Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Soul-Soothing Sonata, a Story of Kristen Gradwohl.

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 cooties a girl, but with a voice, and how that voice came to be.
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

Thursday, February 9, 2017

An Anecdotal Assemblage in Salinas, CA

This post has been removed by me, the author, because it has been brought to light that Erik Munoz of the Salinas band DZR has brought great pain to a great many of my friends and peers through sexual trauma and psychological abuse. This self-admitted sociopath is but one of many in this music scene (and just about any music scene), but let us not subscribe to the peaceful passivity of our community, and not allow this kind of bullshit to perpetuate itself. My "Remedies" post of November 20th will be more clear.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Vucina to Veloso - Reconciling Distant Lands

         There is a musical artist in Brazil whose craft has touched and riled his countrymen at least since 1965. His name is Caetano Veloso. On account of how I can see the country from Pacific Grove (in watching Rio and Bizarre Foods??), his art was a part of the friction generated for many decades in the diverse and populous country of Brazil; while his music was, simultaneously, a force that aided to overcome this friction, to ultimately create movement. And movement he did create while immense audiences stood to applaud him as early as 1967. Caetano was a prominent part of the movement of Tropicalia music in Brazil. Tropicalia was an experimental sensation of traditional Brazillian tones and the psychedelic wave of rock and roll produced from the USA and Britain, which, down south (as in really down south), garnered as much impassioned support as it did a wily hatred. Opposition from the traditionalist liberals on Brazil's left wing, as well as the military dictatorship on the right wing, ensured that performances were marred by riotous protest and the banning of songs by the government.
         I would like to believe that this story bears some similarities (as well as some hopeful differences) to the story of local singer, musician, songwriter, and rock-n-roller, Yvan Vucina. This man, nineteen years of age, stands on long legs and shreds a guitar with long arms. His head cascades with caramelized hair that frames a face tan of skin and mossy of eyes. Yvan's mother is native to the area of Sao Paulo, Brazil, the southern hemisphere's largest city, and one plagued by immense disparity of class, culture, and race. Throughout his childhood spent primarily in Pacific Grove, Yvan frequently retreated to the nation whose soil is in his blood. Eventually, with his family, he returned to his matriarchal home. And at home he did feel to a degree insurmountable by any comforts offered state-side. "People are just different there," he says to me as we drink tea in the large, rudimentarily furnished shed in his backyard, walls clad in soundproofing foam. "You can mess with each other, there - that's just what they do. They fuck with each other, call each other names, they have weird terms for everything, they, they speak their minds, y'know? People don't mess around, there. Well, they do, but they're honest about it. They're genuine as fuck whether you like em or not," he laughs. He says this all with an accent distinct to central California. Yvan is also prone to applying eccentric nomenclature to just about most things. For example, a grom is a greasy guy of meager respect, a Wanglo-Saxon is a dick. "Do you know what they used to call me? Alemão. It means German. They call everyone that, who has blue or green eyes, like me, or if you have blonde hair or white skin. You're not American - even though they're obsessed with Americans - you're Alemão. If you're black, you're just a negro. It doesn't offend anyone. Negro just means, like, 'black person' there. People aren't easily offended."
         For those living along most of the California coast, such behavioral tendencies are as foreign as Yvan's mother. I would consider these mannerisms foreign as well, from my Midwestern perspective. People don't grow up here taking a lot of piss and vinegar from the people close to them. Up and down these coastlines, people are laid back in one way or another and therefore very non-confrontational. They aren't easily enthused by friends who act boisterously with each other, or who don't try particularly hard to reserve honesty for politeness.
         I observe this young man in public, as reticent as always, wearing an approachable face. Yet he seems unprepared every time someone excites themselves over his music, but then, alongside his bandmates, he plays his Gibson Les Paul with a zeal few can emulate, and few can earn the privilege to see personally, as I described in my last article. Even knowing him as a friend, Yvan reserves his energy these days to exhaustion via music, and retains an indelible chillness otherwise.
         Yvan lived four consecutive years in Brazil, combined with the collective years he spent there on holiday. In this time, he has amassed a rich library of music. His favorite artists range from the melancholy Nick Drake, the wistful Rachel Rufrano, the varied array of Brasileiro music such as Caetano Veloso and Os Mutantes, to the gravelly aggression of Guns N Roses, the stone-hard blues of Led Zeppelin. In his musical tastes lies a clear contrast between the placid and the momentous, the abstract and the legendary, and of course, the English-speaking world and Brazil.
         Upon educating myself of Caetano's tale, I am only reminded of Yvan. That being said, Yvan is arguably more appreciated in proportion to the magnitude of his listeners. Like Veloso, Vucina has achieved a mystifying balance between the music of the United States and United Kingdom, and that of his homeland, a sonic bridge between them. However, Caetano was a Brazillian embracing American culture to cope with his bleeding kinsmen, while Yvan is arguably an American who embraces Brazilian culture to cope with the burns left by the fulcrum of the two nations.
         Yvan performs at every chance. Sometimes it's just while he chills with his other estranged brethren on any normal night. He also plays at cafes and restaurants, such as Julia's atop Pacific Grove's Forest Hill, where he performs every Saturday. Then he renders molten screams from his guitar with his classic hard-rock-ballad trio called Mental Musk, last seen on Thursday, the second of February, at Planet Gemini in Monterey. When seated with his acoustic guitar gingerly laid across his lap, he picks and strums through open-tunings and intricate rhythms, often modal or in a style traditional to his home nation. He does a cover of a Caetano song, then his fingers flutter through an experimental sedation by sound, then begin to roll like the waves he so loves to surf, in his fervid rendition of a song he calls "Nordic Attack" for its folksy, nord-winter nighttime instrumentals - although the story it tells takes place in Germany, his coming-of-age story, as he wandered solitary and aimless though the nation for two weeks.
         Then he and his bandmates set to sumitting the mighty "White Mountain." This was a song conceived in Mental Musk's infancy. "It's like a metaphor, y'know?" Yvan explains. "Noah Grimes, our first singer, he came up with the idea. There's this hill we used to climb and explore all the time, y'know, Eliot, Patrick, Noah, n I. It was called White Mountain and it was our, y'know, getaway, it was our safe place... One time, Noah began telling us this story about a legendary rock n roll band who just jams the whole way up White Mountain until they reach the top, and we all dug it." He has a notebook in front of him and spins it around to display the contents of the exposed page. There is a drawing of a mountain cloaked in forest and capped in snow, and Yvan's interpretation of the saga lines the rest of the page. It is his employment of this metaphor that distills from him an understanding of the hardship that awaits in the life of a bard. To climb the white mountain, to reach the top, and to rock on by every rock and tree on the way, despite the hundreds or thousands with which they will never cross paths. Upon another slope, Caetano Veloso sits near the peak, admiring the vista and the grace of altitude. Perhaps he will see Yvan and the Mental Musk gang, whether its but a glimpse between the branches or a stark look from a clear precipice. I like to think that one day he will have to see Vucina, because Veloso would only be honored to witness this young man making the trek uphill, to sit beside him and trade riffs and progressions and other experiments in the fusion of rock and bossa nova, the unification of the familiar, the traditional, and the avant garde. They are incarnations of the same quest, and as Caetano prevailed through national scrutiny by the support of his fans, Yvan might prevail through the brooding queries his music seeks to answer by the support of Monterey and all of its weirdos, like Yvan, like me, and probably like you as well.

Thank you, endeared reader, for indulging in my story. If Yvan Vucina's journey interests you as much as it has intrigued me, then keep up with him on social media and don't miss any of his performances, be they of his solo work or his rageful, sensual retinue, Mental Musk. Also check out the 'Muskies' on their Instagram.
         And if you, for some reason, wish to get in touch with me, you can send me an e-mail at