Revered singer songwriter Kristina Olsen returns to Australia this month for the launch of her latest recording, Chemistry, a collaboration with USA guitarist, composer, arranger and producer, Peter Snell. Peter, a superb guitarist, has toured extensively with Lyle Lovett's Large Band and singer songwriter Sam Phillips, among others. His arrangements and superb accompaniment to Kristina's compelling songs and instrumentation showcases the multi-genre talents of both musicians.
Kristina Olsen is recognised as one of the most entertaining and compelling performers on the international folk circuit. A superb multi-instrumentalist (acoustic guitar, steel-body slide guitar, saxophone, concertina, mandolin and piano) as well as an award-winning songwriter, her big bluesy voice and infectious personality has audiences around the world coming back for more. Her mix of powerful songs ranging from sassy bottleneck blues, lilting ballads, swing jazz to raunch and roll (as well as her hilarious storytelling) makes for a diverse and satisfying musical experience, on stage, on disc and in print. Born in San Francisco and raised in Haight-Asbury during the 1960's, Kristina's approach to music and life was formed by that environment of vital cultural expression, social activism and diverse musical influences. She now calls Venice Beach, Los Angeles home but rarely sees it from touring ten months a year. With 11 recordings to her name, in 2012 she added -author' to her mantle with the release of They Paid Us in Tub Time an e-book with new and back catalogue re-arrangements imbedded into the text. Launched at the Ubud Writer's Festival, Tub Time was also featured at the Adelaide Fringe Festival and toured through Victoria and New South Wales in early 2013.
Such respected artists as Eric Bibb, Fairport Convention, Maddy Prior, Mary Coughlan and Mollie O'Brien have covered and recorded songs by Kristina. She has also worked as a session musician on numerous artists' albums including playing the hammered dulcimer on Michelle Shocked's album Short Sharp Shocked on PolyGram and touring as Mary Coughlan's guitarist in 2005. Her song In Your Darkened Room was used in the film We'll Always Have Dingle, a documentary about an Irish Film Festival. Kristina has performed as a multi-instrumentalist in plays for the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles' Music Center. She won the Kerrville Song writing award her song for battered women, I'm Keeping This Life of Mine. With a passion for touring, this intrepid troubadour has had annual schedules that have included tours in Australia, Scotland (for the Celtic Connections Festival), England, Bangladesh (for a benefit concert), New Zealand, Canada and the USA. Her journeys and experiences -on the road' have provided much -fodder' for song and story.
Chemistry will no doubt resonate with Kristina's dedicated fan base and its jazz influenced arrangements and sound will find new devotees to her craft. Speaking of the collaboration with Peter Snell, Kristina is quick to rave about the partnership. 'Playing music with Pete is like opening the gate to a race horse," she says. 'There is no musical style that can stump him and he revels in musical challenges!" While the title-track and CD title were inspired by Kristina's reading of jazz guitar great, Ted Greene's Chord Chemistry, she says, the title is an apt description of the musical chemistry that resonated through the rehearsal and recording phases with Peter.
Some of the songs on Chemistry have been -works in progress' for a long time Kristina revealed. 'Some, I have been working on for over 20 years," she says. 'I'd work on it, bring it to my songwriting group, get feedback then put them back on blocks of the back of the songwriting car lot. Songs each take their own time to finish so some were done in a day while some took decades."
Whether short or long in gestation, the lyrics and music on Chemistry reflect Kristina's keen observation of life and the many and varied people and places her musical journey has travelled. Don't miss the special album launch shows as Kristina Olsen returns to Australia to showcase tracks from her latest release.
Chemistry Tour Dates
Saturday 25 October
Flying Saucer Club, Elsternwick VIC
Friday 14 November
Roxby Hotel, Glebe NSW
Wednesday 3 December
Melbourne Folk Club, Bella Union, Trades Hall Melbourne VIC
For more information, please visit www.kristinaolsen.net
Question: How would you describe your music?
Kristina Olsen: Ah the dreaded question! How does one describe the taste of strawberry? Or the smell of a spring day? Or the must of an unused room? My music doesn't conveniently fall into a category. And those categories are where the world of marketers like to place music, neatly packaged as a commodity, but my music is particularly uncooperative to such a tidy world. All my songs come from an emotional point of view, and how that develops into a song has a great deal to do with what the song demands. Some are full of attitude and kickboxing, some slip in almost unnoticed, discrete and feathery. Each song arrives on the instrument they pick, sometimes slide guitar, sometimes concertina, sometimes banjo or mandolin or guitar or piano. Sometimes acapella. So it is fun for an audience. A concert of mine is like a sound sampler. One's ears don't get tired of hearing the same tonal textures over and over, but it certainly is harder to describe. But I have a passion for acoustic music, so I use many acoustic instruments to lay a foundation for each song. And there are always funny stories in between because I like to laugh, and figure my audience likes laughing too.
Question: What was the main motivation behind Chemistry?
Kristina Olsen: I've been studying jazz over the last few decades (it seems one has to take their time to study jazz) and some of my writing has been going in that direction. So I'll go from a swamp blues to a complex jazz song and it's harder to find a side player who is well versed in so many styles. When I got a chance to play music with Pete, he blew me away by his versatility in every style on guitar. And he plays a radical guitar called a 'halfling", half flat top half arch top. We did a concert together and I loved it so much I asked him if he had time to go into the studio. In our busy schedules we had only three days available before I left the USA. So we got together and used just two great microphones on his and my guitar and one on my voice and went for a totally live and acoustic natural sound. Playing music with Pete is like opening the gate to a race horse,nothing I could play would stump him. And what a joy to hear him take off! Pete has played in Lyle Lovette's Large Band and with so many other monster players. I can see why, he is a joy to play music with.
Question: What should we expect from the upcoming tour?
Kristina Olsen: I'll be playing a few select gigs and festivals with Peter Grayling, the Jimi Hendrix of cello. Peter and I have recorded five cds together, he is a wonderful musical mate. It's sadly still a rare thing to find a great cellist who is also a great improviser. He does walking bass lines for me and then takes soaring solos, and also plays mandolin and sings harmony. When I'm playing solo, there is more space for humorous stories between songs. There will be a mix of new stuff from the -Chemistry' album, and older stuff.
Question: What music/artists do you listen to when you are not playing your own?
Kristina Olsen: I have really varied musical tastes. Right now? I'm listening to Jacques Loussier Trio, they were a French jazz trio that played jazz versions of JS Bach, aah, I love that. I first discovered them in the -80s, then forgot about them for a few decades and have rediscovered them. I'm always listening to Astor Piazzolla, the amazing tango composer from Argentina. And always listening to Tim O'Brien andDarrell Scott. Can't get enough of them! And here inAustralia, I adore Lloyd Spiegel and Mic and jIm Conway, and the Backsliders and Jackie Marshal and Saruzu Quartet and the list goes on and on...
Question: What's next? Tour/Album/Single?
Kristina Olsen: In the next year I have a tour to the UK, a bicycle trip through Spain and France, a tour to the north west of the US and Canada a new CD due out next northern summer with award winning jazz guitarist Bill Coon of co-writes.
Question: Was there a moment you contemplated throwing in the towel?
Kristina Olsen: I never ever contemplated throwing in the towel musically, but there have been times in my career where I was very clear that I would rather have a stupid day job than to compromise my music. I know a lot of really talented musicians who play in cover bands in bars where no one actually listens to their music. I would do anything to avoid that including working some dumb day job to pay my way. For years I worked at a McCabe's guitar shop in Santa Monica. When I made enough money to go on the road, I'd tour until the money ran out and then went back to selling guitars. It actually was great, because I only took gigs in listening clubs, and when I was back at McCabe's, they had a concert series on weekends, and I got to go to concerts for free, since I worked there. It ended up being like a performance school for me, since I got to see all these amazing professionals every weekend and got to see how they did it. And it was incredible having a job that would let me go and give me my position back. That was a great straight job. I've managed to be a fill time musician since 1990, but I've always felt that if the gigs that I wanted to do couldn't pay my rent, I'd go back to any straight job to keep from prostituting my music. That has always been extremely important to me. That isn't to say there haven't been some awful gigs and hard times, ha! But for the most part I've had a wonderful career.
Question: Do you prefer performing live or recording?
Kristina Olsen: I think I am more of a live performer. So when I record, I prefer to make it as live as possible.
Question: What/who was your inspiration to go into the music industry?
Kristina Olsen: Ha! That's a tricky question! I've been staying as far from the actual music industry as possible. I don't like being packaged and made to be someone I'm not. That's not saying that the whole music industry is like that, but a lot of it is. I remember being hired to play in a big country band in LA in the -80s. We were on an -industry' night with two bands in a giant country club. I saw the manager of the band I was in give the sound-man a hundred dollar bill. I asked the band leader why her band had to pay the sound guy, she answered that it was actually a counter-bribe. The other band had bribed the sound guy to mess up our sound, since it was an industry night and a number of record labels were in to check us out. Wow, that was not a scene I wanted to be any part of. I mentally replayed all the times I've seen an opening band's sound totally suck, then when the main band got on, the sound was good and went, ah, that was why. I left the commercial music world then and have been very happy in the non-commercial world of folk music. It's funny, none of what I play is actually folk music, but I generally play to a folk audience. They are a fantastic audience, smart and interesting and they generally remember that they have been to your concert the next day, ha! A big plus in the world of blues and jazz. It has always puzzled me that the musical forms that I love so much (blues and jazz) often have such challenging audiences! I know a lot of great blues and jazz musicians who have discovered the secret world of folk and will never look back.
Question: What is the biggest challenge you have faced along the way to your musical success?
Kristina Olsen: For a long time it was hard being a solo touring female guitarist. there was a lot of sexism and glass ceilings and very few role models, and that was hard. People always perceived me as a freak and would ask how much longer I was going to do this. Which I thought was the weirdest question,asking me how long I'd keep doing the think I loved to do. And when I found someone doing what I did, like Del Rey (who is an astonishing blues guitarist/historian/touring musician) it was such a relief to hangout and realise that I wasn't the only freak. All that is much better now, but there is still a long way to go. And ironically, the other biggest challenge is getting quality time to practice every day. While touring, (which I do ten months a year) there is a lot of time spent traveling and promoting and the amount of time one gets to practice dwindles, and I find that quite hard. I have to really make a point to carve out a time and space to practice.
Question: What's a typical day like?
Kristina Olsen: A good day on the road starts with practicing, then I study spanish language (for the Spain tour coming up) then either a drive or flight or if I am lucky, a bit of sight seeing and a bicycle ride. (I have folding bicycles scattered around the globe so I can ride while touring!) Then making a set list and do any promotion/radio shows then a sound check. (Dinner is almost always a bummer, because sound check and the show are inevitably when most normal people dine.) Then play the concert and chat with the audience afterward. If I am lucky, a late night restaurant open or some lovely friends to cook a midnight meal and have some laughs, then some sleep and it all starts again!
Question: What has been your favourite part of becoming a music artist?
Kristina Olsen: Playing and writing music is a total high for me. Just practicing scales in the morning makes me feel full of bliss! (Probably not the person in the next hotel room, sorry!) And I get to travel to parts of the world that I don't think I would have ever been able to afford to get to. Fabulous places, like here! And I get a much more personal view of the places I go to, than I think I would have had I been a tourist. I am so very lucky to do this work that I love!
Question: If you could collaborate with another artist, who would it be?
Kristina Olsen: Oooh, I'm getting to collaborate with my heroes! Pete Snell, Peter Grayling, Bill Coon and Nina Gerber! I'm so lucky!
Question: What message would you like this album to say to your fans?
Kristina Olsen: I guess to let your own ears be your guide as to what music turns you on, listen with an open mind, and listen only to music that you adore, there is so much great music out there! We are in a great time!
Interview by Brooke Hunter