How Tommy Emmanuel’s surprising advice added vocals to Christie Lenée’s overall sound.
The 21st Century has seen a significant rise in the number of successful female artists from both an artistic and commercial point of view across all music genres, including americana. Christie Lenée has been making waves as an acclaimed acoustic guitarist winning various prestigious awards along the way and has just released her first all-vocal singer-songwriter album, ‘Coming Alive’. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Christie Lenée over Zoom while she was touring in the US to discuss what is behind the change in direction, and what started her love affair with the guitar. She explains how guitar legend Tommy Emmanuel was key to her adding vocals when he said her new tunes needed lyrics, which surprised Christie who was expecting a critique of her guitar compositions and playing. Emmanuel’s advice coincided with the isolation of the pandemic which helped inform the lyrics as Christie looked forward to joining the world again. She adds to the americana debate by discussing what she thinks is americana and why it is so welcoming to artists like herself, and her own hero, Brandi Carlile. While she may have donned a singer-songwriter hat with ‘Coming Alive’, she is also very clear that she will always be a guitarist at heart who has loved Bonnie Raitt’s voice since her childhood.
How are you?
I’m fine and on tour at the moment.
What drew you to the competitive world of hot-shot acoustic guitarists?
As acoustic guitar goes I was originally inspired by rock, artists like Bonnie Raitt, and the electric guitar, and I was on a path to being an actress when I heard this classical guitar piece called ‘Sunburst’ by Andrew York in my freshman year in high school, and it made me so inspired to follow the path of classical music. That path eventually led me to the acoustic a few years later, and Dave Matthews was a huge influence to that, as were folk artists like Joni Mitchell, Ani DeFranco, people who were using interesting approaches to the acoustic guitar that felt more than a simple strum were very interesting to me, so I really had no choice but to follow the call, it grabbed me and I had to follow it.
As a female guitarist, how easy has it been to follow your path, have people helped you or have you experienced any resistance?
There have been people in my life who have said following my path in music would be too hard and maybe I would have to get a proper job, but fortunately, my parents were supportive of the arts and thought it pretty exciting I was interested in music so I was able to get guitar lessons, and in the beginning, I didn’t know whether I would make a career in music, it was just something that took me over. That whole thing of practice and study opened up this whole field of possibilities, and while I didn’t know where it would lead, in my heart I knew had to follow this thing called music. It’s like that old saying if you know the what you will figure out the how, I knew I wanted to do this thing, and the how just unfolded. I kept my focus on what I wanted to do, and that was to play guitar.
How hard do you have to work to maintain your guitar chops?
In high school I would say I practiced eight hours a day, and I was in a performing arts high school which is really a benefit when you have an hour and a half of classical guitar class, and then an hour and a half of jazz band, and some of those are practicing in school and then going into the practice rooms afterwards, and I used to bring my own lunch to save more time for practice and I used to say no to a lot of social things, or bringing my guitar everywhere I went like the dentist’s office. I had it in the backseat of friends cars, to various high school events, I just brought it everywhere. Every chance I had I would just sit there and work things out, and I’m an adult now and no longer in high school, and with touring there are so many different elements not only practicing but practicing the art of how people hear this thing I created is a journey itself, so I think how I keep this skill level up is grounded in the amount of time I spent as a kid, and continue to spend as an adult, and now there is a wider array of things to do, the practice, the songwriting, going into the studio, and the marketing, the social media, and all that, haha. I wasn’t thinking of any of that when I was just sitting there trying to figure out this guitar lick, but now I have to and it is exciting as well. It is like you can spend your whole life on something and the tree falls in the woods and nobody hears it except me which is wonderful, but it is really exciting when I talk to somebody like you who enjoys music and has a reach, and I’ve written a song that maybe touches somebody’s heart makes it all worthwhile.
You’ve won various awards, what do they mean to you?
It is nice to be recognised for the heart and soul of what I do. As I said earlier I started out with rock and when I got to the acoustic guitar I just wanted to sing songs and do the singer-songwriter thing, and that is still the heart of my focus in the moment, but what is amazing is you don’t know where something might hit. As far as my career evolution I think it was The International Finger Style Guitar Championship when I won that in 2017. It is a major award to win, and I had no idea people come from all over the world to enter it, and when I won Acoustic Guitarist Of The Year in London through Music Radar magazine back in 2019 that was amazing, being nominated was one thing but getting myself to London for the finals on the same weekend I was playing a festival in Kansas with my band. I managed to get out there, sleeping on the plane and just showing up, and it was the same force that came through that made me show up and do what I had to do, and it has helped me continue my journey to be seen for the instrumental pieces, and open up a pathway for the plethora of music I’ve written and want to share. It has opened some amazing doors winning those two competitions.
You’ve mixed it up on your new album ‘Coming Alive’ with some electric guitar solos and a fuller backing band, and more vocals, do you see this as more of a singer-songwriter album than a guitar album?
That is a really good question, haha. As I said, from the beginning I’ve always loved rock and folk, and I love instrumental music and it is always going to be a major part of who I am as an artist, but on this album, from just being in a log cabin for about two years, and six months of that in pure quarantine when COVID hit, I had a transformation as an artist. I had a lot of time alone and I had the chance to really look inward, as we all did, haha, and see what was going on inside. So much of it emotionally can be expressed instrumentally, but what I had to say about it was more about the words and the song. This is definitely a vocal album, it is more focused on the singing and the vocals than any album I’ve ever done, and it is the first album of mine that doesn’t have an instrumental piece on it. It is a big deal for me as an artist known who is known as an instrumentalist but obviously, there are instrumental interludes throughout the whole thing, and integrating different textures. There’s a saxophone on the song ‘Another Day Goes By’, and if I did that solo I would try and play all those parts on the guitar. I loved the opportunity to use all the different sonic textures and come more from a place of a songwriter and composer who loves to orchestrate music. I love to play percussion on the guitar, and slap and tap, but I also love to orchestrate those ideas to one of the best drummers in the world and see what he can do with it, and play my parts on top of that. So I think it was an opportunity for orchestration, and singing while the guitar is still one of the fundamental elements of the album, and the vocals are the lead which is a big deal.
When you write songs what comes first the music or the lyrics, and are you always conscious of how the tune will sound on the guitar or did you forget about the guitar this time to see what would happen?
That’s a funny question, haha, because it is kind of hard for me to forget about the guitar and the guitar is always part of it. I did write some of these songs on piano, and you will hear a lot of piano on the album. I did write them, but then I got a really accomplished pianist to play them. I could have played them because I started with piano, but they had more technical mastery, and I wanted to stay focused on the guitar. I did all the string parts and I did some of the bass parts, and I think writing some of the songs on piano and using other instruments, gave me a broader perspective. Some of the songs are very rhythmically based, and there are some odd timings and meter changes in the songs. It is more like thinking of a compositional perspective and an ensemble, but of course, the guitar is a huge part of that, and I will never be able to forget the guitar, but it was a broader perspective having a basis in arranging for choral music, writing for strings, and all of those parts, like the cello and viola part on ‘The Victory We’ve Won’. I didn’t notate them but I sent a fifteen minute voice memo to my friend Jonathon Yudkin, singing him all the parts that I wanted him to play, describing what I was trying to go for and how the parts would weave in and out. If I was going to play them on guitar I would just play them, but those things are what made it work during the time everyone was stuck in their houses. Some of the parts were recorded live with a band in the studio, but most of the other overdubs I did myself at home, or sent someone a long voice memo to a drummer or saxophone player, or got on Zoom. It gave me the opportunity for some of the other instruments to take the parts I hear in my head. But really they are all about the craft of the music and the compositions themselves, but just arranged for an ensemble.
When you write songs what comes first the music or the lyrics?
I think songwriting comes in so many different ways, the song ‘Beautiful Ride’ is a love letter to Mother Earth, and I came up with that idea while walking on a hiking trail, and went back and met on Zoom with Rick Price and we wrote it together. ‘Another Day Goes By’ came to me in a dream, and I sang some of the lyrics into a voice memo so I would remember them when I woke up, haha. ‘Coming Alive’ actually started as an instrumental piece, and I sent the instrumental to Laurence Juber, an ex-member of Paul McCartney’s Wings and a good friend of mine, and it was a riff on the twelve-string, and he and he sent me back this instrumental orchestrated arrangement with bass, drums, and everything. I thought this was very cool, and it was even before the album had been fully conceived, and I thought it sounded great like that but he was like, I think you need to write some words. It was very interesting because I had never written a song that way when it was crafted instrumentally, even from a production standpoint, but he came back to me with why he thought it was a Joni Mitchell-type story song. So I wrote the lyrics and the melody to the track and re-arranged it, everything was re-recorded because I changed the key, and he ended up being a co-producer on that track. I think all of the songs have their own story of how they were created, and it was all done in a unique way compared to how I have written my songs in the past, which mostly came from a guitar riff and then some miracle idea is born and then the rest of the song evolves from there, but some of these songs were crafted in an interesting way because I was alone in a log cabin in the woods. I was just messing around with all kinds of instruments, and looking at it more through a production lens rather than just a girl with a guitar. So it was a different perspective and it was a lot of fun actually.
Will your next album be a challenge as, hopefully, we won’t be experiencing a pandemic?
That’s true, haha. I do plan to record some of these songs with guitar and vocal, and Brandi Carlile just did that. She had her album she put out, and then at the year anniversary she put out stripped-down acoustic versions of the songs, and I loved that idea and I was already thinking about it, so when she did it, it clarified how wonderful that is. As a listener and a fan of hers, I like to hear those songs conceived in a different format, and ironically I’ve just done this album which is more production orientated, but as I’m performing these songs, as I did at Americana Fest recently, it was me performing solo with a foot stomp with my right foot and a foot tambourine on my other foot, a vocal harmoniser that I’m running my voice and guitars through so I can get my two and three part harmony loops. So, I’m doing these for the most part solo live, and I think my fans who like my songs in that format will be excited when they will be able to hear new studio versions of them with just me, my voice, and my guitar after hearing them live, which is what a lot of my fans want, haha.
You’ve played with Tommy Emmanuel who has managed to become one of the most recognised guitarists in the world, what have you learnt from his playing and career?
It is interesting that you mention Tommy because years ago my then manager Gena introduced me to Tommy, and she played him one of my tapping pieces and he said he loved it but that he wanted me to focus more on melody, and Tommy, in my opinion, is one of the greatest instrumental guitar composers who have ever lived. The reason I love his music far more than most instrumental guitar composers is because his songs are real songs, they are singable and in a pop format and you can almost sing the words. I went on tour with him and he did a song, ‘Rachel’s Lullaby’, a beautiful instrumental piece, and he walked off and he was singing words to the tune and I ran after him to ask if he had words to that song, and he told me he has words to all his songs he just doesn’t sing them, haha. Something just clicked in my brain as I understood how he made his songs so singable. That is why people who don’t particularly follow instrumental guitarists follow Tommy, it is because of his melodies and great songs.
I remember when I started working on this album I played him some of the demos sitting in a car with him outside a Starbucks, and I gave him a little commentary on the demos about the mix not being loud enough and how I would bring the acoustic guitar up a bit because I was thinking being Tommy Emmanuel he would be listening to my guitar, but I was wrong because he told me it wasn’t about the guitar it is about the voice and if he was me he would but all his heart into the voice, he was certain these songs were about the vocal. I was surprised, but I did take his advice, I did vocal mastery training with Perry Cole, and I spent more time with my vocal coaches because Tommy Emmanuel is telling me this, so it means a lot. Obviously, he knows me as a guitarist and a songwriter, but he was like, no, this is not about the guitar it is about the voice needing to be at the front, which is a big reason why the album came out the way it did because I put my energy into the vocals and took his advice. I liked what happened for me, and it is the first time I felt a vocal could carry a song compared to some of my older tracks. Tommy is the master so anything he says is OK, haha.
On your vocals, who are your biggest vocal influences and inspirations?
As a kid it was definitely Bonnie Raitt who was the first, then it was Alanis Morrissette and ‘Jagged Little Pill’, which was the first album I ever owned, and hopefully, I’m not dating myself too much, haha. I could sing every song on that album, and I think Alanis Morissette gave me that rock edge and what it is to belt and sing your heart out. As it evolved it was Joni Mitchell, Ani DeFranco, and the Indigo Girls. At the current time, Brandi Carlile is one of my favourite singers as is Joni Mitchell who I’ve supposedly been listening to since I was in the womb. I didn’t find that out until my second year of college and that album ‘Blue’ and I called my mom crying after I’d listened to it, and I was telling her how amazing this artist is and what an album it is, and my mom is like who is it and I tell her, Joni Mitchell. My mom was like you’ve been listening to Joni Mitchell since you were in the womb, haha. Her voice did sound so familiar to me, and I honestly had no idea of the history. She has been a huge influence on me, her songs and the delicacy of her music, as well as all the open tunings. I also just love Melissa Etheridge these days, and she also has that rock edge as well as her twelve-string guitar. A lot of people have influenced me, but from a songwriting and the vocal perspective The Indigo Girls have been a major influence, and I’ve been listening to a lot more of them recently after I realised how much those songs have impacted on how I write and how I sing, the way I pick while I’m singing, the way I hear music production is very much influenced by The Indigo Girls
You have some US tour dates this year, do you have any plans to come to the UK and Europe?
I can’t wait to get back out there, the last two trips have been way too short, and I haven’t left the country since COVID, I’ve just been touring the US. I am excited to get back out there, but I’ve been waiting until things balance themselves out a bit more until I leave the country and start touring internationally again. I’m really excited to set that up, but at the moment there are no firm plans. In the meantime, I’m looking to get as much out there on the internet so I can reach as many people as possible.
At Americana UK we like to ask interviewees what are they listening to now, their top three artists, albums, or tracks on their playlist?
I’m a huge fan of Ed Sheeran and I listen to him a lot. I love his new tune ‘Celestial’ and I don’t know how I missed that one when it first came out, I love his singing and he did a cool video with Pokémon. I love that song that Brandi Carlile put out that is ‘You and Me On The Rock’ and it is her and her wife singing it and it is a revisitation of a song she had already put out in another version, and I just love that song, and I love her whole new album. Somehow I missed that The Indigo Girls put out a new album back in 2020, and there is a song ‘Look Long’ that was on their 2020 album, and I just heard it for the first time maybe five days ago and I have listened to it at least twenty times, it is such a good song and the writing is so powerful on that song. I also have an infinite love for this album that came out in the ‘80s by Liz Story, she is an instrumental piano player, and she put out an album called ‘Solid Colors’ and it is just stunning. It is instrumental piano and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to it, and I just love it.
You mentioned Brandi Carlile, and she doesn’t seem to be able to put a foot wrong these days.
No, and she is just a great model for me as an artist. She has stayed true to herself and who she is and has been very open with the world, and she has put out beautiful authentic music and she sings from the heart, and it has resonated with a lot of people. Just as an artist who is in the instrumental world and americana with acoustic folk pop, americana has a lot of different kinds of artists who come through, and where I fit in, in there, feels closest to Brandi Carlile than any other artist because she is so driven by this passion when she hits the edge of rock at times but is still that folk singer-songwriter who can be a little bit pop at times. It is hard to explain, but she is on the edge, you know, on the edge, and I think I’m on the edge in terms of genre. That is why I love the term americana, because there are a lot of artists on the edge and so there is a place for us, haha. At Americana Fest, the Marketing Director told me he was excited to have me there because they didn’t have a lot of instrumental artists, and I hadn’t realised that was what had maybe attracted the organisers to me so I thought I would be sure to play some instrumentals so I could stand out, haha. That’s just another example of how welcoming americana is to artists like me who are on the edge of various genres, we can all fit in and it is all just music at the end of the day.
Is there anything you want to say to our UK Readers?
I’m looking forward to coming over and playing my new album for you, and if anyone is interested give my music a few spins on Spotify, or whatever, so you will know some of my songs when I play live. And hopefully, I can link up with some other great artists over there. My next video is ‘Fly Away’ which is a love song about the moment of wanting to fall in love and then realising heartbreak is possible, but surrendering into the love anyway. We filmed it out in Point Dume in Malibu Beach, California. And finally, I just want to say that this album is about celebrating that we can all be together after lockdown. There is a complexity to the lyrics which are like looking through the window pane but wanting to get out there, and it is also a metaphor for life in a way with the desire to go somewhere and realising it is possible. Making this album I had an internal experience of imagining what it would be like when we could all be together again, and now here we are and I’m seeing people and getting to sing these songs to groups of people. So it is really special to sing these songs created in that time and looking ahead, and now I’m singing them in that moment which is really cool to me to see people’s faces, singing the songs and celebrating together, and hopefully bringing a little bit more love to the world.
Christie Lenée’s ‘Coming Alive’ is out now as an Independent release.