Julie Christensen: Just The Good Stuff • Long Beach Post

Julie Christensen-sm

Photo by Michael Kelly

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Julie Christensen is a singer/songwriter of great acclaim. She has fronted bands over the years, including Stone Cupid and Divine Horsemen. Still, she may be better known for her collaborations with a long list of musical luminaries, including Leonard Cohen, Steve Wynn, John Doe, Exene Cervenka, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, PiL and k.D. lang.

She’ll be bringing her many gifts to Long Beach this Sunday, performing at Grace First Presbyterian Church as part of their ongoing Concert Series. The show, which begins at 2PM and is supported by free-will donations, will feature Christensen, her accompanist Dan Wilson and Britta Lee Shain.

Christensen was born and raised in Iowa, spending much of her youth in Newton, home of the Maytag washer.

“I don’t remember not singing,” she says. “The neighbors used to tell my mom they’d hear me singing on the way home from school. Two of my brothers also played music; drums and guitar, and my youngest brother even played bass. We all sing, too. The two middle brothers had a band in Iowa and Omaha called Jonesin’. They will be inducted on Labor Day into the Iowa Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

“We were normal kids of a pharmacist and a nurse. My mom did play piano and organ in whatever Protestant church in town needed an organist, therefore I went to several different churches. I would sing in the choir and be a soloist, for cookies after in the basement. We weren’t like those home-schooled families who do music all day long.

“I had a voice teacher who worked with someone before me who’d gone to the Met. She was in the chorus, but her husband was a soloist. And another group of singers she taught, the Jackson Sisters, had a Vegas act. My two teachers were Olga Hoffman and also Barbara Anderson, a fine alto who recently passed.

“I’m a lyric soprano, technically, so it would be easier on my voice to always hang around up there singing like Kate Bush, but pop music sorta forced me to sing lower than that.

“My first band was in Iowa City, Longshot. I met them in my first year of college at Iowa and dropped out to tour with them. It was a country- rock/western swing band, and our home bar is still there, now called Gabe’s Oasis. We would open for John Prine, Steve Goodman, Asleep at the Wheel. We played the same circuit as Cheap Trick and Shawn Colvin’s first band, the Dixie Diesels.”

During her stint in college, Christensen was in the Asian Studies program.

“I was good at high school French. It came naturally, having a musical ear, and that kind of organization in my head–I’m not organized in other ways–so I thought I’d take a difficult language and eventually become a diplomat. I’d have probably made a terrible diplomat because I’m impulsive and emotional, and that’s good for a singer and artist, but bad if you’re negotiating and being polite.

“Anyway, I really got into reading about Taoism, Zen, etc. I still study Zen. I don’t call myself a Buddhist. I sit, and I don’t know anything. I never could get myself to meditate all my young life. Then in 1988, when I toured with Leonard, I saw him sitting while we’d wait in airports. I saw how centered he is. I met his Roshi then, and had dinners with them and such, we were friends. But didn’t start studying and sitting with them until after I had my kid, in 1996 or 1997.

“When my son was born in 1993, three months before that second tour, I said to Roshi and Leonard, ‘I want to start doing Zen with you guys.’ They said, ‘You’re already doing it,’ because I’m a mother. But, having a toddler, later, I was flummoxed. How was I going to make time for peace and serenity and to find my center?

“I sat a couple times at Rinzai-Ji in South Central, then finally went out to the center in New Mexico in the fall of 1997 during a training. It was revelatory. When I say ‘Zen retreat’ to people, they think it sounds yummy, like a spa. But Rinzai-Ji is pretty austere: long hours of work and sitting, silent meals–at least in New Mexico there are hot pools and a river going by.

“If you read Leonard’s ‘Book of Longing,’ you’ll get an idea of the boot camp that it is. But it is also a way to clear out the muck and get to the center of the fact that ‘even the painted cakes are real.’ That you need to be where you are, mindfully.

“I believe that it has made my approach to singing simpler and more direct. No frilly bullshit. It’s important for the moment that one’s soul is actually in to come through. I do try to practice doing small things with great care, and being mindful. In the moment.”

As evidenced by her varied career, Christensen has been willing to explore a wide variety of musical styles.

“Yes, I love good music of all kinds. That, career-wise, has been my blessing and my curse. I love listening to the gypsy cante, the flamenco, but I’m not interested in destroying my voice to achieve it. I’ve already dealt with some vocal compromise here in my maturity. My voice used to be a Ferrari. Now it’s sort of a primered ’52 Cadillac with soulful leather seats.

“I sang jazz, people said, with a ‘country accent.’ I never got real cred in jazz or blues or even country, because I can sing them, even when I’m not living it. To be real ‘country’ or ‘blues’ it’s good to have a hard- luck pedigree. Like I said, it was a pretty normal family from which I came. The rise of the ‘Americana’ label has been great, because it’s a big tent. All the living I’ve done now informs my music, and it’s a hybrid of all those styles.

“The artistry is finding a way to express what you’re actually living. I have very little patience for poseurs, though. For people who wear the hat of the day. Yes, artistry is a certain amount of what Leonard calls ‘smoke and mirrors,’ but there’s nothing like a bit of living to humble one and draw us into the higher pursuit of transmission, rather than imposition.”

Christensen will be stepping into the big tent of Americana on Sunday.

“My plan, with my multi-instrumentalist compadre, Dan Wilson, who is coming down from Ojai, is to play the current amalgam of roots, folk, and blues that I’ve been covering on my new album, Weeds Like Us.

“I started off with that Iowa City band, Longshot, as a big fan of Gram Parsons and the Burrito Brothers. There is a bit of everything on those records. And I love The Band, and Mavis Staples, for whom my producer, Jeff Turmes, plays bass. And Memphis stuff, and New Orleans stuff. What I’m trying to say is that this ‘Americana’ mantle at last feels good. It’s just the good stuff!”

To learn more about Julie Christensen, visit StoneCupid.com.

To learn more about this and other events at Grace First, visit GraceFirst.org. 

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