december 2011

Carolyn Wonderland at Houston’s McGonigel’s Mucky Duck, June, 2009 (Photo collage by kenne): ‘If I get in a funk or wonder what I’m doing, I remember Bob Dylan thought I could write. So it’s all right.’

Wanted, In All The Right Ways

Kicked out of high school for her activism, homeless for two years on the streets of Austin, Carolyn Wonderland has risen to the forefront of the Houston and Austin blues scenes, taken her music to points far beyond the Lone Star State, counted Bob Dylan among her most ardent supporters, and found true love with A. Whitney Brown. Oh, and her new Ray Benson-produced album, Peace Meal, is truly righteous. Things are looking up.

By David McGee

It’s not every day a music writer finds himself interviewing an artist--a blues artist, no less--whose marriage was written up in the New York Times. In fact, over the course of more than three decades of writing about music and musicians, it has happened to yours truly exactly once, in early January of this new year when I got Texas blues dynamo Carolyn Wonderland on the phone to discuss her terrific new Ray Benson-produced album, Peace Meal.

But in fact, in the March 4 edition of the Times there she was, in a white wedding gown, the presiding minister leaning down to either whisper something to her or to plant a gentle kiss on her head, her future husband off to the left in the photo, in a white sport coat and gray slacks, head bowed. The headline: “Carolyn Wonderland and Whitney Brown.”

The Carolyn Wonderland-A. Whitney Brown vows, officiated by Mike Nesmith, Austin, TX, March 4, 2011

Perhaps the groom’s name rings a bell. “Whitney Brown” is otherwise known as A. Whitney Brown, and may be familiar from his droll “A. Whitney Brown’s Big Picture” monologues on Saturday Night Live in the ‘80s and his commentaries on The Daily Show in the mid-‘90s.

Although he’s not identified in the Times photo, the minister at Ms. Wonderland’s side in the photo is Mike Nesmith, the former Monkee and a pioneering music video artist, who had become a Universal Life minister specifically for this occasion.

(The three principals are connected in other ways, which made it appropriate for one to be officiating at the other two’s marriage: in March 2010, coinciding with South by Southwest, Nesmith was in Austin to present his project VideoRanch3D, which allows musical artists and audiences to interact over the Internet. Brown, then living in Greenwich, CT, was in town to MC the event. Wonderland was appearing at as part of the project's musical lineup. Brown told the Times reporter he first saw Wonderland in the parking lot, carrying an amp, a lap steel slung across her back. “Together, it was probably 60, 70 pounds. I’m thinking, man, that girl needs help,” Brown told the Times. Later they met over cigarettes, discussed music and found common ground in jazz (“I thought that was quite cool--talking about Billie, Ella and Etta, and whatnot,” Wonderland said), and voila! Romance ensued, and a year later they are husband and wife.)

Carolyn Wonderland sings her wedding vows, March 4, 2011, Butler Park, Austin, TX

Told that she was the first artist I had ever interviewed whose marriage was written up in the Times, Wonderland let out a high-pitched cackle of a laugh. “Isn’t that trippy?” she said. “I was thinking, Alright, I got put in the papers for somethin’ nice, and not like ‘Wanted.’”

Chances are Peace Meal is going to generate a lot more press for Wonderland, all of it the good kind of “Wanted”--as in, please-bring-your-music-to-our-town kind of “Wanted.” In a recording career dating back to 1992, when she and her then-band the Imperial Monkeys released their first album, Groove Milk, the throaty-voiced singer-songwriter-guitarist has released nine albums total, with the Imperial Monkeys and as a solo artist. Of these, the last two, Peace Meal (released in October 2011) and 2008’s Miss Understood (also produced by Ray Benson) find the artist fully coming into her own. All of Wonderland’s recordings have their powerhouse moments, but none are as consistently dazzling and emotionally resonant as the pair she’s done with Benson.

As to why the Benson-produced long players have that extra je ne sais quoi, Wonderland is as puzzled as anyone else. “I don’t know how to answer that,” she says at first. After considering the question for a moment, she begins again, with a purpose: “He gave us the luxury of time, which is something we’ve never had before, to be able to pop in and record during off hours when the studio’s not busy. It’s cool to be able to record six or seven songs and walk away, go on tour and come back and go, ‘We can do this one better.’ So that was cool.”

The obscure Janis Joplin-penned ‘What Good Can Drinkin’ Do’ is the lead track on Carolyn Wonderland’s Peace Meal album.

Janis Joplin’s 1962 home recording of ‘What Good Can Drinkin’ Do,’ with the singer accompanying herself on autoharp.

After launching her new album with a swaggering reading of an obscure Janis Joplin original roadhouse blues, “What Good Can Drinkin’ Do,” Wonderland proceeds confidently through 11 other originals and surprising covers. Playing blues guitar and lap steel with her usual sizzle and nuance, she hits a high mark as a vocalist, with plenty of no-BS attitude (a growling, assertive vocal on her self-affirming anthem, “Victory of Flying”) complemented by warm-hearted testifying (a spiritually resonant reading of Robert Hunter’s hopeful, hymn-like “Golden Stairs”). On her funky soul workout “Only God Knows When,” Wonderland conjures a tent revival spirit with her throaty, Wynonna-like vocal and howling lap steel, buttressed by Cole El-Saleh’s rollicking piano and a robust female chorus; and though clearly besotted by the blues, she gives her warm shuffle “Shine On” a moving country ballad treatment that turns out to be the ideal contemplative sign-off on an album otherwise remarkable for its heaping helping of vocal and instrumental fireworks. Benson didn’t produce all the cuts: Dylan/Levon Helm guitarist Larry Campbell is behind the board on four superb tracks, including the stunning “Golden Stairs” (seven-plus epic minutes of typical Robert Hunter spiritual searching), the raucous Joplin-penned leadoff track, and for two Wonderland originals, “St. Marks” and the above-mentioned beauty, “Shine On.” Arguably the most sizzling, go-for-broke track on the album is a ferocious cover of Elmore James’s “Dust My Broom,” produced by Mike Nesmith as part of the audio companion to his book The American Dream but too good to omit from Peace Meal.

Photo by Todd V. Wolfson

Born Carolyn Bradford in 1972 in Houston, Wonderland’s been toiling the blues circuit for a long time, and still does--she plays some 200 dates a year on the road. She’s never really had aspirations to do anything other than what she’s doing now. She’s never put away her childish things, because as a child of six her “thing” was her mother’s vintage Martin guitar. Mom was a rock ‘n’ roller, dad a jazzbo with an extensive record collection; between the two of them, there wasn’t much room for a musically inclined daughter to rebel against. “I mean, I tried,” Wonderland says.

By her mid-teens Wonderland was sneaking into Houston blues clubs and absorbing all she could from local legends Little Screamin’ Kenny, Jerry Lightfoot, Joe “Guitar” Hughes and others. The blues drew her interest right off the bat: “I liked it because there’s a few common song forms, so you could go up and jam with people, and that was fun. I liked it because you had a set of parameters in which you had to inject your soul. You knew exactly what you had to work with.”

By 17 she was playing weekly live gigs, a pursuit she was able to devote even more attention to after she was, to put it midly, dismissed from her high school. Contrary to other published reports (including her Wikipedia page) the decision not to complete her high school education was made for her: “I was actually thrown out. I didn’t have much of a choice there.”

But the story of why she was thrown out of high school remains relevant today owing to the number of causes she supports quite vocally. Back then the teenage Carolyn Bradford was participating in a lunchtime student sit-in protest in sympathy with China’s Tiananmen Square protesters. From that came a suspension. At a later sit-in she was interviewed by the press, the school officials assumed she was leading the protest and “that was it.”

But Wonderland’s activist streak began long before high school, she says. “I went to the school board meetings to protest as a kid. I was all excited. I knew the rules of order, I was just thrilled to death to go up and say, ‘You can’t throw my friends out for having long hair,’ or wearing black and red--I mean, seriously, there was stupid rules they had going on. So I walk into the school board meeting with my little going-to-court suit on, and my notes, and my precedents, and they opened the school board meeting with ‘Satan is infiltrating our schools.’ I went, ‘Oh, god dang it I brought the wrong books.’”

Twenty-year-old Carolyn Wonderland and the Imperial Monkeys (Screamin’ Kenny Blanchet, guitar & vocal; Eric Dane, guitar; Chris King, bass; Erik Kolflat, drums), Houston, Texas 1992 at Dan Electro’s Guitar Bar for the CD release party for their first album, Groove Milk.

So the future became an immediate proposition. She began jamming with Little Screamin’ Kenny (who still works in Houston with the High Tailers), then formed what she thought was a side band with Kenny, the Imperial Monkeys. With Carolyn singing lead and being the face of the band, club owners began billing it as Carolyn Wonderland and the Imperial Monkeys. “I thought that was a little weird,” Wonderland says, adding she felt unsettled by seeming to overshadow the veteran Kenny. “But he was always real sweet about it,” she says. “He just said, ‘Well, get up there and sing.’”

The band took off, drawing turn-away crowds. The Austin Chronicle’s Margaret Moser, in a Wonderland profile headlined “Miss Understood," in the May 2, 2008, edition, charted the Monkeys’ rise succinctly:

In the Monkeys, she rattled cages everywhere she went and wore her crown with panache. … The Monkeys didn't exactly play for peanuts and started copping top honors at the Houston Press Music Awards with cheeky blues-rock that churned country, surf, cumbia, jazz, and zydeco. Frontwoman and band caught the eye of two whose interest would change their lives.

"I was in Houston," recalls Susan Antone, "reading an article in the paper about her. I looked at her picture and said to Cliff, 'She's right for the club.' Nineteen years old with pink hair and playing the hell out of the guitar. We fell in love with her."

Wonderland & the Imperial Monkeys were invited to the Guadalupe Street Antone's. There, they were treated like royalty with the singer as the queen of hearts in the club's post-SRV stable of the early 1990s, which included Toni Price, Johnny and Jay Moeller, Sue Foley, Mike and Corey Keller, and the Ugly Americans. It was a good bar for the Monkeys to hang, and Austin felt so comfortable that when the band called it quits a few years later, she set her sights on Austin at the start of the millennium.

From 1994, a local Houston TV show, Music Stop, features Carolyn and band, lunching with host Donna McKenzie and performing a Wonderland original, ‘Anyway,’ with Eric Dane, guitar; Chris King, bass; Erik Kolflat on drums and bongos.

Indeed, in 1999, on the advice of the late, great Doug Sahm, Wonderland moved to Austin. Despite the sheer number of bands vying for the public’s attention there, the city’s music community has an esprit de corps that suits Wonderland’s temperament.

“I can say after touring for the last 20 years that Austin has its own thing; for as many musicians as there are per capita you’d think it would be really cutthroat, but it’s not. Everybody’s either in each other’s band or they’re at each other’s shows.”

In the midst of all this music making, another aspect of Wonderland’s artistry has been little noted, namely her affection for and flirtation with live theater. In fact, the exceptional Houston-based singer-songwriter Glenna Bell (profiled in this publication’s January 2011 issue), herself steeped in live theater as both a critic and playwright, encountered Carolyn Wonderland as an actress. In an email note she recalls:

I moved back to Houston from LA in 1992, and I was feeling a little down because I'd been freelancing for the LA Reader and interning for the LA Weekly, and living on Venice Beach while reviewing two or three plays a week with the after parties on Sunset Strip, in Beverly Hills, etc. But when I came to Houston I applied for a position as theater editor of the Public News, a terrific newsweekly that had an outlandish editor/owner who let us review and write about anything we wanted.  I found myself immediately drawn to the underground scene that at that time was flourishing in Houston’s Montrose/Warehouse District.  It was a great collaboration of visual artists, theater people, musicians and local scenesters who came together to stage events at places like Diverse Works and Commerce Street Artists Warehouse, which is where I first saw Carolyn.

I was sitting at my desk at the Public News in the little house on the corner of Alabama and Mandell in the Montrose when a young playwright, Jason Nodler, who’d been studying in NYC, delivered an original play to me with a personal invitation to his Houston debut, In the Under Thunderloo. It was an amazing time.  I’ll never forget--she was part of an artists collective/commune called Catal Huyuk that brought together people from all walks of the vibrant arts scene in Houston. Visual artists donated their time to create sets, local actors and musicians donated their time to perform the roles, and Carolyn was one of them. I forget the name of her character, but I remember being struck by her performance.  She really sparkled. She cut her teeth at Dan Electro’s and the Last Concert Café here in Houston. She is the real deal who paid her dues.

“Catal Huyuk!” Wonderland says reverently in recalling this episode. “I’m not a good actress or anything like that, but I always had friends who were doing plays when I was a kid. Everybody’s got their straight job or their thing that they’re doing. I was playing music and happened to be in town and did the play. Since then I’ve wanted to go back and do the reunion shows they did for that, but I was in Europe and couldn’t. But yeah, most of the plays I did when I was a kid I was ‘Dead Girl #3--sing a song, get killed.’ You know what I mean? But in that play I actually got to be this crazy character that makes it to the end of the world. It’s kind of a bizarre play but really cool. Jason Nodler, his theater troupe is kickin’. That was the first thing he wrote and did, and it’s amazing to see all the stuff he’s done since then.”

Wonderland admits the theater bug has not entirely been expunged from her ambitions, but she would only consider returning to the stage “if the opportunity was there and it was fun and small.”

‘Growing up in Texas, you don’t sing Janis Joplin songs live. You just don’t. It’s a sin. We got a lot of laws down here that don’t make any sense, but that one kinda does. You can’t do it any better; you really can’t. So all you can hope to do is to inject a little something different in it…’ (Photo: John Darwin Kurc)

Another chapter of the Carolyn Wonderland story she’s asked to remember is far less pleasant than her theatrical dalliance, but it was a more profound learning experience. A little more than a decade ago, the then-29-year-old artist was homeless, unless you count your van as a real home. It started when her landlord was felled by dementia.

Wonderland: “I rented this place from her, and I would write her checks. Sometimes she would lose ‘em and I’d write her another one, okay, cool. And while I was on summer tour, all of a sudden my bankcard doesn’t work. I don’t have any way to get to the next town. What am I gonna do? Because when her niece came to get her and put her in a home--it’s very sad--I hate when people have to do that, but sometimes it’s necessary--when she did she went through her house and found all these old checks and cashed them all at once, cleared out my bank account; and when you’re a musician who lives on so little--$8,000 a year I’d be thrilled--I had lost half of what I was going to do that year.

“I had just taken out a lease on a van, my first van that wasn’t used--well, it was used but it wasn’t horribly used (laughs). So I had taken the lease and was saying, ‘I can’t default on this, if I lose the van I can’t tour. If I lose the house, well…’ When you’re in that situation you think, This is no problem. I will get a place in three months. I got rid of everything I had that wouldn’t go into storage and said, This is cool. Two years later I was saying, I want my own bathroom, I want running water. And you feel bad, too. There was one street I would stay on a whole lot, andeveryone on the block knew I was the homeless girl on the street, but it was okay. I would make a point of trying to be useful to the neighborhood--alright, I’m cleaning out the parking lot. Trying to be useful. It’s a difficult situation. So much of people’s self-worth is tied up in their space and where they live and what they can share. And when all you can share is a front seat it’s pretty rough.”

From Peace Meal, Carolyn Wonderland performs Muddy Waters’s ‘Two Trains’

Her homeless era endured for about two years. During that time, though, she had saved up enough from her live performances--“like something you do your whole life, putting a little aside for a rainy day”--to be able to move in with a friend who was renting an apartment in an arts community. “I don’t think she really needed a roommate but she was really sweet, so I was her roommate for awhile.”

Things began picking up from there, with her music gaining more and more admirers, the bookings coming regularly and for decent money, and other, established artists befriending her on stage and off. By far the most important of these: Bob Dylan, who actually sought her out. In Margaret Moser’s Austin Chronicle profile, Ray Benson related the story of getting Dylan and Wonderland together:

"It's the famous story, that I was out at the Backyard, hangin' with Dylan," booms Ray Benson jovially from his cell phone. "He goes: 'Hey, have you heard Carolyn Wonderland? She's something else!'

"Those were his exact words. 'She stuck out. She should be nationwide! What's she doing?'

"'Playing shitty clubs in Texas,' I told him.

"So I called her up in Houston and said, 'Dylan wants to see you.'

"She drove 100 miles an hour here, and when he got off stage at the Backyard, he invited her down, and they jammed. That was a great little bit of hype."

Dylan’s contribution was to boost Wonderland’s confidence at a time when she was beginning to doubt herself. Also, the Dylan connection proved crucial in another way, in that it was Wonderland’s introduction to Ray Benson, who had never met her but was well aware of her music, and told her: "I love what you do. I'm not known as a rock ‘n’ roller, but I know this music, and I know what to do with you."

Carolyn Wonderland performs her self-penned ‘Misunderstood,’ from her 2008 album Miss Understood, live at KGSR's Blues On The Green, Zilker Park, Austin TX, July 23, 2008

Indeed, Miss Misunderstood and Peace Meal are mature works of blues-rock with intriguing dashes of country, soul and gospel that show Wonderland possessed of a more sophisticated musical vocabulary than the “blues artist” tag would indicate. On the Welnick-Hunter “Golden Stairs” epic, for example, the depth of her gospel feeling elevates the haunting spirituality of Hunter’s lyrics and lends the song a gathering intensity the longer it goes on. Wonderland has been singing the song for more than a decade, going back to when she and Welnick had recorded while they were both in Jerry Lightfoot’s band. Now, both Welnick and Lightfoot are deceased, and Wonderland admits it was tough to approach the song anew. Larry Campbell, however, gave her direction on the approach he wanted her to take (“it was the first time I’d tried to sing like that and cover that much ground and do a part that someone had told me 'This is what I hear and this is what I want you to do.’ Usually I go in and it’s like, ‘and there you go.’ Whatever comes out of my mouth that day, that’s what it is.”), and Wonderland proceeded to take it above and beyond what anyone had imagined it could be. The session with Campbell in Woodstock, though, was wrenching.

“I really like that song, and whenever we’d get Jerry and Vince together and do a little Texas tour, it was a highlight. I found myself having that song requested every night, and for the first few years after they had both passed I just couldn’t play it. We found ourselves up in Woodstock, with Larry, going through some songs we might want to do. I don’t know, for some reason I felt it was time to do that song again. I think it worked out really well. It’s one of those things where you don’t have to have background vocals because you have that pedal steel of Larry’s. I was just crying the whole time. We tracked all of our stuff live and then Larry put the pedal steel on that evening. I was sitting there in front of Levon’s fireplace quietly crying--so it doesn’t end up on tape--listening to Larry play the most awesome shit and thinking, ‘Uh, I have to take some lessons.’”

A live version of the Vince Welnick-Robert Hunter co-write ‘Golden Stairs,’ a highlight of the Peace Meal album, at Washington, D.C.’s Hill Country, June 9, 2011.

Of Wonderland’s strong original songs, “Shine On” especially stands out, simply for seeming like a complementary piece to “Golden Stairs.” Its gentle, gospel-style shuffle, the church piano and organ, and lyrics that can be read literally or metaphorically as the internal monologue of a lone traveler seeking divine guidance--ending in the last verse with the image of a solo performer onstage bathed in a spotlight--and concluding with the sentiment, “I’ll be left alone with the morning light” (night or day, the narrator is surrounded by light) define a soul shaking moment. As elliptical as the lyrics are, Wonderland’s rustic mandolin and deeply ruminative reading enhance the song’s mystical sensitivity and sends the album out on a thoughtful, uplifting note.

“I remember specifically driving through Arizona writing that song,” Wonderland says. “It was a good one to end on just because it was so different from everything else. It’s kind of a palette cleansing before the next record you might want to listen to, just because I rarely play mandolin or try to write pretty stuff. It was fun to try and sing pretty.”

Pretty much like any female blues singer who comes from the Texas Gulf coast, Wonderland has been endlessly compared to Janis Joplin, comparisons that will continue as a result of her swaggering take on the obscure Joplin original “What Good Can Drinkin’ Do” to start things off on Peace Meal. The song, a Joplin home recording from 1962, surfaced a few years ago along with six other cuts Joplin recorded in 1964, in late June, with Jefferson Airplane/Hot Tuna guitarist Jorma Kaukonen at Kaukonen’s home in Santa Clara, CA. At the time the duo was recording, Kaukonen’s wife Margareta was typing a letter home to Sweden. Her background pecking has led some writers to posit that she was using the typewriter as a percussion instruments, thus leading to the tape being referred to as The Typewriter Tape. Janis’s singing and Kaukonen’s guitar work are simply stunning on the tape's venerable blues tunes (“Trouble In Mind,” “Kansas City Blues,” “Hesitation Blues,” “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” et al.). Wonderland was inspired to record “What Good Can Drinkin’ Do” after participating in a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum Masters Series event focusing on Joplin’s music that featured none of the artist’s original songs (“Understandable, because a lot of the songwriters who wrote for her were there, too. I can dig that.”). [Ed. note: this month's Video File features an exclusive interview with Jorma Kaukonen, who debunks the theories about "The Typewriter Tape" and explains why he and Janis were recording together in the first place.]

Nevertheless, Wonderland approached the Joplin tune cautiously, at least until she cut loose in the studio with her fiery performance. “Janis wrote a lot of great shit, you know,” she explains. “And growing up in Texas, you don’t sing Janis Joplin songs live. You just don’t. It’s a sin. We got a lot of laws down here that don’t make any sense, but that one kinda does. You can’t do it any better; you really can’t. So all you can hope to do is to inject a little something different in it, so I took it as my opportunity to say thanks. I hope it came off cool, but you know, you do your best.”

(The Joplin comparisons that have been made of Wonderland are interesting. Vocally, on Miss Understood and Peace Meal, at least, her heavier voice sounds not like Joplin’s but rather like the blues version of Wynonna Judd, who is after all a closet blues singer harboring a great blues album in her should she ever decide to cut one. In conversation, though, and in that aforementioned high-pitched cackle of a laugh, Wonderland sounds a lot like Janis, even down to the “man” that follows many of her sentences and ‘60s jargon such as “trippy,” “groovy,” “dig it” and such, along with the occasional obscenity peppering her observations.)

A live version of the stirring Wonderland original, ‘Shine On,’ the final cut on Peace Meal. At Knuckleheads, Kansas City, May 11, 2010.

If Wonderland carries forward the history of a certain strain of Texas blues, she does the same with respect to her personal history. The youth activist who got kicked out of high school for the stands she took, the artist who once found herself homeless for two years, is now nearing 40 with a larger platform on which to speak out than she ever had in her school days. She’s not wasting the opportunity: As Moser notes in her Austin Chronicle profile, Wonderland supports a “wide range of socially conscious acronym organizations,” including “SIMS, HAAM (Health Alliance for Austin Musicians), MPP (Marijuana Policy Project), NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), WAMM (Wo/Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana), and ARCH (Austin Resource Center for the Homeless), as well as Farm Aid, Seattle Hempfest, Million Musicians March, Cindy Sheehan, SafePlace, Front Steps, Star of Hope, Casa Marianella, and food banks…”

So does she feel a special obligation as an artist to have her voice heard beyond the music?

I don’t know that it’s so much an obligation as it is…if you want to help somebody and you’re a musician, chances are you don’t have a lot of money to help them. You can, however, put on shows and you can speak your mind even if there’s no money to change hands; you can still have someone hear what you’re saying. Perhaps it will change someone’s way of thinking, or maybe not. Or maybe it will them think about it for a second. I was playing in this band the Imperial Golden Crown Harmonizers, and we would get together when everybody was in town and just do a non-denominational brunch kind of thing. I mean seriously you’re just as likely to hear Blind Willie Johnson’s ‘The Soul of Man’ as you are to hear ‘Chocolate Jesus.’ We did not take the religious part of it very seriously. But what we did take seriously was that this was our chance to raise money and to give money to people we thought needed it. ‘Papa Mali’ Welbourne really got the ball rolling on that, and in ten years we raised over a hundred grand by sitting on our asses playing music, you know? It’s an amount of money that, had it been split amongst everyone who played, yeah, it could have helped us at the time with rent or food or whatever, but it was far better to go to people who needed it more and make that money go further.

“These days I try to stay involved with groups that I think are positive and also don’t use a ton of the funds on themselves. This last year we’ve really been working a lot with this group called WhyHunger. For example, during our Christmas shows we set up a thing where you can donate to WhyHunger if you like, and we give ten percent of our merch sales to them anyway. But we also set up a separate thing so if people wanted to donate to their local Occupy movement they could. It always starts an interesting conversation. I’m not telling you what to think, I’m just giving you an option.”

‘Come Together,’ a duet by Carolyn Wonderland and Ruthie Foster from the concert special, Texas Burning: A Lone Star Salute to Our Troops. It includes behind-the-scenes footage from the live concert taping. Says Wonderland: ‘What impresses me most about Ruthie is the fact that she can walk onstage with anybody and make it a more joyous occasion. I get to go up with her onstage sometimes and sing, and it just blows my mind. I’m just in awe of her the whole time. She’s deeply soulful, and the thing is, man, she means it. What she says and brings to the stage she takes off the stage, too.’

Despite the growing acclaim for her work, Wonderland remains far from comfortable in feeling she’s reached a place where music might provide more than a troubadour’s wandering life. She describes “a tenacious hold” on what she’s built more so than a long-term vision of the rewards that would accrue from her music reaching a larger mainstream audience. She holds fast to what she knows to be true from experience:

“When people show up I’m surprised, it’s cool. I know I’m not some 17-year-old beautiful, sparkly boobed girl. I stare at my feet, I play guitar, I sing about stuff that means something to me, it may not mean anything to you, I don’t know. There was a time when I doubted my songwriting. And by circumstance I got to hang out with Bob Dylan a few times over the past few years, and he made me feel good about my songwriting. So now, if I get in that funk or wonder what I’m doing, I remember he thought I could write. So it’s all right.”

Carolyn Wonderland’s Peace Meal is available at

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