Sonja Kristina is delighted. The latest line-up of Curved Air is midway through its first proper tour, and the sextet is already as tight as any incarnation of the band. “The last show we did was really good. We did a live stream on Facebook. My kids think it’s great, and they’re proud of their mum.”
I’m sitting backstage with Kristina at the Trades Club in Hebden Bridge. To be precise, we are in the foyer of The Little Theatre, a modest venue that doubles as a dressing room for the named acts who perform next door.
Even in her early 70s, Kristina is still the quintessential hippy rock chick: she is clad in a baggy tie-dye t-shirt, blue jeans, and leather boots. Her long auburn hair flows effortlessly through the air as she animatedly tells her tales.
Before becoming the frontwoman for one of Britain’s foremost prog-rock bands, Kristina had already lived a full life by the age of 21. She worked as a bunny girl in London clubs, performed in the first stage performance of the cult musical HAIR, and sang in folk clubs with Sandy Denny, eventually meeting the original members of what would become Curved Air in 1970.
The band became a staple of the British prog scene. Musos Darryl Way and Francis Monkman brought classical training that lent an almost medieval elegance to raucous tracks like It Happened Today and Hide and Seek. Kristina’s haunting, operatic vocals mesmerised crowds as she weaved tales of the French Revolution in Marie Antoinette and the otherworldly Melinda.
The band enjoyed critical acclaim and achieved commercial success with their single Back Street Luv, which was a top-10 hit in the UK.
After the disintegration of Curved Air in the mid-70s, she had a front-row seat to see her then-husband, Stewart Copeland, team up with Sting to form The Police. Living a charmed life of country houses and being helicoptered into gigs, her own creative pursuits were not hindered. She performed in independent theatre and continued to record solo albums. Her life has been one of mystic and creative pursuit. “I’ve been very lucky with my bohemian adventures.”
Curved Air are currently on tour in celebration of 1973’s Air Cut album. Fortuitously, the present line-up of the band features the guitarist who originally played on this LP, Kirby Gregory. The band completed a very successful tour of Japan, where Air Cut was a particular success.
Keyboardist Robert Norton is hard at work mastering the band’s latest live album. “Robert’s been busy producing the live in Japan album; we recorded in Japan at the beginning of 2020”, begins Kristina. “It sounds really good. The favourite album in Japan is Air Cut, so we thought we would bring it over here because most of the audiences over wouldn’t have heard most of the songs on that.”
Air Cut was the fourth studio album from Curved Air and marked a change in style as well as a change in line-up. As Kristina recalls: “It’s rockier, which is intentional. Eddy was so good for the band because he was classically trained; he was a fan of Curved Air and he knew how to play a lot of the Curved Air stuff anyway. With him covering the classical base, we just wanted it to be a little more straightforward in places.
The rocking numbers like Stretch went really well, so I thought it would be a good idea for this band to be a little bit more direct.”
One of the most ambitious tracks in the Curved Air catalogue features on Air Cut, the otherworldly 10-minute epic Metamorphosis. “Eddy created the song. He had the melody, as far as I remember, and then I wrote the song. I wrote the first verse, then when we were actually recording it, I was writing the last verse. The idea of it was being these ethereal beings controlling the world somehow from where they are in the ethereal zones.”
Air Cut may be the album of the moment, but Kristina says it is not her favourite from Curved Air’s back catalogue. “I like all the albums but Air Conditioning, I think, would be my favourite album. For me, it was the most complete; we had been playing that material on the road for nine months or so before we went into the studio, so we really knew how to perform it. We didn’t have the opportunity to do that with any of the other albums. Air Conditioning really captures what the essence of Curved Air was with those band members.
“I think my vocals on that are much more representative of me. On the Second Album and Phantasmagoria, the songs were very newly written, so I was basically singing a tune and telling a story, but I hadn’t had time to really learn how to perform them.”
In 1975, Stewart Copeland became the new drummer for Curved Air. Copeland would go on to become one of the world’s most celebrated drummers, as well as Kristina’s husband. But recruiting the raw technical ability of the future Police percussionist could do little to improve the atmosphere during the recording of Curved Air’s fifth studio LP, Midnight Wire.
Marred by personal problems and a band at war with their producers, Midnight Wire proved to be a testing experience for everyone involved. “I had just gone through a breakup of a relationship, so I was emotionally shot”, Sonia recalls.
“I couldn’t focus on actually writing things, so I got my friend who I was living with, Norma Tager, who was a poet ghost-writer. We would talk about what I wanted to sing about, which was mostly about drugs and recovery, then she would write a bunch of stuff and then I would sing it.
We went into Basing Street – lovely studio – and we recorded it. It went really well; we even had Jose Feliciano come down and play the Pipe of Dreams track, which didn’t end up on the album. We were very pleased with it, then it went off to Decca and they turned it down because it wasn’t commercial enough.”
Much of the original album was scrapped and the band was forced to re-record several tracks with a team of American Svengali producers. “They brought in these heavyweight producers from Muscle Shoals in America, and they just said: ‘Lose that verse’, ‘Change the lyrics of this one’. The song that is Dance of Love now, was called Victor Pass the Bowl of Rice. It was meaningful, it was about people starving.
“When we got into recording it, they were really tough on all the musicians. Darryl had never been produced like that. Normally, with Curved Air, we’d just been working with an engineer who happened to be a producer. Darryl was very depressed by it.”
Even Copeland wasn’t safe from the producers’ criticism, as Kristina remembers: “They told Stewart that he couldn’t play in time and he had to go and practice with a metronome. When Stuart was writing his own songs, he could play right through a song by banging on a pillow. One of the reasons he and Sting fell out was because Sting wanted him to play what he created on his drum machine, and Stewart wasn’t having it.”
After Midnight Wire, the band recorded one final album, Airborne, in 1976. However, Kristina and the other members were road-weary. The band was being managed by Miles Copeland, drummer Stewart Copeland’s brother, who was taking a keen interest in punk.
As the music world moved on, so did Kristina. “Curved Air split up, really, because the band was doing really well but I was wanting to leave. I wasn’t believing what I was doing anymore. I really wanted to go off and do other things. Miles dropped us. We were too expensive to keep on the road for the money we would get. We were earning the money on the road, but then we were taking a PA and lights to make a big statement. Ever since 1971, as soon as the album charted, that’s what we started doing. We took everything on the road with a proper road crew, and that’s expensive.”
Curved Air’s live shows have always been acclaimed. Kristina’s ethereal presence, matched with the intense and concentrated playing of the musos on stage, makes for a spellbinding night out even today. To this day, Curved Air still travels with its own lighting rig and retains several members of the original crew. The tour schedule may not be quite as gruelling, but that doesn’t stop the band from playing to audiences around the world.
For many fans, the Live album, recorded during a short-lived reunion of the original members in 1974, is the classic Curved Air record. Kristina’s recollections of that period in the band’s history are a little bitter-sweet. “We had literally got back together to raise money to pay some tax bill that the management hadn’t paid. As soon as we’d raised that money – the tour was only three weeks long – the others didn’t want to stay.
Darryl had some musicians that he got together already, and it was going to be called Stark Naked and the Car Thieves, which was one of Stewart’s pet names for a band. I didn’t want to go on at that time because I was wanting to do a bit of theatre, write my own songs, and just be free of the endless Curved Air treadmill.”
However, the “treadmill” days are a thing of the past for Kristina. Curved Air reformed officially in 2008, with Way returning for the first 12 months. Since then, Kristina has been in command of the group’s direction for the first time in its history. It is a position, she says, she is very happy with. “Since 2008, I haven’t gotten bored with touring once. I think the problem was that the person in control of the things was always somebody else like Darryl and Francis. I was just doing my best collaborating with them. Since 2008, even though I’ve been using everybody else’s strengths, it’s kind of been my ship that I’m steering.”
Since the reform, Curved Air has undergone many different line-up changes, with bassist Chris Harris being the only constant musician to remain in the band alongside Kristina. Nonetheless, finding and keeping players with the technical chops to play Curved Air’s intricate and complex numbers.
“We’ve got a new violinist now, who’s great”, says Kristina. “He comes from Poland. It’s very hard to find the right violinist. Chris, our bass player, he’s wonderful; he’s absorbed all the lines and techniques of the original composers, yet he works in the moment with what he’s getting from the band. We don’t play things really straight like a cover band, it’s all very live and responsive.”
Aside from Kristina’s own career, she was also in the epicentre of the formation of one of the world’s biggest rock bands, The Police. After the disintegration of Curved Air, drummer Copeland wasted no time in forming his own band, which soon took off on the British club circuit, before achieving worldwide success. As Kristina recalls: “Stewart brought Sting down and they rehearsed in a room in the flat that we were living in. They were doing these little gigs and people didn’t quite know what to make of them. Then they went off to America and some DJ who was at a show started playing Roxanne, which became a huge hit.”
During the meteoric rise of The Police, Kristina enjoyed the perks of being a rock star’s wife. But that didn’t stop her from ploughing her own furrow. In the early 80s, she released the eponymous album Sonja Kristina, a new-wave LP recorded with her latest band, Escape. She also pursued theatre roles and continued to work on other music. “Stewart and I had a great relationship, but I was sort of flying in his slipstream. He’d go off and I’d decorate the house. Then I started to do other things, so he’d ring me up and say ‘Oh, can you come over? We’re on this island, it’s beautiful, it’s fantastic!’ and I’d have to say ‘No, I’m doing a play in a pub theatre, but that’s really important to me’. Gradually, I started getting my creativity back.
“I went on the road with The Police to various places. It was incredible, they just built, and built, and built, and built, they were the biggest band in England at that time. It was just phenomenal.”
Back to the present day, the immediate future will see Curved Air complete the Air Cut anniversary tour before going back into the studio to start work on a new studio album, the first since 2014’s North Star. “We’ve started getting the material together, but it’s been hard being all at different ends of the country. I hate working with drum machines and click tracks, so we’re trying to resolve that.
We’ve got some songs which are well started. I’m working with my friend Paul Rudolph, who’s in Canada.”
Fans of the early Curved Air will be delighted to hear that Kristina wishes to take other albums on the road the same way she has with Air Cut. “Once we’ve promoted the new album I think it would be good to do a tour with Second Album and Phantasmagoria, one hour each. It would be good for the band to play those songs.”
Curved Air’s UK tour will continue in September, beginning with the Leeds HRH Prog festival at O2 Academy Leeds on September 3rd.
Tour dates and news can be found on the band’s official website.