Guitar Girl'd: Interview with Carolyn Wonderland, Who Releases Her New Album, 'Peace Meal'
Carolyn Wonderland’s new Bismeaux Records release, Peace Meal, ranks high in the never-ending quest for the perfect road trip soundtrack.
In fact, I spent a couple of hours on Northern California’s windy mountain roads grooving to her rich, bluesy voice and driving (pun intended) blues-rock arrangements of classic and new material. I can’t decide whether I like her raspy, lush-toned vocals or soulful and skillful guitar playing better, but luckily I don’t have to choose!
She does down-and-dirty justice to Janice Joplin’s “What Good Can Drinking Do.” And originals like the gospel-infused, funkalicious “Only God Knows When” and the middle-eastern inspired “Usurper” prove her writing skills join the list of what Carolyn Wonderland is really, really good at.
But my favorite track has to be “Two Trains,” which was first recorded by Little Feat, but now takes on new George Thoroughgood-esque life. Wowza. I had to loop that rollicking hand-in-hand guitar and vocal treat at least ten times before I could move on.
Taking the Texas blues literally, Wonderland has lived on the road, worked on the road, and now finds herself reaping the rewards of heart and soul dedication. She’s toured non-stop across three continents, performing on PBS’ Austin City Limits, and a Janis Joplin tribute at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and collaborating with a long list of luminaries such as Levon Helm, Guy Forsyth, Susan Tedeschi, and John Jorgenson. She literally lived out of her van for two years.
Wonderland’s Peace Meal is available for your listening pleasure beginning today, September 27. An extremely worthy download … .
I had the pleasure of speaking to Wonderland for a few minutes recently. When she offered to buy me a shot of tequila after her NYC show next month, I knew she and I were gonna hit it off … a woman after my own heart. Here’s what she has to say about Carolyn Wonderland in the here and now.
I’ve spent a bit of time with your new album in my car, and I have to say it’s a really great road trip album.
Thanks, man. It’s the kind of record that will get you a speeding ticket. I guess those are the ones we go for.
Is there a concept behind the new album or just what you were feeling with each song?
For most records we always try to find the twelve that tell a story, and on this one it was an interesting journey. We started off at Ray [Benson]’s at Bismeaux, where we did the last record and it was a lot of fun. And then suddenly there was Mike Nesmith, and I thought, all right, cool. And then we went up to Woodstock and it’s like, “Well, why not?”
And, of course, the challenge there is like, well, is this all gonna work? Is it gonna be like a patchwork quilt, or is it going to be like, that song really shouldn’t be on there. It worked out though; I was really surprised. We didn’t have to whittle away too much.
What’s your favorite song on the album?
Oh, man. It changes every day. I really like what we did with “Golden Stairs,” just because it’s a personal song for me. I recorded it 10 years ago with Jerry Lightfoot and Vince Welnick. Vince wrote the song with Robert Hunter years and years back, I guess right after he left The Grateful Dead.
I hadn’t done it in a long time, because after Lightfoot and Welnick had passed on, it was just too hard to do. That’s the last thing you wanna do at a show is be in the middle of a song and turn it into a big ol’ snot rag on stage, you know? So I love it, because we finally got to do it. And it’s not that I’m emotionally devoid from the song. It still gets me. But I can channel it into a guitar. I can channel it into something else. I’m really, really glad we did that song.
I have to tell you my favorite song is “Two Trains.” I love how you do that song.
That arrangement. It’s by my friend Little Screamin’ Kenny. He’s the first guitar player I ever saw in my life, aside from my mom. The first person I saw with smoke and lights and the whole thing. Man, he has the coolest arrangements of songs, and when he writes stuff it sounds like it was written in the ‘40s.
So tell me a little bit about the guitar side of things for you. What’s your gear setup like?
Most of the time, I travel with my Tele. She’s been my most road-worthy. I’m not afraid to fly with her. I have a Blueshawk as well at the house that I love to play on. I have a couple Gibsons and a couple Fenders. I adore ‘em, but really for flying, you gotta have the Tele. So I use a Thinline, it’s the 50th Anniversary model. They did a reissue of the ‘69 and the ‘72, and I got the ’69. I put in some Joe Bardens. Those Joe Bardens, man, they scream.
What kind of amp do you use?
I’m using a ValveTech. The guy who makes ValvetTech is really cool. We started having a guitar geek conversation via email last year. He was just asking, ‘cause I played on one of his amps when we were on tour in Europe, and I was like “Oh, it’s great.” He said, “What would you do to make it different?” And so back and forth we went with these emails. Next thing I know I got a big, red sparkly amp. I’m diggin’ it.
Then I throw in a little Tube Screamer and that’s it. For everything, like the lap steel, the guitar, the mandolin. I run all those through the Tube Screamer.
I read that you lived in your van for a couple of years while you were out touring on the road, and I’m guessing that life has changed for you since then. What’s your lifestyle like today?
It’s crazy, man. I’m a musician with a mortgage. I never saw that coming, I didn’t see the living in a van thing either obviously, or I would’ve done something to change that. I don’t feel like I was homeless, I had a van. I was van-full. We were on the road so much, it just really didn’t many sense to pay rent at that point.
But it was funny. It’s just one of those things that when you’re in the middle of it, you’re thinking, “Oh yeah, I got this. In three months, I’m gonna have myself a place. And then two years later, you’re like, “Dude. OK, that’s it. I need running water.” Tired of borrowing people’s showers and using their laundry!
Well, congratulations on the new album! Can’t wait to see you play live. What’s that one crucial kernel you hope people will experience when they go see you play?
I really hope that they know I mean it. And that’s really all. And anything else, y’now, if I make someone mad, well, I hope it’s for the right reasons. If I make them laugh, I hope it’s at the right spot in the joke, y’now? But aside from that, I really hope that they know I mean this stuff.
Check out Wonderland’s guitar chops on this face-melting live performance of her original song, “No Exception.”
Laura B. Whitmore is a singer/songwriter based in the San Francisco bay area. A veteran music industry marketer, she has spent over two decades doing marketing, PR and artist relations for several guitar-related brands including Marshall and VOX. Her company, Mad Sun Marketing, represents 65amps, Acoustic Bass Amps, Agile Partners, Guitar World and many more. Laura was instrumental in the launch of the Guitar World Lick of the Day app. She is the lead singer for the rock band Summer Music Project. More at mad-sun.com.