Rock Star: Sleigh Bells Singer Alexis Krauss Finds Focus in Climbing

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Alexis Krauss Sleigh bells Rock climbing trad Rhododendron 5.6 gunks

Alexis Krauss leads Rhododendron (5.6) at her home crag, the Shawankgunks

Beams of red and yellow light cut through a smoky 2,000-person theatre, offering glimpses of a petite figure on stage spinning to an electronic beat overlaid with heavy guitar riffs while her long black hair whips back and forth. Studded leather bracelets go halfway up her left arm, and she wears a white tank top that reads “Parental Advisory: Explicit Content.” As a singer, songwriter, and frontwoman of the indie rock band Sleigh Bells—known for hard-driving hits like “Crown on the Ground” and “Rill Rill”—the New Yorker Alexis Krauss, 33, is fully in the moment, making instinctive decisions on how to move and sing.

Fast-forward a few days and Krauss’s hair whips through the air again, this time as she leads the last pitch of Stolen Chimney (5.10) on the Fisher Towers’ Ancient Art formation. When she reaches an impasse below the corkscrew summit, her mind fills with uncertainty and she wants to retreat to the belay, 20 feet away. “I went into full-blown panic mode,” she recalls. “Both performing and climbing take a tremendous amount of confidence, and with either, it’s all too easy to slip into a space of self-doubt.” Finally, she summons some try-hard, does the move, and stands atop the precarious spire.

The creativity Krauss used to figure out the beta is a trait that spans both her climbing and musical lives. “Like songwriting, climbing forces you to step outside your comfort zone, be vulnerable, try, fail, and overcome,” she says. “Performing forces you to be so present. Every moment counts, and you’re constantly making split-second decisions. Climbing is exactly the same.”

Krauss has been performing since she was a kid growing up on the Jersey Shore. Living a few blocks from the beach, she spent much of her childhood swimming, snorkeling, and bodyboarding in the Atlantic. “The ocean ruled my world,” Krauss says. “I spent most of my time barefoot and outside, and going on kayaking and whitewater-rafting adventures with my parents.” Her mom and dad—who is also a musician—supported her musical abilities. “There was never a day growing up when music wasn’t being listened to, played, or performed,” she says.

While her bandmate, Derek Miller, writes the majority of the lyrics for Sleigh Bells, Krauss writes the melodies, aiming to create songs that are simultaneously happy and sad. “While some of the lyrical content can be quite bleak, there is always a hopefulness and determination to our songs,” she says. The band to date has cut five records, with a sixth currently in the works. On average, they spend several months a year touring, more if they’ve just released an album and less if they’re working on a new album. Sleigh Bells play a range of shows from intimate theatres to huge outdoor festivals with tens of thousands of concert-goers; in 2012, they appeared on Saturday Night Live.

Krauss first climbed four years ago during a West Coast tour, when her best friend and her best friend’s husband took her climbing at Mount Diablo State Park near San Francisco. When Krauss reached the top of her first-ever climb, Chouinard’s Crack (5.9), she burst into tears. “I knew immediately that there was no turning back, and that climbing would become an essential part of my life,” she says of her powerful connection to the sport. Back in New York, she turned to climbing books, online tutorials, and more experienced friends in an effort to improve.

Krauss spent every free moment at her local gym, The Cliffs at LIC, before venturing outside to Rumney and the Gunks. After leading sport routes in City of Rocks and at Red Rock, she started following a group of “badass lady Gunks climbers” up as many classic Gunks routes as she could. Krauss assembled her own trad rack, and returned to Red Rock in November 2017 to lead her first multi-pitch, Birdland (II 5.8). While she’s on tour, each new stop brings new crags, new gyms, and new communities. Krauss also has two regular climbing partners with her: the Sleigh Bells’ tour manager and their front-of-house engineer. Still, even though Krauss gets to climb all over the country, her favorite crag remains the Gunks. “I love the diversity of movement, and how varied a single route can be,” she says.

Q&A

What inspires you in climbing?

The environment. I’m in awe of the rock and the surrounding flora and fauna. I’m also inspired by how climbing makes me a better, stronger, more self-aware and disciplined person. I often struggle with fear and doubt while climbing, but when I go deep and commit, I’m able to transcend those debilitating emotions and achieve my goals.

how did you become a musician?

I’ve been in bands most of my life, and paid the bills in college as a session singer. I took a break from music after college to teach. I met my bandmate, Derek Miller, during summer vacation after my first year as a Teach for America corps member. We started writing and recording regularly, and in 2009 I decided not to return to the classroom. I started waiting tables, and we began booking shows in Brooklyn. Not long after, we signed a record deal with Mom + Pop Records.

How does climbing provide balance?

Climbing is fundamental. It has built a foundation upon which my love for family, friends, nature, adventure, community, service, wellness, and achievement thrives. It’s an outlet for stress. It helps me clear my head when I’m feeling overwhelmed.

Our Land Project

In January 2018, Krauss combined her passions for wild spaces, climbing, and music with the launch of Our Land Project. She wrote and recorded the protest song “Our Land” as a response to President’s Trump’s handling of national monuments and public lands. After a collaborative recording session, it quickly developed into a film project that follows Krauss and photographer Chris Vultaggio as they travel to Utah to tell the story of Bears Ears and its people. They spent a week with the leadership of Utah Diné Bikéyah, a nonprofit devoted to supporting indigenous communities in protecting their ancestral lands. “The struggle in Utah is about more than just protecting breathtaking views and access to climbing; it’s about respecting and conserving thousands of years of Native American history and culture,” Krauss says.

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