At the end of 2001, Bowie broke with his current label, Virgin (it helped that Virgin hadn’t picked up its option on a new Bowie album—they were all but daring him to leave) and formed his own record company. This was the culmination of over a decade’s worth of frustration with the music industry and in particular with Virgin, who’d rejected both a live Bowie album (liveandwell) and a studio one (Toy). “Many times I’ve not been in agreement with how things are done and as a writer of some proliferation, frustrated at how slow and lumbering it all is,” he told Billboard.
So at age 55, Bowie was finally an indie recording artist. His new label, ISO, had one client, himself: there were reports ISO had signed a band and another solo act, but nothing apparently came of this. He signed a distribution deal with Columbia for Heathen, a structure that remains at the present day (Columbia’s issuing Nothing Has Changed in a few months).
One sign of Bowie’s contractual freedom was a growing penchant for guest-starring on others’ albums: these would be his only moments on record in the late 2000s. It helped that he was able to use Tony Visconti for his field research. Visconti had already gotten Bowie on a Rustic Overtones album and now he introduced Bowie to a St. Louis songwriter and pianist named Kristeen Young.
A half-Apache, half-German child adopted by fundamentalist Christians, Young endured adolescence as a series of pitched battles (her mother would smash her Prince records; Young later described herself as “an imprisoned child”). She took refuge in punk and indie music, becoming pen pals with Jello Biafra (who once taught her to parallel park); in the Nineties, she formed and discarded bands, worked as a waitress and began recording solo records with a drummer, “Baby” Jeff White (the set-up was a reversed image of the White Stripes). She was an acquired taste: the CMJ, reviewing her debut in 1997, began with “What is it about playing the piano that encourages young women to become crazy, screaming banshees?”
She sent Visconti a copy of her second album, Enemy, in November 1999 (she’d reportedly found his name in a music industry directory). Taken by what he described as her “part rock, part Bartok” music, her cover photo and her four-octave “gutsy voice…with its high soprano register,” Visconti agreed to produce Young’s next album. As she had no record deal, Young and Visconti worked up a collection of demos in New York in 2001-2002, around the same time Bowie was recording Heathen. She wound up singing and playing piano on a few tracks, Bowie in turn offering to sing on one of hers.
This was “Saviour,” which Young later said was in part a tribute to her friendship/mentorship with Visconti. Bowie took the second verse, savoring the line “American landfill…LAAND-fill,” and kept pace with Young for the rest of it, mostly content to let Young out-sing him. It’s a piece of bizarre, affected, fairly catchy art-rock. Should Lady Gaga and Bowie get together at some point, “Saviour” could even be something of a template.
Young went on to have a contentious, sibling-like relationship with Morrissey, who sacked her from a 2007 tour for “salacious language” but soon mended fences. Earlier this year, the Morrissey camp accused Young of giving Moz a “horrendous cold” that resulted in yet another tour cancellation. If Bowie ever tours again, Young should perhaps consider switching allegiances.
Recorded: Looking Glass Studios, ca. late 2001/mid-2002: (Bowie vocal retake) February 2003. Released 13 June 2003 (November 2003 in the US) on Breasticles (N Records ZM 00103). (Reflecting the chaos/implosion of the music industry in 2003, this record was released as a CD only in Portugal, and later as a web-only release in the US/UK). The promo version of Breasticles, which Young self-distributed in 2002, featured an earlier Bowie vocal.
Top: “The king stay the king“: D’Angelo lectures Wallace and Bodie on chess strategy, “The Buys,” The Wire, June 2002; Young, ca. 2002.