There is something of a woman’s singing voice, not lest they defy convention in the fashion of Annie Lennox and her robustness or Bjork and her experimentation, that a man simply cannot replicate. Although this is typically true in both directions, it is rare that I might describe a male voice with beauty, as most who attempt such timbres will find their voices sounding over-exerted or uncannily out-of-place. My goal is not to segregate men and women, nor to elitify one over the other, but simply to appreciate - especially being a man myself who could never produce such vocalizations - the demure that many a female singer wield to their advantage. With it, some weave music out of angel-hairs, spinning the atmosphere through their throat into a textile soft and enveloping. It is with respect for such talent, most often utilized to illustrate one’s story as the handmaiden stitches her sorrows into the hues and patterns of a quilt, that today’s posting honor a local minstrel whose story could be sung by no other voice than her own, Kristen Gradwohl.
“Do you ever feel like you’re at a loss of words or notes to match an experience?” I once asked this young lady.
“Absolutely!” she promptly assured. “Especially the wall of sound I hear before I fall asleep. It’s like all the notes in the world, in harmony! Or when I dream songs and wake up and try to write them.”
For every artist is there a concept that they cannot emulate with the medium of their craft, and as the singer trifles to emulate the sounds of the “vibrational universe” she describes as our residency, I trouble to condense into three or four pages the essence of that which Kristen otherwise successfully sings.
The first time I formally met Kristen, despite having seen her on and off stage on several occasions, was after the show she played in conjunction with Mental Musk and Nuclear Fuzz as I have detailed in my first posting. I stood loosely within a circle of the local music scene’s familiar faces, graduating slowly away from them to seek out Crisco, bassist to Mental Musk. Then there came a visage who maneuvered with elegant dexterity and stepped upon the tips of her toes to within inches of my person. Who is this freaky little woman and why is she violating my personal space, I thought as I leaned away. She queried to herself, “What is that drawing?” as she played with the brown topknot that contained her hair atop a face glistening with glitter. There were two keen eyes that flanked a precipice nose, and a smirk that translated her holistic investment to the immediate present. She looked like a ballerina, in both her form and her night’s attire. She pressed one of those pale phalanges against the design emblazoned across my torso and looked up at me with a squint to ask, “What is that?”
Admittedly, I was wearing my favorite shirt that day, so it was difficult to remain angry with the curious figure before me. “It’s Odin,” I said, “see, with his one eye, his ravens, his spear.” Her response expressed an intrigue for Germanic mythos that intrigued me to this character. When our discourse was finished briefly thereafter, I parted away to labor with the musicians and load stage equipment, and I was grinning as I turned away, eager to again see that thing I had only otherwise seen as she danced across the stage with her eclectic and spirited indie ensemble, Valley Soul.
As aforementioned, there are conveyances that most female bards can produce which male ones cannot. To sate my craving for such sensations, my personal musical library contains a repertoire of evocative material sung by ladies so deserving of our respect as my favorite female singer, of Wessex but Welsh by heart, Julie Murphy. Other honorable mentions include Lynne Denman, also of Welsh folk, or Eliza Carthy of English folk, or Kerstin Blodig of Norwegian folk. And so, ever since I first studied Kristen Gradwohl upon the screen of Yvan Vucina’s phone, sunken in robes decorated with herbs and ivies and a massive sunhat, this character, too, finds herself among the ranks of my favorite singers.
Watching this gal sing to the flimsy strikes on her ukulele is like watching a web be spun, a delicate procedure to craft something wherein each word, each strand of silk, is fragile, but wherein their culmination is deceivingly strong. Even in the 2012 video linked above, Kristen’s lyricism is vivid and emotionally rendering, her fingers lick the uke strings with accuracy, and by god that fucking voice. Strength is a byproduct of experience, of exertion, and so to understand Kristen’s particular brand of forte, I wished to learn her story. Upon a second, virtual confrontation in form of a thoughtful Facebook conversation, we migrated hastily from the establishment of our discourse to an expatiating discussion of philosophy and life’s essence. “I believe in compassion and honesty and building healthy boundaries to show others where you stand on things,” she said in reaction to my statement of each individual’s truths. “I believe we, everyone, do our best and make the best choices we can make with what we know… No one is inherently evil. We all want to feel whole and fulfilled. We all desire to be loved and happy.”
“What I wonder now,” I responded to this dose of hippie, “is how you’d come to such conclusions about the rationale and goodness of people. I find it interesting that, after living as a hermit and enduring all the cruelty and absurdity there to come, you’d not decide on [a philosophy] more jaded.”
“I wouldn’t say I’ve any harsher experiences than anyone else. I’ve seen harder times and some simpler times, but I have, for the most part, been able to feel my way with people… I see equality most of the time… When something doesn’t feel right, I tend to try and find where the imbalance is happening intuitively. It’s usually an emotional wound in the individual and I do my best to see and understand that hurt without labeling them with it… That’s why I like to just hold space and be present.”
However, I still wondered, what larval personality was that which developed into the contemporary compassion by which Kristen defines herself? Of her story, she had essays-worth of eccentric events that she divulged as promptly as was warranted with as much depth as could be so typed into the Messenger application. Much of this information was deeply personal. Many of her receipts to my points had surprised me. I was infatuated with the tale she presented, and I was touched that she had gifted it to me in such raw and unbridled form. I will withhold many of the details she allotted me, but worry not, endeared reader, for this still leaves us a manifold wealth of material.
Kristen Gradwohl hails from the San Jose area. It was in her youth that music and the derivative artforms of dance and poetry reaped her soul from dullness and sealed the covenant of her passion, her expression. Though her final form was irrefutable from childhood, Kristen’s parents were not fond of the starving-artist path (she claims that her brother better understood her struggle, which undoubtedly lead to full filial acceptance). However, the preoccupations of her parents were made practically irrelevant when juxtaposed to the road she tread. Upon hearing of my own origins, Kristen exclaimed, “Right on! I went from Chicago to Iowa to Colorado to Northern California in 2012. Chicago is awesome.”
“Glad to hear it, cause I agree wholeheartedly,” I said, grinning in affirmation that cool people are attracted to cool cities. “Damn, so what brought you across the country?”
Her immediate response? “Searching for my purpose.” During a joint operation to hone her spirituality and sharpen her talent, this apprentice siren apprehended a scholarship for an education in jazz vocation. However, “I decided I was more interested in playing music on my terms.” Well, who isn’t more interested in doing what they want as opposed to what they don’t? In this spirit, Kristen retreated to a town in Iowa, as I quote for the second instance in a post, “where yogies, siddhas, and spiritual people from all over the world go, and I ended up at Amma’s Ashram… An old friend met me there and then we decided to travel barefoot with skateboards for a while.” She reduced her belongings to the volume of a backpack and began the trek to her homeland. “That’s how I found Tommy and Joe and the whole gang!”
She first encountered this group while they lived in a duplex in Pacific Grove. Her ‘old friend’, who had bound himself to her companionship since adolescence, made sure the fetters were forged strong that would ultimately contain Kristen to the fertile grove in which she planted her career. However, before they had arranged a name, selecting between the finalists of Valley Sol and Valley Soul (what a competition), Kristen decided to surprise her parents with a visit on her mother’s birthday. They received her return with paltry reconciliation, barraging her with scrutiny instead, so she needed a foundation that might prove the firmness of her stance. After an unsuccessful job search with a “killer resume,” Tommy, one among the presently aligned four singers and two guitarists for Valley Soul, invited our bardic heroine to learn his songs and perform with him, to which she gladly obliged. When their landlord welcomed her to live with them in that duplex, she eagerly accepted, Tommy and her fell in love, and Gradwohl’s fate was sealed.
Such a romantic tale, however, was not as luminous as I may have so presented it, and our serenader of subject had not emerged from the other end of this coming-of-age story without a soreness that grates the pores in the bones. However, without these tribulations, there would be not nearly enough substance, whether arranged by faith, by deliberation, or by alchemy, to cast the trenchant tunes that Kristen sings; there would not be the dynamism required for her to do justice unto those singers - Joe, Tommy, and Adam - whose voices cook splendid flavors into the valley’s soul like the smoke from a firepit fed by oak and pine and larch and walnut all at once. There transgressed the decay of a person far closer than a friend before our protagonist’s very eyes. There were consumed wonderful and intelligent human beings into the deathly maw of dope. There was the tethers of affiliation, the tethers of law, the tethers of isolation. There was the eternal obligation to “take care of that hippie girl” that graduated one love to the next.
I questioned Kristen, after expressing my flattery at her excruciating openness with me, to her degree of confirmation of my philosophy that one’s art could not exist in its form without the other artistic media one has consumed, all of which, be they music, video game, motion picture, or painting, culminate in my writing. To this notion, she said, “It’s like some sort of collective unconsciousness. All artists pull from their surroundings, past, present, future… We receive, hold space, and create.” And I assumed her adherence to this, until she continued on another query, and illuminated a keystone I had not the self-esteem I needed to realize so brilliantly as she. “In high school, I tried to cut out media. And I decided to pull from within. It’s the reason I feel my sound is original, but in reality people say I sound like a list of many artists I’ve never heard of! But I think we all pull from an incredible place and the mind does its best to translate, ha ha! Now I find myself sitting in silence a lot. Tommy likes to listen to music in the car, but when there is silence, that’s when I hear the music of my mind.”And beautiful music it is, Kristen.
Thank you again, reader, for reading about how I, once again, fall in love not with
Go check out Valley Soul and the countless videos of them on Youtube, and please support them on SoundCloud or Facebook, or by buying their shit.
And if you want to get in contact with me for some reason, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.