New York city-based singer/songwriter, cookbook editor and radio show host Christine Lavin is coming to the Mark Twain House and Museum Saturday to perform. Known for her sense of humor and musings on relationships as well as her contemporary folk music, Lavin’s show also includes a pre-program knitting circle for those who would like to join her for a purl or two, and a bit of on-stage baton twirling, a craft she honed as a teenager in Peekskill, New York. A new fan and featured performer on the trending laptop concerts, the award-winning songstress had been up all night working but set her alarm clock for 3 p.m. recently so she could Spill the Beans With Java.
Q: I just have to ask this first. You are queen of some of the most interesting song titles I have ever seen. Case in point, “Regretting What I Said To You When you Called Me At 11:00 On A Friday Morning to Tell Me That at 1:00 Friday Afternoon, You’re Gonna Leave Your Office, Go Downstairs, Hail A Cab to Go Out To The Airport to Catch a Plane To Go Skiing in The Alps For Two Weeks, Not That I Wanted To Go With You, I Wasn’t Able To Leave Town, I’m Not A Very Good Skier, I Couldn’t Expect You To Pay My Way, But After Going Out With You For Three Years I DON”T Like Surprises!” subtitled “A Musical Apology.” If you were going to make this interview into a song what would the title be?
A: This is like Jeopardy. Okay. “Oh My God What’s Happened To Me, I’m Waking Up At The Crack Of Three?”
Q: Seriously though, how did you get drawn to folk music?
A: I was 12 years old and there were guitar lessons on public television. If you sent $1 to the tv station you could follow along with lady who was teaching. That is how I learned. I thought ‘Wow I could do this if I had a guitar and $1.’ I signed up and used to pay my brother 5 cents to hold the antenna out the window so I could watch the program.
Q: We know we will get to enjoy you live and on stage Saturday at the Mark Twain House and Museum but can you explain your new performance venue, people’s computer screens?
A: It’s so interesting. I did my first one on Jan. 7. I knew the technology and it’s this idea that everybody who has a laptop actually has a camera and microphone and can broadcast their own little tv station. Concert Window asked me to do a concert for them. What happened was I had a record that came out in December, a holiday record and was on tour when they asked me and so it was booked for Jan., 7 at 8 p.m. They told me to just turn it on and follow the directions and people would be tuned in at 8 p.m. to see me sing. I forgot all about it. At 8:11 I see an email saying ‘are you ready to go?’ I keep crazy hours so I was not even dressed yet and there were 21 people waiting for me. I sang and then it was 8:30 which was the time the concert was supposed to be done and I apologized and someone wrote ‘you can keep playing.’ I did. People pay what they want to listen to these concerts and I ended up making $94. 59 playing in my bathrobe. and I’m thinking ‘this is crazy but this is comfortable.’
Q: I guess I can see the benefits of the “instant concert” but I also see a downside. How do you as the performer view the concept?
A: These concerts are usually not scheduled during prime time on the weekends but during the week. Promoters are a little nervous about the idea because they think the laptop concerts could hurt draw power to on stage concerts. But what we see is that a potential concert goer can test the music out for $1 donation and if they have fun watching you online we are hoping they will make the leap, put clothes on and come to a concert. There is a serious element to this. I have been to two meetings of songwriters whose income has been hit bad because of the internet. CD sales are down, royalties have disappeared. These laptop concerts are a way for performers to use the technology that is hurting us to get some money back. It’s all new. We don’t know yet if it is a novelty or not. We are just learning the fun things we can do with it.
Q: You have seen decades of folk music succeed. What are your thoughts on the genre?
A: I think there are certain styles of music like jazz that people love for their whole lives and will go to see it anywhere. But it will never be the pop music of the day. There is an audience for folk songs that are relevant, political, topical, and in the 60s, there was that one brief music when folksongs were pop music. People called it the great folk scare. The odds of that happening again are very, very slim. No one goes into folk music because they want to get rich. It’s a passion.
Q: Did you ever formally study music?
A: I wish I did because I have to pay a small fortune for people to write up charts for me because I can’t do it.
Q: If you were going to put together your own live or laptop show, starring you of course, who else would be performing with you…dead or alive?
A: Dame Edna, he’s a friend, Leonard Cohen, Frank Sinatra, Sonja Henning, even though she skates, and Shirley Temple.
Q: I think it is so neat that your programs include a little pre-program knitting circle. Where did that idea come from?
A: I started knitting in 2002 and am not a fancy knitter. I can’t talk and knit and count at same time. One day I thought if I told people I would do this pre-program knitting circle they would come do it with me. It’s been interesting. At one concert, a person came and she was kitting a red square. I asked her what it was going to be. She said ‘a red square. I knit it and then I unravel it and knit it again.’ I had a knitting circle in Olympia, Washington with 80 knitters one time and the sweetest thing happened. A woman walked by who had donated a ton of her mom’s yarn to a shop after her mom died. She came for the concert and recognized her mother’s yarn that was being used by one of the knitters.
Q: What is the first record you ever bought?
A: “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” by Glen Campbell. I actually met the girl who inspired it and she was also the girl who inspired “MacArthur Park” and “The Worst That Could Happen” all written by Jimmy Webb about her. Her name is Susie Rondstadt, Linda Rondstadt’s cousin. The last CD I bought was “Ten Easy Pieces” by Jimmy Webb.
Q: Since you are name-dropping, tell me about your Lucy Gayheart project?
A: The book is set in the early 1900s, was published in 1935 and in 1998 an article about Joanne Woodward’s obsession with the book caught my eye. I was so intrigued that I bought the book and read it — and also fell in love with the story. I wrote a song, “The Kind Of Love You Never Recover From” that I thought would make a great closing-credit song, so I sent it to Joanne Woodward.
She wrote back! She told me that she thought my song would be a good closing credit song, but that she had just discovered that Willa Cather’s will had a clause in it that none of her books could be turned into films until she had been dead for 60 years, so she has had to give up that dream because that meant another 10 years and by then she figured she’d be too old to direct.
For some reason, last summer I decided to re-read the book and then I started writing a song about the book and about Joanne Woodward’s obsession with it. It took a long time to write, and when I finally finished it I realized the best way to present it is with a video that combines words from the book, and the story — but not the whole story — just enough to create interest in reading the book. A couple months ago I started buying up copies of “Lucy Gayheart” from Amazon and bringing them to shows, singing the song, and selling the books for what I paid for them.
It’s a very modest project — I think I’ve sold about a dozen copies so far, but I think that’s all it takes to get someone interested in Willa Cather.
Q: What is something no one knows about you?
A: I am allergic to Republicans.
“Christine Lavin: Live in Concert” on March 15 begins at 7 p.m. Tickets are $20 and $25. Information: 860-280-3130 or marktwainhouse.org.