When Carolyn Wonderland took the stage at
Yoshi’s in Oakland, California, the crowd didn’t know exactly
what to make of her at first. She appeared somewhat shy and
unassuming, armed with a Tele, a lap-steel, and a tiny Fender
combo. As the band went into the opener, the first thing listeners
were struck by was her singing voice, an amazing instrument
unto itself, with uncommon power, dynamics, and range. Comparisons
to Janis Joplin are inevitable, but Wonderland possesses
a purity of tone that is all her own. She is such a good singer
that some might initially overlook her guitar playing, but not
for long. Midway through the first tune, her attack, touch, and
tone have taken center stage and will hold their own with her
tremendous vocals for the rest of the night—no mean feat. By
the second song she has won the entire audience over and overwhelmed
the wait staff at Yoshi’s who, not realizing who they
were dealing with, didn’t schedule enough people to handle the
increasingly boisterous crowd. Next time Carolyn Wonderland
comes to town, the club had better be ready, because everyone
in attendance will surely come back and bring their friends.
And so it has gone for the Houston native who now resides
in Austin (“The land of free guitar lessons,” she says), playing
gig after gig and watching as her gutsy voice and fiery 6-string
and lap playing hooks and reels in new fans. Her latest release,
Peace Meal [Bismeaux], will surely garner her even more supporters
with its broad range of tones and grooves and boatloads
of great guitar playing.
Talk about your right-hand technique. You don’t use a pick.
When I was about 11, I got really into the Who when I was
playing my Mom’s old Martin. I thought it looked cool to do
the windmill thing, but when my Mom saw how badly I had
scratched up her guitar she said, “No more pick for you.” She
also had a Strat that she let me play but I still didn’t use a pick.
I like playing fingerstyle because there are three different surfaces:
You’ve got the nail, the side of your finger, and the fingertip.
It’s cool. I tried a pick a few times like for mandolin, and
there have been times, especially on acoustic, where I wish I
could play with a pick, but I don’t.
Your record has a diverse array of tones. How did you get the guitar
sound on “St. Marks”?
That was the magic of the room. We were at Levon Helm’s
place. I set up my live rig one time for all the tracks we did there
and we did all the tracking basically live. We
also cut “Golden Stairs,” which is a song that
my friend Vince Welnick wrote with Robert
Hunter years ago. I hadn’t done it in a long
time. Vince and I recorded it when we were
in the Jerry Lightfoot Band of Wonder, and
he’s since passed away. It’s one of my favorite
songs, but it made me cry for a few years.
Levon’s seemed like the perfect place to do it
again. We did the Janis song, “What Good Can
Drinkin’ Do,” because the first place I ever did
that song live was at Levon’s, so that seemed to
make sense. We tracked “Shine On” there too.
Your live rig when you played in Oakland was a
Tele, a Tube Screamer, and a Fender Blues Junior.
Is that what you recorded with?
No, I used my red sparkle ValveTech amp.
I adore those amps. They’re freaking awesome.
But at that gig that you saw she happened
to be in the shop, so I had my trusty
little Blues Junior. My ears prefer the Valve-
Tech but my back loves that Blues Junior. My
Tube Screamer is the Keeley Mod version. It
sounds more like the original, and the footswitch
is more solid. There’s a roundness to
it. It doesn’t get quite as jumpy. I kick it in
for solos and dirty licks.
Is the Telecaster Thinline your main guitar?
Yeah. She and I have been through a
great deal together. I also have a Gibson
Blues Hawk that I love—as well as a bunch
of other instruments—but the Tele’s the one
that always goes out with me. That guitar has
Joe Barden pickups. Originally I got them so
it could keep up with a Les Paul, but then I
fell in love with them. Because of the blade,
you can do all those pedal-steel-style bends
and never go off the magnet.
It seems like you typically run both pickups
I like to start in the middle, and then I can
go a little darker on the neck pickup if the song
needs it or a little nastier on the bridge. The
middle position is just crunchy enough that
you can still strum a chord and not get lost.
How would you describe the difference between
your Tele playing and your lap-steel playing?
My approach is to hang on for dear life on
both instruments. Because I’m less experienced
on the lap-steel, it’s sometimes more
fun to write things. You come up with accidental
riffs because you’re not stuck in that
box yet. It’s a little more experimental. I also
like to think of horn parts, and because of
the way the strings line up on the lap, there’s
almost always a triad in there somewhere,
which makes those kinds of parts easier.
Your intonation on the lap-steel is fearless.
You don’t even look when you throw the bar down.
For the first few years on that instrument
my intonation was all over the place. I had
to learn how to close my eyes and just listen
for it. Most of what I know on lap-steel is
from watching folks. The lesson that I got
the most out of was being in the same room
with Cindy Cashdollar. She’s one of my favorite
lap-steel players. I was lucky enough to
kidnap her for this record and she played on
“What Good Can Drinkin’ Do.”
What’s going on when you bounce both hands
on the strings when you’re playing rhythm on the
I’m trying to find a way to be rhythmic
and percussive and also give myself a couple
of clue notes to help my singing. Depending
on the monitors, you can’t always hear
what’s going on. I try to leave myself some
notes here and there so I can go into a lick
and know where I’m at.
You phrase with a lot of triplets when you play
electric—that sort of “da-diddly, da-diddly” thing.
Where does that influence come from?
I’ve had a couple of guitar players ask me
to show them that lick that you just sang,
I’m pretty sure I got that from Willie Nelson.
There’s a live version of “Whiskey River”
where he goes “wang-diddly, wang-diddly”
over and over. For whatever reason it stuck
in my head and it makes me giggle. I do it a
lot, but I always try to stop just this side of
a “look at me” lick.
Who else inspired your lead playing?
Most of the folks I saw in Houston: Little
Screamin’ Kenny, Jerry Lightfoot, Albert Collins.
They would all blow my mind as a kid.
Eddie Shaver was a huge influence. I put him
right up there with Danny Gatton, who was
another guy who just killed me when I saw
him. They have a similar thing. Some people
talk in little spurts or sentences. These guys
had paragraphs and novels and they never
repeated themselves. I’m still hanging on to
the few licks that I can, but I when I let go,
I try to be more like them.
Who inspired you from a guitar tone standpoint?
Billy Gibbons. My Mom always played
acoustic and had this beautiful, rich tone
that I loved, but it was folks like Billy Gibbons
and Jimi Hendrix and the bizarre sounds
that they made that fascinated me as a kid.
Do you see yourself as a role model for female
I don’t know. When girls come up to me
and say they play because of me, it’s really
sweet but it makes me feel older than I like
to think I am [laughs].
What advice do you give them?
Not to generalize, but some of the girls I
speak to, especially the ones in their teens, don’t
always know about pedals and how they can
open your palette. They’ll ask about my pedals,
and I’ve given away more than I care to admit.
The advice, though, if you want to call it that,
is that the reward is the music itself. Everything
else is coincidental. You will have great
times and horrible times, you’ll have money
and no money, you’ll have sickness and health,
and the music will always be there.
What’s the difference between a good gig and
a great gig?
When people get it and you see them
light up. Sometimes the band thinks we
played really well, but the crowd doesn’t get
it. But when there’s that positive feedback
loop, when the energy is coming back to you,
you don’t have to work so hard expending or
trying to create energy, because it’s already
there. It’s effortless.