INTERVIEW: Crystalla Gonzalez of L Train

29 08 2011

Crystalla Gonzalez is a powerhouse vocalist straight out of NYC. She’s spunky, funky, and soulful at the same time, and fronts local alternative rock band L Train with a fierceness you won’t soon forget. Although they’re less than a year old, the band, which combines diverse musical influences with a high-energy live show, is already making its mark on the boroughs. We jumped at the chance to speak with Crystalla about her musical theatre past, songwriting process, experience as a female vocalist, favorite bands and influences, and what she looks forward to in the future with this band on the rise.

First of all – where are you from and when did you start singing/making music?
I was born and raised in New York City from a Puerto Rican/Dominican-Greek family. My parents always played music in the house growing up. My brother and I have grown to love and appreciate music. I think I’ve always loved to sing. There is a picture of me with a microphone in my mouth at two years old. My mom was amazed that I could sing and she thought it would be great to sing at my fifth birthday party. I sang “Colors of the Wind” dressed as Pocahontas. My fifth birthday party really changed my life. My true love affair with the audience began that day and after that, I was hooked. I wanted to perform anywhere I could at school, birthdays, holidays, bridal, and baby showers.

I started writing poems, short stories, and songs at thirteen. Writing gave me a sense of freedom and gave me the courage to express myself. I was able to open my mind creatively in a way I never could before. Creating music is always a blessing especially when someone else can relate to how you were feeling or even just appreciate your work. I’ve never stopped singing no matter how many times I’ve been rejected. It always makes me stronger and work harder to fight for what I live for.

Can you tell us some of your favorite vocalists?
I have much admiration towards Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin, Robert Plant, Al Green, and Gwen Stefani. They have taught me singing is more than just having a beautiful voice. A true singer is when they can incorporate their passion, soul, and emotion into the song.

How and when did L Train come together, and who are the other members in the group?
Gabriel Castellar (guitarist/vocals) and I formed the band in the beginning of 2011. We finally decided to form a band together after years of contemplating if we should or not. I was pursuing musical theatre and Gabriel was in different bands over the years with Chris Arico (who plays bass). Gabriel and I met in high school and we performed in shows together. We both connected musically and performed covers in the school shows. Once a year, the school had a student-run show called Music by Night where Gabriel and I covered “Heartbreaker” by Pat Benatar and “So I Thought” by Flyleaf. We always had a blast but then I fell in love with theatre and decided to take a different path.

We wrote a song together two years ago. He wanted to know what I thought about the song he composed. I instantly saw the story as he played the music. A saw a single mom waking up early in the morning struggling to feed her children then having to take the train only to notice her stockings had ripped and she does not have money to buy new ones. I told him what images I saw when I heard the music and we continued to develop the story, melody, and harmonies. “On the Train” was born that very day.

We never thought two years later we would finally be able to share this song. We were both at the crossroads in our lives. Musical theatre wasn’t working out for me and his various bands weren’t working out for him. We decided to finally to make a band together and never looked back. We asked Chris Arico to play the bass in our band, a longtime friend of Gabriel’s. Chris is an amazing musician and Gabriel has always had a great friendship with him. He had been in a few bands on and off with Gabriel. David Guevara was a founding member of L Train. He played a few shows for us in March but had to go back to his band DIgamY. He decided to quit his band and joined ours full-time in July. Chris and David have really helped improve our sound. I feel blessed to work with these guys. They are amazingly talented and respectable men. I couldn’t have asked for anyone else to be in a band with.

How would you describe your sound? BONUS: If LTrain was an image, what would it be?
We are ultimately an alternative rock band. However, we incorporate Latin, funk, blues, and other world music styles that have made their mark in New York City. If L Train were an image we would be a big old pot of soup because we mix so many different ingredients from around the world.

Who are your band’s biggest influences?
Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana, Pink Floyd, Yes, Aretha Franklin, The Swell Season, Heart, Buddy Guy, Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind & Fire, Parliament/Funkadelic, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and No Doubt.

Who are the songwriters and what is your writing process like?
Gabriel and I work hand in hand. Gabriel composes the music and we collaborate on lyrics. Sometimes a song title might come first like with our song “Bipolar.” Gabriel called the song “Bipolar” due to the mix of styles he composed within the song. We decided to write the song about a character who is dealing with the constant struggle of living with bipolar disorder. We researched the effects of the disorder as well as reading stories that people wrote dealing with it. YouTube blog videos also helped us get a closer look. When we write we complete each other’s thoughts and that is what makes our relationship special and unique. We have tried to work with other artists in the past but we were never able to get the same emotional connection that we had with each other. You have to be totally honest when you write with someone and since we know each other so well it makes the songwriting process easier.

How would you describe your live show?
We use the format of musical theatre where one song perfectly follows the next in the storyline. Each of us is responsible for telling the story from our individual perspectives in which one of us may have a solo or, better said, a musical monologue. We try to interact with the audience as much as possible because they are there to perform as well.

You have a very close relationship to New York City – how do you integrate the sounds of the city into your music?
We try to interpret the feelings and emotions of particular characters we write about. For instance, our song “On the Train” is about a single mom struggling to provide for her children. The music follows her through the journey of her thoughts; in the bridge of the song “the mother” explodes in anger and says, “Can’t ya see he ran through me like roadkill on the highway? He planted the seed, won’t take care of the crop, and the weeds are growing higher, higher, and higher, and higher…” This style of writing is usually attributed to musical theatre and of course other progressive bands. We find this way the easiest to express ourselves. We aren’t hell-bent on trying to sound like other bands in our scene.

L Train is a relatively new band, but you’re definitely making waves. What are some standout experiences in the journey thus far? What are some of the most important things you’ve learned?
One standout experience was when Gabriel and I were performing a song outside in my neighborhood and a guy got out of his cab a block early because he remembered my voice. He remembered us when we performed a month ago in the subway station near the L line. He remembered the song I sang AND our band name! It was pretty wild. Also, at Astoria Music & Arts’ Astoria Music Now! festival we all got asked to sign autographs. It felt strange but we were honored at the same time. We were all shocked by the response from the crowd that night.

One important thing I’ve learned is you can’t please everybody. You’re going to have people who love you and then you’re going to have people who don’t and that’s okay. I’ve also learned that women still have it difficult in the rock world. There still is discrimination against women being in bands. I applaud women who have fought and continue to fight to break the boundaries of women playing rock music. It shouldn’t matter what sex you are.

Can you name some awesome bands you’ve shared the stage with, or live bands you love to see (bonus points for local NYC bands!)?
We have been lucky to meet so many talented bands who we have either shared the stage with or have seen live. I LOVE VESSIO, Solmenta, Jump for the Sails, Left in the Attic, Death of Paris, A Story Left Untold, Gods iLLa Mutual, Ritz Riot, and Election Night. I also have to give a shoutout to the solo artists Waty, Guitaro 5000, and Nikki NJoi. I’ve been dying to see these local NYC bands: Saturn Unleashed, Out of Order, Beecher’s Fault, and Sylvana Joyce & The Moment. I wish I could go back in time and see Led Zeppelin, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix.

Aside from making music, what are your favorite things to do?
I’m constantly listening to different albums, looking at different types of fashion, art, photography, and reading! I’m always trying to grow as an artist when I am not making music.

What are some of your favorite places in NYC?
The MoMA, the Met, Greenwich Village, Central Park, Broadway, Williamsburg. Every bit of New York City is beautiful and I continue to explore the city as much as I can.

What’s next for your band and what are you most looking forward to?
We are currently looking forward to recording our EP! We are aiming to get it out by December/January. Our goal is to save up and hopefully go on tour next summer.

Stay updated about the next stop on the L Train! Like the band on Facebook and check out their page on ReverbNation for upcoming shows.

interview by audrey leopard
crystalla photo by angel rose carlson, group shot by quinton parker

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One response

31 08 2011
Angel Rose

I have been in love with The LTrain since I viewed my first video of them performing. I grew to embrace them even more when I attended my first live show. The funk, the charisma and the love of music the band expresses when performing is felt so deeply within their audience. It’s a New York experience like no other.

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