Retro: Quick Q and A with Christine Lavin

It was great fun looking back at an interview that I did with the irrepressible Christine Lavin in 2007.  She is one of folk’s biggest cheerleaders and community supporters. Not only is she one of the most entertaining and creative singer-songwriters in the country, she’s one of the kindest and compassionate humans you’ll ever meet.  She loves her fans and has created special events at her shows (like the knitting circles mentioned below, or her famous fingernail painting soirees, or even tutorials on how to fold the perfect dinner napkin a la Downton Abbey. You can always expect the unexpected when it comes to Christine Lavin.

Christine has opened a whole new world by creating many fabulous music videos. She has released songs for brand new songs and has also gone back and revisited some of her classic songs like this one “The Piranha Women of the Avocado Jungle of Death.”

Christine also makes videos for other artists.  See a sample of them here.

Christine’s latest album is called On My Way to Hooterville.  Now would be a great time to check out Christine’s music and find out more about what she’s been up to since this interview!!  Check out her website.

From my 2007 archives:

I loved your “Best of 2006” list on your website. I must say, you have a wide array of interests. If it’s not folk music, it’s Broadway, off-Broadway, knitting, cooking, . . . you name it. But, I’m intrigued about your obsession with The Drowsy Chaperone. You’ve seen it how many times? What is it that keeps you going back time and time again?

Believe it or not, my ‘best of 2006’ list was inspired by my latest compilation project One Meat Ball NOT getting a Grammy nomination. I really thought we had a shot (everyone loves the packaging — and we put it up in the ‘best packaging’ category). Dave Van Ronk’s dream was to win a Grammy, and I was hoping to make that dream come true for him, since his recording is the title track of the project, and he also dreamed of writing “The Hangover Cookbook,” but died before it happened. I was so upset when the Grammy nominations were announced — I looked up the five albums that got nominated in that category, and my plan was to buy those albums if they weren’t fabulous packages, I was going to make trouble.

Luckily, even though I have a short fuse, I get over things very fast (what a blessing that is). I thought about what Dave would think if he knew I went to so much trouble, and how what I had planned might hurt the feelings of five other artists — so instead I thought, “hey, YOU never dreamed of winning a Grammy. That was Dave’s dream. Get over it. Why not post your own ‘best of’ list — a list not corrupted in any way by the business, and based solely on what you personally witnessed?” Re-directing my anger in a positive way TOTALLY got me over the disappointment, and also put the spotlight on so many others who are doing incredible (and very often ‘unrewarded’) work.

Regarding The Drowsy Chaperone, I have now seen it 31 times. And I’ll keep going. It’s going to tour in the fall (and a London production is opening in June, with Elaine Paige, one of Britain’s biggest theater stars, playing the part of the chaperone). It crosses all genres of music — if you think you don’t like musical theater, you’ll be surprised. The songs are great; it has heart, surprises, first rate performers. I try to go once a week — for me, I guess it’s church. I’m going to send you an mp3 of me singing one of the songs from the show — I guess it had to happen. I unintentionally memorized all the songs and figured out how to play one on guitar.

Do you have die-hard fans that have seen you in the double-digits as well? 😉

Yes. I look at them differently now that I’ve become addicted to someone else’s show. They’re not crazy! They are sane, and have good taste (ha ha).

Have you received “bribes” from those who covet one of the awards or on-stage appearances that you are so famous for? What warm-blooded male wouldn’t want to wear a crown and be sung to by you?

No, I can’t be bought that way, though one time I did arrange for a guy to propose marriage at my concert in Ann Arbor, Michigan — thank God she said yes. It was all done via email in advance — I didn’t even meet him til I brought him onstage. Another marriage proposal was done in New England, and we arranged it to happen just before intermission because the groom-to-be arranged for wedding cake (or maybe we should call it ‘engagement cake’) for the entire audience during intermission. That was so wonderful — everyone there that night felt how special it was that we got to be part of this couple’s beginning their married life together.

Regarding the crown I make for every show — some are more elaborate than others, but all are made out of the newspaper, usually using the weather map or the sports page as the basic crown (you know how most men love maps AND sports). You can tell how busy I am by how elaborate the crown is. If it’s not too decorated, it means I’m having little time between shows. But a heavily decorated one means I had a long night in the hotel the night before. I make sure the date is visible, and I try to remember to put a baseball card (my business card) inside and sign it — that I learned from watching “The Antiques Road Show.” I never know who I’m going to crown — it’s a very intuitive process, but I make sure I DON’T crown a guy who looks petrified when I come near him with that light on my head. I would NEVER intentionally do anything to cause someone to go into therapy. But if a guy smiles, winks, or takes off his glasses and poses — he’s a contender.

So tell us how your cook booklet / CD project, One Meat Ball, came about. I remember emailing you a year ago when I booked this show and you were making trial batches of some of the recipes. I’m impressed that you did so much research in the Christine Lavin Test Kitchen in New York City. Do you have a favorite recipe?

Doesn’t matter what my favorite recipe is (FRENCH TOAST BREAD PUDDING! IT’S THE BEST!!) general consensus (and review so far) is that Jeff Daniels’ “Tomato Pudding” is the favorite. It sounds disgusting, but trust me — it’s good hot, warm or cold (BUT SO IS FRENCH TOAST BREAD PUDDING). I worked on this project for about two years — a year into it someone asked me what test kitchen did I hire and I said, “Test kitchen? What’s that?” I thought with musicians giving me family recipes there was no need to test them — but I found out differently. Since I was the producer I had to stand behind this project, and since there was no money to hire a test kitchen I tested most of them myself at home (many times) and then with the cookbook editor, copy editor, caterer, and cover artist. It was very interesting because one of the recipes (the ever popular “15 Second Chocolate Mousse”) calls for raw eggs — and some people can’t eat them, so I had to come up with an alternative way of making that that cooked the eggs. I was very very popular during this time with the elevator guys in my building, and my neighbors who got to taste the results. Of course, I gained 15 pounds during this and now I’m on cholesterol meds and have cut out 90% of all sweets. But I guess my weight gain is a testimonial to the good recipes.

What’s the most satisfying knitting project you’ve ever done? How did you get into knitting? Did you knit as a young girl?

I’m a new knitter — took one class on October 1, 2002, and was instantly hooked. I hang out at “Knitty City” on West 79th Street when I have a jones to be around other knitters (yesterday they taught me how to run the umbrella swift that turns a skein of yarn into a ball of yarn, so I told them whenever I am there to let me do that for them). I’m still very limited in my skills as a knitter — just recently took a class in how to make hats, so that’s what I’m perfecting now. I just designed what I call a ski ‘headband/gator’ — you wear it around your head, but if the weather gets warm on the mountain, you slide it down, wear it loosely around your neck — it looks good in both positions (and you won’t lose it if it’s still on you) . I naively thought when I first started learning, “Oh I’m going to save so much money knitting my own sweaters and hats!” Well ha ha ha. My headbands are made out of a combination of cashmere, silk, and alpaca. I had NO idea what yarn costs, and I grew up with 8 brothers and sisters, no extra money for anything, so how did I develop a taste for cashmere?? It’s an expensive hobby, but having knitting circles at my show I meet the BEST people. Knitters / crocheters are such a nurturing tribe — always making prayer shawls for sick people, preemie caps for babies. Haven’t met anyone knitting a nuclear reactor cozy. At least not yet.

Do you have one special song that you love performing or do you prefer to give all of your songs equal treatment?

It’s always the newest song. I have one I just finished about hurricane names — it’s actually based on a newspaper article I wrote for The Washington Post a couple years ago when Hurricane Floyd did a lot of damage, and people got injured, and I thought part of the problem was that Floyd is way too nice a name for something as dangerous as a hurricane. I used to write stories about things that I couldn’t make into a song — and now I’m finally turning that idea into a song. My favorite possible hurricane name: Catastrofifi.

What kind of music did you listen to as a teenager?

I grew up in Westchester County, at an all-boys military school where my dad taught. I was born in 1952, so FM radio was way cool and innovative during the early-mid 60s. I listened to WNEW, heard Judy Collins, Linda Ronstadt, Dave Van Ronk, Bob Dylan — as soon as I heard that music, it spoke to me, right to my heart. I knew I loved what I heard. I had no idea if I could do that — but I knew I loved it.

How did you find your way to the acoustic music scene?

I learned how to play guitar by watching lessons broadcast on PBS when I was 12 years old — the TV teacher was Laura Weber. Turns out Nanci Griffith also learned from her, as did Neil of “Aztec Two-Step.” You people who support PBS have no idea the good you are doing sometimes (or bad — if you don’t like my music you only have yourself to blame — ha ha). Anyway, years go by … the pages of the calendar flip …

I was waitressing at the Caffe Lena in 1975–76, when Dave Van Ronk came through and Lena asked me to play him a song. I did, and he said ‘you should come to New York.’ Coincidentally, earlier that same night Don McLean’s manager heard me sing (I shared the bill with another one of his artists). He gave me his card and said ‘you should learn how to play guitar better. When you do, come to New York and I will help you.’ So when Van Ronk said “come to New York” I said “I will! When I learn how to play guitar better!” He said, “I’m a teacher. I’ll teach you.” That was it for me. Two weeks later I was living on East 3rd street, between A & B, a street still ruled to this day by the Hell’s Angels. My bed was a door with a piece of foam rubber on it. I worked as a temp full time for six years, but was so happy because I was taking guitar lessons from Dave Van Ronk.

Tell us a little about your friendship with Dave van Ronk. You’ve done much to keep his music and legend alive and I want to applaud you for that. Do you have any particularly vivid memories of him? Any stories about him that you’ve been dying to tell the folk music world?

Dave (pictured below) was a brilliant, complicated man. He was self-educated since he dropped out of high school. He was left handed and played right handed guitar (like me, so that helped to make him a great teacher for someone like me — he said ‘your left hand will also be better than many guitarists, but your right hand will be way worse than most, too’). Although I learned many of his guitar arrangements, they never checked into the permanent part of my brain. For a tribute concert to him a couple years ago I relearned “Somebody Else, Not Me.” I practiced it diligently every day for three months, and then when the big event came, I was pretty bad. I’m not saying that because I’m looking for reassurance, “No, you were fine!” No, I wasn’t. There were two shows. After the first show one of the other performers took me aside and said, “For the late show, don’t put the DI into your guitar — use the house mike. It’s a lot more forgiving in these situations.” I wish I could remember who said that to me — it shows how supportive the folk community is. Other performers might have enjoyed me making a fool out of myself, but someone saw a way for me to salvage the situation — having the DI in the guitar amplified every hesitation, every mistake. Just making that switch for the late show took some pressure off, so I played it better. I learned a lot from Dave, but sadly for me, I am not a good enough guitarist to do his arrangements in front of an audience. His charts are difficult. If you hear someone playing one of his arrangements, and sounding decent at it, then you know you are in the presence of a really superb musician.

Dave told me once that although he was part of various groups (Hudson Dusters, for one) that he learned over time that he was best solo. He used to say, “Even in kindergarten they would send notes home to my mother that ‘Dave does not play well with others.’” For a while he had me open a LOT of shows for him — it was great experience and exposure for me — but one day he said, “That’s it, you’re on your own. We are not a duo.” At first I was upset, thinking I had done something to offend him, but he was just pushing me out of the nest for my own good. Allan Pepper, who owned The Bottom Line in NYC, never booked the same opener with the same headliner more than once — that was a rule of his. Always mix it up (and a smart thing to do business-wise). I LOVED watching Dave do his show. I’ll never forget one night at “The Salt” in Newport, RI — Dave played “Mack The Knife” (in my opinion his version is the best ever recorded) — he so totally nailed it that night I jumped out of my seat to clap and scream for him. Unfortunately, I was sitting with the owner (I forget his name) who had invited me to sit with him after my set (an honor). I had just ordered a drink, and when I jumped up I knocked an entire gin & tonic into the owner’s lap. I was mortified. I’m sure the owner wasn’t happy. But I couldn’t help myself. Dave was a magnificent performer.

Your shows give so much joy to your audiences. Do you see yourself continuing on ten-twenty years on? (We hope so!) Or do you see yourself doing something else making a career move that would startle the folk world. (Hey, I’m looking for a hot scoop!)

I am selling my New York apartment and moving up to the Finger Lakes region of New York State. I still plan to keep performing, but in the back of my mind I would love to own a knitting shop that has live music. Has anyone done that? Now that I know how to run an umbrella swift …

We did a few group concerts for One Meat Ball with a dessert buffet during intermission (it was like a feeding frenzy that night … I wonder if it was because FRENCH TOAST BREAD PUDDING was on the menu). As I get older, I’m looking for ways to incorporate more than just music into performances. Now that someone invented light-up knitting needles I love to see knitters knitting during my shows. People have asked me, “Aren’t you offended that people are actually KNITTING while you are onstage?” Heavens no, I tell them. Hey, if I didn’t have to play guitar, I’d be knitting, too.

Although I go through very typical off-stage bouts of self-doubt and anxiety (hey, another good hurricane name would be “Anxieteeny”), when I’m onstage I always feel so at home, I know this is where I should be for now. I’m not saying this to suck up, but I have to tell you — it’s the best people in town who come out to these shows — the smartest, funniest, most politically hip and active citizens. One time I was playing in Ogunquit, Maine. There was a really old couple at the show — someone in the audience had run into them on the beach earlier that day. They were celebrating their 55th wedding anniversary, had written their names in the sand, and when this person met them they were drawing a big heart around their names, using their canes. When this person them, they thought, “these people should come to the concert tonight,” so they started talking to them, and sure enough, they showed up.

They were so cute — at the time (this was before I was a knitter) I was doing sparkle manicures for anyone who wanted one before the show (I know — a nutty idea, but it was fun til there were too many complaints about the fumes). Anyway, when I did this old lady’s nails I told her, “Oh, by the way, you’re not allowed to wash dishes for two weeks or your hands will explode.” Then I put the polish on her husband’s nails (a good sport) and I said to him, “Oh, by the way, you MUST wash dishes for two weeks or your hands will explode.” He leaned in to me and said, “I smell a con-SPIRACY.” Pronounced it like that, and whenever I smell a con-SPIRACY, that’s how I pronounce it, too.

I sometimes feel like “The Cat In The Hat” — blowing through town, mixing things up, moving on. The idea of the cookbook/CD came about when I was handing out recipes at my shows so that the next morning you could have this great breakfast, talk about the show last night, and keep the good juju going. My sister Mary met her husband at my show — if nothing else ever happens for me, that makes it all worthwhile.

Photo of Dave Van Ronk courtesy of Michael Ochs Archives