A clear and unfettered voice that tells the truth through melodies seems to catch the ear right away: that’s how you can easily peg Karen Hammarstrand.
In her new CD called Still Life, the waltz feel of the title song is familiar yet fresh, with a layer of bright horn sitting flavorfully on top. “The Passing” has some blues in the guitar strum (courtesy of the very talented David Quanbury), doing justice to this ballad whose desperado-type pace is engaging from the first notes. Think of the fat stride piano sounds and add a tinny vibe and you have “Stirring Up a Brew,” all whimsy. The bossa “Out of Body Style” is taken over by flute weaving in and out of the vocals. A real mix of tempo and tune, this CD keeps things moving and gets you from different corners.
Clearly, your influences come from many genres. What was your first exposure to music and why do these different kinds all resonate with you?
I remember listening, singing and dancing to 1950s and ‘60s pop songs from my mom’s record collection. I enjoyed frequent symphony dates with my dad, as well as listening to his collection of 78s from the 1920s. Later the 1970s and ‘80s pop, rock and crossover bands supplied my soundtrack. With my writing, I have kind of loved it all and jumped around and drawn from different wells, including current music of all genres. Each style of music presents a new vehicle for telling a story; it’s exciting! The artistic, explorative work of Joni Mitchell, though, has stayed at the forefront of my consciousness and close to my heart. I enjoy painting (for fun), and I love her analogy between the arrangement of notes and chords in writing a song to the mix of colors and brush strokes put on a canvas.
What was your first experience singing for others and what was it that made you resolute in choosing this for your life’s path?
My first experience was around six years old, when my teacher asked me to sing a solo for a piano recital. My veering headlong onto the music path didn’t come until midlife. In between these times, I acquired a bachelor’s in Zoology and a masters in Anthropology and then raising a family. Then, about 15 years ago, I woke up one morning with a fully formed song in my head. I pulled out my tape recorder, knowing that the time had come to follow this love of music in me. I had always loved playing piano by ear (but not practicing, so achieved about a grade 2 level), and have a fervent love of writing.
Also, I think that maybe I’d come of age; having lived awhile I had some stuff I was ready to share. So, deciding I would not let my weak instrumental skills get in the way, I learned enough guitar to continue writing and to perform.
What parts of your formal music education still stay with you?
My lack thereof has probably hampered, or at least slowed down, the music composition process, but I’ve always written by ear, and it has worked well enough for me so far. In terms of formal training, my years in science provided me with a love of asking questions, looking for commonalities and maybe even truths, and that these have been frequent themes in my lyrics. Oh…and the scientific method provided me with my spare writing style.
In terms of later informal training, I have taken vocal lessons that have really helped with breath placement and lyrical phrasing.
How do you take care of your voice?
Living in a cold climate, I try to keep my face from getting too cold, and I keep an eye on humidity (with winter comes dryness). I also avoid dairy, and try not to yell too much lol.
Do you start a writing a song with a lyric in mind or do you start with a melody?
Generally I hear the music first, sometimes spontaneously or even in the middle of the night (that I sing into my phone). Another way is to noodle around on the guitar fretboard or piano keyboard until I find a progression that suggests a mood or even a story. The writing invariably comes later.
My eclectic style is perhaps due to the free-form way I write music. For example, noodling around the fretboard has led me to inadvertently come across a jazzy chord or progression (that I then laboriously flesh out). When I’m done, it’s exciting because the landscape is often a surprise and entirely new. Also, I listen to a lot of different music styles, and whatever I’m listening to at the moment usually influences what I’m working on.
What inspired this new album and while you mention it’s eclectic, how do you feel it all hangs together?
I think the common thread in my music, aside from my vocals, would be my particular writing style and the filter of my experiences and perspective. This album Still Life was inspired by observations of (mostly my own) life. I selected some of my older songs, and wrote a few new ones that are largely hopeful and represent many of life’s enduring facets.
The album walks through the most common and widely written-about human dynamics, namely, love. These dynamics always will be with us and occupy a huge part of our emotional landscape.
Other of the songs speak to a spiritual realm. The opening song “Waking” is strongly personal, and describes a deep and abundant love of nature, seeing the natural world (man’s original context and home) as an extension of humanity and self. The song “Still Life” speaks to the importance of taking time for inner quiet, while “Today” looks at loving and accepting what is and comes from inner work that I’ve been grateful to do over the last few years.
Talk about your personnel, what they bring to the album and how you work together.
The assembling of musicians by initial co-producer (Jonathan Alexiuk) began in late 2021. There were close to 2 dozen amazing musicians who, working through the pandemic and studio restrictions, contributed through a largely organic and unscripted overdub process. The only arranged overdub instrument was the cello. It was both stressful and a delight as, though at times unwieldy, it felt like everyone had a lot of opportunity to contribute their own unique flavor.
Jon, who played on most tracks, stayed on through the laying of the bed tracks to the recording of the final overdubs. This mountain of overdubs was then methodically cherry picked by Rusty Robot (who had been acting as our recording engineer) and who along with Lloyd Peterson, took over as co-producers at this point.
From there Lloyd and Rusty (both veteran producers, musicians, and multi-instrumentalists) worked with me to add to and sometimes rebuild songs from the ground up, playing and often singing on most of them.
We had a lot of fun and put a lot of ourselves into this album, and I’m extremely grateful to these two talents for not only their great ears, but also their kindness, tenacity and love of fun in pushing this project through! Listening to the CD, friends and fellow musicians have commented on the fabulous backing band, and I have to laugh because most of my “band” members added their parts independently! Again, humble and grateful.
What was the most challenging about producing this album?
This CD felt like a box of chocolates. I think the most stressful part was working around the necessary studio protocols that made the session timetables unpredictable. Also, the sheer volume of musicians and overdubs could feel unwieldy. However, it became a very organic, creative process, and we were very happy with the final result.
What is the jazz scene like where you live today?
The jazz and general music scene is strong in Winnipeg. Since businesses have reopened, live music has sprung back. It feels like there’s a real vibrancy and an urgency to make up for all the lost time. I feel exhilarated attending some of the many live music offerings in our city, with a wide variety of concerts and new music of all genres to choose from.
What is the most challenging about being a singer today?
For myself, the most challenging things are to stay healthy with a good level of energy, and to keep my life in balance. As well, staying current with the technology needed for (even simple) marketing, website development, etc., has been quite a learning curve.
Fill in the blank: Music means so much to me because _____________________.
It ties my heart to the past, present and future, as well as to others. It is the timeless and universal language.
For more information, visit www.karenhammarstrand.com.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of the artist.
© 2023 Debbie Burke
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