "We slept in a bed of lies/left the world to fantasize/while we made love to our alibis."
She describes her music as "rock," or to be more precise, "eccentric anti-pop piano rock," as one unattributed quote on Hudson K's website has it. Some are quick to compare her music to that of Tori Amos, PJ Harvey, and Cat Power; older fans may bring up Natalie Merchant, Kate Bush, or Broken English-era Marianne Faithfull. The fact is nobody's doing anything much like Horn, especially not in Knoxville, where female keyboardist/vocalists are out of the ordinary.
There's something Weimar-subversive about Hudson K, suggesting a basement cabaret full of derelicts, addicts, and spies. We can almost smell the smoke of Gauloises. Some tunes sound like world-weary songs Dietrich sang in Berlin in 1927. Others sound as if they were excerpted from a modern off-Broadway rock musical, with hints of funk and fuzzbox. In melody and rhythm, one song is distinct from the next, with more variation than you'll find in most rock repertoires. Her voice can be wistful, then angry, then melancholy, then ominous.
Hudson K is named for Horn's split persona; she's originally from New York's Hudson Valley, which, as it happens, is also not far from Barrett's New Jersey birthplace. But she has lived in Knoxville for most of her adult life, about 13 years now. She studied music at the University of Tennessee, with much of her concentration on classical piano. Her voice is distinctive, but she says her musical training was limited to what she does with her fingers.
"I learned singing in the shower, in the car," she claims. "You practice something enough, you get better. Maybe I should study it. It turns out there is some technique involved."
Hudson K's been together for several years now; it always includes Horn and Barrett, especially recently, as they've honed the act as a duo, but in the studio has included a half dozen other musicians, especially guitarist Jeff Christmas, plus several others on violin, trombone, cello, flute, congas, clarinet, banjo, and trash can.
"I continually push myself to find newer and better sounds," Horn says, and the most innovative combinations sometimes come out of her own Ableton Live computerized synthesizer, which supplements the Hammond organ keyboard she plays simultaneously, one hand on each.
Hudson K put out an EP, 2007's Safety Line, before their full-length album, Shine, which came out in 2010, and features 10 songs, opening with the aforementioned "Fade."
Though Horn and Barrett are tethered here—Barrett has a day job, and Horn has more than 20 regular piano students—Hudson K manages to travel some in the general neighborhood: Atlanta, Asheville. Last month they got a warm reception at the Honest Pint, a reputable club in Chattanooga, Horn's onetime home, and this Wednesday are scheduled to play at Nashville's the End.
Horn is contemplating their next recording adventure—they're bound for the studio "soon," she says—and working on a concept for a video for her new song "The Knife."
"It's subversive and eerie and dark," she says. "But also uplifting."