The loud buzz of socializing and beer glasses clinking at Telluride’s Las Montañas Cantina stops the second Carolyn Wonderland opens her mouth. She’s chosen to open with a vintage gospel number, “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” giving it an acrobatic a cappella intro before she and the band settle into a bluesy groove.
With Cole El-Saleh on keyboards and Michael “Lefty” Lefkowitz on the drums, Carolyn plays the stringed instruments (guitar, mandolin, lap steel) and the occasional horn and the trio packs a punch. They call Austin “home” but “the entirety of this last year, since January, we’ve been averaging about five days home for the month,” Carolyn explains.
Backstage before the show she’s friendly and sincere, and very funny. She jokes about the chlorophyll she’s drinking in hopes that it will help her overcome the altitude (“I decided to take the green acid before the show,” she giggles) before we settle down to talk about the music.
She’s ready to walk on stage, already dressed in a simple black top and dark jeans. Her usually auburn hair is blonde tonight, with pink and orange highlights. Black-and-white cowboy boots and her trademark rhinestone peace necklace complete the look.
Her style is a patchwork of blues, folk, rock and soul–influences she discovered as a kid growing up in Houston from the likes of Little Screaming Kenny and Joe Guitar Hughes, Jerry Lightfoot, Trudy Lynn and Allison Fisher. With her last record, Miss Understood over a year old, it’s time to start working on a new batch of songs.
“We’re going to go in and do it with Ray (Benson of Asleep at the Wheel),” she says about their upcoming studio time when they return back to Texas. “We’re going to Bismeaux (Ray Benson’s recording studio in Austin) and Cole, Lefty and I are just going to lay down 20 songs, maybe a little more and see what shape it takes. Then you start trimming off stuff to see what fits, what’s already been said. I think it’ll be fun.
“I imagine it’ll be like a spring release; it’ll give us some time to record in October, go over to Europe, come home and listen to it and go, ‘Oh, ok, maybe I’ll change that or maybe…’ It’s nice to have the luxury of being able to listen to it and have a little time before you go back in and tweak things. Although there’s something to be said about just going in and recording live.”
The songs come from various places, “it’s just fishing in the ether and you just hope you catch it, hope it comes out right,” she says describing her writing process. “There’s not one set way, but my favorite is if it just shows up by itself, like you’re driving and the whole thing’s done and you hear all the parts and the words are done and it’s like ‘Wow!’
“But other times there’s a guitar lick that won’t go away,” she says describing a new song she’s put in the set list. “I’d had it for a year and it never had lyrics to it, nothing’s stuck and then Fourth of July, we were up there at Antone’s and it was like, ‘Oh, hey!'”
“I’m not very studious with it,” she admits with a laugh. “I have friends who will get together and do song classes once a week, get together and co-write with people and always to stay in that moment. I’ve never been able to capture it like that, I try and I feel like I’m sometimes dead-weight and sometimes I contribute.”
“Modest” is an understatement when it comes to Carolyn. Though she’s garnered multiple titles (Best Austin Musician – Female Vocalist 2009, Local Musician of the Year – Houston Press Music Awards 1997 and 1998 to name a few), after each applause and compliment she bows her head with a bashful, unassuming “thank you” as if accepting an award for someone else.
“It’s sweet,” she says about the praise she receives. “And sometimes I think perhaps they’ve had a bit to drink, but perhaps it’s sincere as well… maybe it’s a little bit of both… the audience is just as much a part of it on any give night.”
“I’m just lucky to get away with it,” she adds. “I know a lot of folks don’t get to do it this long so I feel pretty lucky.”
As with her songwriting capabilities and performance skills, she’s quick to discount her voice. During the set break a fan comments that she sounds like Janis Joplin, Carolyn laughs almost self-consciously.
“It’s a huge compliment if people think I sound anything like Janis,” she says later. “I couldn’t pull it off on a good day or a bad day.” Still, she was invited to perform at a Janis tribute for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame where her rendition of “Down On Me” was nearly universally cited as the highlight of the show.
But for now, it’s back to the stage at Las Montañas. The crowd is restless; though it’s bitterly cold outside they’re packed together and the venue is at capacity.
Her sets are peppered with homages to some of her favorites like Texas songwriter Terri Hendrix, Los Lobos and Bob Dylan. “Here’s a song from Brother Bob Dylan,” she says before “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry.” “I hope you like it, but if you don’t take it up with him. I wish you the best of luck with that.”
“It’s a subconscious thing,” she says about her performances. “It’s like you jump off and you go. Some nights you hit it and some nights you don’t, but when you do it’s beautiful and you don’t remember what you played or what anything sounds like, it’s just done.”
“I always used to laugh at you know, ‘Hello Cleveland’ or whatever because you think that’s ridiculous to not to know where you’re at,” she says about their schedule. “On stage I know because it’s like familiar stages and friends and places I’ve played for years, but hotels, for example, sometimes I’ll wake up and be like ‘Am I in Kyoto? Am I in Amsterdam? Am I in Texas? I have no idea.’
“But if you’re well rested enough, you have the luxury to see the area. I like it when we have a couple of days, we’ve made habits of camping on trips before just because it’s more fun and when I went to Japan with Shelley (King) we went and saw so many things, so many temples, it was amazing.”
Here in Telluride she’s been enjoying the gondola (“that was pretty damn fine; we were screaming, I don’t know how many people do that when they get on one for the first time”) and the mountains, except for that pesky altitude. “I was raised in the swamp, sea level to the mountain top,” she laughs. “You wake up in the night and say ‘Am I breathing?'”
She briefly pulls out her horn for a solo during “Walk On” and ends the set with “Judgement Day Blues.”
“Thanks for having us,” she says returning for an encore. The audience is cheering so loudly it’s difficult to hear the opening lines of the tune about how a beer saved her life, the few short a cappella verses capping the show.
It’s the wee hours of the morning now and the band is packing their van, headed back to Austin for another gig and then to start working on that new record before heading to Europe in November on, as Carolyn puts it, “the perpetual tour.”
Photos by Nichole Wagner from the Telluride Blues & Brews Festival