Interview: Cristina Vane on playing McCabe’s Guitar Shop, delta blues and old-time music

Attending Princeton and the challenges of clawhammer banjo and borrowing Wynonna Judd’s husband.

Americana UK doesn’t normally interview artists who have only just released their debut record simply because their backstory isn’t normally sufficiently developed to support a full discussion. Every now and again an exception comes along and this time it is Cristina Vane who has just released her debut full length record,  ‘Nowhere Sounds Lovely’. What makes her more interesting is that while she is an American, she grew up in London, Italy and France and regularly travelled around Europe with her Italian American father and Guatemalan mother, she can speak four languages fluently and she studied comparative literature at Princeton. If this wasn’t enough, her chosen musical influences are delta blues and old-time music from the ’20s to 1959 which she has studied deeply and both inform her guitar playing, songwriting and her clawhammer banjo skills. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up over Zoom with Cristina Vane in her East Nashville home to discuss ‘Nowhere Sounds Lovely’, borrowing Wynonna Judd’s band and husband to work on her record, working and playing live at the legendary McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, why delta blues and old-time music are such influences on her and why, despite these influences, her music remains true to herself. Cristina Vane is also very articulate and discusses frankly the challenges of starting and maintaining a musical career in these changing times and she brings all her literary education to bear on giving vent to her views on what Spotify is doing to the music industry.

How are you? I hope you, your family and friends are all OK and coping with the challenges of COVID?

Thankfully so far we have all been OK.  It is what it is as well.

Are you all set up for the release of ‘Nowhere Sounds Lovely’? It is a difficult time to release your debut album.

Yeah. It has already been sitting for two years so I simply didn’t want to wait for another one, it is that simple. I recorded it in 2018 so it is time for it to get out to the world, pandemic or not. I didn’t know how long the pandemic would last and people are still consuming music, so why not.

You have a very mixed cultural background and consequently can speak four languages. Why pick on the American part of your heritage to inform your music?

My father is Italian American so I have an American side to me, I wasn’t going to get into Guatemalan folk music, which is where my mother is from, and it was really by chance the way I got into American music and it was weirdly enough in Camden, London, when I saw someone at a bar playing lap-slide and I really liked it, and I went from there and it led me to American music because that is where all these songs are from. People can say what they want about the United States, I come from many places where they are not always held in the highest regard but the music that has come from the United States, the music I am particularly inspired by, is some of the most popular music throughout the world. I mean the blues-inspired rock’n’roll and half of the British bands that I love, and this music came from the United States not really anywhere else. I find it pretty amazing and I find the legacy here, despite the short time as a nation comparative to many others, very impressive.

Your time in Camden, was that before or after your time at Princeton?

It was while I was at Princeton, I was home for the summer and my father was in London and I was playing gigs for the first time and I had a weekly gig at a bar in Camden, so that is how I was there.

Camden is a good place, isn’t it?

It really is, we lived on the east side and that is also really fun.

Princeton is not a bad university, is it? With a Princeton education you could easily have done other things, why be a musician which is a hard profession to get into?

No, it’s not bad, haha. It is hard, but in some ways, it is really easy compared to other jobs, to do what I love I think I am very lucky. On the other hand, it isn’t easy and I don’t make a stable salary every year and have all these benefits that come with a different style of job. I get to travel around the country and meet new people, I get to share my artistic inner-self with everyone and have that validated by people who also benefit from hearing it. The part I really like is connecting with other people where my music has helped them. I have had a lot of people tell me my music has been important to them and that has often kept me going at times when this was getting just too hard and I was thinking I should just get a proper job. I also have the support of my family which is a huge thing, and some musicians aren’t quite so lucky. It has helped me immensely just knowing that if I did want to change direction I have people who care for me deeply and they would be there for me.

Did you waitress at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica when you worked there?

No, it is a guitar shop and venue but there are no waitresses. I was in sales, I sold guitars.

McCabe’s is a bit like Princeton to the roots music scene?

Yes, it is and it is just a great place to work. I have since worked at other guitar shops and it is a job I really enjoy in terms of a day job because I get to be around the things I love and that are interesting to me. McCabe’s was where all that started, it was my first job in a guitar shop.

Did the history of McCabe’s mean anything, what did it feel like?

I’m in folk and roots music, of course, it meant something to me, haha. I mean, Doc Watson played there, Elizabeth Cotton was like the first show I’m pretty sure. That is actually where I learned to play fingerstyle guitar, my mentor was a teacher at McCabe’s Guitar Shop and he is the reason I can play Travis style guitar, and he taught me a lot of different blues licks and blues styles, things like ragtime which I had had no exposure to previously and would have taken me a long time to learn. I was there for three years and I fully appreciated and noted down the history. I really, really think it is an awesome place and I actually had the pleasure of playing McCabe’s and I never knew I would have been able to do that in my lifetime but I got to open for Cactus Moser and Wynonna Judd and it was a really, really awesome experience, full circle if you will.

Why the guitar? There aren’t a lot of serious women guitarists compared to the number of male guitarists. It may be changing but there are still noticeably more male guitarists.

I think it has more to do with social conditioning more than anything else. I know when I was growing up I didn’t have many models to base myself off of and I was subtly discouraged from being a rock musician because, for everyone, including myself, that is just a thing guys do. That is obviously not true, but like you said there was a huge imbalance in the music industry in general. Even though a lot of these people we now think of drawing on some of the most fundamental stuff put out there like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and other players like that, nobody ever talks about Memphis Minnie or Jessie Mae Hemphill and other female blues players. There are a bunch out there and that didn’t occur to me when I was 12 years old, I didn’t think to myself I am a woman and there aren’t many women playing guitar, I just like guitar and my brother and I took lessons. I was actually a lot better than him for the first six months which was pretty funny, but then I got more serious about the flute and singing in choirs and the guitar took the back seat until I started writing my own music. When I discovered blues music I realised it was a genre that you would do well to become competent on the guitar in, if that makes any sense, you don’t have to and it doesn’t mean technical skills it just means whatever your style of playing is, however you are choosing to make your music. I feel like the guitar is an extension of the singer and the writer in the blues, it is a fundamental part of the sound, whether it is hill country which has a very specific sound, whether it is the delta stuff, whether it is fingerstyle and on the slide playing that is a huge component of playing the blues. You don’t have to and there is rock’n’roll blues, you can play blues on the piano and things but I had already ran with it for enough years and the overachiever in me was always frustrated that I didn’t have a deep understanding of the guitar, it was very cursory, I know my chords and what happens if I add a finger or take one off to that chord but it wasn’t really anything passed that. So the last six years of this journey has been towards being a serious player on guitar and banjo and a serious musician in general. It takes a long time to do that.

You mentioned a lot of names there going back nearly a hundred years, how did you get that far back? Clearly, you didn’t wake up one morning and say I like so and so.

That is the period of music I like, ‘20s to about 1959. I think that like many of my generation I grew up with pristine recorded music, it was really difficult for me to jump into old recordings. When I first tried to listen to Robert Johnson I couldn’t get past the scratchiness of the records, and I generally wasn’t kind of super inspired by his stuff. I have since come to appreciate him a lot more but I was kind of like I know I’m supposed to like this guy but his songs sound the same and I can barely hear what he is singing about and it really took, like you said, serious women guitar players, and Rory Block is an incredible guitar player who is still alive and she has done very many delta blues tribute albums, she has also taught Robert Johnson and is an excellent guitar player, and she did a Skip James tribute record and that is where I first heard Skip James’ songs and then I went back to the originals. That has really been my bridge to the delta blues, I was totally taken by Skip James and then finally Robert Johnson after that. It has been just a spiral since then since I hadn’t had the privilege of hearing that stuff for most of my life I had a lot of catching up to do.

By the sound of it, you have enjoyed the journey.

I have, I mean as someone who is not really from anywhere, I really enjoyed learning about and also being steeped in and surrounded by what is left of the traditions and things that largely come from this epicentre and it goes in circumference circles from the East Coast, and the West Coast, but the South is really where most of what I care about came from in music. To be down here and learning from people who are sometimes directly tied to legacies that this music has left behind has been humbling, but also really, really exciting.

The music that has inspired you the most is, as you say, the foundation of most of the music of the second half of the 20th century, it is also there in the foundation of country music as well. You also play banjo, and while banjo is a stringed instrument, it is very different from the guitar. How do you mix them up and do you ever get confused between the instruments?

Haha, that is like people asking do you get confused between languages and sometimes every now and again you might. However, they are totally different instruments and I don’t get confused, I am playing them totally differently with my right hand and when I was first learning it was difficult to unlearn picking with a plectrum, or fingerstyle picking. I play clawhammer banjo which is an entirely unique righthanded situation where you use your nail. That was tricky, but it was a learning curve anyone would go through, whether you had played guitar or not. It is just a very strange thing, you know. I am also fiddling around with the fiddle, pun intended, and it is another really steep learning curve and it just sounds like crap right now. I hope if I keep doing it for a while it won’t keep sounding like crap, and that is kind of how it goes with anything in life.

Why the banjo, it doesn’t have the coolest image does it?

I think the banjo is really cool, I like it and that is why I play it, it is that simple, especially clawhammer. I have got an interest in learning Scruggs style as well because I do enjoy bluegrass so much, but it is a whole other world and I am not so sure I want to take that on right now.

Blues is part of the foundation of bluegrass as well isn’t it?

It is absolutely in there but I would argue it is no more in there than Irish and English ballads, and also the influence of the Appalachian people who had a very unique cultural thing going on where they actually had immigrant communities way back in the day as well as the Irish and Black that we naturally think about. We think of old-time pre-dating bluegrass, with its blend of Irish and Celtic sounding things mixed in with, obviously, music from that place and time and which involved slave music which involved Appalachian people, even if they weren’t slaves. The blues weirdly out of all the music I like is in there but it is less in there than it is in country, like you mentioned, and other genres and bluegrass is a whole genre where it is blues but I would say the average bluegrass song isn’t that bluesy, I mean I don’t use the pentatonic scale much unless it is one of those and you want to groove out and you can hear it. A lot of it just doesn’t have the stylings and the one four five just belongs to everybody I think, haha.

Did your time at Princeton studying literature help with your songwriting?

That is kind of a tough question to answer because I started writing poems when I was six years old, they were about ladybugs but they were still poems, and by the time I was in high school, I really loved poetry before I ever wrote a song I wrote a lot of poetry in English. One day I realised I could play my guitar well enough to get some chords together over which I could just write poetry, which is all lyrics are to me. I studied comparative literature at Princeton, of course learning more about literature informed my writing but there wasn’t anything concrete that sticks out at me that changed the way I wrote or anything like that. I think my writing has changed from being a little bit more abstract sometimes, to being a little bit more rooted in real things, and I think that has more to do with listening to all this music rather than my time at Princeton. A lot of blues songs, but also old-time songs, are about real tangible things or feelings about real tangible things, it is not always this abstract concept that you have to decipher like a puzzle, just like in poetry there are poems that read like straight ahead but you still feel an impact on your heart. There are then poems like Philip Larkin that you have to decode, and that is the joy for some people. They aren’t much like that, some lyricists write very complicated, deep lyrics, and then there are some lyricists that hit you, in my opinion, in the same exact place, with different lyrics in a different style, you know.

In the ‘20s a lot of popular music was like the social media of today, it was about events, it was about the effects of disease and people’s emotional experiences.

Yeah, it is an oral tradition, you know which has been the thing. Even in Europe where music was also transcribed we hear the ballads which is where ballads come from, and they can be endless with 16 verses telling us the story of a war, or a general or something to a point where it is almost like news clippings, this girl was murdered, this one murdered her baby or whatever. There was a lot of murdering going on, that’s for sure, haha. That is what I mean, it is less in the things I write about, I don’t write about murdered babies because it is very upsetting, but I do use a lot of verbiage from those times, expressions or I just kind of think of themes that have something to do with all that. I also want to keep it authentically myself since I am not from here or grew up in those times, I’m not going to write a fake song about those times.

You want to be a guitar player, you want to be a banjo player, why do you want to write your own songs? Why not just concentrate on your instrumental skills?

I sing better than I do both of those things, and to be honest the instruments have always just been a method to carry my inner voice, my thoughts and my heart, which comes out in my songs. I have no interest in being a traditionalist and I have very little interest in being solely an instrumentalist. I am surrounded by people who are solely instrumentalists and I admire them and for a year I thought maybe I ought to get up to their skill level and then I realised, I don’t. I can and I plan to in the next decade of my life keep working on my skills as a guitarist and banjo player, but that is not why I am here, it is to write great songs and make a great record. Who I am as an artist is not a conservator or traditionalist because it has already been done and better than I could do it. I admire people who can rehash the hashed, and I am not saying people haven’t done it well, but in my opinion, it is always going to be a little bit different from the original. I am never going to sound like Blind Willie Johnson, so why would I break my back note for note when it already exists out there in all its glory. The most I want to do is tell people about him and in my Instagram and by my presence, I cover a lot of old songs, and I’m teaching a class on Delta Blues right now, but in my own artistry I didn’t grow up listening to Blind Willie Johnson, I am not Blind Willie Johnson, I didn’t grow up in the delta, I didn’t grow up anywhere near this stuff so I need to be authentically myself otherwise there is just no point doing what I am doing. I think people want authentic stuff and what is more authentic than being yourself, if that sounds like a cliché it is because it is true. Nobody is going to write from my perspective so that is why I do.

Credit: Aleks Zagozda
How much did your American road trip influence the album?

Yeah, haha, it influenced it immeasurably. The whole record is that trip in some sense, there are two songs on the record that were written before in Los Angeles, but at least one of those songs ’The Driving Song’, is still about driving and travelling in some sense. I grew up moving around pretty far, like I mentioned we would go see my mom’s family in Guatemala from France every 4 or 5 years, we went to the States every now and again and a handful of times in my childhood we went around Europe because you can. We moved around in general and I grew up in France, England and Italy. It is not the travelling that is new to me, it is travelling for an extended time and not having a home base to go to and having to rely on strangers a lot and camping. I grew up in cities most of my life so I wasn’t super in tune with nature, and the one thing I will say about the United States is that it is incredible, it is big but it is incredible. There is this old-growth, mountains and structures that you just can’t find in Europe. It is not about Europe versus anything else, it is just that I had never seen these things though I had heard about them. It is kind of funny now looking back, I had these ideas and I thought the National Parks were really wild and if you went into them without your supplies you could die or disappear, haha. They are so curated and there is a store in every National Park with firewood, water and it is great in one sense in that they have made it very easy for people to go and enjoy this. The average person could set up camp and start a fire a lot faster than me, I had a lot of learning and catching up to do. I got hip, and eventually, I did start camping in the backcountry because it was more thrilling. Being alone was really empowering, sometimes it was lonely and I think all this comes through in the record, and obviously, the bigger thing, was that I was discovering all of these places and that shifted my writing from being people centric to place and feelings centric. That was new for me and I just wanted to write about sensations I had had in these new places, but not in a cliched way.

It is sometimes hard to capture a new place or any place without getting trite or just not having a lot to say. There were so many things that I just felt in the depths of my soul, communing with nature is a human delight, or it has been if you look at all the poets and the people I loved while growing up. Not all of them of course, some of them were futurists and urbanists, but most of them wrote about nature, even like Max Ehrmann who wrote ‘Desiderata’, and he wrote tonnes of poems about the importance of nature and how you can learn so much that you can’t learn from other things. About the vastness and thinking for  yourself and how you relate to the place you are in, how it has been there for so much longer. Those are deep things to think about, you know, it is a lot and then you put on top of that the musical history of these places I have visited, and I got to participate in the Carolinas.  I got to sit in on old-time jams in California and it was a very exciting time for me in the Carolinas thinking these people are like real, and it is not that they aren’t great players in California but these players can play the banjo like nobody else because their uncle had a banjo, you know, and it is more tangibly in the history than when I was in California. California is more about reading books and watching videos, which is valid and most people have to do that. I wanted to get closer to the source and when I did that tour, and then to move here to Nashville, which is where I recorded the record, and here is where I found all the musicians and I added fiddle and pedal steel which I don’t think I would have done if I hadn’t come to Nashville or the South and seen them first hand.

Why did you end up in Nashville and why did you record there?

My friend had a room opening up so it was partly logistics as I had just got back from my five-month tour, and I ended my lease rather than renewing it and packed up my stuff. It was probably the most difficult month of my life, I was just so excited to be home after driving 26,000 miles around the country and I knew I just had to pack up.

How is your car after the trip?

It just keeps going but it will have to as I can’t afford a tour bus, but it was new at the time so it is fine. I came to Nashville because I am a metropolitan person at heart, I don’t think I would have done well moving to Mississippi, which is what I wanted to do to really learn from the source as a student almost, a scholar, of delta blues in Clarksdale. I could have made it work, there are young people down there, but Clarksdale is very rural even though it is a city, and even the bigger cities are also pretty small. Nashville seemed like one of the better options and it had some of those things that make me more comfortable in my daily life, also my friend lived here and there are lots and lots of musicians. So I came down here and tried it out.

Where did you get your musical contacts from when it came time to make your record?

All the musicians are Wynonna’s band, and Cactus who is my producer is her husband and drummer, and he basically just sourced the musicians for the record from that. I basically got Wynonna’s band which makes me the luckiest person there is because they were so great. I felt super super grateful because working with musicians of that calibre was so nice. There is no ego involved, they deliver exactly what you want, and obviously a lot of times they deliver more, things you couldn’t even have thought of, and it came out the way it did which is great and I am really happy about it.

So you didn’t feel intimidated working with such skilled and experienced musicians?

No, because the good ones don’t make you feel that way. I was paying them, me and my crowdfunding fans were paying them, and in fact, I would say I am not a shrinking violet in any way and had they been the kind of people who did have an ego or did try and take creative control of my project, that wouldn’t have gone very well. The very first day with Tommy Hannum, who is an awesome person and the steel player on the record,  and he is just the best guy and he plays steel for Jim Lauderdale and is just such a humble and kind person, anyway, we are on the first track and he is starting to put down his part and I don’t like it, you know, and I know he is great and the very first song and his very first pass through but I don’t like what he is doing, what do I do, will he be offended? I reminded myself that these are my songs, they are not their songs, and I don’t think anyone should feel embarrassed about telling someone what to do on their own song that they are paying to record. I was like hey Tommy I love it, it sounds cool but it is a little too poppy for this song, I am not a pop artist, OK not so much pop but a contemporary modern vibe, and I was can you do dust bowl, desert, death, and I was just giving him these random words and he just delivered next take. Not a peep, he just delivered this cool sound and I was like, yes. I know the rest of this record will be smooth like butter because these are the kind of musicians I want to work with forever. They just take the information, register and deliver the product because they were that skilled, that is why they are there, I don’t steel but I can tell you what I want. I may be small fry compared to some people but they wouldn’t be on this record if someone didn’t believe in me, I am not scared of anybody.

Are you in East Nashville?

Yeah, I have been so lucky and to come back to your point, I have had some people on paper I should absolutely be intimidated by, share bills with me when I ask them to because they are kind people and Nashville is a small town and usually, they are very approachable unlike the celebrates I came into contact with in LA where they often  didn’t even have a lot to do with music but there is a separation. They go to their places and they don’t want to mix and LA is such a big city, here, especially before it started exploding, a lot of these extremely high-class players would just be in a bar on a Friday night and they still are. Kenny Vaughan who has played with everybody and has been on tour with amazing people and is an incredible guitar player in his own right, and I have his number in my phone and I can go “Hey Kenny, do you fancy playing another show at the Five Spot?”. It is crazy to me, Chris Scruggs who I admire so much is with fans and people after the show and is really personable, doesn’t get on his high horse and he is on stage with Marty Stuart on the Opry at the weekend and they have time for everybody. I don’t want to put that out there to all the crazy people to start talking to them, but they have time for genuine people and I like that a lot, and I think that is the vibe on the record because I didn’t choose Cactus because of Wynonna, I didn’t grow up listening to that music so it is not that important to me, I chose him because of his personality and I really like the way he blends folk and roots influences with very rock things, and I am a rock kid at heart. I wanted a producer who had a foot in both worlds, someone who wasn’t going to give me a very classic blues or americana album. I wanted someone who could also get me that modern edge in my drums and my distortion, and in my guitar and in my rock. I think if you just treat people the same for what they are, that is kind of the beauty of this town. Everyone is good at something on one level, I can’t spend my life being intimidated because someone played fiddle on some amazing album and now they are in front of me, O God, what do I say, no it is cool, that’s amazing, I may be a nobody working on something now but someday I may be a somebody. The town is also so big there is no reason to be around people who are unpleasant and I’ve found nearly everybody I have met has been pleasant because they know better than to be condescending or rude, or anything like that. I haven’t had any issues there.

It sounds like you may have finally found your home, have you?

You know, I would like to think I have found my home, I don’t know if I would go with all of Nashville, that is a very difficult question, but I have definitely found my home for the next five years, for sure. I just don’t know, on some level I have moved about all my life and I don’t know if it is in my DNA or not, or maybe I just want to get somewhere and stay put, I don’t know.

Your new album has songs that are at least two years old, when can we expect your next album, do you need another road trip to source it?

Haha, I have been touring every summer since that one so you could say that is how I tour, I don’t stay in hotels I stay with people or I camp most of the time when I go anywhere. The next summer I was gone for two months and I now have a base in Nashville which is a lot more central. The reason I had to do a five-month loop was because I wanted to and I was in California and there is no way you can get to the East Coast, and back, and hit all the things in between in two months, you can’t do that. Now I have moved here, I don’t have to do that anymore. I do shorter runs, so I might do a month and do a big loop down to Florida, or Texas, and it is routing stuff. Another reason I wanted to release this record was to make room for all the other stuff I want to get out that is starting to get old.

I was born in Italy and partly grew up in Italy, so I can say this, this album of mine reminds me so much of Italy, the good things but also all the bad things. Some of the bad things are the inefficiencies, the lack of schedules. I am very excited because even in the time that has passed between my record and now, being in Nashville and all those things we have talked about have really seeped into me and my music and I think I am a much better player. I hope I am a better writer but it is hard to say because it is so subjective. I also have just started to do more banjo work and this album has the first two banjo songs I wrote on it. It happens after an EP that came out in the summer which also had some banjo songs on it, but technically speaking the two on this record are the first two I wrote. That has been a new endeavour for me and I am looking forward to playing that out, that is what has been difficult for me, trying to find the balance between old-time and even bluegrass. On some level, I want to keep those two worlds separate because some people really do prefer one over the other but then other people really enjoy both. Even as a live player I have had shows where I will bring the banjo and do blues stuff and also do some old-time stuff and some originals. As I get more original banjo music then probably that problem will kind of take care of itself because if it is my music it doesn’t matter what it sounds like. Going from Son House to old-time banjo, the energy was sometimes so different, I felt strange doing it, but if it is my own song I don’t have any hesitation in doing it. I’m excited because I have a lot to share with everyone and I have some just great friends I have made that are killer musicians and who I would like to get on the record. I haven’t thought about anything but I probably have enough songs for a record and touring is still so iffy.

At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which artists or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?

Right now I am really listening to a lot of bluegrass because I have a show at the Station Inn coming up at the end of the month.

That is not a bad gig to get at such a legendary venue.

Everyone knows that with what is going on with COVID a lot of the big touring acts can’t play, so people like me get to play venues it would normally take another year to get to and I’m lucky enough to get to play with my string band there. It is such a traditional venue and that is what I mean when I say I have these two worlds that are separate in some ways, but I really like them.

It will look good on your CV playing The Station Inn.

I’m listening to a lot of Flatt and Scruggs, Ricky Skaggs and Tony Rice, that record. I looked for that last week on vinyl and the store owner said the original had such a great cover. I have also been listening to a lot of Dire Straits this week and I got my hands on their debut record on vinyl, some great songs, and Ray Wylie Hubbard. I heard his ‘Snake Farm’ a couple of years ago and it almost has comedic value, a very funny song, and the whole record is like Texas blues, modern but rough around the edges. I’m really enjoying it, so that’s why I wanted to get his name out there.

As a new artist, what do you think about streaming?

Streaming? I think it is bullshit, you can write that up any way you like, you can tell Spotify to go fuck themselves. It is just so unfair and like a lot of the systems we have issues with, you are part of something bigger and you can’t opt-out and be the strong person who says hey, no Spotify, because then you will just be someone who people don’t listen to on Spotify. It is bigger than us at this point and I really, really hate it. I am definitely more old school, I grew up with my iPod, and that was the big thing when I was 12 or something and CDs were like my whole life. I understand that things change and I have no issue with things going MP3, it is the money part that really bothers me. Sometimes I feel bothered just by participating because Spotify is a great resource for old music, I can go, Curly Weaver, what is he like and I can hear his music before I go buy his ‘Best Of’. It is confusing because on the one hand I benefit as a consumer, but it is so unfair for artists like me. The pay-out is just so low, and you get these people where the question is where’s the incentive anymore with CD sales falling. I sell a lot of CDs on tour but a lot of my audience is 40 plus. When they have the CD it is there, I can’t sell them another CD so it does make my life really difficult and then someone goes it’s cool you just make your money from touring and then we get a pandemic. It is really putting a dent in everything and obviously, I’m not the first or only person to feel this way. A lot of booking agencies went under and then there are all these people listening to my music for free on Spotify. I am like, that is thousands of dollars worth of work and that doesn’t include all the PR which is thousands more when you add it all up. People are getting really expensive music for free, and I think that is just wrong, and Spotify could do a lot better if you look at their margins and profit there is plenty of money to go around. It bothers me now because we don’t have an option.

Not getting into the politics of it, but you can play gigs in some places in the States and I don’t feel comfortable playing many of them. The Station Inn is pretty safe, there is one other venue in town that I have played once during the pandemic and I may play again, but I want to cancel because things are getting bad again. You just have to find work, and I am, commercial acting pays really well, I’m doing voice-overs because I have other skills but what about someone who used to tour with a whole organisation behind them, the crew is out of work as well. The venues are out of work and it is just so shit, and there is nothing to be done I don’t think. Of course, you ask our Governor and he just says put everything back up and that is not going to help us at all. I won’t feel comfortable playing a venue until most people over 20 have been vaccinated, and that is going to take a long time. Streaming just adds insult to injury where people are like if you are not on there you are a nobody and if you are on there you are making nothing. It is really insulting that if you are an artist on Spotify like I am, you still have to pay for a membership. You would think at the very least they would do something like that, if you have music on here that people are enjoying you don’t have to pay $8 a month or whatever. If you get a hold of them tell them I want my money back.

I think the streaming model will have to change eventually if the quality of new music is going to be maintained.

I can’t imagine a world where people aren’t making music, there are always going to be musicians and there is always going to be a demand for music, TV needs music, venues need music but like you are saying, is it going to get to the point where it is all just made on a computer somewhere, or with musicians but all you ever hear it on is an electronic device. What is happening to the bigger industry as a whole is so hard for me to say because I am so out of touch with as is, I am in the americana scene which is this big and in the scheme of global music, it is tiny. People in this town sometimes forget that, and the people who are big in the scene are like all-stars but do you realise most of the world has no idea who this person is, no idea and also doesn’t care, haha. We love this and we are a niche for people who also love it, and that is great, but there are some interesting things to think about there. How can we be doomed if we weren’t ever the biggest genre in the last twenty years anyway, there was a time in this country when old-time was prevalent, and the same with the blues, but even then delta blues wasn’t really ever the biggest genre at the time, I think people were actually listening more to vaudeville blues than they would be to Son House or Charlie Patton. They were big in their areas and they drew crowds and played barrelhouses, dances and frolics and sold records but I think there were other people like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey who were nationwide, and playing these big shows with the pearls and the furs. Of course, the blues revival came around in the ‘60s and made stars of these people but Mississippi John Hurt was a share-cropper, he was a share-cropper who played guitar and managed to record some stuff. There were others who weren’t sharecroppers and were full-on musicians, and that is what they did. I’m not trying to diminish the importance of any of the people, it is just worth remembering and taking with a pinch of salt what genre we are in. Bluegrass and newgrass are pretty big but old-time is negligible, delta blues also, which are the two things I love. As I said earlier, I don’t just want to play delta blues and old-time music, I want to play my own, but if I did want to just play just those genres the audience isn’t really there.

On that cheery note, haha, do you want to say anything to our readers?

Yeah, I guess I would just say that I love the UK, I was raised on a lot of British and Irish music, if you know the Corrs and the Cranberries, a lot of British indies Dirty Pretty Things and Pete Doherty were like my life when I was in high school. I loved British electronic music, I loved grime and dub and bass. I would go dancing at Fabric in London and do all those things. It is great to speak to someone on that side of the ocean because all of the press I have been doing is over here. Tell the readers I hope to be there playing, and I know there is a lot of love for americana and folk music in the UK and I really hope I can tap into that scene. I need to get a booker to get some shows when everything is safe again. Luckily I have a place to stay in London and it won’t be until 2022 realistically so I have time. I’m doing the right thing not booking shows so that will give me time through the summer to think about a new record and do it right.

Cristina Vane’s ‘Nowhere Sounds Lovely’ is out now on Blue Tip Records

About Martin Johnson 387 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments