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Activism meets music with Kristen Graves Special

By Erin P. Capuano     Mar 13, 2015 in Music
An interview with CT State Troubardour singer/songwriter Kristen Graves. Kristen discusses her music, activism and humanitarian work.
Kristen Graves is an independent singer/songwriter based in Fairfield, Connecticut. She’s recently made a name for herself by being appointed as the State Troubadour. I heard about Kristen from News Channel 12, one night I was laying on my couch waiting to hear about the next snowstorm and there the story was. I was instantly intrigued as my love for folk and rock is only second to my love for EDM.
Kristen is a seasoned vet playing over 150 shows a year and sharing the stage with legends like Pete Seeger, Peter Yarrow (Peter, Paul and Mary) and Dar Williams. Her interests range from humanitarian work to social issues, but her passion for music is what really shines through. It’s difficult for artists to ride a fine line between making good music and getting their emotions out about a cause they are deeply passionate about. Kristen does this with ease and you’ll hear that many of her songs, while telling a story are just as catchy musically as they are lyrically. Kristen is very active in charities that support music education and because of a volunteer trip she took to Mexico in 2001 as she states, “The kids that I met there, and the things I experienced in seven short days changed the entire course of my life.” Kristen now spends about three months a year volunteering with Simply Smiles, a Connecticut- based charity run by her husband, Bryan Numberger.
Kristen was kind enough to read my email requesting an interview and gracious enough to answer each question with the same kind of time and thought that she would put into her music.
Erin: Ok Kristen so my first question is of course going to be, what is a State Troubadour and how did you get into the running for the title in Connecticut?
Kristen: The State Troubadour is an honorary title given to a singer/songwriter in the state of Connecticut. My job is to promote the arts throughout the state and promote the state when I’m traveling the country. Basically, I’m a singing poet laureate.
To becoming the State Troubadour, there’s an application process. You need to have some letters of recommendation written on your behalf, you need to write an artist statement telling what you hope your art brings to the world, and you have to write a song about the state of Connecticut. For me, writing the song was the hardest - Connecticut doesn’t rhyme with anything!
Erin: How would you describe your music to people who may have not yet heard of you?
Kristen: I describe my music as acoustic folk/pop. I’m a folkier female Richie Havens, or a more upbeat Sarah McLachlan.
Erin: Playing with Dar Williams and Pete Seeger must have been monumentally cool, how did you hook up with those great artists and did you learn anything from playing with them that you'd like to share?
Kristen: I’ve had the privilege of playing with a lot of my folk heroes. Dar Williams is definitely one of them - I’ve looked up to her for a long time. I’ve also shared the stage with Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul & Mary. The thing about having folk musicians as your heroes? They’re so down to earth. Spending time with both Peter and Dar has been wonderful. They’re both incredibly kind and incredibly human.
I could go on and on about Pete Seeger. I got to open for Pete in November of 2013. He died two months later. After the show was done, he told me I’d done a wonderful job (I could barely speak, I was pretty star-struck) and offered me a chair as he was just going to sit down and eat dinner. Over lentil soup we talked about what it was like marching with Dr. King, what it was like riding planes and trains with Woody Guthrie, and then he asked me about me. He was curious to find out about what types of venues I like to play, and he was really interested to know about the guitar camp that I run on the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota for Lakota children. Spending time with him is by far one of the highlights of my career, and my life.
Erin: I know you're involved with a lot of charities and play benefit concerts on occasion, what social issue are you most passionate about?
Kristen: I am passionate about a lot. I want to look out for our earth, our children, our animals, basically, I just want to make sure that this world has justice and peace in it.
The non-profit that I’m most involved with is my husband’s. It’s called Simply Smiles, and through his organization I get a chance to work with families in Oaxaca, Mexico, and on the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota. We take an holistic approach when working in these communities, (we build schools, homes, community centers, run day camps, run music camps, host food distribution events, and hold medical clinics) and since we’ve been working with and helping the same communities since 2001, these are not only my friends, they’re my family. It’s an honor to spend time with them. I know it sounds cliche, but I don’t care- we truly help each other.
Erin: From your perspective what has the experience been like to be a woman in the music business?
Kristen: I honestly don’t think of myself as a woman in the music business, I think of myself as a singer/songwriter in the music business. The only time that my gender is pointed out to me is when I’m leaving a gig, or driving across the country alone. People seem to think that I should be afraid - I guess - because I’m a woman.
I always feel loved and supported on the road, and I wish that same comfort and confidence for all of my fellow musicians - men and women.
Erin: Your latest album, Now Ain't The Time for Tears has a little bit of everything as far as what you're singing about, Demand and Greed so far are my favs would you consider those activist songs?
Kristen: I would. I wanted this album to be the most raw of any of the collections I’ve ever put out, and that’s what I got. You go through a full range of emotions in these 10 songs!
I do consider ‘Demand’ and ‘Greed’ to be standing up for social justice. I think it’s important to remind ourselves that the things that we say matter. If we as a society want something to change - we need to stand up and demand change! If our leaders aren’t listening - we need to make them! They do work for us after all…
Erin: Who did you work with on this current album and what is your creative process for writing your songs?
Kristen: This album was the most disciplined album I’ve ever written. In the fall of 2013 and winter of 2014, I made a pledge to write every day. I was pretty good about carving out the time, and I really enjoyed the ‘going to work’ feel of sitting at the piano every day. Sometimes I wrote junk, and other stuff - well, ended up on the album.
I write solo. I’ve never been a co-writer - yet. That may change someday.
I work with a wonderful producer and friend, Chris Cubeta out of Brooklyn. He’s a fantastic singer/songwriter in his own right, and has an amazing ear for developing songs into full band productions. We have a good time working together and have been working together since 2007.
Erin: Score is another great song on the album, tell us a bit about that song and the meaning behind it.
Kristen: Ha! This is the one that I need to be most cryptic about! Though, I’m pretty sure this person will never hear the song.
I’ll just say - there are some people so convinced they have all of the answers that they need to insult, injure or crush anyone they perceive as a threat, or that potentially might disagree with them. I don’t mind having discussions with people. I actually enjoy good debate. I’m pretty stubborn, and I’m pretty confident and strong when it comes to my convictions. But I’m always smiling, and I’ll always be kind and respectful during the conversation.
With that said, when someone sets out to harm people that are weaker than them based on a false belief that they’re superior - well, I become a bit of a mama bear, I’m afraid.
Erin: Tell us about your campaign to get on the Ellen show, it's great by the way I love it!
Kristen: Thank you! I think that Ellen DeGeneres and I would be great friends. So - I started a campaign a few years ago where people could write letters, emails, Facebook messages and Tweets to the Ellen Show. Much to my shock - the show called! (I still have the voicemail saved to my phone - YES - I sadly missed that first call.) Anyway, I’ve been in touch with the producers a few times now. They ask how my career is going from time to time, they were interested in hearing my new CD when it came out, and they just want to stay in touch for now. I’m hoping that there’s a slot that needs filling soon! (I’m pretty sure that I’m in a file somewhere…)
Erin: Last, but not least please tell us about Guitar Camp and how people can get involved if they want to.
Kristen: Guitar camp was something that I dreamed up a few years ago when we had been working on the Cheyenne River Reservation for a little while. I thought that music could be a great way to get people to open up with us, with each other and with themselves, and I was right! It’s been a hit ever since. It started with guitars, last year we introduced the piano, and I’m hoping that I can even get a few ukuleles out there this summer.
To get involved you can visit: [url=http://www.kristengraves.com/guitarcamp/]http://www.kristengraves.com/guitarcamp/, and to learn more about the organization in general, you can visit: [url=http://www.simplysmiles.org]www.simplysmiles.org.
I had the pleasure of seeing Arlo Guthrie play in Connecticut and it was quite the experience for a person who has never seen him before. I find that folk singers have such a fantastic way of storytelling, but not being preachy about their views. You can tell they are deep rooted in the life experience and take the time to truly notice the little things. Artists like Pete Seeger changed the way people saw the world and gave them something to fight for, Kristen Graves is the next generation of fighters. Ani DiFranco is the eternal riot girl fighting for women’s rights she’s feminism at it’s finest and then there is Suzanne Vega whose approach to folk takes on more of an outward look at life with catchy lyrics and riffs. All stand up on their own and have each given the music industry a different view of folk singers, but one thing that stays true to each artist is their love and passion for music and their need to share it with the world.
Kristen Graves shares history with such amazing artists, but its the path she’s paving for herself that has people taking notice.
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