“Blues spoke to me because it is so simple and guitar-oriented – I love anything guitar.”
“The women musicians who came before me influenced me, and now, we get to influence the next generation of female musicians.”
Guitarist. Bassist. Vocalist. Songwriter. Teacher. Frontwoman. Producer. The list goes on
Kathryn Grimm is a Renaissance woman, and an all-around musician who is not bound by traditional definitions of style or genre. She’s musically liberated and says she’s only halfway through.
For years, Grimm has been blowing up the unsuspecting music scene in Portland – working in not just one, but now three music groups, having recently established a duet group with Portland Blues Legend Sonny Hess.
The genre-crossing artist speaks with GGM about what inspires her version of the blues, Portland’s music scene, balancing multiple bands, and the role of women in music today.
You’ve put a lot of time and effort into getting to this point in your career. When did you realize writing and performing music was your calling?
I’ve been singing since I was nine, which was when I started listening to Joni Mitchell. But it wasn’t until age fifteen when I had the epiphany that I should be a musician. I knew from an early age that I wasn’t like most kids at school – I wasn’t really a conformist. I wasn’t a jock. I wasn’t in a clique. I spent a lot of time alone listening to music, because that’s what really intrigued me.
In regard to writing music, I didn’t even try doing that until my twenties. When I first got into music, there were so many songwriters I adored, and it was intimidating to even attempt to write songs like Joni Mitchell.
Did you always want to play the blues, or did it come to you organically throughout your career?
Around the same time that I was listening to Joni Mitchell, I was listening to Jimi Hendrix and Buddy Guy. They were blues all the way, and I liked it a lot. Blues spoke to me because it is so simple and guitar-oriented – I love anything guitar.
I got intrigued by the blues at that point, and eventually also got into rock, like the Pretenders and Led Zeppelin, which isn’t too far from blues. I got into some folk stuff too, since that’s what my sisters were listening to in the 1960s.
I’ve been intrigued and influenced by all types of music, but especially the blues.
Considering you delve into a variety of musical genres, how can you best sum up your style of blues?
My style of blues isn’t your typical blues. I’d call it “Electric Blues,” with more of a rock edge. Lately, I’ve really been into Eric Gales – he’s a blues-rock guitarist who, to me, is the closest thing I’ve heard to Hendrix. Not that there can be – or needs to be – another Hendrix, but his creativity and musical chops are outstanding. Eric’s techniques have rubbed off on me.
Your 2004 album Grimm Again features a particularly bluesy number titled “Can’t Stop the Train.” What inspired this song?
My partner at the time was playing with this bass line. He was about to throw it away, but I loved it, so he gave it to me to do something with. I started with that line for the verse, came up with a melody, and ended up writing the song in just a few minutes. As for the lyrics, most of my songs are introspective and autobiographical, but “Can’t Stop the Train” was fictitious. But everything was built off of that bass line.
Does songwriting really come that easy to you?
Writing a song is easy sometimes. It’s rare for me to write lyrics and a melody simultaneously. I usually need a reason, some inspiration. It’s taken me a decade to write one song. I’d love to say it’s always easy, but I have to work hard at my songs. “Can’t Stop the Train” was easy, but I’ve only experienced a handful of songs like that.
You’ve worked with so many great artists – Jeff Buckley, Bo Diddley, and Michael Bolton, just to name a few. Musically speaking, of the artists you’ve worked with, which one has had the most influence on you?
Hands down, this would be my late partner Mark Frere. He is not a household name or a rock star, but he had more talent than most. I heard Jeff Buckley sincerely tell him in our living room, “You are my songwriting muse, man!” Jeff was mesmerized by him as were so many others.
Mark was a bassist and a gifted writer. He played for a short time in Steppenwolf and Blues Image. He was good friends with Steppenwolf’s guitarist, Kent Henry, who lived in Portland. We traveled through Portland together many times over the years.
It was Mark who taught me how to write, sing, and play. Just being in his presence was awe inspiring. He labored over lyrics and expressed how important it is to live the lyrics when singing them – to try to relate them to your life, making you sing with feeling. That bit of advice was more useful than anything any vocal teacher ever taught me.
Mark had his own unique style of playing, pretty much exclusively with his thumb. I’ve never known anyone who loved the blues so much. Robert Johnson was his favorite. He was sweet, humble, and sensitive – not demonstrative or self-promoting. Those are the same qualities Jeff had. Sensitive people have a very difficult time surviving in the music business, which is filled with aggressive and narcissistic characters.
But Mark was a true musician, writing every day and playing his bass until he was too weak to pick it up. He died of cancer in 2007, ten years after Jeff passed away. Losing those two has been profoundly sad for me, they were both in a class of their own.
You can hear one of Mark’s songs, “Money Talks” on YouTube. The song features one of Jeff’s best guitar solos, and me on vocals. Mark wrote the song about a homeless man who wandered the streets in our neighborhood of Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles. It’s one of the best songs I’ve ever heard. Someday I’ll release all the songs Mark and I recorded with Jeff – they are stellar.
Here you are with several bands – Kathryn Grimm and the Blues Tools, Hippie Love Slave, and now, Strum Broads (a duo featuring Kathryn and Sonny Hess) – while many musicians have their hands full with just one. How do you manage writing, practicing, and performing with multiple groups?
Needless to say, my life is pretty busy. Luckily, I don’t oversaturate our schedules and we don’t all play at the same time. The Blues Tools play at the Blue Diamond once every two-and-a-half months. It’s the same for Hippie Love Slave. I space everything out, so I don’t go crazy. But the truth is, I couldn’t do just one thing. I’m influenced by a lot of genres, so I’d get antsy if I did just one thing and had one band. Having a few simultaneous projects allows me to play everything I want.
What can we expect from a live performance by Hippie Love Slave as opposed to that of Kathryn Grimm and the Blues Tools?
Hippie Love Slave is a psychedelic jazz band. Although we play covers because we perform at clubs, we do original numbers too. The music is very spontaneous – there are a lot of bass solos, which aren’t featured in blues a lot. I don’t consider one band better than the other, they’re just different.
You’ve been performing in front of live audiences for decades. Over time, has the experience changed for you in any way?
I’ve definitely gotten more comfortable performing. When the gig involves backing someone and playing their material, that’s one thing. But with my own material, I’m really relaxed.
Performing music is still exciting and challenging – it never gets boring. I’m always trying new things. My bands get excited to play something new and different. It’s funny, I’ve been doing this for so long and it’s still fresh and fun – which is most important. At this age, it’s got to be fun or pay a lot of money, and I don’t want to be bored.
Though you’re now residing in Portland, you’ve experienced blues crowds in countless cities across the country. What’s the blues scene like in Stumptown?
Portland is definitely a blues-loving town. When I first got to Portland, I brought my pedal board to a blues jam and got a certain look from everyone there. Portlanders like traditional blues, not electric blues. But the fact that they love old-style blues is exciting to me. Blues is a simple, repetitive style of playing, built around three chords. For some reason, no one in Portland gets tired of hearing it.
Speaking of the Portland blues scene, your blues band performs regularly at the Blue Diamond. What is it about that place that is ideal for a blues artist?
There’s something special about the Blue Diamond. I’m not a bar person, but I do end up there a few times a week because there’s always great live music being performed. The Blue Diamond books great blues and R&B bands. It just has a certain vibe about it – it’s small, quaint, and full of regulars. It’s like Cheers, but with great live music.
Not only can you play a variety of musical instruments, but I’ve noticed you change up the type of electric guitar you use. Does the type of guitar you use depend on the style of music you’re playing at the moment?
Yes – I use different guitars to get different sounds. Some are more for rock, and others are more for blues. For my blues playing, I stick with my Stratocaster because the sound is cleaner. My Paul Reed Smith is more versatile, so I can play it for any genre.
I have an amazing 335 from 1969. It’s the perfect blues guitar, but since I’m only 5’1” it’s way too big for me. It’s featured on the cover of Grimm Again though.
You somehow find the time to give guitar and vocal lessons to up-and-coming artists. When did you start doing this and why?
I started teaching twelve years ago in Los Angeles. When you’re a musician living in a city like that, you always try to find ways to earn money while still having time to make music. Once I started teaching, I felt that it was something I was born to do. I was a born mentor. I enjoy teaching, though I never formally learned how to teach. I looked at it through the viewpoint of the student and taught based on what I would have liked to learn. I became the teacher I had always been looking for.
I have an academic background – I received scholarships, went to school for four years, and earned two degrees. With a music degree, they don’t teach you how to teach. But I do have this really expensive diploma on my wall.
I think all musicians should teach. If you share what you know, it will make you a more well-rounded musician. As a music teacher, you have to explain what you’re doing and why, and in doing that, you learn at the same time. If you teach music, your ear is always getting challenged.
You’ve performed with some of the greatest artists blues has to offer, received an honorable mention on the Official Grammy Ballot, and produced songs for the award-winning Homeless, the Musical. You’ve made it clear that you’re not done yet. Is retirement anywhere in the back of your mind?
I can’t even imagine not playing music. I simply wouldn’t exist. Literally, I’m singing all throughout the day. My attraction to music is unconscious. When I’m shopping, when I’m in the kitchen, I’m thinking of music – it’s in my bones. If I were to have a tragic accident and couldn’t use my hands, I would still sing. That’s why I feel like I’m only halfway through. I’m just getting started.
What can you tell us about your next project?
Strum Broads is a brand-new development. We’re not writing yet, but we will soon because Sonny is a great songwriter. We’re both playing electric guitars, which I haven’t seen a duet do – that’s one aspect that makes it unique and exciting.
I wrote a blues song about domestic violence called “The Best of Me.” The song’s message is subtle but intended for anyone who is a victim. I’m pushing that now and want to make a video to market it. My hope is to make it an anthem for all of the victims out there. I’m really excited about it and will probably create a GoFundMe for the project.
What inspired you to write “The Best of Me”?
When I was living in Seattle, I volunteered for a domestic violence organization. I was on the crisis hotline for a year and a half. When these women first come in, they’re making a decision to get away from their abuser. They’re wondering if they’re doing the right thing. That experience was life-changing for me.
A few times I accompanied victims to court and was stunned by the way they were perceived. They were often blamed for the abuse and looked upon as if they were stupid. The women had been stalked, beaten physically, tormented emotionally, and told it was their fault.
I had been writing this song for a long time. I wanted to write a song a victim could hear and be inspired to get out of their situation as soon as possible. There’s a lot of mental manipulation going on in those situations, so I’ve taken some terminology abusers use and applied it to the lyrics. I think I nailed it with this song.
In recent years, there has been a surge of great female artists – from rock to blues and everything in between. Since you started your career as a musician, how have you seen women’s role in music change?
I think more women are being courageous about being musicians. Being a musician is not an easy life for anyone – not just women. It’s a hard lifestyle, and you can’t be sensitive. I’m pretty sensitive, so I don’t know how I survived. You have to teach yourself to survive.
Nowadays, there’s more acceptance of women musicians. When I was 20, there weren’t a lot of us. People would be amazed that a woman could play an instrument. It was a myth that you couldn’t be musically talented as a woman.
There have been some phenomenal female musicians, especially from Portland. Esperanza Spalding is a great example of female talent coming out of Portland. She’s a fusion jazz artist who plays the upright bass. I recommend everyone check her out.
The women musicians who came before me influenced me, and now, we get to influence the next generation of female musicians. The level of musicianship from women is growing because of this – it’s both wonderful and exciting.