Julie Christensen

Former Leonard Cohen backup singer Julie Christensen returns to Coffee Gallery Backstage with Rick Shea and a full band to celebrate her new Kevin Gordon tribute album, “11 From Kevin.”

By mid-April 2020, former Angeleno Julie Christensen could see that the pandemic was going to last for some time, keeping millions of people working from home and artists off the road. 

“I wanted to make something with my compadres,” the veteran singer-songwriter recalled, but she hadn’t been writing much. At the same time, she had been listening a lot to Nashville pal Kevin Gordon’s 2015 album “Long Gone Time,” and thinking that “somebody like Kacey Musgraves or Brandi Carlile, somebody who could bring attention to it,” should do a whole record of songs by Gordon, a critics’ favorite whose reverent reviews and staunchly loyal following have not translated into mainstream recognition. 

From such streams of consciousness are heartfelt albums made. In January, Christensen released “11 From Kevin: Songs of Kevin Gordon,” a collection of 12 Gordon songs she wanted to “get inside of.” (“Heart’s Not in It” and “Down to the Well” are joined in a steel-washed medley, thus the titular reference to 11 tracks). She’ll be performing a set of those songs in addition to a her own material with her band — local country-rock guitarist (and show opener) Rick Shea, bassist Greg Boaz, drummer Steve Mugalian and guitarist/accordionist Stephen Patt — Sunday night at the Coffee Gallery Backstage. 

While talking from her home in New Mexico about how she’s started making song videos with found pieces of film, Christensen has a sudden memory flash.

“The Coffee Gallery was the first time I played my guitar and sang (at the same time) in public. Yeah. I’m just realizing that. And it was with (Linda Ronstadt sideman) Kenny Edwards. And it went OK,” she said. “He just said, ‘You just hold down the fort and I’ll do the fun stuff. If you wait till you’re ready, you’ll never do it.’”

At that point in time, the Iowa native was best known as a singer with a powerfully expressive vocal instrument; she was still establishing herself as a singer-songwriter and hadn’t yet made friends with her guitar. 

She’d been a staple of the ’80s LA roots-punk scene that also produced X, the Blasters and the Gun Club. Back then, she shared lead vocals with then-husband Chris Desjardins as they fronted the Divine Horsemen (who played their first show in 34 years at Zebulon last Tuesday, a triumphant celebration of their 2021 album “Hot Rise of an Ice Cream Phoenix”). After that band imploded, she circled the globe singing backup with Leonard Cohen; in 1996, after settling in Ojai, she released her first solo album, “Love Is Driving.”

Since then, she’s released half a dozen albums and become a stalwart champion of fellow independent artists and songwriters. Songs by the likes of Gordon, Darren Bradbury, Tim Easton, Dan Montgomery, Jeff Turmes and Amelia White remain staples of her live shows. She had already revved up Gordon’s “Saint on a Chain” for her 2016 release “The Cardinal” before she hatched the idea of making “11 From Kevin.”

“I revere Bonnie Raitt and Joe Ely and people who have done that: brought their friends to the fore, friends whose voice may be an acquired taste or whose style is something that isn’t as accessible as some things,” she noted. 

Her world-weary reading of “Jimmy Reed Is the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll” nods to musical influences shared with Gordon, while “Joey and Clara,” “Crowville” and “Gatling Gun” movingly nod to more personal connections. Gordon may have been writing about places he’d known in his native Louisiana, but Christensen felt like she recognized them, too. 

“I felt a kinship with being a small-town person,” she said. “People wave at you and they don’t even know who you are. …

“I’ve never worked so hard on promoting a record because I believe in it so much. I felt like it would have an audience.” 

The maddening conundrum in the creative life is that promotion — that thing independent artists need to do to earn a living — costs money. So, while recording the songs in a Nashville barn and performing them onstage have brought real joy, it’s been challenging to make people aware of the music.

“For independent artists, especially during the pandemic, when you can’t go on tour and sell T-shirts and stuff, and Spotify and every blessed platform has decimated any kind of income for musicians — the only way to get any money is touring and merch sales,” Christensen explained. “That’s just the facts.”

She and actor/artist husband John Diehl recently relocated from Nashville to New Mexico, where she’s reunited with a swing band mate from her early-career jazz days. They’re working on a jazz album — “kind of a ‘Julie With Strings’ concept,” she said with a chuckle. “It’s a completely different left turn from what I’ve been doing. But I’ve been writing lyrics and we’re going to use a tune I wrote with Wendy Waldman when I had a record deal back in 1990.”

But she worries about younger artists. “Musicians are still getting paid what I used to get paid in the late ’70s for a gig. It’s so sad. We’re going lose music if we don’t support musicians.”