Interview: Kristina Olsen

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Sometimes life – and music interviews – doesn’t always go to plan. One morning, not too long ago, I was meant to interview American songwriter, singer and all-round musical genius Kristina Olsen at 9.50 a.m. I set a reminder and then got so absorbed in whatever I was doing that I didn’t even hear the reminder alarm. At 10 a.m. I realised what had happened and immediately called her. She could not have been more charming – or more interesting, so I was very disappointed to have missed out on those extra ten minutes talking to her. Luckily she is touring Australia at the moment so as compensation I can see her play live. For pure musical enjoyment, you can too. Dates are below – underneath this shorter-than-it’s-meant-to-be interview.


So you’ve just arrived in Australia but you’re not playing until October the 25th, and then you wrap up in December?
No, I have a few dates before then and I’m playing through until January.
This is quite a long commitment given that Australia is not your home and you’re going to miss Christmas and New Year, presumably, at home. What’s brought you out here for such a long time?
Well, I love Australia – I’ve been touring here for about twenty years and, so, it’s a second home. And I’m no fool, you guys have summer in winter [laughs].
That’s a good point! You’re playing a festival this weekend and I imagine you’ve played a few festivals. Do you prefer the intimate atmosphere of playing in a club or do you like that festival atmosphere, where people can come and go, and flow around from performance to performance?
The really massively great thing of festivals for me is that, in a sense, it’s where I connect to a new audience and that’s important for any performer, because you can have your own fans and keep calling them up but you need to have new people discover your music, and that’s what a festival is incredible for. And that non-professional reason that I love festivals for is that it’s the one time that I get to hang with my peers. If you’re a performer you play your own music every night and I can look on the bill of who’s coming up and think, I’m missing this great act who’s on next weekend playing here or My friend Lloyd was here a week ago. So we’re always chasing each other around the globe but at a festival we actually get to hang out together and it’s incredibly fun, and it’s also where I get to hear new music, which is incredibly important in keeping inspired and excited. When I first started touring Australia, I’d heard of virtually no Australian artists and I’ve encountered so many amazing musicians. Now one of my main music partners is an Australian cellist I’ve been working with for about fifteen years who’s an astonishing musician. I’ve flown him to England, numerous times I’ve flown him to the States to tour and to New Zealand, and it was just being at a festival that I learned about his playing. And that’s so important. So festivals are insanely fun and a chance to get a new audience, but mostly for me to meet up with my peers and meet up with musicians and get inspired.
Given how many instruments you play, though, I’m surprised you even need a cellist on tour.
The problem is that I haven’t been able to succeed in playing more than … well, two, if you count the voice, at once. I’ve seen people who can do that but I’m not one [laughs]. It’s really an amazing thing to meet a musical simpatico mind, you know, and that’s something that doesn’t happen that often, and that’s what this CD, Chemistry, is about – this amazing guitarist [Pete Snell] that I had a … I actually studied a jazz composing class with him and then I thought, He’d be really fun to play music with and I asked him to do a gig and it was so much fun playing music with this sort of chemical musical connection that we said, “Well, damn, do we have any dates that we could get together to actually make a recording?” And because of our touring schedules we had three nights only, so we got together in the studio and that’s what Chemistry came out of.
And talking about instruments, your voice is a really diverse instrument – it seems like you can speak, you can howl, you can coax and cajole all sorts of sounds out of your voice. Do you consciously take care of it like you would an instrument?
[Laughs] It sounds a bit rough right now, doesn’t it?
No, no, that’s not at all what I’m saying! Some singers have their voice and they sing the way they sing but your voice feels like an instrument – it’s soaring above the other instruments and it’s telling a story and you’re getting a lot of sounds out of it but that kind of use of any instrument can take its toll if you don’t look after it well.
Yes. Exactly. There’s all these considerations that any musician does … When I was a teenager I liked playing volleyball and quickly realised that there was no way I could play volleyball or rock climb – I used to like to rock climb – and be a guitarist, because you needed your nails and your fingers in good order. So there’s this thing that you say, ‘Okay, if I’m going to do this I’m going to give that up’. And my voice … I would have a real struggle with my voice in that when I was young I was told by a choir teacher that I had a terrible voice and I couldn’t sing, and, you know, when you’re a kid and you have a teacher – they’re the ultimate authority, so they know everything. I knew that my teacher was correct and so I stopped singing – completely just stopped – and that’s when I became a multi-instrumentalist. Just because I wanted so much to sing – I wanted a voice, a musical voice, and so instead of having a voice in my throat I play guitar and banjo and saxophone and all these instruments, looking for that voice I couldn’t have. And we lived for a while, my family, in Los Angeles on a noisy street and I would just climb up on the roof and sing where no one could hear me – sit on the roof of the house and sing with all this traffic going by where I was completely silent and, strangely, kind of developed a rhythm and blues voice there, just from singing a lot. And then I thought, Well, screw it – [Bob] Dylan sings and he’s got a terrible voice. I’m going to sing because I like writing music. And people would say, ‘Oh, we like your voice’, and I’d think, People lie right to your face – I know I have  a crap voice. And it wasn’t until I was in my early twenties – I’d heard Bonnie Raitt had a singing teacher, and I’ve always loved her voice, so I gathered up all my courage and all my money and went to her, and I always thought that I bought my voice on the instalment plan. You know, she was incredibly expensive, and in about six months gave me a working voice. But to this day people say, ‘You’re a singer’, and I go, ‘No, I’m a musician – I play all these instruments – my voice just goes along for the ride.’ But, yes, there are things that I have to be careful with – and I’m not being a very good example of it, we had a late night drinking Australian wine last night, which is exactly … You don’t drink much alcohol, you have to not drink much caffeine because it all dries your voice out – you have to drink endless reams of water. As soon as Friday comes I’m going to be on the plan – because I have a gig, I’ll be good – but until then, screw it [laughs]. I’ll be myself.
I guess your voice tells the story of the life you’re living and if you happen to have been up late drinking wine, then that’s the story.
Yeah, it’s gonna be a little rougher [laughs].
When you were talking about that teacher – I guess that’s the path, then: if that teacher hadn’t said that to you back then perhaps you would never have picked up other instruments.
It’s true, you know, and good singers are a dime a dozen. So she gave me a great gift, which took me a long, long time to realise – I thought she was just an evil witch – but she did give me a great gift. I’m not just another singer. And she gave me a palette, without knowing it, of colours. If I want to write on a concertina a piece of music it’s going to come out incredibly differently than if I write on a banjo or on a guitar or on a piano. So I have this lovely palette of instruments to write and draw from, and it’s a real pain in the ass touring, I’ll tell you [laughs].
I’ll bet – all the humidity affecting strings, for one thing.
We’re always keeping them in maintenance. But it’s always interesting and it’s fabulous. And I always say it’s the best job in the world with the worst commute [laughs].

Kristina Olsen’s new album is Chemistry, out now.  Her website is www.kristinaolsen.net

Catch Kristina on tour:

Sat 25 Oct Flying Saucer Club 4 St. Georges Rd, Elsternwick, VIC with Peter Grayling – cello

 Sun 26 Oct Beav’s Bar Lt Malop St, Geelong. 3.30pm VIC with Peter Grayling – cello

 Fri 31 Oct – 3 Nov Maldon Folk Festival Maldon VIC Kristina solo

 Fri 7th Nov Mountain Mumma Sheffield Tas

 Sat 8 Nov Goulburn Room Best Western, Hobart Kristina solo

 Sun 9 Nov The Jetty Cafe Bruny Island TAS – Lunch Concert

 Wed 13 November Sutherland Acoustic Tradies Trade Union Club Gymea NSW

 Friday 14 Nov Roxby Hotel Glebe NSW Kristina solo

 Sat 15 Nov Shoalhaven Folk Club Nowra – Showgrounds Pavillion NSW Kristina solo

 Friday 21-23 Nov Major’s Creek Festival Majors Creek NSW Kristina solo

 Thursday 27 Nov South Coast Folk Club (SA) Port Noarlunga Bowling Club Hunt Park, River Road Port Noarlunga 8pm

 Friday 28 Nov House Concert in Kensington Adelaide, SA tel 08 8331 9654

 Saturday 29 Nov Hats IncCourthouse Gallery Auburn (Adelaide Hills) 8pm

 Wed December 3 Melbourne Folk Club Bella Union Trades Hall Melbourne

 Friday December 5 Barwon Heads Bowls Club Barwon Heads VIC

 Monday 15 December Geelong Folk Club Elephant & Castle Hotel

 December 27 – Jan 1 2015 Woodford Folk Festival Woodford QLD with Peter Grayling – cello

 Fri 2 Jan West End Sessions Brisbane
 Saturday 3 Jan Mullim Hall concert 8pm Mullumbimby NSW

 Thurs 8 Jan 2015 The Barn Rosny Farm Clarence, TAS concert 8pm with Peter Grayling – cello

 Fri 9-11 Jan 2015 Cygnet Folk Festival Cygnet TAS with Peter Grayling – cello

 Thurs 15- Sun 18 Jan 2015 Illawarra Folk Festival Wollongong NSW



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