Women working it: Van Preston marries music and real estate in Memphis

Women Working It is an outgoing High Ground Q&A series focused on women entrepreneurs and business owners in Memphis.

Van Preston is the current owner of Krosstown Kleaners in Madison Heights. She's also a real estate agent and country-rock singer

Related: "Iconic Krosstown Kleaner has potential new owner"

Preston grew up in Arkansas and lived in Nashville before moving to Memphis in 2015. She has a bachelor's in business administration, but music was her first love. She began singing at the age of three and writing music at nine, which she recorded on a small cassette recorder. Preston lists Dolly Parton, Cat Stevens and Joni Mitchell as early influences. 

Preston's self-titled first album was released in 2005 and nominated for the European Country Music Associations' Album Of The Year. Since moving to Memphis, she's primarily focused on her real estate career, but she's now recording a new album for release next year. 

"The next album is going to be less country and more Americana," she said. "I'm going to have a few blues songs on there.”

Preston is also working to develop a music venue to give local musicians a chance at the spotlight and her a chance to share her knowledge and experience. Krosstown Kleaners is for sale, though she's considering using the building as the music venue if it doesn't sell. She's also considering purchase the Journey Motel Court on South Third Street for the location.

As part of an ongoing series on women entrepreneurs and women-owned businesses in Memphis, we met with Preston to learn more about her experience as a woman working it — from her eclectic professional journey to her hopes for her next 10 years in Memphis.

[Responses edited for brevity with minor edits for clarity.]

What inspired you to become a musician?

Both of my parents loved listening to music when I was a very young girl. My mom listened to gospel albums and my dad listened to mostly country but also loved Elvis. I was practically born singing. 

At nine, my music teacher had me stand at the front of the class and sing the first song I wrote. I sang in church, for talent shows and even put a group of my grade school classmates together to write songs during recess. My father was so encouraging that when I was ten or so, he helped me mail my songs in an envelope to Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn. We didn't know how to reach them, so we just sent them in envelopes to their attention to Nashville Tennessee. I still wonder if Dolly and Loretta ever received those letters with my songs.

How did you go from an early love of music to professional musician?

I decided to pursue music professionally in 2003, and in 2004 I moved to Nashville to pursue music full time. I sought out a producer, and we took six months in pre-production before we finally did the actual recording of my first album in April 2005. I immediately posted the newly recorded songs to Myspace, which was just taking off. 

I was immediately contacted by a booking agent in Sweden who asked if I would be interested in touring Europe. I said yes, and it snowballed from there. He started booking me on tours in Europe. He also connected me to a record label in Sweden, Mr. Music Records, that released my music across Scandinavia. Universal Records France released my song 'Bought Myself A Toy' in 2008 across Europe. The ECMA nomination for Album of the Year probably came about as a result of Universal Records France releasing my song. From 2005 until 2012, I did a ton of touring across the US, Europe and Australia.

What have been some of your biggest challenges?

For full time musicians who aren't supported by a label, the biggest challenge is always funding. It takes a lot of money to do a quality recording. You have to hire publicists and booking agent, pay band members, pay travel and tour costs, etc. To become successful, it almost requires full time effort, but then surviving as a full time musician means you either have a spouse or partner paying the bills or you live very, very lean.

The second biggest challenge is time. To hone your craft, a serious musician needs to spend significant time writing, practicing their instrument or instruments, keeping their vocal chops up, co-writing with other good writers, networking, performing whenever possible and staying abreast of music trends and new music.

The third biggest challenge is age. In the mainstream country music industry, women in their late-20s are considered 'too old' to start in the industry. I moved to Nashville when I was 33. I was told by more than one top music executive that if I had moved ten years sooner, I'd have gotten a Nashville record deal. This applies to country and Top 40 pop. Fortunately, there are no such age restrictions for Americana, folk, singer-songwriters or blues. All that matters is that the music is amazing.

What are your three biggest successes?

I am very proud of what I have accomplished in the music industry so far without any backer, without any record label or promoter other than those in Europe. I would say my three biggest music successes to date are:

First, the critical acclaim I received in Europe for my first record. Great reviews, the ECMA nomination, having Universal Records France and Mr. Music Records release my songs and headlining tours and festivals across Europe. Plus headlining EuroDisney in Paris with my Swedish band 'Crossing Keys' and my long time Norwegian guitarist Tommy Royset.

Second, having several of my songs recorded by other artists. As a songwriter, this is extremely validating.

And lastly, being approached and messaged by people who still tell me they love my music, they still listen to my music, they look forward to hearing my new stuff. Some have even said my music changed their lives. It is very endearing to know that the music I write from my soul, touches other people's lives and hearts.

What drew you to memphis?

I grew up in central Arkansas, three hours west of Memphis. Growing up, Memphis had a mystique. It was this big, mysterious, amazing place where Elvis had lived. Where music happened. When I moved to Nashville, I started coming to Memphis about twice a year but thought I had to be in Nashville for my music career.

Then I went on a date in Memphis in October 2014. My date gave me a tour of parts of Memphis I'd never before seen. I fell in love with the city and decided that very weekend to leave Nashville behind and concentrate all my efforts on Memphis.

I've lived in and visited a lot of cities around the world, and I wouldn't want to live anywhere but Memphis. It's authentic, gritty, full of soul but also has tons of charm, history and character. There is so much negativity toward Memphis in other cities, especially Nashville. In my opinion, Nashville doesn't have a fifth of the 'cool factor' or pedigree of music history that Memphis has.

You have aspirations to open a music venue in Memphis?

My immediate goal after finding the Krosstown Kleaners building was to open a music venue to promote local Memphis music to the world. At present, I hope to open a music venue bar in Memphis sometime in 2020. It may be in the Krosstown Kleaners building or it may be elsewhere. 

My dream is to help put Memphis back on the music world's map as a city that develops great artists and produces great music worthy of the world stage. It didn't end with Elvis, B.B. King, Aretha Franklin and Al Green. We can be the trendsetter for modern music again. When I do get my music venue going, I'd like to have several nights a week that spotlight up-and-coming Memphis talent. One dream is to do a weekly or monthly show similar to "Austin City Limits" but featuring the best of Memphis talent.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

My three passions are music, Christian ministry and real estate.

My day job is real estate, it pays my bills. I love helping people buy and sell real estate. In ten years though, I'd like to be doing real estate very part-time for close friends and family mainly. I flip houses and own rental houses. In ten years I hope to have enough rental properties to cover my bills and then some. I have three daughters that will have college and grad school costs. I also hope that in ten years I'll have met my soul mate, someone equally in love with music and also in some form of Christian ministry.

My biggest goal is to have one of the most successful music venues in Memphis history with many success stories of Memphis musicians and recording artists who have been propelled to success. I'd like to still have my own music career going where I still tour Europe and Australia once every year or two and perform regularly across the states. I want to be surrounded by other artists and musicians that I love, who I've helped get to the next level and beyond with their own music. 

Musicians, especially songwriters, are a rare breed. We pour out our heart into our songs, our music. It's cathartic, it's our way of therapy for what we've been through in life. We put our life experiences out in the public sphere by hanging our dirty laundry out for the world to see in the form of our songs, our deepest confessions, our lives. I love surrounding myself with musicians.

Read more articles by A. J. Dugger III.

A.J. Dugger III is an award-winning journalist and native Memphian who joined High Ground as lead writer for its signature series, On the Ground, in August 2019. Previously, he wrote for numerous publications in West Tennessee and authored two books, “Southern Terror” and “The Dealers: Then and Now.” He has also appeared as a guest expert on the true-crime series, “For My Man.” For more information, visit ajdugger.net. (Photo by April Stilwell)
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