Carolyn Wonderland - Homeless in 2001; “Best Female Vocalist” in 2012
from Buddy Magazine - June 2012
Photo by Ron Mckeown
Homeless in 2001; “Best female vocalist” at 2012 Austin Music Awards
Carolyn Wonderland now is an acclaimed musical force equipped with Janis’ soulful vocals plus guitar slinger skills
by Tom Geddie
CAROLYN WONDERLAND AND HER TWO band mates are “booked pretty solid through November” with gigs on the West Coast, the East Coast, in Austria, in Canada, in New York, and then to Europe with likely stops in Norway, Germany, and maybe Russia. “Then it’s home for the holidays and to take a nap, and start up on the next record again,” she said.
Home is Austin. She’ll “come through and say howdy” on June 23 with a show at the Kessler Theater — “which I freakin’ love” — in Oak Cliff, and she’ll bring some of that eclectic musician attitude with her. “We play good music, that’s it. What we dig,” she said. “Some people call it rock, some people call it blues, some people call it country, and we don’t care what they call it as long as they show up. Doug Sahm and the Grateful Dead — it didn’t matter the genre, it still sounded like them when it was done.”
There are also elements of swing, zydeco, surf, gospel, soul, and cumbia in her band, which usually consists of Cole El-Saleh on keyboards and key bass, and Robert Michael Hooper on drums. At the Kessler, she’s sure to break out a couple of new songs and an obscure piece or two, like the Alice Cooper song that Etta James covered: “Only Women Bleed,” which tells us “Man’s got his woman to take his seed . . . she cries alone at night too often . . . he slaps you once in a while and you live and love in pain . . . and you there down on your knees begging me please come, watch me bleed.” It will be a serious moment in a fun show for the 39-year-old who’s been called a “musical force equipped with the soulful vocals of Janis and the guitar slinging skills of Stevie Ray.”
With nine of her own CDs to her credit, including 2011’s Peace Meal from Bismeaux Productions, Wonderland is also the reigning “best female vocalist” at the Austin Music Awards. She’s played on many other people’s CDs, too. “It’s very sweet,” she says of the Joplin and Vaughan comparisons. “I can’t live up to either one. I’ve certainly been called much worse. I love ’em both, but if you can put something new in one of theirs and make it your own, why not find your own voice?”
Wonderland — she got that name, instead of the Bradford she was born with, in a Houston- area high school from a friend who turned her on to Jimi Hendrix and was looking for a band name, and it stuck — also is said to have the “wit of a poet,” but says she has no idea what that means. She is a multi-instrumentalist, playing guitar, trumpet, accordion, piano, mandolin, and lap steel along with her vocals and whistling. The five-foot-three — “fully stretched out” — singer-instrumentalist got an early start in music. “I was born and I found a guitar,” she said.
A poet’s wit
Perhaps that’s the poet’s wit. “My mom played guitar, and it’s always been around,” she said. “It was the only thing that held my interest at all, and I scratched up a few of her Martins including one she found in a dumpster the year I was born, and that’s the one I have now. It was covered in nail polish and my mom and dad restored it. It’s a guitar that’s got a lot of songs in it.”
Wonderland was singing at the popular Fitzgerald’s in Houston when she was 15, influenced by Sahm, Vaughan, Little Screamin’ Kenny, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Angela Strehli, Omar & the Howlers, Lou Ann Barton, and more.
Move to Austin
She was living in Austin by the turn of the century, and became homeless in 2001 when her landlord got sick and she lost her lease in 2001. Turning homelessness into an asset of sorts, she lived in her van because she was spending more than 300 days a year on the road performing. “That lasted for about two years,” she said. “I was on tour a lot of that time, and I had a decision to make: keep the van
and keep touring, or give up the van and find an apartment and start over again.”
She’s still got a van today, but it’s a bigger and more luxurious, oversized Dodge Sprinter.
In Austin, Wonderland’s musical circle grew to include Ray Benson, Eddy Shaver, Ruthie Foster, Terri Hendrix, Cindy Cashdollar, Guy Forsyth, Los Lobos, Robert Earl Keen, and Ray Wylie and she toured with Buddy Guy and Johnny Winter. She also jammed “a few times” with Bob Dylan, who compared her song “Bloodless Revolution” to a mystery movie theme:
“Welcome to the empire / Let’s throw the herd an election / Where the color of skin and what I say is a sin . . . When you look into the eyes of those who criticize / And find it’s your own reflection / I want a bloodless, bloodless revolution.”
Her songs were used on NBC’s “Homicide” and Fox’s “Time of Your Life,” which she calls a stroke of luck. “Each one kinda has its own strange story. They came from natural relationships. A friend needed a song for a TV show and everybody else was gone for the holiday,” she said. “I’m not really good at that marketing stuff, but something always seems to show up right before some vehicular problem and, hey, we’ve got transmission money.”
Wonderland married writer- comedian A. Whitney Brown in 2011, in a ceremony officiated by Michael Nesmith. Critical praise has been effusive:
The Los Angeles Times: “Carolyn Wonderland is the real deal! She’s an amazing guitar player. She whistled a solo. She even played the trumpet! And damn, can she sing.”
The Boston Herald: “A dollop of Janis Joplin, a slice of Stevie Ray Vaughan, and a big load of soulful individuality . . . that’s Wonderland, a seething-hot Texas singer-guitarist. And she can write, too!
Produced by Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson, Miss Understood (2008) focuses on tough yet vulnerable blues, but also captures the melodic soul of classic American song . . . No wonder Dylan is an avowed fan.”
The Austin Chronicle: “When she blisters the guitar and cocks her head fetchingly to sing her songs like “I’m Innocent” she stands in the good company of Sue Foley, Debbie Davies, and Bonnie Raitt. But when she whistles, as she does with disarming ease on another of her compositions, “I’m the Man,” or picks up the trumpet, she’s one of a kind.”
Rockzillaworld Magazine: “Carolyn Wonderland’s live shows are just outright phenomenal. Top notch, five stars, off the meter — whatever the cliché. Carolyn and her band meet it . . . Her voice can be as beautiful as an angel and as powerful as a Class 5 hurricane all within the drop of a hat.”
That’s why she’s booked solid through November.
“Some people call it rock, some people call it blues, some people call it country, and we don’t care what they call it as long as they show up. Doug Sahm and the Grateful Dead — it didn’t matter the genre, it still sounded like them when it was done. —CAROLYN WONDERLAND
BUDDY JUNE 2012