By Christopher Treacy & Christie Lenée
If Christie Lenée isn’t on your radar yet, let’s change that right now. A stunningly talented singer-songwriter, Lenée brings something to the table that sets her apart: chops. Serious guitar chops. She’s been repeatedly recognized for her skills and innovative style, including being named one of Guitar World‘s ‘Best Acoustic Guitarists in the World Right Now’ in 2021. Using a blend of open tunings, shifting time signatures and a knack for knock’n’slap punctuations, Lenée moves with seeming ease from simple self accompaniment to becoming a one-woman symphony… sometimes within the space of the same song. Instrumental pieces like “Chasing Infinity” tell her guitar story brilliantly in a four-minute snapshot, while “Free World Citizen” is an infectious showcase for her style of folk-pop with groove-based textures—one of her favorite musical delivery systems. Vocally, she keeps it earthy. The production on her records is thoroughly modern, but she resists the incessant melismatic showboating that seems to have crept its way into almost every genre over the last twenty years. Bottom line? Lenée’s for real. CQ real, we think.
Today, we’re premiering the video for “Fly Away” a focus track off of her 2022 album ‘Coming Alive,’ a set of songs with contagiously out vibes. The tracks were initially written in pandemic isolation, and while that’s not an unusual story, the way that the last three years impacts art will continue to reverberate in our culture forever. And there’s definitely something to be celebrated there. In Lenée’s case, the isolation led to valuable discovery, expanding on the spiritual element that’s already a recurring theme in her music.
“Fly Away” is rife with the spirit of anticipation. Let it bowl you over, like a new love might.
Oh, and Happy Valentine’s Day.
Let’s talk a little about your relationship to the guitar. What initially attracted you to it? The shape? The tone? Was it enhanced by another musician’s use of it? I know you were young when you picked it up.
The guitar was my first love. I grew up as a young performer in the acting, singing and theater circuits. Music was a part of my daily existence. At age 11, certain artists such as Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin really captured my heart, specifically because of the electric parts. Many of those guitar solos sounded like soul singers and the rich expressive tones drew me in.
Around the same time of discovering classic rock music, my half brother Scott was wailing on the electric guitar and playing everything by ear. I loved the thought of learning music by jamming out to the actual songs I was listening to on the day to day, and not the more “academic” style of learning music that informed my younger piano studies. Scott gave me one lesson on how to figure out songs by ear and it felt like a musical awakening. Almost immediately I asked my parents for an electric guitar and hit the ground running. I spent a couple of years blasting the electric in my bedroom to all of my favorite rock records at every moment possible.
Playing the guitar became an emotional outlet for me. My parents divorced just before I started playing and I felt lost and confused. Music was a way that I could return to my heart and express my feelings, and from then on, my guitar was my life long companion. It gave me an outlet to channel my internal experience. Always and forever, music continues to be cathartic for my sensitive heart and really helps me find a sense of meaning and belonging in a complex world.
Along the way, I found mentors and a musical community. Studying music helped me to stay focused and set goals. My guitar went everywhere with me as a young musician…to high school parties, to the waiting room at the doctor’s office, to the high school cafeteria, practice rooms—literally, everywhere. I couldn’t put it down. One of my high school friends recently told me that in those days, if I was going with them somewhere in the car they always had to factor in room for an extra person… THE GUITAR.
To this day, the guitar comes with me almost everywhere I go, but it’s gotten to be far more of a production to go on a road trip <laughs>. BLESS the people who travel with me on all occasions! There is a family of guitars now, and they all love each other! They all have their strengths: the electrics, 12 strings, baritone, soprano 12 string, acoustics, classical guitar… depending on the situation, there is almost always at least one with me, or one not too far away.
Needless to say I have a deep love for the guitar, and always will. It is an extension of my voice, and my soul.
You’re known for what I think of as a percussive guitar style, where you use the body of the instrument in numerous ways to create a symphony of sounds—fleshing out songs into much chunkier arrangements that really pop. When did you first start experimenting with this? Michael Hedges was the first guitarist I heard really do this. Can you talk about what’s satisfying about it?
My percussive style was born during college when I started taking drum lessons. I felt really inspired by the drum set and four-part rhythmic coordination. It was fun to learn different kinds of grooves, polyrhythms and paradiddles; in fact, so much fun that I started to apply the concepts of practicing four-part rhythmic coordination on the guitar: two parts with my hands, and the rest with my feet—hence the foot stomp on the right foot, and foot tambourine on the left foot for solo shows.
Around the same time, we studied orchestrations on the projector screen during theory classes in college. At one point when my brain zoomed out and looked at the first violin, second violin, viola, cello, etc, I had a vision that each string of the guitar could accomplish the function of an orchestra… at least, to the best of what is physically possible. I started exploring open tunings and the chakra system while composing instrumental pieces, while also implementing elements of sound healing in the compositional process to activate certain moods.
The Michael Hedges album Aerial Boundaries was also introduced to me and I used to listen to it while falling asleep at night.
Are you continuing to learn, with your playing? Does it just go on and on, or is there a sense of it being finite?
There is no end to what I can learn about music. I am constantly reminded that music is a field of energy all around us, and the more we tap into it, the deeper and more expansive it gets. Yet, I admit there have been moments when I have hit a plateau as a musician. I’ve noticed that such situations have happened when the guitar took the front seat for too long. Changing the instrument focus or zooming out to see music as something bigger has always continued to re-inspire me. This has included working with space and sounds, music production, choosing to work deeper with my voice, the piano, or various other stringed instruments.
For inspiration, I listen to classical piano and orchestral music alongside really great pop singers. In the art of discovering great instrumental arrangements and strong hook melodies, I am constantly humbled to realize there really is no end to the process of musical discovery. If I hit the end of a road, it just means to me that I need to take a turn and study a different side of music for a while—music production, drums, various 12 strings, different musical styles or types of iconic singers… there’s always more to learn!
Is it challenging to balance your records? I mean that with regard to your instrumental prowess and also being a singer-songwriter… I imagine it might be tempting to let the guitar just take over and the hell with everything else <laughs>.
<Laughing> The guitar is a world of its own, and one which can certainly distract me from many life situations. I appreciate the moments when I am called to by the guitar muse, and truthfully, that process supports my experience of songwriting. It’s usually clear from me right at the beginning if a song should have lyrics. If it doesn’t, I’ll just play the melody on the guitar.
If the song does have words, I always bring it to the piano to hear what the melody sounds like underneath the chords. Usually this guides me to know if I need to change a chord shape, which is very helpful to see and hear on piano if a song is in an open tuning. This might guide me to compose an instrumental section for a song, or create a slight alteration of chord voicings. In that sense, the music does sweep me away into musical explorations far too often. I do see it as part of the compositional process, though, and this applies regardless of whether or not a song has words.
As an album, ‘Coming Alive‘ seems to be about awakening, empowerment, surefootedness…was there an event or a series of them that put you in an emotional position to make such a declarative record at this time?
Great question! Many songs from Coming Alive were written during the peak of Covid-19 lockdown. I was posted up in a log cabin in North Carolina and wasn’t seeing many human beings at that time. That amount of solitude gave me the chance to look inward as a process of self discovery. In a sense, that time in the cabin felt like a rebirth, and this album is a product of that awakening.
Would you say you’re as confident a songwriter as you are a musician? Or is it two completely different planes?
I feel that the songwriter and musician in me pass the hat back and forth. During certain moments of my career my guitar playing took the front seat, but on this album the vocals wanted to steer the train.
Coming Alive features some of my favorite musicians on the planet alongside a plethora of my guitars. In that sense, the music is the engine for the album, while the lyrical messages are soaring in the open air with the windows down. All is open for the listener’s experience and interpretation.
Simply put: I am still always a musician first and the evolution is an endless journey. Without the musical studies and experiences I’ve had, I’m not sure if these kinds of songs could even exist.
Does your sexuality inform your art in a way that you’ve noticed or are aware of?
My creativity and sexuality are inextricably connected. Being queer informs my emotional experience, which informs my music, and it is all a part of who I am. These elements of my humanity are forever entwined, and love, specifically, is one of my greatest inspirations.
I do think that my songwriting has become less obscure over the years. In the song “The Victory We’ve Won” on the album Coming Alive, it is very clear that I am singing to a woman who I love very much. The language evokes the feminine in a very obvious and intentional way, and I love that. I am very proud of who I am, and proud of who I love.
It has taken me some time to come out as an artist, mostly because for many years I kept my sexuality relatively private from the public eye in order to stay safe. Recently, however, I’ve been more out and forthcoming about my romantic experience and it’s liberating. I feel this is important for being completely authentic and free, which of course inspires my musicality and songwriting.
“Fly Away” was written as a collaboration. Now that you’ve been performing it for a while, what has it come to signify for you? Can you talk a little about how it relates to the video clip?
“Fly Away” was written with an acoustic guitar and 3 singers/songwriters. Dani Shay, Lily Mae Harrington and I were all hanging out singing in 3 part harmony. We wanted to write a song about what it feels like to fall in love.
When I brought “Fly Away” to my co-producer Matthew Odmark, we started programming drum beats for the demo. The song quickly became more about the groove than ever, which symbolically resembled the heartbeat of love, desire and affection.
When Keith Carlock put his spin on that drumbeat alongside Adam Nitti’s groovy bass line, the pulse made me feel the song even more in half time and sort of back on the beat. I suppose that gave me a little bit more of a feeling of anticipation and sensuality, which felt intriguing to me specifically in the vocal performance. I’m always amazed by how much the groove can drive the feeling of a song.
In terms of the video, the sound of that drumbeat really aligned with the intense cold wind and rapid ocean waves at Point Dume in Malibu. We were hoping for a more sunny warm day in California, but something about the chill in the air made the intensity of anticipation and sensuality come through.
I hope that everyone who reads this takes some time to come listen to the full album ‘Coming Alive’ at christielenee.com. Find me on social media, and hopefully we’ll meet out at a show on the open road! Thanks for listening! 🙂 – Christie
Christopher Treacy has been writing about music and the music industry for 20 years. He’s contributed to The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, and Berklee College of Music’s quarterly journal, as well as myriad LGBTQ+ outlets including the Edge Media Network, Between the Lines/Pride Source, Bay Windows and In Newsweekly. He’s the Managing Editor for CQ and lives in Waitsfield, VT.