It’s the photograph.
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There she is, standing imperiously behind a silver trailer at the Joshua Tree desert, where Gram Parsons’ dead body was set on fire but didn’t burn, and countless other chemically-altered rockers went looking for UFOs. She is tall and thin, a blue do-rag and black hat covering her head, leaning on an acoustic guitar. Kara Grainger’s whole vibe seems to say, ‘Tread very carefully around me.’
Then you talk to her. And instead of her calling you vato in a low ominous way, Grainger is actually quite friendly. She tells you all about her musical roots, the pleasure she took in making her new CD, Living With Your Ghost, and how she’ll miss her Labradoodle when she goes on tour. It’s also impossible to miss the upbeat Australian accent (she grew up in Sydney). So you find it’s really quite a tonic talking to this singer-songwriter. Who woos you in-a sunshiny Olivia Newton-John kind of way.
She plays funky soul music, which these days you’d probably label Americana. But took a circuitous path getting there.
“I always loved to sing,” says the L.A. resident. “As a young girl, I listened a lot to my parents record collection and learned about 200 songs. From albums by Emmylou Harris, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez. I started to play guitar and sang all these tunes like I was in music class. I was very serious about it all.”
Probably not as serious as Joan Baez. But who is?
Then, the apprentice took a break.
“I felt after that intense education, I need to stop doing covers. At least of Folk. In Sydney there’s a great deal of interest in blues and r&b. Especially on vinyl, And also lots of clubs. My brother Mitch and I had a band, Papa Lips, that use to gig a lot. I was listening to Erma Thomas, lots of Stax stuff and I think that’s when I really found my voice. Singing live. You can experiment. And you learn so much.
You speak to her about experimenting; that’s how Grainger approaches songwriting. One way is freestyle, the other more academic. But they both work for her. From her beginnings, right up to the songs she conjured up for ‘Ghost.’
“I have a couple of different tricks I use when I’m writing,” Grainger says in an almost-whisper, like she’s telling you the secret to life or her PIN number. Which are, these days, kind of the same. “One is to sit with the guitar and just sort of freestyle. As I strum chords, I sing anything that comes to mind. Bits of melody, syllables, words that don’t necessarily go together. That often unlocks a song. If I’m really stuck, I have this other exercise I do. It’s an assignment really. I just pick an object, any object, like a clock and write a song about it. It’s the opposite of the free-form style. It’s very deliberate. But they both help me to write songs.
Ah, the songs.
Grainger is the first singer-songwriter you’ve heard in a while who doesn’t whimper about her problems while politely strumming her guitar. Maybe, like a superhero, the hat and scarf wrapped around her head imbue her with special powers. But once the woman plugs in and starts playing she pretty much incinerates everything around her. Whether it’s the title song, “Man With Soul” or “Favorite Sin” (dig the crazy sound effects here too), it’s hard to believe this badass has ever even heard of Joan Baez. Whether she’s playing bottleneck or making with the Chuck Berry licks, Grainger makes you sit up straight the minute she drops the needle. Then there’s that band. You need help to be this funky. With the ever-dependable Ivan Neville on keyboards, bassist Dave Monsey and drummer J.J. Johnson, our girl has all the support she needs. Throw in producer/guitarist Anders Osborne (Grainger co-produced) and the ambience of Austin’s Wire Recording Studio and you have got one great sounding record.
Things aren’t perfect however. Sometimes the writing can be a bit generic and her vocals, despite some real nice notes borrowed from Tina and Dusty, can occasionally sound a little bit too Blues Mama for my taste. But the gal is just about there. Just bursting with great ideas. Just full of musical things too say. Just about to be a giant.
Toward the end, you discuss a few more disparate things. Grainger’s slide playing (“I learned a lot about tuning from the Mel Bay book”) and how she “hasn’t been getting to the beach lately.” Still, Grainger sounds anxious to go out and tour. If she has any real regrets, it’s that she has to leave Waylon, the aforementioned Labradoodle, for a while. That makes her sound genuinely sad. But after a few seconds she steels herself self against such difficult emotions. She straightens her back and says she’ll get through it. So who knows? Maybe Kara Grainger is pretty tough after all.