Lavin, Christine

views updated

Christine Lavin

Singer, songwriter

Learned Guitar From Public Television

Fast Folk Broadened Her Horizons

Shed Reliance on One-liners

Attainable Love Marked Artistic Maturity

Selected discography


Before Roger Deitz interviewed Christine Lavin for Sing Out! magazine, he watched her finish a lesson with instructor Mike Moore. Moore was not teaching Lavin voice or guitar technique; a Georgia and Florida state champion, he was helping her through a particularly complicated baton twirling routine. This may seem a strange pastime for a musician. But for Lavinwho in concert twirls while her tape recorded deepest thoughts wonder What if I drop it and Did I leave my iron on?it is an integral part of her show. It also comes in handy when she loses her voice, as she did at the 1988 Ann Arbor Folk Festival. Lavin, whose music is sometimes labeled pop, more often folk, and occasionally even stand-up comedy, is, as Vin Scelsa described in Penthouse, a driving force and enthusiastic cheerleader of the eighties Folk Revival.

Lavin has built a reputation as one of the observers and chroniclers of modern urban life, with recordings like Prisoners of Their Hairdos, Sensitive New Age Guys, Good Thing He Cant Read My Mind, and Mysterious Woman, a brilliant parody of folk-pop singer Suzanne Vega. Although she has received little attention on mainstream radio stations, Lavin has built a wide following among critics, folk music fans, and public radio listeners. In his Penthouse article on Lavin, Scelsa called her one of the countrys best songwriters. Period. Regardless of genre or backup instrumentation. For her literacy, humor, and compassion, her keen, observant eye and ability to translate the most mundane moments into magic, I can only compare her to the likes of, say, a [songwriting giant like] Paul Simon. Concurring in the Utne Reader, Jay Walljasper wrote, Her lilting, elegant voice and sweet, soft melodies belie a tart wit that is somewhat similar to [cartoonist and writer] Lynda Barrys. At times hilarious, at times absurd, at time touching, and sometimes all three at once, Lavin is not going to be mistaken for one of those warbling songbirds who give folk music a bad name. Shes definitely got an 80s edge.

Learned Guitar From Public Television

Lavin grew up one of nine siblings in Peekskill, New York, where her father was an administrator at a military academy. As she explained in Frets Magazine, her mother felt that each of her children needed something that made them individual, because she was afraid they would get lost in such a big family; Lavin got the role of family guitarist. She couldnt afford lessons, so she learned how to play by watching New York Citys public television station, which broadcast guitar lessons twice a week. So if you contributed to public

For the Record

Born c. 1952; raised in Peekskill, NY; daughter of a military academy administrator. Education: Attended Rockport State.

Singer, songwriter, concert performer, recording artist. Worked as a waitress, baker, and occasional performer, Cafe Lena, Saratoga Springs, NY, 1975-1976; worked as a wandering minstrel in a Mexican restaurant, and at Bellevue Hospital, New York City. Became involved with the Speakeasy (a cooperatively run folk club), New York City, and its music publication, Fast Folk Music Magazine. Recorded Another Womans Man; and Future Fossils, 1984, on her own label, Palindrome (later picked up for national distribution by Philo/Rounder Records). Appeared frequently at national folk festivals c. late 1980s.

Addresses: Home New York City. AgentKatherine Moran & Associates, P.O.Box 60, Weare, NH 03281. Record Company The Rounder Records Group, 1 Camp St., Cambridge, MA 02140.

television, you played a part in my musical development, she told Deitz in Sing Out! In the same interview, she said that her musical influences also came from mass media, as she couldnt afford records either. Lavin listened to New Yorks WNEW-FM, and the musicians she heard thereBob Dylan, Judy Collins, Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, Joni Mitchellshaped her musical taste. Lavin attended Rockport State and in 1975, after a sojourn in Florida, moved to the Cafe Lena in Saratoga Springs, New York. In Sing Out! she explained that she had a goal of someday opening a club, so she took a waitress and bread-baking job at the cafe to see what running a club was like. The time she spent there was a tremendous education, as it afforded her the opportunity to hear some of the greats of folk music. In February of 1976 folk-pop singer Don McLeans manager heard Lavin perform at the cafe; he told her that if she learned to play the guitar better and moved to New York City, she might have a career in music. As fate would have it, singer-songwriter Dave Van Ronk visited the club the same evening and reiterated the managers suggestion that she move to New York. Van Ronk also offered to really teach her how to play the guitar; by March she had moved. Two months later Lavin found herself working as a wandering minstrel in a Mexican restaurant on Columbus Avenue. The job was less than ideal; in fact, she told Sing Out!, she hated it. Yet in spite of such incidents as being ordered to sing while a knifing occurred in the restaurant, she lasted until the fall, earning enough money to buy a better guitar.

Fast Folk Broadened Her Horizons

In the early 1980s a New York club called the Speakeasy asked Lavin to perform. Her then-manager told her not to take the job because, she said, Its just a bunch of folk musicians hanging around at this club behind a falafel stand! You dont want to be involved with these people, Lavin told Frets. Shortly thereafter she realized this manager was sort of a maniac and in checking out the club found it exactly the place she wanted to be. At the Speakeasy she became involved with the house writers cooperative that had created Fast Folk Music Magazine. A non-profit production, Fast Folk is published every six weeks; a subscription includes a twelve-cut record as well as a magazine containing essays, reviews, bios, and a guide to folk music events. Since joining the Fast Folk team, Lavin has written for, produced, and edited several issues of the magazine. She has also worked on publicity and has emceed performances at the Speakeasy club.

During the early years of her involvement with Fast Folk, Lavin also worked full-time at New Yorks Bellevue Hospital. She told Sing Out! that those were her giving-up years. She took some guitar lessons and performed occasionally, but felt it was time to try something else. She did not give up on her music completely, however, and managed to record her first album, Another Womans Man, during this period. In 1984, after giving up the giving up period, she recorded Future Fossils, which she produced herself. At that point Lavin was becoming a fixture on the New York folk scene. With the release of Beau Woes and Other Problems of Modern Life in 1986, critics began to pay attention. A review in Spin noted that the album presents a clever lyricist equally adept with humorous tales and sensitive ballads. By this time Lavin was developing a wide following in clubs and festivals across the country.

Shed Reliance on One-liners

The 1988 release of Good Thing He Cant Read My Mind marked an important change in Lavins style: While the earlier albums were distinguished by the singers very witty and ironic comments on American culture, this one included only two outright comic songs. In David Hinckleys New York Daily News review of the album, he suggested that Lavin may have wondered if her wit and charm were overshadowing her songs, and reported that in Good Thing she had created her most produced work and the [one] least reliant on one-liners. Scelsa agreed: There is less immediate silliness than on past efforts; her humor has grown more subtle. Lavin told Sing Out! that it had actually taken time to become comfortable performing the more serious songs. The humor worked as a shield; it was easier to be funny under pressure. She had also felt that the often too-serious folk music needed some lightening up. Critics took the change as a sign of Lavins maturing style and burgeoning talent.

Lavins career took a worrisome turn in 1989 when she began having trouble with a tendon in her hand, a grave problem for someone who makes a living playing the guitar. According to Lavin, the difficulty stemmed from holding her instrument wrong, and also from carrying too many heavy things. Fortunately, she caught the disorder early enough to avoid surgery, but her recovery included treatment at the Miller Health Institute for the Performing Arts, physical therapy, and lessons with members of the Metropolitan Opera orchestra on how to properly hold her guitar.

Attainable Love Marked Artistic Maturity

Lavins continuing maturation as a songwriter was particularly evident in her 1990, self-produced album, Attainable Love. According to Rounder Records, it found its way onto many critics ten-best lists. Billboard magazine called it delectable, and described one track, The Kind of Love Your Never Recover From, as gut-wrenching storytelling of the first order. Sensitive New Age Guyspenned with John Gorka and featuring a choral group comprised of all the sensitive guys she could find in New Yorkbecame a favorite on alternative radio stations. Attainable Love often focuses on the darker side of relationships; as the New York Daily News wrote, it takes a wider psychological perspective, than do her previous albums.

After Attainable Love Lavin directed her attention to what was possibly folks first all-female supergroup. In 1990 Lavin joined up with folk singers Patty Larkin, Megon McDonough, and Sally Fingerett; calling themselves The Four Bitchin Babes, they set out on tour. According to Rounder Records, one publication raved, If one great woman folk singer on stage is a sheer delight, then this groups quadruple bill is the height of bliss. In 1991 Rounder released a live recording of the show titled Buy Me Bring Me Take Me: Dont Mess My Hair: Life According to Four Bitchin Babes, complete with the feminist fight song made famous by Nancy Sinatra, These Boots Are Made For Walking.

Placing Lavin in a genre slot became no easier as her popularity grew and her writing matured. She doesnt mind her usual folk label, and as she told Sing Out!, her roots are definitely in folk music. But she sees herself moving in a more multi-dimensional, more theatrical direction. Eventually, she mused, I think I will be viewed as doing a one-woman showor An evening with Christine Lavin. The best role for Lavin may be as social commentator. Its as semidetached observer that Lavin is most striking, People concluded. If we could get her and Loudon Wainwright III named our national folk music laureates, wed have most of the countrys problems accurately described, if not solved, in no time.

Selected discography

Another Womans Man, Philo, 1987 (recorded before 1985). Future Fossils, Philo, 1985.

Beau Woes and Other Problems of Modern Life, Philo, 1987.

Good Thing He Cant Read My Mind (includes Mysterious Woman), Philo, 1988.

Attainable Love (includes Sensitive New Age Guys and The Kind of Love You Never Recover From), Philo, 1990.

(With Patty Larkin, Megon McDonough, and Sally Fingerett) Buy Me Bring Me Take Me: Dont Mess My Hair : Life According to Four Bitchin Babes (includes Prisoners of Their Hairdos), Philo, 1991.

Compass, Philo, 1991.

Also recorded for Fast Folk Music Magazine and contributed to On A Winters Night, North Star Records.


Frets Magazine, March 1987.

Mother Jones, October 1989.

Ms., April 1986.

New York Daily News, March 29, 1988; February 11, 1990.

New York Times, February 23, 1990.

Penthouse, June 1988.

People, March 12, 1990.

Sing Out!, Summer 1989.

Spin, March 1986.

Washington Post, January 18, 1988; June 24, 1988.

Wilson Library Bulletin, June 1989.

Utne Reader, January/February 1989.

Other sources include album liner notes and Rounder Records album profiles.

Megan Rubiner