Carolyn Wonderland: A Full 'Meal' Of Texas Blues

Jan 7, 2012
Originally published on January 10, 2012 6:16 pm

Austin musician Carolyn Wonderland kicks off her new album, Peace Meal, with "What Good Can Drinkin' Do," an old Janis Joplin tune. You'd be excused if you thought you were listening to Joplin herself.

"You know, it's a funny thing growing up in Texas: If you're a girl, you pretty much learn that you sing Janis songs to yourself in private," Wonderland says. "You don't do it in public. If it's not against the law, I'm not sure why."

Wonderland tells NPR's Rachel Martin that people think you have to sing Joplin in private because nobody can do it any better.

"That's just true, and that's where it is," she says. "If you want to find your own voice, it's difficult to do in such large footsteps. But after a while, I finally just decided, 'Well, I really want to say thank you.' I mean, I know I can't do it any better, but I sure would like to say thanks to where it came from for me."

For Wonderland, getting thrown out of school at 17 and hanging out in bars got her playing the guitar. Another big-name Texan often mentioned in the same breath as Wonderland is the legendary guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan, but Wonderland won't go near that comparison: "Good lord, I don't even come close to filling the toe of either of those."

Wonderland says she feels naked when writing love songs, but she did it anyway in "St. Marks." It's a tribute to her first night together with her husband, comedian Whitney Brown.

"When you're angry, you have this righteous indignation, and you can banter about, you know, 'I feel this way' and 'Aren't I right?'" Wonderland says. "When you're talking about things like love, I mean, you're leaving yourself a little naked."

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Austin-based musician Carolyn Wonderland kicks off her new CD with an old Janis Joplin tune, and you would be excused if you thought you were listening to Janis herself.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT GOOD CAN DRINKIN DO")

CAROLYN WONDERLAND: (Singing) What good can drinking do. What good can drinking do. I drink all night, but the next day I still feel blue...

MARTIN: That's "What Good Can Drinkin Do" off of Carolyn Wonderland's latest CD. It's titled "Peace Meal" - that's P-E-A-C-E. And she joins us now from member station KUT in Austin. Carolyn, welcome to the program.

WONDERLAND: Howdy. Thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: Now, this is a fairly obscure Janis Joplin song you've chosen to open up your album. Why this tune?

WONDERLAND: Well, it's a funny thing. Growing up in Texas, you know, if you're a girl, you pretty much learn that you sing Janis songs to yourself in private. You don't do it in public.

MARTIN: How come?

WONDERLAND: Well, 'cause nobody can do it any better, and that's, you know, I mean, that's just true. That's where it is. If you want to find your own voice, it's difficult to do, you know, in such large footsteps. But after a while, I finally just decided, well, I really want to say thank you. I mean, I know I can't do it any better but I sure would like to say thanks to where it came from for me.

MARTIN: And was there any part of you that was hesitant, intimidated about taking on such a legend?

WONDERLAND: Every part of me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHING)

MARTIN: I want to hear a little bit more from you and that voice that's channeling Janis Joplin. Let's listen to the classic, "Dust My Broom."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DUST MY BROOM")

MARTIN: Carolyn, this is such a well-worn blues tune. I mean, it's like a pair of old blue jeans for a lot of people. How do you...

WONDERLAND: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: ...how do you approach that song? How do you say I'm going take that and I'm going to make it a little something different?

WONDERLAND: Well, the funny thing about that song is we originally we were recording it for Michael Nesmith. He has this...

MARTIN: And we should point out, he was part of the Monkees back in the day.

WONDERLAND: Oh, yeah. As a matter of fact. He's a really groovy guy. And so he has this book he decided he wanted an audio companionship to it, so we cut it for him and there was so much joy on that track. It just sounded so fun. We thought, well, we got to keep it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DUST MY BROOM")

MARTIN: And that's you on guitar, which in this case is lap steel. And that brings up another legendary Texan, whose name often comes up in articles written about you, Stevie Ray Vaughn. Again, big name, big blues shoes to fill.

WONDERLAND: Good Lord. I don't even come close to filling the toe of either of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHING)

MARTIN: When you think about how you approach the guitar, are there people that you go to that you listen that you study?

WONDERLAND: Well, a lot of it's just by virtue of getting thrown out of school when I did and hanging out in the right bars, I suppose. But...

MARTIN: When did you get thrown out of school?

WONDERLAND: Well, the one that stuck I was about 17, so that was when it was legally OK to not go back.

MARTIN: Not to plumb this too deeply, but when you left, did you know that you wanted to pursue music? At what point...

WONDERLAND: Oh yeah.

MARTIN: ...did you realize that that was what you wanted your life to be about?

WONDERLAND: When I was about 8 years old, I started playing guitar and piano and just whatever was laying around the house. And pretty much then I decided, say OK, well, that's going to be it. I'm going to play music, so whatever it takes to do that.

MARTIN: Do you remember what you played when you were little?

WONDERLAND: Oh, yeah. Mostly I played on my mom's Martin. The reason I don't play with picks is because I scratched up her Martin pretty good when I was about 10. No picks after that. And it's odd to think that that's a derivative. It's how my tone comes out the way it does, I think, is 'cause was never allowed to play with picks.

MARTIN: What do you mean by that?

WONDERLAND: When you're playing with a pick, you have basically one surface. It's, you know, it's a plectrum of whatever, you know, material you have that made of. When you use your flesh, you've got your finger, you've got your nail, you've got calluses that you're eventually wearing. You've got three different surfaces, and plus you got all five of them playing what it wants.

MARTIN: What do your hands look like? Pretty beat up?

WONDERLAND: They're a mess.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

MARTIN: I want to talk a little bit about your voice. It's been called part-whiskey, part-wolf mother, which I like particularly. I'm not quite sure what a wolf mother sounds like. But wondering, you know, which has been the tougher instrument for you to master? The guitar or your voice?

WONDERLAND: I think they're both equally as interesting. Some nights, you know, after being on the road for, like, a few months on, you know, on and off, you find that your voice may or may not reach all those notes that you could a few weeks ago.

MARTIN: What do you do on those bad days when the notes, you're just not hitting them?

WONDERLAND: Well, you know, I think about a lot of singers who had a different range or a limited range, like Billie Holliday. I mean, she rarely went outside of one octave but what she did with that one octave was amazing. So, I try to be more effective with the notes you have, you know?

MARTIN: Now, Mike Nesmith, who you mentioned, who was of Monkees fame and he's one of the producers on this CD, I understand he's also the man who last March married you and your now-husband comedian Whitney Brown. Have I got that right?

WONDERLAND: As a matter of fact.

MARTIN: And from reading the account of that wedding in the Vows section in the New York Times, which I troll from time to time, I learned that the song called "St. Marks" on this CD is actually a tribute to your first night together with Mr. Brown. Is that correct?

WONDERLAND: It is. It's my first love song I ever wrote. I mean, I have attempted love songs, don't get me wrong, but this is the first one that is an actual capital L love song.

MARTIN: Capital L, OK. Well, let's take a listen to a little bit of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ST. MARKS")

MARTIN: What's intimidating about writing a love song?

WONDERLAND: You feel a bit naked when you do something like that. When you're angry, you have to write just, you know, indignation and you can enter about, you know, how I feel this way and aren't I right? When you're talking about things like love, I mean, you're leaving yourself a little naked there.

MARTIN: I want to ask you about your name, if I may.

WONDERLAND: Sure.

MARTIN: Is it really Carolyn Wonderland?

WONDERLAND: No. That was dubbed on me in high school. I ended up with a gig and no name for a band. What was I going to do? And my friend, under the influence of copious amounts of let's not say, decided that Carolyn Wonderland would be a pretty funny name. And I thought, well, hot dog, you're right.

MARTIN: What's your real name, if I can ask?

WONDERLAND: Bradford.

MARTIN: Carolyn Bradford.

WONDERLAND: Although Brown now.

MARTIN: Yeah, Carolyn Brown. But Carolyn Bradford just didn't do it for you, huh?

WONDERLAND: Oh, well, I always figured too, it's like if I should go out and take a bunch of chances and make a mistake, why should I bring my family name into it?

(SOUNDBITE OF "TWO TRAINS")

MARTIN: I'd like to finish our conversation with another classic, if that's OK. This is Muddy Waters. This is called "Two Trains." Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TWO TRAINS")

MARTIN: Well, Carolyn, it's been a pleasure. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

WONDERLAND: Are you kidding? Thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: From member station KUT in Austin, Carolyn Wonderland. Her new CD is called "Peace Meal." Thanks again, Carolyn.

WONDERLAND: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TWO TRAINS")

MARTIN: And to hear more songs from Carolyn Wonderland, go to NPRMusic.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.