Carolyn Wonderland On Life, The Blues & Everything

The blues guitarist/singer/songwriter talks about her craft.

Pollstar caught up with the former Imperial Monkeys frontwoman at her home outside Austin, Texas, where she was keeping an eye on the forest fires burning through the Lone Star State while answering our questions. A very relaxed and personable artist, Carolyn Wonderland talks about her guitars as if they’re people, saying, “that one still has some songs in it,” or “this one might have some music in it.”

She can be the same way when it comes to writing songs, telling a work-in-progress to “shape up” and ‘behave.”

With her new album, Peace Meal, scheduled for a Sept. 27 release on Bismeaux Records, Wonderland talked about her life, touring, her very funny husband and her time with the Imperial Monkeys as well as her connection to a very famous Monkee, giving us a glimpse of what it takes to be a working blues artist in the 21st century.

Photo: Todd Wolfson
With her band.

Considering the current state of the world – the economy, wars, and devastating forest fires – has there ever been a better time to play the blues?

Truly inspiration is there in its most honest form.

Are folks more receptive to the blues when times are bad?

I don’t know. I think folks just like the opportunity to pop out and dance for a while and not think about it.

Your schedule shows you doing several shows in Texas along with traveling out of state.

We just got done with four months, like 9,000 miles in 30 some-odd days, then went to Europe. We were home for a couple of days, did some shows in Colorado and in the Midwest. But we’re home for a week and a half. We’ll do all the CD release parties we can do in Texas and head out. I think we’ll do the East Coast first, then Norway and a few other places. Any place with electricity.

Do you use a bus or van?

I drive a Sprinter Van. I love her. She’s the easiest thing I’ve ever had to work on. It gets much better mileage than the last couple of vans.

Is touring tough on vans?

Yes. I’m always surprised if they make it to 300,000 miles.

A new blues recording can sound fresh yet familiar. How do you accomplish both?

I think that’s the magic trick of it. It’s a specific formula so people can get together and play. What’s normally considered a limitation is exactly the limitation that you put your soul into. I think that is what colors it. Otherwise it’s just a big old shuffle.

So it’s the interpretation of the artist that distinguishes one blues record from another.

Oh, definitely. You can tell when someone means it. Those are the ones you play again and again.

Was it always blues for you?

It’s always been a little bit of everything. Growing up playing guitar, it was wherever I could play. Being in Houston, that meant a lot of different music.

But the guitar isn’t your only instrument.

I’ve been messing around with different pawnshop finds over the last 10 years. I like to go poking around. I like the smell of old wood and the funky glue. During the last trip we were up in San Francisco, we walked into this place filled with like a million toys and had a repair shop in the back. The Holy Grail of the store was a 1952 Harmony baritone ukulele. I was thrilled. Rather than having my per diems for food the next week, I now have a ukulele.

What are some of the unique guitars in your collection?

My second guitar, I traded my mom her Strat for her Martin. Don’t ask how that worked. I ended up getting the Martin she was going to sell, and I couldn’t bear to part with it because I had written so many songs on it when I was 10 years old. I took it to a friend of mine and got it cleaned up. She has songs in her. Not all guitars are like that. It ain’t the brand name and it ain’t the sticker. There’s something in the wood.

Do you have moments while writing that you decide the guitar you’re working with doesn’t have the song in it, then switch guitars and everything changes?

Oh, yeah. Sometimes I think the reason I like to play so many different instruments is you get this muscle memory. You start to go, “Okay. There’s a pentatonic scale in everything I play.”

It’s good to go to a different instrument, maybe an open tuning or something like a mandolin, organ or piano. It makes you write differently. For that, I appreciate it, otherwise I might have written the same song for like 40 times.

When writing songs, do you begin with words, a melody or rhythm?

They each have their own thing. Sometimes you’ll hear something hilarious in a conversation you’re not involved with. That’s a seed and it will stay with you. Often times I’ll do a the late night / sunrise drives. Everyone else is asleep. I’ll turn off the radio and just with the sound of the tires you start to think of words and phrases. Sometimes, the whole song will come out in five minutes. The last song on the record, “Shine On,” that came completely orchestrated, like “done” in my head.

Other songs, you sit there and look at them like they’re on a shelf and you say, “Why won’t you behave?”

What are some of the songs that, when you completed writing them, you immediately knew they were exceptional when compared to your other compositions?

I think “Judgement Day” probably bears out. It’s obvious to me because it gets played darn near every night and, if we don’t someone will request it. Although when I wrote it, at the time I was thinking to myself, “I hope people don’t think I’m a total Hound Dog Taylor rip-off. For the life of me, I couldn’t play his riffs right. Because I couldn’t, it ended up being my own riff.

You’re married to “Saturday Night Live” alumnus A. Whitney Brown. Is everything laughter and music?

There is a great deal of that. He comes out with us on the road. Not on every leg, but most of them. The band loves him, he loves the band. He’s incredible company. He’s one of those cats, if something is broken and you don’t mention it, you turn around and five minutes later it’s fixed.

Silly example: I left on a short trip and I was like, “I’m going to get rid of this futon frame. But the wood’s still good. Maybe we can use it to stack firewood outside.

I came home and he had built the best piece of furniture in the house out of it. So now I have a groovy desk.

So there’s an inner roadie in him?

There’s nothing I could have done to deserve anything this cool. I’m really happy I found him. And I feel like such a dork saying that.

How old were you when you wrote your first song?

I was probably about 8. Partly embarrassing, normal A – B, A – B … There’s a song.

And how old were you when you began recording?

I did demo stuff for friends of mine when I was in junior high and high school so they could learn to push the big shiny button and make it sound groovy. But I didn’t release an album until 1991.

Your music sounds timeless, that it could have been recorded during the ‘70s, ‘80s or ‘90s and it would sound just the same. It’s easy to imagine you appearing with, say, Wishbone Ash, Janis Joplin or John Mayall, in the 1960s or ‘70s.

You try to go for like the … the Hoagy Carmichael stuff still stands up now. Chuck Berry still stands up now. To me, it’s writing a universal thing.

In the early days, one night we’d be in a punk bar, the next night a country bar and the next night a rhythm and blues bar. There was part of me that’s like, “I don’t want to change my set. I want to play my songs. And I started to release after so many months, that Chuck Berry goes over great in every one of those situations. I need to write songs like that and then I don’t have to worry about changing my set.

Was that during the Imperial Monkeys days?

Yeah. I probably didn’t have that realization until the late ‘90s.

The music you play has such a rich heritage. Do you ever find yourself wishing you might have lived earlier so you could have played with some of the blues greats?

Oh, God, yes. I wish I could have taken music lessons from Count Basie. But in the same breadth, I’m happy to be here while I’m here because maybe I wouldn’t have had the opportunities to do this. Being a gal might have made things a little different. Color barriers, sex barriers. But I feel pretty lucky. I got to play with Pinetop Perkins. I got to play with people who thrill me. I feel pretty damned charmed.

How did you ever hook up with Michael Nesmith?

He invited me to do this series, and it may still run occasionally, the “Video Ranch.” It’s kind of a continuation of one of his ideas. He’s one of those cats who’s not happy sitting still. He’s got to be doing something, as evidenced by “Elephant Parts” and things of that nature. He’s got quite a streak of genius happening.

Nesmith set up these things called “Video Ranch” where you play a concert. It’s in a virtual world where you see the audience and they see you. Audience [members] are avatars and they type you messages. It’s truly bizarre and I never experienced anything like that before. We had such a fun time I said, “Hell yeah, I’ll do it again.”

He had this book “The American Dream” that he wanted to an audio companion to it and wanted to know if we would be the band on it. The one track we liked so much, we put it on the record. Honestly, I would have been scared to death to try “Dust My Broom.” Please, it’s one of those songs no one can do better. But we tried. He caught something there that added a little twist.

He introduced Whitney and I. That was the way it happened.

What attracts you to record someone else’s song?

There’s something about it that makes you want to walk in it. Sometimes it starts with a message and other times it’s just the melody or something about it that catches you.

For Peace Meal, you recorded Dylan’s “Meet Me In The Morning.” From a songwriter’s viewpoint, were you able to approach it as just another song, or do you feel slightly intimidated by its author?

There’s always that. I would have never been turned onto the song if it hadn’t been Bob’s. You see the byline and there’s a certain expectation in your head. But even with all that stripped away, I think the song stands entirely on its own. That’s what I like about his stuff. Every time you see Bob, it’s a different version of cool songs. Nothing gets stale with him and I just adore that. He really made me feel good about myself at a time I wasn’t so sure of myself as a songwriter. He was really kind and supportive, a cool guy. I hope he likes [my version].

What can you tell us about your new album that someone may not pick up on?

The biggest thing to me is I hope they can feel that I meant it. That’s a quantitative force. I can’t tell on my own recordings. I hope people can tell that it’s genuine, it’s heartfelt. There ain’t a bunch of magic tricks on there. If a note’s flat, it’s because I was flat.

Was it recorded as a live session, or were musicians recorded separately?

We cut almost all of it live. There were a few things, like at Levon Helm’s [studio] we’d record a track and think, ‘Maybe we should add this instrument or that instrument.” But all the basic tracks were done with all of us in the room. I think it worked out better with the vocals, too. Because you can hear them in the room happening with the urgency of the band. Everything’s bleeding all over; it’s really cool.

Are there times when fledgling songwriters approach you for advice?

Sometimes. And nothing makes you feel older quicker. I must have been around awhile if you’ve heard that, uh?

I like it, though, when kids come up and talk like they’re new fans and they’re excited. So many people lose that, and after getting knocked around in the clubs for so many years, it’s always beautiful to see people with such fresh enthusiasm for music and wanting to do it. Whenever they ask me for advice, I always tell them, “Live cheap in real life. Music is the reward. There is nothing else guaranteed.”

After years of performing live, is it still fun for you to walk into a bar and check out a no-name band?

Yes. Especially when they’re pulling out something cool or something you haven’t heard before. One of my favorite things about touring, especially festivals, there’s like 20 bands to check out that day. Maybe you can only see five minutes of it, but that five minutes is an eye opener and you go, “I’m going to buy that record when I get home.”

With all the choices music fans have – Internet radio, iPods, streaming on demand – is radio still important for an artist?

To me it is. Not so much the Top 40. I have no illusions that is going to happen to me. But the people who still get to play, the DJs who don’t have playlists, like public radio, I love to go visit. You get to rifle through their whole CD collection, which is pretty awesome. And everyone has their own band on things. Like a band you’ve never heard of in Louisiana you’ll see all over on the East Coast but nowhere else. I love that. And the DJs who do it, it ain’t for the money. They’re there because they want to share music.

One of my favorite things is popping into a radio station and making noise on water bottles and little tiny amplifiers.

What do you like to play just to amuse yourself?

Lately I’ve been on an Etta Baker trip. I cannot for the life of me do a picking pattern to save my ass, so I spend my time fucking around on it. “Why can’t I be Jerry Reed?”

What do your fans not know about you?

That I’m pretty boring crocheting when I don’t have a guitar in my hands. My grandma taught me when I was a kid and it’s one of those things that makes you feel closer to your roots. That and my husband grows the hottest peppers known to man.

Closing thoughts?

I would hope that if people think music is going nowhere, they would actively go out, even if it’s only once a month, and take a chance on a band you’ve never heard of. You might be surprised.

Photo: Allison Murphy
16th Annual Telluride Blues & Brews Festival, Telluride, Colo.

During the next couple of weeks Carolyn Wonderland will be driving her Sprint Van all over Texas, playing Sam’s Burger Joint Music Hall in San Antonio Sept. 16; Houston’s Last Concert Café Sept. 23; Georgetown at Hardtails Sept. 24 and the Houston BestFest Sept. 25. Stops outside of Texas include Pittsburgh’s Thunderbird Café Oct. 23; New York City at Joe’s Pub Oct. 18 and Vienna, Va., at Jammin’ Java Oct. 25. For more information, click here for Carolyn Wonderland’s official website.