JazzReview: Karen! According to your bio, you got your start in church, singing hymns in an out-of-the-ordinary way. Did you get much grief from the hymn purists for your unique renditions of "How Great Thou Art"?
Karen Blixt: It’s funny, but if I did, I didn’t know it! I did, of course, hear people telling me that they didn’t recognize the songs at first, with the added syncopations and melody twisting, but I never took it as criticism. It’s interesting, too, because I grew up unable to listen to jazz in my home. Vocal improvisation was not something I heard a lot of as a kid. I began chanting in the Lutheran church when I got older and loved the beauty of that music, which was different from the traditional hymn-singing I did as a child. I also served as a Cantor in the Presbyterian Church for many years and loved it. Some of my biggest supporters are people from the church community.
JazzReview: You now live and perform a lot in the Bay area of California. Did you ever feel a sense that the jazz purists in the area were critical of your vocal style, and has being a strong-minded female caused you any grief in this industry?
Karen Blixt: It all boils down to attitude and the decision I made not to listen to any negativity. I’m sure that kind of negativity exists, but I choose not to acknowledge it. I feel so fortunate to have some great male musicians alongside. Although I’ve been in the business for many years, I still feel green singing jazz so I feel grateful to be able to meet these musicians on common ground.
JazzReview: Anyone who can have greats like Alex Acuna, Russell Ferrante, Joey DeFrancesco and Buddy Montgomery as musicians on a debut album, like you have, has to be respected! On Spin This, it sounds like you have been singing with them forever!
Karen Blixt: I thank you so much for saying that! I have to credit the incredible Frank Martin, a jazz comrade of mine for over 15 years, for putting it all together. He produced this album in the studio and he made certain that the sound he envisioned was the sound we got, and it seems to have worked. Frank arranged all of the tracks. He is amazing behind the recording console and he helped me rise to the occasion if what you say is true!
JazzReview: You co-wrote three original songs for this CD, didn’t you?
Karen Blixt: Yes. Frank had always told me I could write, and I didn’t think I could. He told me to write a little each day and I would have a song before I knew it. I didn’t believe it, but I was able to write for this CD! The three originals are, "Something So True," "Kitchen Blue" and the title track, "Spin This."
JazzReview: Okay, Karen, it’s time for me to ask about the title track. Is it true that it’s your slightly angry perspective on the Bush administration? And do you think it would adversely affect you in the jazz world as the Dixie Chicks were affected in the world of country music?
Karen Blixt: In my mind, I like to think of the jazz audience as being very open-minded, and open to a larger world view than the powers that be in country radio. A view that is more gray, not just black and white. Yes, I am angry with the direction of the country due to its leadership, whom I believe spins the truth without calling it a lie. In the end, they are spinning their own souls and the truth will come to light.
When we spoke, I got the impression that you feel an emotional connection to the lyrics of a song that makes your interpretations so unique. Is this true?
Yes, it is. When I start singing a standard, I try to stick pretty close to the original melody in the beginning, but the longer I live with the song, I can begin to find my own interpretation. And I also need to believe the lyric; it has to resonate emotionally. As a result, the lyrics to songs we have heard for years hopefully are heard in a new way because they are being presented differently.
I totally agree with you! That’s exactly what happened to me and to my husband when we listened. It’s true that the lyrics of the classics are listened to more intently with your versions because of your interpretations. Although at first I wasn’t sure I was okay with it, but then it really made me appreciate the rebirth of these songs. It was almost like I was re-introduced to old friends!
Karen Blixt: Yes, and the longer I live with a song, the more it changes! I sing it differently each time, because it is done according to the way I feel it at the time, and the way the band feels it. Every performance I try to give up my hold on thinking so much, just let go, and let the music and lyrics come through me.
JazzReview: Does this mean that the songs are performed differently each time? You don’t find a "version" you like and stick with it?
Karen Blixt: Certainly we hit upon versions or arrangements that we like to do, but within that framework, hopefully the songs are different each time we perform them. On the CD and during my gigs it is easy to do because of the great musicians I am privileged to work with. For example, they are able to hold the time which frees me to play with the rhythm. And they play it differently each time as well, with brilliant solos, which is very inspiring on the bandstand!
JazzReview: My son is an extraordinary singer. Like a typical teenager though, he will sing many songs like the original artist. I try to have him make each and every song his own. Any advice for him?
Karen Blixt: You’re right to have him find his own "voice" when singing popular songs. Encourage him to make each song his own; to give in emotionally to the music. He also needs to realize his own version of success and make no comparisons between himself and others he perceives to be successful. When he has doubts, he should put his "blinders" on and just keep on going. Funny, that just made me think of a quote I heard a long time ago that goes something like, "You have to forge ahead with blinders on because anyone with half a brain would never go forward with the way things are in the music industry." (Laughs)
JazzReview: That is great advice! I think it could be used in just about all facets of life, actually. I will pass the word, Karen!
Karen Blixt is a joy to talk with. She is a positive and happy person who loves sharing her talent with the world. Karen has two children, 10 and 11-years old, who miss her when she works, but they are happy she is doing what she loves. This dynamic and fun artist it seems, has successfully blended the mix of family and her career. But if I could see into the future, I would say that Karen’s workload is going to get a lot busier really soon. Touring to promote Spin This is going to make Karen a star vocalist that others will try to emulate. I think they’ll have a hard time keeping up with her!