Inside Chris Kittrell's Rebirth As Glam Extrovert Heather Strange

Heather Strange
Paige Wilson

Heather Strange

Last Saturday (Nov. 16) night, Chris Kittrell joined Victoria Hesketh, a.k.a. Little Boots, onstage at L.A.’s Echoplex to sing “Symmetry,” a song from her 2009 debut Hands. The show was a celebration of the album’s 10th anniversary, and Hesketh had turned to her longtime pal to perform a duet with her. “I was like, 'Hell yeah, I’ll do it,'" Kittrell says later. “Her crowd is so funny. She said other people have described it as a Grindr Party.”

At 6’6” Kittrell towered over Hesketh as they bopped around the stage. His look -- faded blue hair just long enough to curl slightly, cheekbones gleaming with glitter -- was a slightly mellowed version of the ultra-glam persona he debuted earlier this year in promo photos for his new project, Heather Strange. In the video for his single “Ruthless,” released in May, he appeared entirely covered in silver glitter from the waist up, neon blue hair cropped close.

The fresh look and new stage name seemed to indicate a new phase in Kittrell’s career, a sharp turn away from the dreamy, ethereal music he made as Baby Alpaca toward something more confrontational. “Outsider,” the tense, crunchy single that followed, only seemed to confirm this.

He describes Heather Strange as a character he could slip into in front of an audience, but ultimately, Kittrell says, Baby Alpaca and Heather Strange represent two sides of the same coin. “At first, I did think I was probably just gonna do Heather Strange,” he explains. “But then I realized I’m still very much Baby Alpaca at the same time.”

Thus Kittrell is releasing separate EPs for both projects simultaneously. The songs on Baby Alpaca’s And Do You Still Dream, Kittrell’s first album under that name since 2016’s Under Water, and Heather Strange’s debut Outsider were written during the same period of time and approach a lot of the same themes from different perspectives.

“If it’s in any way aggressive, that’s going to be a Heather Strange thing,” Kittrell explains. “Baby Alpaca stays at home and looks out the window, and Heather Strange is fed up and wants to go out and be crazy.”

Kittrell grew up on a farm outside of Cincinnati. He went to a performing arts high school where he joined the choir and performed in school plays. He also studied voice with a former director of the Cincinnati Opera, and appeared in the vocal chorus of a production of Aida one summer. When he enrolled at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning, his focus shifted to fashion. But on trips to San Francisco for internships, he got to know the city’s music scene, and though he didn’t play much beyond the piano his mother taught him as a kid, he developed the impression that everything he knew how to do, everything he was interested in, was somehow leading him toward music. “I just had this epiphany,” he says. “Like, I think I’m gonna try and write a song.”

He bought a bunch of used instruments, including an old autoharp, from a secondhand shop and taught himself how to play them. He moved to New York for internships at the Olsen twins’ label The Row and Marc Jacobs and became enmeshed in Williamsburg’s music scene. He started playing shows as Baby Alpaca along with a shifting roster of backing musicians. People started to notice him, including JD Samson, who signed him to her newly launched record label Atlas Chair and released Baby Alpaca’s first EP in 2013.

“I think the live performance really impressed me,” says Samson. “Chris' vocals are tonally tactile yet consistent, and after seeing him perform once, I knew I wanted to be a part of his journey. What you hear on the record is incredibly beautiful, but it is also just the beginning of what Chris has to offer.”

While the EP got glowing coverage everywhere from NPR to Vogue, Baby Alpaca’s full-length follow-up Under Water didn’t seem to make the same impact. Kittrell had moved to L.A. and was adjusting to the city. He went through a significant break-up and started playing music with new people, including producers Christopher Hines and Dave Sitek.

The songs that came out of those jam sessions with Hines, Sitek and their friends didn’t feel like Baby Alpaca to Kittrell. “It comes from a different place -- a place that’s based in reality,” he says. “Making music with new people, I just wanted to try giving it a new name.”

But even as Heather Strange was taking shape in the studio, Kittrell continued to write and record on his own. Those tender, hazy songs refused to be sidelined, and rather than fold them into the new project, it made sense to Kittrell to put together a separate, distinct Baby Alpaca EP. “Baby Alpaca exists more in a dreamy kind of slow atmosphere,” he says. “When I was selecting songs for the EP, I was trying to stay true to where it originally came from: writing songs that are more about the art of music and soundscape.”  

With the release of And Do You Still Dream and Outsider, Kittrell is now turning his attention to putting together a new band and developing a live show that blends together both projects. “Basically the show would be Baby Alpaca and Heather Strange doing kind of a Jekyll and Hyde kind of thing,” he says. And he still has a ton of unreleased music up his sleeve -- enough, he says, for another dual release sometime in the near future. “It sounds ambitious,” he admits, “But for me it’s not.”