Quick Q and A with Karyn Oliver

I first met Karyn at the NERFA (North East Regional Folk Alliance) in November 2007.  The first thing that I noticed about her was her incredibly wavy blond mane.  The woman’s got style, that’s for sure!  Since that conference, I’ve had the opportunity to hear Karyn on several occasions—at festivals and shows at various places in the Northeast.  Karyn is one of the Chicks with Dip who recently recorded their own unique rendition of Joni Mitchell’s Blue album.

 It’s been exciting to watch and experience Karyn’s growth as an artist.  Her songwriting chops and her stage presence are impressive.  Check out this lovely video of her singing her song “October Day.” 

 Karyn is in the process of finalizing her new CD called Magdalene.  There’s still time to donate to make this project a reality.   Simply visit this site and show your support. 

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You’ve had a big couple of years.  You’ve been taking the folk festival and folk conference scene by storm.  Have all of these accolades pushed you to work even harder?

They have. Positive feedback tells me that I’m on the right track, that I’ve struck a chord, at least with some people.

 Are you a disciplined songwriter?  Do you set time aside as your “songwriting” time?  Or do you grab the muse when she speaks to you?

 I’m afraid I’m not very disciplined at all, but I do write a lot. But I write because the music is constantly rolling in my head anyway. I wake up in the morning with little fragments left of songs I dreamed, and I mumble them into my iphone. I sing in the car. I hum to myself like a crazy person walking down the street. It’s funny, you can talk to yourself out loud these days and people just think you’re on the phone. But sing to yourself, and they still think you’re nuts.

What kind of music did you gravitate toward when you first started discovering the joy of music?

 I discovered music through my Mother’s radio, so the songs I first heard were ones she grew up on: Patti Page, The Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Nat King Cole, and a wealth of show tunes and standards….but I discovered the Beatles on the day John Lennon died, and that led me to begging for my first guitar, which led me to songwriting.

You recently moved from Boring, Maryland to New York City.  That almost sounds like a sitcom or a joke.  Was Boring boring?  Is New York living up to what you hoped it would be like?

 Boring was quiet. Boring is a small town in the horse country of Maryland, just outside of Baltimore. I moved there because I needed a cheap place to live by myself, and I wanted that quiet. I had just left a relationship I had been in since I was pretty much a child, and I needed a place to heal. So yes, it was boring. And I needed boring.

 NYC is an amazing place, and surprisingly perfect for me. I never planned to move here. I fell in love with someone who lived here, so I moved. My job is pretty mobile, so it just made more sense. I was actually looking into moving to Nashville! But life put me right where I needed to be. Before, I needed space and undisturbed quiet. And I still have as much of that as I want at home. But now I need life, and energy. And the community I have found in NYC is pretty incredible. I’m very lucky to have been welcomed as quickly and warmly as I have. I lived in Maryland a long time, and those people will always be very special to me. But everybody knew I needed something. We just didn’t know that this was it.

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Tell us about your connection to Joni Mitchell.  You sing one of Joni’s most iconic songs, “A Case of You” on the Blue anniversary CD.   Was this one a particular favorite of yours?

 When the project came up, I asked for “A Case of You” immediately, mostly because it was the song on the list I knew and loved. I discovered Joni for myself with her Turbulent Indigo album, so other than the hits I wasn’t really all that familiar with her early work. When we decided to do the first show, I bought the album, so that I would understand the entire show and not just my little piece. And I have come to love every song. And I’d like to think that some Joni has seeped into my own writing as a result. I think we learn from everything we listen to, whether we know it or not.

It’s so interesting reading descriptions of you on your website: you’re compared to Janis Joplin, Joan Osborne, Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, and Bonnie Raitt.  Needless to say, reviewers all agree that your voice is powerful!  Do you have fun trying out different kinds of sounds with your voice—perhaps a little bit sultry, a little bit country, a whole lotta belting out a ballad and so on.  

 What I love the most about the comparisons is how different all of these women are from each other. I’m naturally pretty eclectic as a listener, so I hope that comes across in my performances. And I’m always looking for the next thing to try. I see my voice as my primary instrument. I always want to get a new sound out of it. On my upcoming album, I really worked on doing “less”, actually. Saving the big moments for the places that needed it, and backing way off the rest of the time, while trying to keep the dynamics and expression intact. I tried to sing like I was singing to just one person, in a very small space, or maybe even right into their ear. I hope that intimacy will come across to the listener.

 Karyn will be performing with Chick with Dip at the me&thee in Marblehead, MA on May 8.

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