julie christensen & stone cupid

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No Depression

Julie Christensen bowed deeply to the standing-room-only crowd at The Family Wash, a venerable East Nashville music venue, as her band, Stone Cupid, kicked into a full-bore jam. She blew a two-handed kiss to the audience, exited stage left, and watched from the audience as her bandmates closed out the show. She climbed back onstage for the encore—a powerful rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem.” It’s a song Christensen knows well. And she should—she sang on Cohen’s studio version and countless times in concert with him. Her stirring performance in the Family Wash hushed the room. It was the acclaimed vocalist’s final performance at the humble hangout.

     Ring the bells that still can ring 
     Forget your perfect offering 
     There is a crack, a crack in everything 
     That's how the light gets in

All told, Christensen’s performance that night fell somewhere between rock, alt-country, and roots music. Musically, she is a far cry from where she first made her mark with her now-former husband as co-leaders of the influential Los Angeles punk band the Divine Horsemen. Between 1984 and 1987, the band produced three studio albums and two EPs. They played the West Coast circuit including Club Lingerie and the Music Machine, which was a popular venue that often featured heavy-hitters such as the Circle Jerks. The Divine Horsemen’s sound foreshadowed alt-country before there was such a genre as evidenced by the twangy, tremolo-ridden Telecaster in “Tears Fall Away” from their first album, Time Stands Still, on Enigma Records (1984). Chris sang low, while Christensen let fly powerful high harmonies throughout the band’s catalog. As their popularity grew, they headed east, playing the Eastern seaboard several times including D.C.’s famed 9:30 Club and the legendary CBGB in New York. But Christensen had fallen into damaging habits. She abused alcohol and used heroin with regularity—she was an addict.

“I realized I needed to quit that lifestyle a couple of years before I was able to do it—it had become a daily thing,” she said. “I must have tried to kick it 15 times before I finally tried 12-step meetings. I felt my story was too gnarly for some fellowships and not gnarly enough for others—I related to the guys who had gotten out of prison and had tattoos on their face because I felt like I had been in a prison of drugs and alcohol.”

After she and her husband divorced, she redirected her career toward performing in nightclubs as a soulful pop singer. A few months later, she auditioned to be a featured backup singer with Cohen, an eventual Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee. At the end of the audition, he asked her to contemplate the rigors of a world tour before accepting the position.

“He told me this was going to be a grueling tour, playing four or five times each week,” Christensen said. “I told him that I had just come off the road myself, and had recently changed my clothes in the bathroom at CBGBs. Just picture the bathroom in the movie Trainspotting, and you’ll get the picture.”

She toured with Cohen from 1988 to 1993.

“I was only six months clean when I first went out on the road with him,” she said.

Although she’s not a practicing Buddhist, she meditates using the techniques she learned from the famous Buddhist teacher Joshu Sasaki Roshi, credited with popularizing Zen Buddhism in the United States. She met the master Buddhist through Cohen, whom she described as one of the most centered people she’s ever met. 

“He is a centered, focused individual,” she said. “I felt safe touring with him. He wasn’t somebody who was out of hand with any of his vices.”

Christensen appears in the award-winning 2005 documentary Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man, as well as scores of live-performance videos on YouTube playing with Cohen, Lou Reed, and others.

“We played beautiful concert halls and opera houses around the world,” she said. “We played Carnegie Hall and The Fillmore. It was a beautiful, magical time.”

An Athletic Event
Christensen carries a quiet-but-commanding gravity with her. She’s tall and striking, with tight, short blond curls that, at times, seem to be living lives of their own. She dresses stylishly—often offering a tasteful reboot of film-noir glamour. And she moves that way, too—slowly, and deliberately. She is not the kind of singer who demurely clears her throat as she sidles up to the microphone. Nor is she the type of singer who delicately clinches her fist to indicate to the audience that she has entered the soulful part of a song. No, Julie Christensen belts out her songs in a way that is demonstrative, expressive, forceful even, and at times, explosive. She describes singing as “an athletic event.”

“I have exercise-induced asthma, and I usually use an inhaler before a show,” she said. “I was touring with Leonard in 1993, and they used a smoke machine [on stage], and one day I threw a hissy fit offstage. Leonard was in the green room in Norway—I didn’t know that he was talking to a journalist at the time, when I burst in and said, ‘Who do I have to fuck to get those smoke machines turned down?’ ‘That would be me, darling,’ he said.”

The writer featured the encounter prominently in the article.

To say Julie Christensen is a diva would misrepresent the wholeness of her being. To say that she is not would deny an inarguable truth. Her swagger is true to her rebellious punk-rock roots, and refined through working with the likes of Cohen, Iggy Pop, Public Image Limited, and Todd Rundgren, who produced a solo album of hers in 1990 that fell victim to record-label politics and was never released. She decidedly goes where the music carries her, until the music doesn’t carry her where she wants to go—then she kicks it with spurs. She was on the bill to sing Cohen’s “Joan of Arc” as a duet with Lou Reed in 2006 in Santa Barbara, Calif. The two had performed the Cohen classic together earlier in the year, but this time Reed, widely regarded as a temperamental genius, had worked up a new guitar part, raising the key four steps in the process. To hit the notes in the already-demanding song, Christensen brought out the spurs and belted a forceful performance that she would later describe as “well received” and “favorably reviewed.” But before published reviews could support her claim, Reed wanted to register a review of his own.

“It was two and a half keys higher than we did it in Dublin,” she said. “In order to get out my part, I had to really haul off and sing, or else I would have had to sing it falsetto and that wasn’t going to be the same. Lou thought I was trying to hog the stage. When we went backstage, he said ‘You couldn’t have done that with your jazz guys, this is rock & roll.’ He’s right, and I know not to upstage the bandleader. But that was the only way I could have performed it in that key. That was the last time I spoke to him. And I felt bad about that, especially when he died.” 

Eastbound from Ojai
Christensen moved from Ojai, Calif., to East Nashville in 2013 with her husband, actor John Diehl—he’s worked steadily in film for decades, and is perhaps best known for his role as Det. Larry Zito on Miami Vice. Their son, Magnus, now a recent college graduate, relocated with them. Christensen had met singer/songwriter Amelia White while attending the 2012 International Folk Alliance conference in Memphis. White described to Christensen the fertile musical scene of East Nashville, where she’s based, and encouraged her to come to Nashville for AmericanaFest later that year—which she did.

“Nashville wasn’t on my radar until I met Amelia. It felt like Austin, Texas, felt in the 1970s,” Christensen said. “The unpretentiousness of it, and the willingness of the creative community to be open to new blood while being loyal to the people who are already here.” 

She played a gig the night before AmericanaFest at Two Old Hippies with White, Tommy Womack, and John Jackson, and visited the Family Wash for the first time a few nights later, playing with Doug and Telisha Williams of the Wild Ponies. 

“I immediately felt like the Wash was like a vortex and a place to call home,” she said. 

She asked Diehl to visit Nashville as a relocation test drive. They moved as soon as they could sell their home in Ojai.

“People were incredulous that we would leave Ojai for East Nashville,” she said. “Why would you leave paradise? Well, East Nashville is our paradise.”

This winter, Stone Cupid will release The Cardinal, a powerful 12-song LP Christensen co-produced with Jeff Turmes, which prominently features guitarists Chris Tench and Sergio Webb, Bones Hillman on bass, and drummer Steve Latanation. Christensen wrote five of the cuts and co-wrote another three with Laura Curtis (“Riverside” and “Broken Wing”), and John Hadley and David Olney (“No Mercy”). The record also includes “Shed My Skin” written by Dan Navarro, “Girl in the Sky” by Amelia White, and “Would You Love Me?” by Chuck Prophet. Perhaps the standout cut on The Cardinal is “Saint on a Chain,” by East Nashville powerhouse Kevin Gordon. In typical Gordon fashion, the song is an oddly romantic tale of a small-town fella whose bad choices lead him to contemplate steering his speeding car to a white-knuckle fiery end.

“As he’s driving toward his death at 85 MPH, he asks this Saint Christopher medallion to carry him across to the other shore,” Christensen said. “It feels like a male version of Thelma and Louise. The first time I heard Kevin play it, I was blown away. I could hear my band doing it—I could hear it, the whole thing, it was like an aural hallucination. It just came over me like a wash. That song is like a Faulkner story.”

As solid as the musicianship and songwriting are throughout The Cardinal, the real gems are Christensen’s soaring seasoned vocals. The Cardinal offers a “bonus” track: Christensen’s patient rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem”—an ideal cut to showcase her power and versatility as a vocalist.

Billboard

Billboard February 8, 1997 Stone Cupid's Christensen In Gear With "Driving" by Chris Morris (reprinted by permission) LOS ANGELES--When vocalist Julie Christensen approached Dave Crouch, GM of the Rhino Records store in West Los Angeles, to see if he would take copies of her self-released album "Love is Driving," Crouch asked her where the album should be stocked. Crouch recalls, "She said, 'It's jazz/country/ swing/folk/rock/cabaret.' It's hard to figure out where to put it, because she does all that stuff well" Indeed, in her 15-plus years on the L.A. music scene, Christensen has been recognized as a singer's singer who is comfortable with material in every imaginable genre. "Yeah, that's my blessing and my curse," Christensen says with a laugh about her reputation for versatility. The singer's diverse resume includes stints in a Western swing outfit and torchy jazz/blues/R&B combos; several albums co-fronting the seminal early-'80s L.A. post-punk band Divine Horsemen; leadership of her own intimate jazz/pop groups; two years as a featured backup singer for Leonard Cohen; and session and concert work with Van Dyke Parks, Exene Cervenka, John Doe, Steve Wynn, and k.d.lang, among others. But only now has Christensen, who recorded an album for PolyGram with producer Todd Rundgren in 1990 that went unreleased, issued an album of her own that captures the full scope of her talents. Self-written, self-produced, and self-financed, "Love is Driving" has been released on Christensen's Stone Cupid Records. She believes that audiences for other similarly eclectic and challenging femalie vocalists may gravitate to her album: "Maybe the people who listen to Sam Phillips will listen to this, or the people who listen to Marianne Faithfull." The wide range of musical styles heard in Christensen's music has been accumulated over two decades of performing. Born in Iowa, she sang with a western swing/country rock group before moving in 1977 to Austin, Texas, where she mixed blues and jazz during performances at the local clubs. On relocating to L.A. in 1981, she got into what she terms "post-punk." Christensen shifted stylistic gears again when, recording a number for the L.A. cow-punk compilation "Don't Shoot," she met musician/producer Chris Desjardins, former leader of the hard-edged punk group the Flesh Eaters, who was then forming a new band, Divine Horsemen. She ended up joining the group as co-lead vocalist and later married Desjardins. Melding her blues-drenched singing and writing to the band's ferocious punk guitar attack, Christensen cut three albums and an EP with Divine Horsemen for indie SST Records. But Christensen and Desjardins' marriage unraveled, and she exited the group in 1987. In 1988, at the invitation of Cohen's musical director, Roscoe Beck, Christensen toured the U.S., Canada, and Europe as a backup vocalist for the singer/songwriter. She continued to perform her own material in L.A. usually in a trio format, often accompanied by the remarkable blind New Orleans pianist Henry Butler. It was during this period that A&R exec Michael Goldstone--then moving from MCA to PolyGram, and today a key executive at DreamWorks--approached Christensen at one of her solo shows at McCabe's Guitar Shop. "He said,'Get me a tape right away.' He didn't really know what we were gonna do...He spent $50,000 doing two or three songs with a producer with whom I'd written a couple of these songs. Then Michael left PolyGram and went to Epic, and I [made an album] with Todd Rundgren producing it" Further changes ensued within PolyGram's A&R staff, and the label decided not to release the Rundgren-produced album. After that disappointing experience, Christensen says,"I went out and got a life." In the early '90s, Christensen married again (to actor John Diehl), worked regularly with her own small groups, and made frequent appearances for the Bohemian Women's Political Alliance, a group of L.A. artist/activists. In 1993, soon after giving birth to son Jackson, Christensen went out on a second tour with Cohen. Everything began to click for Christensen when she and her family moved to ... a picturesque town north of L.A. near Santa Barbara. Most of her current band members have ties to the town. "Getting out [there], a lot of things became clear," Christensen says. "I started working with a different piano player, Karen Hammack, who is just a gold mine and a secret weapon, and a really good friend...[Drummer]Jim Christie has been playing with me for years...I went through different bass players, but Cliff [Hugo] is somebody I played with at my first showcase at the Bla Bla Cafe in 1981. He's played with Ray Charles, and he's been with Melissa Manchester for 15 years. That trio really locked on." Christensen says she had no intention of making an album when she cut the sessions that became "Love is Driving." "We were going in to just demo some tunes," she says. "If I had just set out to make a record, I don't know [if it would have worked], because the [PolyGram] experience was so monumentally disappointing." The album came in--"manufacturing and all"--at less than $13,000, she says, financed with credit cards and promises of additional payment [if] a distribution deal was found. The album features Christensen's working band,plus such guests as vocalist Perla Batalla, who worked alonside Christensen in Cohen's group; guitarist Robben Ford, an old friend and Ojai neighbor; and guitarist Greg Leisz, a former member of lang's band and current guitarist for Dave Alvin's group the Guilty Men. So far, Christensen has been distributing "Love is Driving" herself, via mail order and through such L.A. outlets as Rhino, Aron's Records, and McCabe's...Some specialty shows on L.A. area public radio stations, like Andrea Leonard's "Twister" on KCRW Santa Monica and Howard and Roz Larman's "Folkscene" on KPFK North Hollywood, have aired the record. "Her music is very, very personal," says Larman. "I don't know if anybody else could do those songs...you can feel every emotion when she sings. You don't get that from a lot of performers. She's very intense." Christensen, whose career is handled by Garry George Management in L.A., is currently in New York, playing previews for a bill of Sam Shepard one-act plays that opens Feb. 9 at the Public Theatre. She has one of the two leading roles in "The Sad Lament of Pecos Bill on the Eve of Killing His Wife" While she is mainly proud of shat she has achieved by releasing her own album, Christensen says, "I don't want to be my own cottage industry. I do want somebody else to take it over...I would really love to have somebody produce [my next album] and make it a more cinematic thing, and not have to be producing it and doing all of it. I want to write songs and sing and work with the band. But if I have to produce another one, I'll do it, because now I know I can."

Los Angeles Times

Pop Music; Lhasa Club Spirit Brought to Life By: CHRIS WILLMAN Doing a reading Friday night, local poet Doug Knott pointed out that in the days when screenwriter Michael Blake used to live out of the back of his car, Blake would read at the modest shows Knott put on at the late and lamented Lhasa Club. Now that Blake is a Golden Globe winner, Oscar nominee and all-around toast of the town for his "Dances With Wolves" script, he can return the favor and present similar evenings of acoustic music and verse himself, albeit with a much higher industry profile. Friday and Saturday nights, in otherwise separate bills, Blake was the centerpiece of two programs dubbed "The Race Is On," in which the Lhasa spirit was successfully transplanted to the cafe at Raleigh Studios in Hollywood. The Southwestern-styled cafeteria at the film studio where Blake and comrade Kevin Costner have long held fort turned out to be an appropriately charming and intimate venue for this sort of live performance. Actually, more than the Lhasa, even, it was possible to imagine oneself transported to a secret literary nightspot in Montana, given the denim spirit and environmental concerns of the proceedings. At the late show Friday, chanteuse Julie Christensen sang a soaringly lovely song about driving through the majesty of Idaho to visit Exene Cervenka (not present this time), and John Doe invoked the ghost of Woody Guthrie in dedicating a duet with Tony Gilkyson to drought-stricken farmers. Exactly which race the participants consider to be on was not entirely clear, beyond the general onus of anti-war, pro-environment progressive politics; this was one benefit where more time could have been spent on the soapbox. (A card given out to departing attendees pitched the Mountain Lion Preservation Foundation.) Blake's climactic reading of an excerpt from "Helmut," a Hollywood-themed novel in progress, was much anticipated. But the clear highlight and crowd favorite Friday was the four-song set from Christensen, a knockout pop-jazz crooner and inspired songwriter who has everything it might take to revive the torch-song tradition among the rock crowd. PHOTO: Julie Christensen: a set of inspired torch-songs for rockers. PHOTOGRAPHER: ROBERT DURELL / Los Angeles Times Type of Material: Concert Review

All Music Guide

JULIE CHRISTENSEN: Biography Related Genres: Rock Sometimes listing an artist's music under one style that fits it best is a little hard to do -- sometimes it's almost impossible. With Julie Christensen the latter fits. Her music is a smooth mix of blues, R&B, jazz, and even a little pop and western swing. Maybe that's because she has sampled a little of it all along the path of her career and didn't find any she didn't like in some way. Singer and songwriter Christensen was born and raised in Iowa. Her first band was a little country and western swing group, which also played rock. In the late 70s she moved to Texas and picked up jazz and blues. A few years later, she headed to sunny California and found post-punk floating about. She soon joined a punk band, Divine Horsemen, and even married one of its founding members, Chris Desjardins. The group released one EP and three albums while Christensen was with them. By 1987 the marriage was over, her part in the band was over, and she was on her own again. As luck would have it, she was invited to become a backup singer for the well-known Leonard Cohen. It gave her the chance to tour through the United States, Canada, and even into Europe, and to spread her wings some. In 1996, Christensen released her first solo album, Love is Driving. Four years later, she finally recorded a sophomore work, Soul Driver. Some of the superb tracks on her albums that fans might want to sample are "The Moon Was," "I Have a Photograph," "Shipwreck," "Biggest Fool of All," and "Sweet Sound."~ Charlotte Dillon, All Music Guide