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Kristina Olsen
by Chris Flisher © 1993 /
(first published December 1993 Performing Songwriter)

Kristina Olsen
From the stage of a cozy New England coffeehouse, Kristina Olsen has the audience on a musical tether. Her curly blonde hair springs out from under a floppy hat and her head sways from side to side in beat to the plucky rhythm of the song. Adept at comedic timing, she barks out phrases with bluesy swagger one minute only to counter it with coy sarcasm the next. The song is "Wish You'd Stop Doing So Well" from her self-titled debut album on the Philo label. Through the course of the tune she systematically rips apart an old lover whose life has turned around since leaving her ("A friend said he saw him/Said he looked great/Said he quit smoking/Said he'd lost some weight."). She is echoing familiar sentiments of audience members who are held rapt through the song, laughing and whistling as she delivers her tongue-in-cheek diatribe. "Dang" she roars in refrain, "I wish you'd stop doing so well."

Watching Kristina Olsen perform, it is easy to see why her star shines so bright. It is hard to avoid the hook in her songs, the lure of her voice or the warmth of her engaging personality. A bundle of boundless energy, talent and good will, Olsen is having a ball and it shows. She is a true original who exudes genuine affection with contagious flourish, both on stage and off. If the adage of "what goes around comes around" is true, it is immediately evident in this dynamic musician. She gets back what she gives out.

Talking from a motel in Asheville, North Carolina, where she is part of a road tour celebrating Philo Records 20th anniversary, Kristina laughs, "I feel guilty having this much fun and getting paid for it. But," she quickly adds, "If this is what it means to be guilty, I want to be guilty forever." The tour, which is meandering down the East coast, features fellow label-mates, songwriters and cut-ups Bill Morrissey, Cheryl Wheeler, and Vance Gilbert—needless to say this California-based singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist is guilty as charged.

Kristina is one of a handful of emerging artists on the acoustic/folk circuit who demand attention. Although she has been working at her career for over 20 years, her relative lack of national recognition was due largely to her touring style. Until the release of Kristina Olsen she toured only six months of the year, producing and promoting her own albums, while splitting her time between various jobs including guitar teacher, computer consultant, instrument salesperson.

Her big break came from an admiring audience member. Singer/songwriter, comedienne, and folk benefactress Christine Lavin watched in amazement one night as Kristina dazzled another audience in a coffeehouse in Maine. Dumb struck by the fact that such a talent was not represented by a label, Lavin immediately contacted Philo and had her signed. Thirteen months after that show, Kristina released her debut to rave critical response. Her second album, Love, Kristina was released in ==check month== and drew a similar reception. And the fact that she was chosen to round out the Philo anniversary tour with Morrissey and Wheeler, speaks highly of her formidable talent and rising presence. This tour will undoubtedly bring more unknowing fans to her fold.

Born of musical parents, Kristina is the direct product of a mother's support and a father's genes. "My mom was pretty hip. She would take me to see people like Joan Baez, John Prine and Steve Goodman long before they were famous and I was introduced to the whole singer-songwriter "thing" very early. But, my father was a classical pianist, so guess what instrument I started on?" she quips. "I took lessons from a friend of his who was also a classical pianist. She wouldn't let me leave until I got my playing perfect," she pauses, "But I was five years old, couldn't sit still that long and, besides, my fingers were too small — not to mention, I wasn't interested at that age. So, I grew to hate the piano. It is totally irrational, but I hate it." she shamelessly admits.

It wasn't until Kristina was much older that she fell in love with the sound and feel of the guitar. "I was 11 years old and at camp one summer listening to guitars when I realized how much I truly hated the piano. And, of course my father saw a direct connection between the guitar and heroin addiction," she recalls chuckling, but mischievously adds, "And nothing sparked my interest more than my father telling me not to play."

While parental pressure and a rebellious nature drove Kristina to play guitar, it was bad advice that drove her to find other musical vehicles. A junior high school teacher, with little foresight and even less artistic vision, convinced her that she could not sing. " I was crushed because I loved to sing. This teacher also told me that I shouldn't play guitar because it made me sing!!" As a result, she was driven to learn as many instruments as she could. " I became a multi-instrumentalist out of complete frustration over my voice."

Over the next ten years she mastered over 15 instrument as diverse as banjo, bass, saxophone and concertina. "I was trying to force my voice through my instruments," she adds. "When I wanted to say something in a different way I would go out and learn a new instrument. They are like languages, once you learn one of them the rest come pretty easy."

Although instruments now serve as just one of her many voices, song writing is her conscience. "For a number of reasons I was a poor communicator, perhaps it was the pressure or lack of support, but I couldn't say what I was feeling so I had to write songs to keep from exploding. There was no choice in the matter, I had to write." she emphatically adds.

Kristina's early songs centered around environmental issues and social causes as seen through the eyes of a young girl. "I didn't write love songs until I knew what it was," she laughs. "But since I had to write songs, I also had to sing them. I wrote my songs to escape but I would go to the roof of my house and sing them over the sound of the traffic. I was so completely convinced that I couldn't sing and that way no one could hear me."

In an effort to fight off the effect of criticism and discouragement, Kristina sought out voice lessons, letting her instincts overcome dejection. "I almost think that adversity is the hardest thing to beat, but if you want to do something bad enough, you will do it. And I did." Although skeptical and nervous that voice lessons would confirm her teacher's ill-advice, Kristina trained with a voice instructor.

Through encouragement and a series of exercises she was able to broaden her range, discover her tone and develop the voice she has today. "My first songs rarely had more than a five-note range because my voice couldn't meet those notes. It was very limiting." The money, time and effort was well spent. "People have this idea that when you first open your mouth you will either sing beautifully or you won't sing at all. They don't realize that it takes practice and hard work." She pauses and snickers, " I always say that my voice wasn't inherited. It was paid for."

If ever her voice was in question, it certainly leaves little to ponder now. She is as comfortable belting out a raspy blues growl as she is conveying playful tenderness. These are characteristics that come to flower in her performances. While her albums are wonderfully varied and rich in color and texture, Kristina is best live, on stage. Her musical dexterity and spontaneity isn't as evident in the planned, mechanical ambiance of the studio. That is no fault of her own—you simply have to see her to believe her. To understand and appreciate the charisma and diversity of this artist, you need to watch her switching instruments and controlling moods as she draws listeners into a gloriously entertaining musical shell game.

Olsen's music has strong blues bent brought out in her deft slide guitar playing. Citing Bonnie Raitt and Ry Cooder as major influences it is easy to hear the connection in her music. In a rare cover of traditional folk tune "John Henry" from her debut, Olsen cuts loose with a swirling display. It is a hard won sound where voice and instrument meld, expressing the soulful feeling of the blues. She has an affinity for drawing out the blues in her own songs as well. "Hard Day Yesterday" from her second album highlights Kristina's ability to inject her own melodies with the same heartfelt feeling by sustaining jazz-tinged phrasing and melodic structure.

Although the blues figure prominently in her repertoire, she is not solely a blues musician. Her song writing extends far beyond the confines of the blues and incorporates aspects of many styles, none of which can be easily classified or formulated. Unrequited love, the rights of battered women, the changing moods of her lover, or the specter of her father all come to light in her songs.

After years of fighting and rebellion against her father and his instrument she found herself writing about his piano years after his death. "My Father's Piano" is ironically one of her most moving pieces, given her disdain for playing. "My father died when I was 16 and I wanted to write a song about him and his love of music. But since I hated the piano I had to go out and pay a teacher to show me how to play my own song on the piano! I guess he won in the end!"

Kristina no longer feels the need to communicate exclusively through her songs and therefore has the luxury to write more selectively using a variety of methods. "My songs usually come together with no real pattern. Sometimes melodies just rattle around in my head and then other times I have a phrase that I like the sound of and the two just kind of fall into place. What works best is when I just start noodling around on my guitar and the words come shortly after."

Like many songwriters, she also finds the mutual support of other writers to be a particular help. "There is a part of every songwriter that believes when you first write a song that it is the most brilliant thing you ever did and then shortly after you think it is the biggest piece of junk you ever wrote. My songwriters group provides the peer criticism that helps me keep things in perspective." Meeting once a week, each member of the group brings a completed or in-progress song to the meeting to be performed for and criticized by the group. "It is really helpful to get feedback on a song while it's in progress. You then know which way to go with it."

"I love writing songs, but my favorite songs don't seem to come from me, they seem to come through me, like maybe I am the channel for that song. It is an absolutely euphoric feeling when it happens. It is such a jolt, like the high that runners get." More often than not it is hard work, patience, and practice that creates the songs. "I am sometimes jealous of people who come to shows and enjoy music as a hobby. It is much different when it is your livelihood. But the times when it all falls in place are worth whatever struggle there is."

After twenty-odd years of being on the road, singing her songs, charming the audience Kristina is finally poised for the next step. It can be daunting and even overwhelming, knowing you just reached a plateau. "I need to stop and smell the roses and take in what I have done. There is a danger in trying to find the next mountain too quickly. I want to savor the success and pick my next mountain carefully."

The mountain, whatever it may be, is a necessary step in the career of any aspiring or established performing songwriter. It is the lifeblood that keeps the performance sharp, the inspiration that keeps the songs coming and it is the spark keeps the adrenaline flowing. Kristina pauses and recalls her twenty year climb, "It is much harder than I ever thought it would be, but it is also much more rewarding than I ever dreamed it would be. It's not about talent, its not about luck, it is just persistence. If you persist you can build a career and a following and keeping plugging away and before you know it you're there."
Chris Flisher

Deckle edge