Sings like heaven
Julie Christensen delivers a tremendous record with a little help from the Internet
By Kit Stolz 06/14/2012
At a recent benefit concert of Bob Dylan songs by the Ojai band Household Gods, J.B. White, the musical MC, welcomed Julie Christensen to the stage for an encore. White and six other talented musicians then cleared the stage, leaving it empty.
Christensen came out, smiled a big smile at the large crowd, took a breath and sang the hell out of “Blowin’ in the Wind.” It was a good thing Christensen was by herself. Anyone else on the stage would have been blown clear away. She needed no band, no other instrument, no accompaniment of any kind. She blew the roof off all by herself, to thunderous applause.
In this performance and on her new record, Weeds Like Us, Christensen returns to her folk-rock roots — gloriously. After singing and recording for years with Leonard Cohen, performing with the punk roots band Divine Horsemen in the’80s and working as a cabaret singer, at this stage of her career she finds tuneful simplicity rooted in her love of the Gram Parsons sound, colored with the raw emotionality of the ’70s.
The record was originally to be produced by Kenny Edwards, long-time bandmate of Linda Ronstadt and known for his work with many other stars as a sideman and producer. In his spare, elegant sound, Christensen found herself at home and planned to make a record, estimating that in a purely acoustic setting they could record it for just $500 a song. Word got around.
Then, in 2010, Edwards died of a cancer he had mostly kept hidden from his friends and associates.
“People said to me, ‘Well, you must be almost done with that record you’re making with Kenny,’ “a tearful Christensen said. “But we never started! We never got in the studio.”
Not only was Christensen blindsided by Edwards’ death, but she and her husband, actor John Diehl, were, like so many others, struggling to survive the recession financially. She talked Jeff Turmes, a musician/writer she admired, into producing her next record and had some savings to invest, but still needed to raise $7,500 to properly record and produce it and pay the musicians. For this she turned to the Internet fundraising phenomenon Kickstarter — twice. Her first campaign fell short, she readily admits, but she learned from her mistakes.
“With Kickstarter, you’ve got to devote time to it. You’ve got to treat it like a business. I’m from Iowa, I come from a strong work ethic, and I really don’t want to let you down,” she said.
Kickstarter is a “crowd-funding” site that allows anyone with a cool-sounding project to go to the public and ask for backing. Most projects are relatively modest, and financed by small contributions in the $25 range. Christensen set her goal at $7,500. She thanked each donor personally, offered numerous reward options, had a card made up with the web address on it, to make it easy to look up, pushed friends and acquaintances to contribute, and was thrilled to make her goal.
The money gave Christensen the freedom to make the record she really wanted to make. Included is not just Turmes’ stirring “Weeds Like Us,” with its tough chorus (Weeds like us are hard to kill/every day is an act of will) but also the harrowing “Outside,” from a song cycle called “Rosetta, Please,” by Southern singer/songwriter Dan Montgomery. (A song cycle is a group of songs designed to be performed in a sequence as a single entity.)
The story is about a man who falls in love with a prostitute. Most of the song cycle is told from his point of view, but one song is written from the prostitute’s. Rosetta has been “turned out” by her pimp, found drugs, become pregnant and is spending a lot of time on the street.
“Outside” is a haunting song, and surely never better sung, but it’s just one of the many deeply felt moods on this lusty, proud, wistful and determined record.
“I feel really confident that this was the record I was supposed to make,” she said. “Over time it represents me and my story, more than the other records I’ve made. People really seem to like it.”
Julie Christensen will perform at Zoey’s on Friday, June 15. Her record Weeds Like Us is available on iTunes and through her website: www.stonecupid.com.