Many people recognize the name Carolann Solebello was one of the founding members of the Americana trio, Red Molly. Carolann opted to step back from a demanding touring and recording schedule and to devote time to her family and to her own solo career a couple of years ago. Frankly, it doesn’t appear as though Carolann has slowed down too much since she’s not only doing her solo recording and touring, but she’s also part of Chicks with Dip who has been playing up and down the eastern seaboard doing their Joni Mitchell tribute, and she’s helping to run an Open Mic and a coffeehouse in her home turf of New York.
Your bio states that you play a kind of “New York-inflected brand of original and traditional Americana music.” Can you explain that a bit? Many people probably don’t think that someone living in New York could ever produce “Americana” music. What is New York about your music?
Although I live in New York City, where I was born and raised, I spent a number of years living in other parts of the US in my former life as a stage actor. Most notably, the time I spent in the mountains of East Tennessee and in Kansas opened my ears to bluegrass, old-style country, and Appalachian music. Until that point, I had been listening to mostly contemporary voices like Joni Mitchell, Suzanne Vega, Shawn Colvin, Indigo Girls, and Tracy Chapman. Musicians I met in Tennessee and Kansas turned me on to Johnny Cash, The Carter Family, Bill Monroe, Allison Krauss, Doc Watson, Hank Williams, Jean Ritchie, and even Nanci Griffith. During an acting stint in Nashville, I also had the privilege of meeting Ricky Skaggs and The Whites, and experiencing the excitement of a live Grand Ole Opry broadcast from backstage. Those sounds got into my bones and changed the way I played and wrote.
As for “Americana,” well, it’s a pretty broad category, I think. In my mind, it refers to a sound and an attitude more than a subject matter. When Red Molly was starting out, the songs we chose to perform – whether or not we wrote them ourselves – generally used the vocabulary and imagery of rural America. When I started working on my own again, I continued in that same vein, writing songs set (mostly) in places and states of mind far from the city. Maybe it’s because I spend a lot more time at home in Brooklyn lately, but the lyrical content of my songs has become more and more “urban” since then, with settings, images, and characters straight out of my own experience as a New Yorker. It is what feels right and “authentic” to me. I have decided to embrace that, coupling my “urban” lyrics with the somewhat more “rural” musical vocabulary I am comfortable with. The sound is, to my ears, “Americana with a New York accent.” Hey, if it’s good enough for Steve Earle (another proud New Yorker), it’s good enough for me.
Touring as a solo artist must be very different than touring with Red Molly. Do you ever miss the camaraderie and long road trips with Laurie and Abbie?
Oh, sure. While it’s nice to travel fast and light, any solo touring artist will tell you things can get pretty boring out there on the highway alone in the middle of the night. Touring with the Chicks surely livens things up, as does touring with other musicians now and then. I like to share shows and traveling with pals like Pat Wictor, The YaYas, or Joe Iadanza whenever possible.
That said, sometimes I really relish being alone on the road. It gives me time to think and space to breathe, which can be in short supply in a house with an energetic seven-year-old!
Being able to pick and choose which gigs you take and which you don’t must suit your life as a mother and wife. Is it difficult to discipline yourself to do “music work” when you son is at school?
Like anybody else with family and work responsibilities, it’s a balancing act. While I don’t have to report to an office every day, my boss – a very imposing woman named Yours Truly – can be pretty demanding. She expects me to keep the apartment neat, do laundry, shop and cook for the family, help with homework, write songs, book gigs, make videos, run an open mic, schedule recording time, rehearse new material, keep records, maintain websites, write press releases, organize travel… oh, and play shows.
Seriously, though, I am learning to parcel out my time. I have become an early riser by necessity, and try to get household things done right after I walk my first-grader to school. During the rest of the workday, I try to give equal time to both the business and creative sides of music until it’s time to pick him up. After that, it’s pretty much all about him until bedtime!
You’ve been playing with the Chicks with Dip for a while now. Did the Joni Mitchell connection become pretty apparent pretty early on?
While we’ve been meeting as a social group for nearly a decade now, we didn’t always perform together. In the early days, there were some group shows at NYC bars, and occasional collaborations with smaller configurations of Chicks from time to time. The Blue project is certainly the Chicks’ most ambitious undertaking to date, and the most inclusive, with most active members taking part. We never expected to take the show farther than the initial one night engagement in Manhattan in January of 2012, and are so pleased that the show and the CD have been received so very well by audiences.
I know a bunch of us consider Joni Mitchell as a primary influence, but it wasn’t something that united us from the beginning. It was only after one of our newer members, Honor Finnegan, suggested on a whim that we collaborate on some sort of tribute to Joni that we even entertained the idea. What a fruitful conversation that turned out to be!
Which of Joni’s albums would be on your desert island list?
Blue is definitely at the top of the list, followed closely by Court and Spark. I love Blue for all the reasons other enthusiasts do – emotional honesty, sparse arrangements, vulnerability, jagged edges – and for the places it takes my heart and mind when I listen. I love Court and Spark for entirely different reasons. It’s kind of the opposite of Blue for me. While Blue sounds kind of like the color it is named for, the sonic texture of Court and Spark is shiny, golden and sophisticated. Blue is raw and emotional, and Court and Spark is burnished and sly. The voice on Court and Spark is far more confident and comfortable than the voice we hear on Blue.
Hejira follows a close third. That record, to me, is Joni at her peak. While still immediate, the songs are bigger, and less personal. I also love that she mentions my hometown, Staten Island, on that record, and my favorite guitar shop there…
I think I heard a rumor that you’re recording another album with Fred Gillen, Jr. What does Fred bring to the table that so aptly suits your style? Any songs on this new record that you’re particularly looking forward to releasing?
This is the third record Fred and I have worked on together, and I couldn’t be happier about it. His studio is a very comfortable place for me, and his musical sensibility lines up nicely with my own. I trust his judgment implicitly with regard to choosing the right songs and letting each breathe in its own way. Most people know Fred for his soulful voice, honest songwriting, and bold interpretations of Woody Guthrie tunes, but underneath all that, Fred has a rock & roll heart. He’s a great electric bass and guitar player, and his production style gives a little “edge” to the songs I write, in a very good way. Although we haven’t yet decided which songs will make the final cut, I can say with some certainty that there will be at least a handful that address broader topics than I have broached in the past.
To learn more about Carolann Solebello, visit her website.
Here’s a taste of Carolann’s Americana solo sounds.
The Chicks with Dip will be playing at the me&thee in Marblehead, MA on Friday, March 8.