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
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
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
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
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