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The Guitar Hero Series: Kristy Hanson
Written by Ava



The Guitar Hero series on Jemsite features interviews with guitarists and musicians who may not have star status YET, but their current situations have shaped them to be who they are--determined, fond of their craft, and heroes in their own right. Perhaps you'll see in these upcoming entries the next Jimi Hendrix, Melissa Etheridge, or Duane Allman. Or perhaps they'll become household names by doing what they do best---doing their thing.

A Los Angeles singer-songwriter that also has a penchant for guitar? You can't hold a candle to Kristy Hanson, a classically trained singer who picked up a guitar in her teens. Kristy may be inspired by Joni Mitchell, but don't call her music folk---even if she could throw you in an intimate concert in your living room. Her lyrics are honest, her rock-pop sound is smooth--and oh yeah, her guitar playing is fierce! The combination is extraordinary and there's no doubt Kristy Hanson easily takes the title for our Guitar Hero of the week!

How did you get started in singing? Playing the guitar? Why did you start training as a classical singer (choirs, operas)?

As a kid, I always loved to sing. I would drive my parents crazy singing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" or whatever my new favorite song was.When I was 10, in 5th grade, we had to decide between staying in choir or joining band. I decided to do choir, and my choir teacher had me sing a solo in our Christmas concert. That was really the beginning of feeling like, "oh, I can actually sing!" So I kept singing, and learned to read music that way.

I started taking voice lessons at 13, and my teacher had been a opera singer and convinced me that a classical technique was the way to go. I continued studying classically, taking lessons from the great opera diva Shirley Verrett in college, and I do feel like the technique I learned is really valuable. As far as guitar goes: when I was about 14, I got really into music that had acoustic guitars - Indigo Girls, Dave Matthews Band, R.E.M. - and I decided that I wanted to play guitar myself about a year after that.

My primary motivation was to be able to play those Indigo Girls songs! But playing guitar really got me started with songwriting. As a kid, I was always writing poems and making up little melodies, but once I took some guitar lessons and could play a few chords, I really started writing songs in earnest.

Who are some of your musical inspirations?

Joni Mitchell is a huge inspiration. For me, she's maybe the best combination of singer, songwriter, and innovative musician, all in one person! Ella Fitzgerald is also a huge inspiration, as a singer and musicians. I'm also inspired by lots of contemporary singer-songwriters, like Sam Phillips, Patty Griffin, Fiona Apple, Elliot Smith, Jon Brion, Grant-Lee Phillips, Michael Penn, Aimee Mann...the list really goes on. And I'm inspired by the musicians that I've played with - keyboardist Patrick Warren, guitarist Timothy Young, drummer Jay Bellerose, and my bassist (and husband!) Mike Chiaburu. Playing and recording with them inspires me.

What is it about a folk sound that moves you? Why bring a classically trained voice into a folk song?

Although I don't know if my songs are really "folk songs" in the strictest sense, it's true that I have kind of a "folk sound." And I would say that what moves me about acoustic-guitar driven music is its simplicity. I love the fact that if all else fails, I can put on a show anywhere from a club to someone's living room with just my guitar. As far as bringing a classically trained voice to a folk song, well, just listen to Joni Mitchell or Joan Baez! They are amazing singers who almost go into operatic territory on many of their older songs. I'd say that in some ways a classically trained voices matches up best with that kind of folk music, because one uses similar vocal production in both.

But the bottom line is, classical training helps you to sing anything - jazz, rock, folk, musical theater. Its primary purpose is to give you control over your voice, at least the way I see it. The problem is that some people become bound by their training, and/or don't listen carefully to stylistic differences, and aren't able to get other styles right. It's hard to break the rules you've learned as a classical singer, and you often have to break the rules to get the style right. I struggle with that, particularly when it comes to more rock-style singing. But I'd like to think that training gives me versatility, and I hope that the benefits of it outweigh the negatives.

How do you describe your music?

I would describe my music as acoustic rock-pop, with lyrics that are very honest and introspective with a touch of irony. On my next album I'm really experimenting with some more rock and pop elements that bring the style in some cases a little closer to The Pixies, The Shins...generally a little more indie-rock. But there are also elements that make some of the songs sound a bit more like Americana, with a little Allison Krauss and Union Station- type sound as well. So I'm not sure how to describe it - maybe Americana meets Indie Rock. Joni Mitchell meets the Pixies!

If a voice can be so powerful, why play the guitar too?

Well, frankly, it makes the songs more interesting, and it certainly makes me more interesting as a performer. As I said, I like being able to put on a show by myself if I have to, and I don't think I could do that just singing a cappella! I also love the way the guitar, if it's the only instrument, can really fill more space than just one instrument - it becomes a rhythmic element and a harmonic element, with counter-melodies and bass lines working to complement the vocal and make it more interesting for the listener.

How important is the guitar to your music?

The guitar is essential to my songwriting - guitar chords are where I nearly always start when writing a song. The melody is built from those chords, as is the rhythmic feel. And now that I'm working with guitarist Timothy Young, he's adding a lot of other, mostly electric guitar parts, and that combined with Mike's bass lines really brings out what I'd call the "full flavor" of the songs, and sometimes even takes them in new directions. I'm fairly new to the world of electric guitar, and I'm amazed by how much Tim can do with different guitars and different effects in terms of creating a vibe.

On some songs, the licks he'll play really dictate whether the sound is more pop, or country, or rock, etc. And on some, his guitar is creating a whole wash of sound that adds to the atmosphere and feeling that we're trying to create. It can really change the emotional tone of a song. It's hard to say the guitar is most important, because when you bring in a great drummer, and some keyboards, the sound can be heightened further. And I suppose I should say that the vocal is important too! But Mike, Tim, and I have been working together on this new album for a few months, and I'd say that right now, in the pre-production phase, the guitar is probably the key element.

Who are your favorite guitar musicians? What is it about their guitar playing that moves you?

Timothy Young is probably my current favorite! What moves me about his playing is that he combines technical proficiency with creativity in a really powerful way. He doesn't just fall back on standard licks when he plays a solo, and always really pushes himself to do something new (you can listen to his work with The Youngs, Thruster, Sweeter Than the Day, among other bands). I think that's the quality that will always pull me towards a musician - a creativity that comes out in everything that he or she plays or sings. The same quality is present in everyone I'm lucky enough to play and record with. I'd say another favorite is Jon Brion - he's really a monster guitarist. He's an amazing multi-instrumentalist, but his guitar solos can be unbelievable. It's like he just goes into some other dimension!

I've also seen Greg Leisz perform on the pedal steel in LA, mostly with Joe Henry, and he's just amazing. I'm actually trying to get into listening to more guitarists - I've listened to some John Scofield with my husband, and he's great, and I also discovered a couple new guitarists literally through this program on NPR a couple weeks ago - one is reggae guitarists Ernest Ranglin and another is jazz (kind of be-bop, I think) guitarist Tal Farlow. The snippets NPR played were both really great and I want to check them out. Listening to that segment made me realize that I actually haven't listened to a lot of guitarists - in the past I've generally been drawn to singers first.

What do you say to the nay-sayers who say, "Oh she's another one of those folk singers trying too hard not to be pop?"

I would say - I'm not trying NOT to be pop! Or if I am, I must not be trying very hard. I don't particularly care how I'm categorized, I would just like people to respond to the music in some way. Some of the reason the music has come out as "folk" is just the fact that I write on acoustic guitar, so the songs in the past have been very driven by that, and we've produced the songs around that natural, acoustic vibe. As I said, I think this next album will still pay homage to the acoustic sound, but ultimately will venture pretty far outside it.

Is there a message in your music? What sort of message do you hope to convey?

My songs are very personal, but I often have people (mostly women!) come up to me and say, "oh my God, I totally know what you're talking about, that lyric was totally about my life!" Weirdly, I think the more personal I go, the more universal the songs actually turn out, because everyone deals with the same essential emotions. My songs, at least in the past, have always followed a sort of arc: ok, I have this problem that I'm struggling with, I'm now working through it, and now I've come to some sort of solution. The message being, then, that life is hard, but you have to come to some sort of peace with it. I wrote a line in my last album, "make your life something you can live with," which was really advice to myself: no matter what, at the end of the day, you must answer to yourself, so find your own happiness, and follow it. I think a complementary message, and one that might be more prevalent in my next album, is that hope is not foolish, that it's easy to want to stop hoping, but hope wins out. I hope so, anyway, ha!

What are your upcoming projects and what do you hope to do next?

I'm very excited to be collaborating more and more all the time. Mike, my friend Joe Ayoub (an amazing bassist) and I have been writing some songs together, mostly pop songs, that probably won't go on my album but will be a different type of music for me altogether. I also recently wrote a song for singer and actress Haviland Stillwell, who was on Broadway in Les Miserables and Fiddler on the Roof, but now, lucky for me, is out here in LA! Haviland will be performing the song at a concert on April 23 at the Upright Cabaret in LA, and maybe recording it someday. It was a great challenge to take her personal experience and turn it into a song that was somewhat my style but also felt very true to her. I think it worked! I also, as I mentioned, am working on a new album. The release date isn't set, but I hope to have it out this fall, at which point I hope to do some touring across the US.

Someday I'd really love to tour the UK and then on into Europe, but we'll have to see what happens! Other than that, I just want to keep writing and playing - I have a personal promise to myself that at some point this year I will play a solo on electric guitar, publicly! And I really want to keep forging really positive partnerships with more musicians and songwriters.

For more on Kristy, visit her official site at KristyHanson.com
 
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