Interview with singer/guitarist Kirsten Thien - a fiery modern woman with blues and R&B blaze spins

"Music lets us say things that are sometimes hard to express in words alone. The blues has really allowed me to dig deep and express not only my own feelings, but also feelings that are universal."

Kirsten Thien: I'll Sing The Blues For You

Fiery blues and R&B singer/guitarist Kirsten Thien blazes on the scene and stakes her claim as a contemporary wild woman while putting a decidedly modern spin on the description. She was born on an Army base in Berlin, Germany, but moved back to the US shortly thereafter and her family settled in Maine. The music of Linda Ronstadt and singing in church in the “Northern Baptist” style helped to develop her talent until she was transformed when she discovered Aretha Franklin, traditional New Orleans jazz and the classic women blues singers of the 20s while attending Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

The thrill of performing in public compelled her to abandon pursuit of a lucrative career in banking and investment for a creative one in singing and songwriting. Thien relocated to New York City, forming her own band in 2000 and releasing her debut She Really Is in 2001. She began seriously wood shedding the guitar around 2005 as well as reworking her songwriting, strongly influenced by the Memphis sound (Otis Redding, B.B. King and Al Green). On the merits of her 2006 sophomore release, You’ve Got Me, Thien won the Abe Olman Award for Excellence in Songwriting in 2009.

Delicious (2010), her third release, finds Thien alternately ripping and seducing her way through an 11-song set featuring eight tunes that she either wrote or co-wrote, plus three covers. On May 2014, Kirsten Thien inducted into the NY Blues Hall of Fame.              -- Bio by Dave Rubin

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the blues and what does the blues mean to you?

Music lets us say things that are sometimes hard to express in words alone. The blues has really allowed me to dig deep and express not only my own feelings, but also feelings that are universal. Sometimes I get very personal with writing a song, and sometimes I inhabit a character or even the imagined thoughts of a real person I know in order to tell a story that needs telling.

How do you describe Kirsten Thien sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?

Well, for me the “song” is king (or queen!). I started as a singer, and singing is one of my greatest joys in life. That’s clear to anyone who’s ever seen me perform live. But if someone is a great singer and they are just riffing around and not serving the song, I will get bored very quickly. All the greats had these great SONGS behind them and they were masters at expressing the songs with the right amount of flair. Even artists that wrote very little of their own material, from Billie Holiday to Aretha Franklin to Freddie King, the catalog of songs are some of the best you will ever hear. I always want to use my voice, both as a singer and a songwriter, to give people music that appeals to them in the moment, but is also lasting! Something they can return to and enjoy over and over throughout their lives.

"I believe that, each performer in his or her own way should be able to put on an amazing, personable and authentic show, while playing or singing amazingly (even if imperfectly as we were designed to do!)." Photo by Linda Mull

Which is the most interesting period in your life? Which was the best and worst moment of your career?

The answer to both of those questions is right now! We had a stellar 2012/2013 on the heels of releasing Delicious. We were on the radio all over the world, I have new fans from just about everywhere, and we toured very heavily for the last 18 months. My producer/partner (Erik Boyd, Producer and Bassist) and I are an independent outfit and we have managed to put out one of the best ‘products’ available in the blues, both in our show and our recordings. In terms of quality, we are competing with the big guys. But in terms of reach it’s a challenge. We fund it all on our own, and (with my awesome, volunteer partners around the world) I do all of our tour booking. This means I have less time for shows, and writing and recording than I wish I did (booking and running a record company is a full time job!).  Every day is an adventure. If it feels like one of those ‘worst moments’ is coming on, I try to put down the business and re-focus on practicing, writing and playing. That way, I know that when ‘the call’ comes in for me to show up to an important event tomorrow, I’m ready!

What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had? Are there any memories which you’d like to share?

There are so many. More recently, I must recall the Swing Wespelaar Festival in Belgium last summer. This was the first smaller ‘big festival’ we have played in Europe. Even with the big barricades right in front of the stage, I could feel the people drawing closer and closer to us over the course of the set. We were new to the audience, and thanks to the festival organizers taking a chance based on their love of our music, we had a great slot just before Joe Louis Walker. At one point, we were doing my version of “Fooled Around and Fell In Love”. I stepped away from the mic and went to the tip of the stage and the audience and I sang together while the band kept time. It was M.A.G.I.C!!!!

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

Hands down, my short time in the studio with Hubert Sumlin was one of the most important and influential experiences of my musical life. We cut the song “Please Drive” on the second take together after quick introductions and the crew whisking us into recording position very quickly. After the song was cut (Hubert was in the big room with the band and I was in an isolation booth with a vocal mic and my guitar), Hubert looked up at the iso-booth and gave me the hugest smile and look of surprise, motioning the question “Wait, that was YOU!?”. He had thought there was another singer and that I was just the coffee girl, because the first thing I did upon a flurry of introductions was to grab him a cup of coffee. While the guys went into the control room to be sure we had the take (Hubert and I already knew), he and I sat down in the big room and had a chat. He was so incredibly warm and gracious and upbeat – so happy to be playing on a session with great players and a great song. I know I will probably never see such hard times as he’d seen coming up in the Blues and in America during a troubled era, so I always try to remember his spirit and his joy. I try to keep that with me no matter what.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

The thing I miss most nowadays compared to what I know of music of the past is stellar, stellar live performances – artists and players who are masters of their instruments, be it voice, guitar, bass, etc. I hope that we have a resurgence of that as the norm and not the exception with the ‘younger’ artists. I believe that, each performer in his or her own way should be able to put on an amazing, personable and authentic show, while playing or singing amazingly (even if imperfectly as we were designed to do!). From a story-telling, mellow solo songwriter, to an all out Tina Turner or James Brown extravaganza – there’s a place for it all and I hope we don’t lose sight of that ‘realness’ of music.

Which memory from Buddy Guy, Arthur Neilson and Hubert Sumlin makes you smile?

Well, I told you about my time with Hubert (photo) and that always makes me smile. Arthur Neilson was on that session, and one thing about Arthur, he is another player that always, always has a smile and a positive spirit and an encouraging word. He played on many/most of the tracks on Delicious. Working with Arthur is like having a full, historical music library at your disposal – he’s such a fan of great music in so many styles of blues and country and rock. I learned so much on those sessions and he brought SO much to my songs. Since he has played with Shemekia for all these years, he has also developed a hard-to-find skill of interacting well with a female soul and blues singer. There’s a trust when he’s on stage or in the studio with you. You just trust him 100%. For me as a singer and writer, that complete trust allows me to focus on taking my own chances and upping the creativity to create something really special.

I’ll just say this about Buddy Guy, because I’ve only met him briefly. I’m a fan and have been since reading his name on the liner notes as the guitarist on the Big Mama Thornton records I pulled out of the library to study when I first started getting heavy into the blues. The more I’ve learned about Buddy personally, the greater an inspiration he has been to me. (Read the book When I Left Home!) First, Buddy’s fans are the BEST fans I’ve ever seen. He’s cultivated a personal relationship with his fans where we feel like we know him and he knows us. And it’s ALL done from the stage – not on Facebook, e-mail or Twitter – it’s ALL done from the stage. That’s a lesson in itself. And secondly, when we played at his club Legends in Chicago for the first time, it was kind of an audition set at the lunchtime acoustic sessions. Buddy was in the club doing a radio interview upstairs and he came over to the stage while we were setting up and simply shook my hand and gave me a little hug and said, “I want to thank you for playing at my club”. Just a simple act of kindness and I will cherish that and be on his side for the duration! He’s a good business man, a great show man and one of my favorite guitarists of all time. What more can I say!?

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Soul and continue to Americana, and Jazz music?

Oh, gosh! You might need a music historian to answer that one! But I love the question because of this: There is no distinct line between any of these forms of music, The greats listed in each genre played all of the above! Some folks like to run around saying “this is blues” or “that’s not blues”, however, the original blues was not a 1, 4, 5 progression all in a 12- or 10- or 8-bar format. The greatest of the great bluesmen didn’t restrict themselves to that. Sure a form developed that is commonly referred to and played very well to many folks’ delight. But the spirit of the blues has been about creation, not replication. We are free to create from within a format, and we are free to push the boundaries between a Saturday night party and Sunday church, between the chitlin circuit and the square-dancing circuit, between classical tonality and field song tonality, between striving and our comfort zone. It’s the dance among all these elements that makes music special, no matter which way it leans.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

That quality would supersede marketing.

"The thing I miss most nowadays compared to what I know of music of the past is stellar, stellar live performances – artists and players who are masters of their instruments, be it voice, guitar, bass, etc."

What does to be a female artist in a “Man World” as James Brown says? What is the status of women in Blues?

We’ve got power! We’ve got chops! We’ve got skirts! What’s not to love!?

I saw Etta James at BB Kings in New York when she was 71 years old. I cried like a Beatles fan for the first three songs. She came out doing a mock strip tease and addressing the audience, and I’m sitting in row five with uncontrollable tears rolling down my face. I had never seen an in-person embodiment of what I wanted to be “when I grow up” until that night. Unlike most blues audiences, this one was about half women – my concerts are too. It all clicked for me that night. Her music empowers women and stimulates men at the same time. It’s the combination of having songs that speak to people (making them feel strong, empowered and sexy!) with allowing your personality to come out on stage. As women come back to the forefront as performers of the blues, more women will be coming to the concerts and the blues will find a resurgence. No more, “Honey, I’m going out to hear 100 guitar solos, so I’ll see you later”. It’s more like, “Honey, I’m taking you out and we’re gonna dance! You’re gonna love this band!”

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the music circuits?

As I said about “Etta James” above. After my cry-fest at witnessing Etta perform the first three songs of her set, she had us laughing with stories and her sexy, take-no-prisoners-of-love attitude (at 71!). That concert was six years ago and it still feels like yesterday! No concert I’ve seen since has had a greater impression.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day?

Whichever day Freddie King recorded “I’d Rather Be Blind” by Leon Russell. I would have liked to be there for that and whatever other songs they recorded that day. 

Kirsten Thien - official website


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