JEMEZ SPRINGS, New Mexico — When vocalist and songwriter Julie Christensen first heard Nashville singer-songwriter Kevin Gordon perform, she instantly remembered the first time a song made her cry. Having built her career forging connections through song — including stints as Leonard Cohen‘s backing vocalist — Christensen knows the value of a sticky melody and well-crafted lyrics. But Gordon’s artful music and cinematically sweeping, vividly drawn emotional and physical landscapes reached her on a deeper level; she recognized their terrain, because she’d traveled it, too.
Christensen and her band, Stone Cupid, recorded Gordon’s “Saint on a Chain” for their 2016 album, The Cardinal. But in 2020, she decided someone ought to record an entire collection of the Louisiana native’s songs. When she suggested it, she mentioned “someone more famous” should have the honors. “No,” he responded. “I’m glad it’s you.” The result, 11 From Kevin: Songs of Kevin Gordon, will be released on January 21, 2022 — Christensen‘s birthday — on Wirebird Records.
Christensen fudged the numbers a little, turning “Heart’s Not in It” and “Down to the Well” into a mini medley. “I had 11 songs picked that I could hear myself doing,” she explains. “Then I realized I needed a song drawn from his Iowa experiences.”
Iowa is one place where they literally did travel the same terrain: both attended the University of Iowa. A Hawkeye state native, Christensen majored in Asian studies there. Gordon earned a master’s degree in poetry at the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop program.
“You can’t sing a poem, and you can’t read a song,” Christensen asserts. “But the way he elides his words and melodies together, they’re just really haunting to me.”
Though it’s an uncommon word, “elide” describes a common speech pattern: dropping letters or syllables and merging or compressing others, as in “gonna.” Examples abound in this “Down to the Well” verse:
See that woman in the corner, brother, she knows
Every inch of my body, every mile of my soul
We used to shake ’em on down til the blazin’ day
What’s she doin’ here tonight watching me that way
Elided or not, Gordon’s words carry both gritty intensity and startling beauty. One single, extraordinary line in “Gatling Gun” — But my tongue remembers the shape of her name — provides a dissertation’s worth of information about why any artist might do an entire album of his songs.
Gordon’s almost miserly use of syllables gives his starkly minimalist imagery an even more photorealistic quality — one further enhanced by Christensen and Stone Cupid’s ability to heighten his Southern Gothic dramas at pivotal moments. When Christensen sings another “Down to the Well” line — a face I recognize looking right through me — she hits a high note on “through” that penetrates with a heart-cutting stab as deep as that cold stare of nonrecognition.
Christensen and Brett Ryan Stewart coproduced, crafting an album that almost refuses to be genre-typed. On “Gloryland,” an indictment of false prophets, Christensen stamps Dylan-style intonations over jagged-edge guitars; on “Following a Sign,” about a wandering faith healer, Brent Moyers’ Calexico-style horns lend grace to the song’s understated dignity. Guitarist Chris Tench and guitar/dobro/mandolin player Sergio Webb also provide standout moments throughout.
Christensen chose “Jimmy Reed Is the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll” to satisfy the Iowa requirement, but she finds parallels to her home state in many of Gordon’s musical tableaux.
“It’s that small-town thing,” she says. “‘Crowville’ could be an Iowa town; ‘Joey and Clara’ could be little Iowa kids. Weeds by the highway and that longing to leave; I really relate to that.”
Christensen‘s urge for going began forming in childhood, as her musical education progressed from piano to flute, bassoon and, starting at 11, singing lessons. Practice included accompanying her church-organist mother at Sunday services.
“Being raised Protestant was boring and strict,” she recalls. “But one of the great things Mom and I did together was sit and play and sing through the Judy Collins songbook, which of course had a lot of Leonard Cohen songs. Being creative in the middle of Iowa wasn’t a picnic, but my brothers and I found a way to get proficient at music.”
Their study guide included Ry Cooder, Bonnie Raitt, Little Feat, ZZ Top and Buffalo Springfield. “Their songs were poetry and had emotional weight, and the wild energy of rock,” Christensen notes. Joni Mitchell and Randy Newman were also major influences, and when she heard Joan Baez sing “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” she made her parents drive straight to the local record store. It only had The Band‘s version, so she took that home. Once she heard the B side, “Up on Cripple Creek,” she kept spinning it till her family made her stop. Her explanation: “The singing, groove and mood just sent me.”
In college, Christensen fell for Linda Ronstadt and Laura Nyro. She became steeped in country rock and its feeder influences while performing in Longshot, which opened for John Prine and Asleep at the Wheel, among others. When she moved to Austin to study music theory and arranging at the University of Texas. Christensen quickly integrated into the local scene, often singing jazz with members of “Jack-of-all-trades” band Passenger.
“People used to tell me that I sang jazz with a country accent,” Christensen remembers. That accent faded from her speech when she moved to Los Angeles, but it remained part of her sound, fitting right into the rockabilly-revved punk scene anchored by X, the Blasters and Los Lobos — all of whom contributed members to the Flesh Eaters, fronted by Chris Desjardins (a.k.a. Chris D). When that band split, Christensen and Desjardins joined forces as the Divine Horsemen — and as husband and wife. (When the Flesh Eaters’ most prominent lineup — Desjardins, X’s John Doe and DJ Bonebrake, the Blasters’ Dave Alvin and Bill Bateman, and Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin — recorded a reunion album in 2018, Christensen sang on five tracks. That led to a Divine Horsemen revival, and the August 2021 release of their first new work in 33 years, Hot Rise of an Ice Cream Phoenix.)
Gordon, a high-school punk rocker, also was lured by the reckless energy of those alt-country/Americana progenitors. In Iowa, he joined folk-rocker Bo Ramsey’s band, started writing songs, and in 1992, moved to Nashville. (After 32 years in California, Christensen hit Nashville in 2013. In 2020, she and her husband, actor and artist John Diehl, moved to New Mexico, not far from a Zen monastery Cohen had introduced them to. She home-recorded her 11 from Kevin vocals before the move.)
Christensen dived into songwriting after becoming sober in 1987; Divine Horsemen, and her marriage, ended shortly afterward. By then, Passenger had toured twice with Cohen, and in 1988, Passenger bassist Roscoe Beck became Cohen’s music director. He recommended Christensen for backing vocals.
Following the tour, she signed with Polygram, but her Todd Rundgren-produced debut album got buried in a label reorganization. (He still laments that it was never released.) By the time Christensen joined Cohen’s 1993 tour, she had remarried and become a mother, and in 1996, two years after moving to Ojai, California, she released her first solo album. Several more have followed, under her own name or with Stone Cupid.
Christensen sometimes categorizes her style as roots rock, but she’s fluent in blues, folk, punk and even what she calls “Great Plains soul.” That versatility allows her to explore a broad range of other artists’ work. Her 2018 album, A Sad Clown, includes Tom Waits and Tim Easton covers; she’s also covered Jim Lauderdale, Joni Mitchell, Jimmy Webb, and of course, Cohen, most notably in the 2005 documentary Leonard Cohen: I‘m Your Man, in which she and vocalist Perla Batalla accompany Nick Cave, the McGarrigle Sisters, Rufus and Martha Wainwright (Kate McGarrigle‘s kids), Beth Orton, Linda and Teddy Thompson, and others.
“I don’t pretend to be able to write a whole album of good songs at a time,” she says. “I’m really inspired by Bonnie Raitt, Joe Ely and others who’ve made their names picking great songs by friends and songwriters others might not know, as if they’re saying, ‘I’ve gotta let you in on this secret.’ Since I have a voice, I’m going to sing it.”
That voice earned her induction into the Iowa Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, as well as a long list of admiring peers and collaborators. After a listen to these 11 From Kevin tracks, the tongues of Gordon’s fans, Christensen‘s fans or previously uncommitted listeners should also remember the shape of her name.