Julie Christensen performs music from her new ‘Weeds Like Us’ album, and Tom Weber screens his ‘Troubadour Blues’ documentary at Coffee Gallery Backstage
By Bliss Bowen 05/31/2012
Sometimes you have to wonder what keeps artists going through the countless rejections and maddening aggravations that inevitably come their way as they seek work. There are few other vocations afflicted by the popular assumption that loving what you do is sufficient remuneration. (“What, you wanna get paid for entertaining guests in my bar or at my wedding? I gotta pay my bouncer/bartender/caterer/etc. …”) It’s a conundrum confronting resourceful singer-songwriter Julie Christensen as she recharges her career to promote her moving album “Weeds Like Us,” after taking time off to raise her son. And it’s a logistical puzzle that fascinated music lover Tom Weber enough that he invested 10 years in filming his documentary “Troubadour Blues,” which receives its first Los Angeles screening Tuesday at the Coffee Gallery Backstage, where Christensen will also perform.
“Troubadour Blues” focuses on independent artists like Dave Alvin, Chris Smither, Mary Gauthier, Slaid Cleaves, Anne McCue, Gurf Morlix, Garrison Starr and, in particular, Peter Case — most of them contemporaries with whom native Iowan Christensen has rubbed shoulders since moving to LA and joining influential punk-roots band the Divine Horsemen in the early 1980s. That was a “pretty heady time,” she recalls, when she and her band mates were doing warm-up sets for X, playing pool at the Playboy with Nick Cave, and mingling with the Blasters, Kid Congo, Candye Kane, firehose and Tex and the Horseheads. By the late ’80s the Horsemen had disbanded and Christensen was singing backup for iconic songwriter Leonard Cohen on his global “I’m Your Man” tour. She released her first album, “Love is Driving,” in 1996. “Weeds,” produced by longtime friend and Mavis Staples bassist Jeff Turmes, is her fifth solo effort (sixth, if you count the Todd Rundgren-produced album that’s still languishing somewhere in the old Polygram vaults).
Nowadays, Christensen and many of her ’80s running mates are most familiar to folk and roots audiences, making their living as best they can in clubs and the increasingly popular house concert circuit. As she eases into playing showcases and promoting “Weeds,” Christensen acknowledges that, despite her deep resume, it sometimes feels like she’s starting over from scratch.
“I’m driving to these gigs and having 10 people at an OK gig, then playing to a pretty full house at McCabe’s,” she says. “I’ve been doing the vast majority of the booking myself. I can do the advance work, be my own road manager. … You have to. If anyone had told me when I was taking voice lessons how many stamps I’d have to lick and I’d have to be my own publicist and radio promoter, I might have thought, ‘Hmm, that doesn’t sound so good.’ But you have to compartmentalize your day and use your creativity instead of fighting it. Music in a vacuum is not heard; it’s like a tree falling in the woods.”
Laughing, she recalls a keynote address given by Patti Smith several years ago. “Somebody raised her hand and asked, ‘What do you think of this necessary evil called self-promotion?’ Patti goes, ‘Wait a minute. It’s not like we’re pushing petroleum products. This is music. It’s a good thing we’re getting into people’s ears.’”
Christensen, like the artists interviewed in “Troubadour Blues,” agrees that artists need to be motivated by that kind of conviction.
“The most rewarding thing is the time onstage, or when you get off and people tell you how much you made them cry or they enjoyed it,” she says. “If money is what drives you, then it’s not going to feed you. But if you want a richness of feeling and emotion, and feeling like you’re being of service somehow to delivering culture, doing topical [songs], doing it in a way people can relate to — that’s what’s rewarding.
“What’s hard is … I made more money in the ’70s as a singer than I have in the past two decades. Except for when I was touring with Leonard, I made more day to day because I could do a happy hour gig and I could do a studio gig and then do a gig at night and you’d get remunerated for your skills, and at the end of the day you’d have 250 bucks or something. Now, doing the same tasks, you get the same or less, because intellectual property is not valued.”
Weber, a fan of Christensen’s, sought to understand what drives artists forward in the face of those unfavorable odds when making “Troubadour Blues,” a 91-minute documentary he pulled together from more than 200 hours of footage. He structured the film around Peter Case, because “his life history made a good continuing narrative,” and also because he sees Case as the perfect exemplar of the modern-day troubadour. Although the distinction is not made in the film, Weber differentiates between “troubadour” and “singer-songwriter.”
“Lucinda Williams is a singer-songwriter, but she’s not a troubadour,” he explains, “at least not in the sense that I mean—the small level, without an entourage or tour bus, without the trappings that most people think of when they think of musicians on tour. I’m interested in people who sort of follow the tradition like Woody Guthrie, like Cisco Houston. These singer-songwriters who traveled and absorbed something of what’s going on around them and it’s reflected in their work.”
Although Christensen is not featured in “Troubadour Blues,” her song “Ten People,” a compelling ballad inspired partly by a crisis at her husband’s union, fits Weber’s thematic focus.
“In medieval days, troubadours went from household to household and they performed and sang for their supper,” Weber says. “And in the ballad tradition, they sort of picked up news and gossip along the way and made up songs about that. … I think this music is underappreciated. By venues and audiences. The fear that I have is that more and more people are not open to things that don’t have the stamp of celebrity approval on them.”
Julie Christensen performs and Tom Weber screens “Troubadour Blues” at Coffee Gallery Backstage, 2029 N. Lake Ave., Altadena, 8 p.m. Tuesday, June 5; $15. Info: 798-6236. Stonecupid.com, HYPERLINK "http://www.troubadour-blues.com/" \o "http://www.troubadour-blues.com/" troubadour-blues.com/