My first interaction with Baby Alpaca, the band led by singer and songwriter Chris Kittrell, is over email, when he mistakes me for a violin player. He has invited me to their studio to practice with the band and says the violin accompaniment would be a great addition. I wonder how he feels about a writer instead of someone trained at the strings. Once the misunderstanding is cleared up, he invites me to sit in on practice nonetheless.
I ended up instead meeting Kittrell during a party in Williamsburg at a store called Beautiful Dreamers, where Kittrell’s clothing line is sold. “Fifty pieces in two months,” he tells me, which is quite impressive considering Baby Alpaca is his main focus, with clothing design, sketching, and a variety of other artistic ambitions being only fleeting side projects that happen serendipitously when he has the time. If creating art is Kittrell’s obsession, his approach to creating music is casual yet concentrated, fluid yet focused. He holds a platonic and seemingly effortless relationship with his craft that is both beguiling and impressive.
At the party, Kittrell glides from one end of the store to the other, hugging or exchanging European-style double kisses with friends throughout the store. He stands over six feet tall and has cherubic blond curly hair. Fixed between his eyes are two tight flaxen coils, which he lightly relocates above his eyebrow when he gets excited about an idea, his eyes widening and his voice raising.
Soon, the time comes to get ready for a show at Glasslands Gallery, on Kent Ave., in Williamsburg. It will be one of the band’s first in Brooklyn after several months of not playing, but Kittrell isn’t so much paying attention to the clock as is his manager, Yael Greenberg, an engaging young woman with a clipped accent and the type of fastidious personality that managers are born into this world already possessing. Kittrell is excited for me to meet the rest of the band, but mostly Zach McMillan, the guitarist and his songwriting partner.
Before the show we are behind the stage, where the opening act is trying to move around the Baby Alpaca crew to get their equipment up on the stage. Kittrell is trying to get one of his friends into a sheer mesh tank top that he has recently designed, and he seems just as excited to rifle through his clothing designs as he is to get on stage and sing in a few minutes. Greenberg is perched amongst amps, rattling off a list of labels that will be at the show to observe the band. McMillan is out front, setting up wires and microphones. He is the more focused, gregarious, and attentive of the two, shuffling around hooking up instruments and explaining complex equipment details that are lost on me.
They take the stage and sound good even with the lack of live performances over the past several months. The audience is sprinkled with off-duty models and a peacock-feathered display of progressive artist types. They pack into the small venue and it is clear from their reactions Baby Alpaca is pleasing them.
I watch Kittrell on stage with his token autoharp; he smiles in between verses, seeming very much in his element. McMillan looks over and winks at me. Greenberg checks back in with me after the band leaves the stage. This immediate kinship is most certainly fueled by the age-old idea of an artist’s community.
Baby Alpaca is the primary — and practically only — focus for a collective Greenberg has initiated that she hopes will eventually encompass groups of artists, performers, writers and creators of all kinds. Words like “family” and “we” tumble out of Greenberg’s mouth. This burgeoning collective, it seems, has united with the shared purpose of breaking new ground through the creation of art.
Growing up in vaguely rural and isolated places like Ohio (Kittrell) and Minnesota (McMillan), Baby Alpaca has constructed a family in Brooklyn, a place that appreciates exploratory, offbeat and creative efforts. Natural group dynamics play out, and in this scenario, it is Kittrell that has moved into position at the center, serving as the artistic ingénue who has a slew of other more business-minded friends that help promote his unique and gifted inspiration.
Baby Alpaca’s music has been assigned to several different genres ranging from shoegaze to New Wave to their self-coined “psychedelic dream-folk.” They have a strong footing in an oversaturated Brooklyn music scene maintaining a healthy nod to past influences while still presenting an entirely new, enriching, and unique sound. Kittrell’s voice has a vaguely familiar sound and has been compared to many other singers, including Morrissey — on Quaaludes.
Some days later, over lunch at the Maritime Hotel, I ask Kittrell if he thinks that he sounds like Morrissey. “It’s funny because I had never heard The Doors before when people started saying that to me,” he replies. McMillan corrects him and then reinforces that he believes Kittrell does, in fact, sound more like Jim Morrison than Morrissey. We have an extended conversation about what music they love, citing everything from Lana Del Rey (a huge visionary obsession for them right now) to Morcheeba. I end up spending several hours with them at lunch, as a carousel of friends shuffle in and gather around the booth, helping them pass the time on the Sunday afternoon. After several rounds of red wine and Fernet Branca, the conversation opens up to existentialism (as experienced in the Tao of Pooh, Kittrell’s favorite recent book), community, and the complexities of creating art in a place like New York.
The final guest, their new violinist, has just shown up and will be assigned the task of rounding out the meandering lunch with the band. Later, they will head back to Brooklyn and work on some tracks. In a few months, right before the end of the year, they are aiming to release an album. There is a lot to do before then. Greenberg will take on the task of trying to nail down a label to release the album, but if that falls through — she is confident it will not, saying, “I think we will have our pick” — they will release it on their own. Then comes a U.S. tour in support of the album, they say, and who knows what after that. In the future, Kittrell may have less and less time to work on illustrations or clothing design, but today he is at the center of a band that may just break out of the bounds of the Brooklyn scene and tomorrow become something much bigger.