By Elizabeth Nitz
Caroline Aiken has lived many lives. She was in a rock band by age 15, then ran away from home and joined a cult. She has lived in New York City, Los Angeles, South America, and Atlanta, and like any nationally known musician, travels every chance she can get. The places and the folks she interacts with have helped shape her outlook on life after growing up on a sleepy island off the coast of Georgia.
Her latest album, Unshaken (2002), includes some very recently written songs as well as some from earlier days. Caroline paused during a trip to Denver to discuss her album and experiences. For more information visit www.carolineaiken.com
FEMMUSIC: Describe your songwriting technique
CA: Haphazard. Catch as catch can. <laughs> Usually I have to have some sort of impetus — a lot of times it’s driving on the road, and the rhythm of the car. I write a lot in the car — lyrics, sometimes the music will come too. For instance, the last song, Page’s song for her 16th birthday, was written on her birthday and I just cried all the way through writing it, but I found a really good groove. I found a melody that felt really good so I stuck with that first, and the words came. The song started out tongue in cheek then gets real. I’m trying to take lightly something very heavy.
FEMMUSIC: How do you choose which material to put on this album?
CA: With a producer. I threw a lot of songs out to the producer. I wanted to do somewhat of a concept album with Crit. It took 4 years to create this album. We tried a lot of different songs, a lot of different ways of recording. So a lot of the songs are on there is because I liked how it was, live in the studio. All the way to “we don’t have time to do it again, any other way.” A lot of these were chosen to be more thoughtful songs. This is a more subdued album, whereas if I’d chosen a rockin’ party album, I’m going to choose different songs for that. So these were thoughtful, introspective types of songs.
FEMMUSIC: What were the best and worst parts of making this album?
CA: Realizing I didn’t have it yet, over the 4 years. All the times that we tried to come up with something in the studio, with band, without band, taken apart, live, whatever. I was in a place in my life where it just wasn’t going to come together — it wasn’t what I wanted to put out yet. So that was kind of hard, just waiting to see, what it is it going to be? I really was ok with waiting. I’m kind of over the race. I really think people are too focused on the race — the next album. And I think hey, what’s wrong with this last album? Why not focus on that? Some very famous people only put out one record in their whole life but it said something about them. I don’t want to pass over albums and songs to get to the next best thing. Our fast food mentality, we’re just so ready to discard and get something new that I was kind of happy to wait. I felt like, ok, there’s more thought process put into this one so maybe it will be a finer wine.
FEMMUSIC: Do you think you succeeded?
CA: I got close. I think if you reach perfection — we’re done! I don’t know what perfection is, I think I got close. You do a studio concept album, it’s not the same as a live album and I think a lot of people, especially in the singer/songwriter arena, are getting really used to the live, “here’s what you get, this is the reality of it,” as opposed to I’m going to create something in the studio. I’m going to do something live and the producer’s going to put stuff around me that we’ve never done live. So that’s two different concepts of albums. I’ve done two successful live albums and I wanted to do a studio album that’s a concept album. So I feel like in that aspect I’ve gotten pretty close to what I wanted on Unshaken. I like Crit’s production a lot. What I’ll do next time, I’m hoping, is have a band and a soundman who knows what I want in a live sound, and have that on that album. Get a real good live sound and put it to tape.
FEMMUSIC: You were on a label at one point. Would you consider going back to a label?
CA: It all depends on the negotiations and who it is, what they plan to do, and what their track record is. My track record is pretty clear. I’m out here doing this. I’ve been doing it in an indie fashion, with no capital, raising a child. So I think I’ve done pretty well with all those considerations. Probably if I had the capital to put into my career, I’d be a little bit further, and if I’d had the time to just travel, I’d be further than I am now, wherever that is. Comparing it to anyone could be dangerous. If I were to be in negotiations with a label, there are certain requirements I would have. What kind of marketing team? And distribution and radio promotion team, booking agency, what kind of money is put into touring and backing the record? Because without that, you could put out a million records and no one will know it. Knowing what a label’s plan is and that they will actually follow through would be one of the major considerations.
FEMMUSIC: Is your daughter going to perform for a living and would you support her in that?
CA: Absolutely. She’s excellent. If she wants to, she’ll be able to do it tomorrow. If I put her on stage tomorrow I think people would be amazed. She’s just turned 16. I probably could save her, if she’ll listen to me, from some of the pitfalls I’ve grown to understand are out there.
FEMMUSIC: What advice would you have for a singer/songwriter just starting out?
CA: That’s a huge one. I’ve played all the time. I didn’t go anywhere except for with the intention to play. I still don’t know what a vacation is. I go and have great times in all the wonderful places I get to play, but my sole purpose is to play. I think you have to be a bit myopic in your drive to play, to make a statement in the music business. I don’t know how else you would do it unless you have a management who had money and you just lay back and they do all the work. That seems idyllic but unrealistic because more often than not, if you let other people handle your career, you’re going to get their intentions and their agendas, not your own. I would say do as much of the work as you can, except from friends who are willing to help you. Be real clear about your direction. Be real clear about what they’re doing for you.
FEMMUSIC: What is the song “Ground Zero” about?
CA: Ground Zero was written about 10 years ago. I have another one that I wrote called “Double Culture Shock” that’s on Dancing with Danger (1991). That was really the first song I wrote about the cult experience. I don’t really remember when I write songs– if they’re good they stick. But I can remember writing “Culture Shock” first and then writing “Ground Zero.” Truly I had enough distance from the experience in 91-92 to write about it. I’d had about 10 years distance since my last encounter with all that. So I really wanted to write something that was broad, not specific. I felt specifics would minimalize this broad aspect of mind control, the dance for power that I see happening within organized religions to governments and the propaganda that is spread, whether it is positive or negative. It is all just commercial mind control, essentially. And I wanted to get to the root of all of that, which is a very broad place and I thought, what is the pinpoint? Where do you put the point of the compass down, and draw that? There’s the song — “Ground Zero.” Here’s where it starts and ends. In every one of us, that’s where it starts and ends, our decision making. So that’s where I came up with “Ground Zero.” The whole song is based on the fallacy of what everybody else wants you to do, or what everybody else tells you is the cool thing to wear, or do, or be, or think, or act, or whatever. What do you know from ground zero is the right thing for you? The thing that got me out of the cult was using something they’d given me to use against someone else who wanted me out of the cult, and that’s that you don’t know God’s will for me. I turned it around on them, because that was the truth. I felt like at that point they didn’t know God’s will for me. They were exhibiting manipulative power. It was very interesting because I felt so unaffected by it all of a sudden, realizing they couldn’t touch me. They could keep me in a room for a month, which they did, but they couldn’t touch me. It was a real powerful place to plug in, ground zero. That’s what that song is about.
FEMMUSIC: Tell me about the classes that you teach.
CA: I teach them in different places. I’ve taught in the Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, NC, for the past four years, in the summers in the Swannanoa Gathering. Each week it turns over and it’s got different teachers and different subjects — it’s all music. I’ve taught Zen and the Art of Performance there, I’ve taught Songwriting in your Sleep, and I’ve taught Guerilla Guitar Works. All of it’s very unorthodox; I don’t have any kind of degree, except a Living and Experience degree.
I can’t have a room full of people who are advanced and people who are beginning. I don’t know how to focus and help each one. I have to establish the class as intermediate to advanced intermediate in guitar works. I’ve had a stage of 15 guitar players and we’ve done in unison Deep River Blues, and some finger picking, pulling off hammer ons, learning all of those techniques. I slow down enough during the week where everybody can get up to speed once they know where to put their fingers. Then I taught some original stuff that really worked well. They were very excited to learn base runs. Then they played leads on top of me when I was doing the base runs. It was really nice to teach them the different aspects of what a guitar can do, to sound more like a whole band — percussive, base, base runs as opposed to the high voicings of a melodic instrument. I’ve had fun with that.
Songwriting In Your Sleep is very interesting lately. More and more people are talking about the periods of time when they’re most creative is when they’re at rest. They take 30 minutes off to take a power nap and a song comes to them. So that’s where I’m coming from with the songwriting. It’s like a magician getting out of a restraint under water — you wonder how they do it. Well they’ve got a method where they slow down and get very calm. Then they just figure it out. They come to this calm place. That’s where Page’s song came from. I felt this calm place open in my eyes one morning — it was her birthday. I thought, I need to write a song that is gospel in nature because this is my church — this is my child. This is where I love the deepest. So I just let it flow. It’s hard to describe. So in teaching people that, I ask them to write when they’re sleepy. I’ve written things that I’m surprised at, when I wake up in the morning and read them. I’ve waken up in the morning and have had a song running through a dream, or a half-awake place. So instead of forcing it, having so many tools & rules and books to find rhymes in, and meter and length and form and AABBCC, this manic rightness about how to write a song. I’m going to break rules. This song for Page, it doesn’t have a repeating refrain, and I feel it’s a strong song nonetheless because the message is deep enough where it will hit home anyway. So that’s what Songwriting In Your Sleep is about — letting go and letting creativity be instead of making it something you thing it ought to be.
Zen and the Art of Performance is real involved. It’s got five different areas — musical, technical, emotional, physical and financial. And they’re huge. I could take all summer, and all year, to teach all of these. The financial is huge in itself. It’s everything from booking, to recording, to press and radio, to the equipment you can buy, to the recording and manufacturing of an album, to the distribution and the releasing. My limited knowledge of label contracts, management contracts, booking contracts — if you make a mistake, if you get involved with someone who doesn’t have your best interest at heart, it can take you years to get out. If you’re not buoyant in your creativity, no matter what anybody does or says, this can destroy you. This can absolutely make you want to be a bookkeeper and not go back to that insanity. It can destroy your ideal of humanity. You just can’t believe people can put you through that. There’s a lot of people out there who don’t have their own creativity who are willing to steal other people’s just to have something in their stable. So the financial end of it is huge.
The musical aspect would be to know your music very well when you get on stage. Know it , believe in it, have your music under your fingers, no hesitation. If you’re still having to hesitate at a change in your song, it’s not ready for the stage. The emotional side of it is being ok with what you are delivering to people — dealing with rejection, believe when nobody else does. Being ok with what you’re saying to people and how people are reacting to it. Because some people are not going to care, and some people are going to care too much. If you put out there stuff that you don’t want people to know, you can’t blame them for using it against you. You’ve got to be ok with what you’re putting on the table. And then there’s the taking chances — it’s a fine line, it’s a tightrope. The technical end is all your equipment, your PAs, how to talk to a sound person, how to communicate because they are your link to the audience in a big way. And your physical is just being in your body, not having heartburn and trying to sing through it, having a strong diaphragm, learning how to sing without straining. Being able to sing and tour for months on end, it’s a trick, and physically you’re in training. I drink too much coffee and I might have a glass of wine or two, but forget the pills & powders, that’s for somebody who wants somebody else to do it for them.
I’ve done this [class] for a week, and I’ve tried to cram it into a day, and forget it. We’ll touch on these other places but most of the time they’ll want to get into technical, the financial and the musical. I show people ways to strengthen themselves, what to eat before a gig, all that stuff.
FEMMUSIC: You play a lot of festivals — what do you like about festivals?
CA: I like seeing all my buds! That I don’t get to see when we’re all on single tour. There are so many great musicians in this country and around the world that I get to see. And I get to play for their fans. It’s a great exchange. Festivals do great press. Any festival that will have me, it’s an honor and another notch in my bed post. <laughs> It’s a victory just to be included. To be acknowledged by a festival that is well-known, that’s a huge victory.
FEMMUSIC: What are some of your favorite festivals?
CA: Kerrville has got to be on top of the heap there. Just because it was such a personal victory at a time where I needed a personal victory. And two, I was acknowledged for my experience and my time in the business and given a position where I didn’t have to enter a songwriting contest. I was acknowledged for my many years in the music business and the albums I already had out, and the stages I’d already been on and could handle. By the time I hit Kerrville in 95, I’d opened for a ton of people and played in a ton of huge venues and I could handle a huge venue as a solo performer. Being in those huge venues really expanded my energy. Kerrville acknowledged the fact that I’d already done that, I didn’t have to prove myself anymore. They gave me chances. I climbed the rung in Kerrville and then, after a few years, was given headliner status on a Friday night, which was just a huge compliment. So I really appreciate that.
Falcon Ridge was a great experience. I got to sit in a round with Martin Sexton on one side and Greg Brown on the other. The first song I sang was Left Wet. I was just like, ok, how am I going to shut these guys right up? How can I get to them? <laughs> So I did Left Wet. God it was great — that was one of the greatest experiences.
That and High Sierra, playing right before Hot Tuna, having Jorma Kaukmann come up and treat me like a comrade — gawd! And the ultimate is Bonnie Raitt, playing with her anywhere. She invited me to sing just recently, me and Freebo, when Freebo played with me at Kerrville this last time, May of 2002. Bonnie was playing in San Antonio at a beautiful venue called The Majestic. I’ve sung with her before, since ’85. She recorded some guitar and a little bit of vocal s on Line of Vision that I put out in ’88. But really, truly, this was the biggest deal because not only did I get to sing backup on the chorus, but she gave me the second verse of “Angel from Montgomery” by myself, which was a first and a big, big deal.
And of course singing with the Indigo Girls, they took me on a 16 city tour back in ’94. Before that they’d taken me out on a 6 city tour in ’92 out through Florida and some of Georgia. That was really exciting to be on a home base with them, that was big time. Then in ’94 they brought me from Cleveland across the United States and came out here and played Red Rocks. That, and the Greek Theater in Berkeley, was one of the most incredible stage experiences, being out there by myself. I have to add singing with Joan Baez on an acapella tune that I recorded with the Indigo Girls and Michelle Malone — the Finlandian national anthem set to Sebelius. We ended every show w/either “Finlandia” or “The Water is Wide,” which is one of the first songs I sang with the Girls in a big setting.
One of my earliest big, big shows was opening for Muddy Waters. That opened my eyes to a bigger world. That was ’81 at a place called the Moonshadow in Atlanta. It was a 1000 seat hall. It was just amazing. I’ve had great fortune, starting in 79-80, when I started opening for a lot of people. I was kind of a stock opening person. This was before all the managers & record labels sent people out in tandem to break their new artist in with their artist which is doing well in that market. So I was very lucky that I got in before the corporate mentality hit. The people at the Moonshadow were very good to me. Who all did I open for? Little Feat, I opened their reunion tour. I opened for .38 special. Tim Weisburg, Jonathan Edwards, Doc Watson, Phoebe Snow, just a ton of people. I was really lucky.