Larger Than The Sum of Its Parts: The Multi-Faceted Artistry of Christie Lenee
Christie Lenee’s musical self is like a prism. We’ve all seen that glass triangle (think of the cover art on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album) which transforms a white beam of light into a rainbow of colors. Of course, we’re dealing with a rainbow of sounds here. When you experience her live show, or listen to several of her recordings, you are in for a colorful ride. But all the different elements you’re hearing come from a single source: Her unwavering commitment to baring her soul with the aim of bringing joy to others. Whether that takes the form of a classically-inspired solo guitar piece, or a danceable tune with uplifting lyrics, what you’re witnessing is simply different hues of the same bright light that comes from her soul as it passes through her musical prism.
Christie Lenee is a 27-year-old guitarist, singer and composer from Tampa, Florida who moved to Philadelphia a few years ago. By age four she was receiving performance coaching, but later on, a few musical epiphanies shaped her artistic path.
I had the pleasure of witnessing a performance at an outdoor courtyard by Lenee and her band, in which the weather seemed determined to ruin the proceedings. But Ms. Lenee and her band soldiered on, moving all their gear to another spot, while the heavy rain threatened to cause irreparable damage to it. You wouldn’t have known that by watching the performance that ensued, though. Neither Ms. Lenee nor her bandmates showed any signs of distress or disappointment. They played with the same positive attitude they had when the skies were clear. I don’t think there’s anything that could make Ms. Lenee hit a sour note.
Who inspired you to become a musician?
I heard an incredible guitar composition called “Sunburst” by Andrew York in my freshman year of high school and experienced a transforming moment. Hearing this composition brought about a profound emotional experience that struck a chord in my soul. I exploded with tears and knew immediately that’s what I wanted to do. Right after the show I ran to John Michael Parris, the guitar teacher at Blake High School. I told him that I had to play and dedicate my life to music. And I have.
Were you already into classical guitar music, or was that piece more or less your introduction to that field?
I grew up listening to classical music- Bach, Beethoven, etc. Though, this was my first introduction to modern classical guitar. It certainly opened up a new world of possibilities.
Who or what was your inspiration for your “unorthodox” techniques on the guitar?
Michael Pukac, one of my favorite painters today, hired me to compose a piece for a multi-media project. I had already started composing the piece, then saw Sean Frenette perform Bach inventions on a three-string guitar using all finger tapping. I was so inspired by this two-handed technique that this sound ended up permeating my composition for Michael Pukac. So, Sean Frenette was the first musician I heard use those techniques. Many others have since inspired new ways of using this sound, such as Andrew Gorny, Michael Hedges, and Kaki King.
Hearing Andrew Gorny was when I got inspired to tune my guitar to a low C. It quickly led me to start writing my piece “Evolution” which is about 17 minutes long.
You mentioned bassist Victor Wooten’s book The Music Lesson on one of your websites. I see some parallels between his work and yours. Another one that comes to mind is Michael Manring. Were you influenced by them?
Oh, definitely. Victor Wooten is one of my favorite musicians. Béla Fleck and the Flecktones is my favorite band, along with the Dave Matthews band. It’s music at another level. I learned a lot listening to them, and I definitely see my instrumental music going in that direction.
There’s very few proper record stores left. But, if a store like Borders had ever stocked your music, what section would it be filed under?
That’s a really good question. I’d say my instrumental music would fall somewhere between New Age and Folk. It’s hard to categorize. For my full-band music, I’d say rock. Or “acoustic rock” if they had it.
Your piece “Evolution” has three movements, which is a concept usually associated with symphonic music. Do you expect the piece to be taken as a classical guitar composition?
Absolutely. It can be interpreted as a modern classical piece. I intend to orchestrate it, and have it performed as a symphony.
As far as the line-up in your band is concerned, would you rather stick with a steady group, changing members only if you have to, or do you prefer playing with different people intentionally to keep it fresh?
Good question. Since I travel a lot, I end up doing a lot more solo stuff than band stuff.
Every musician adds their own little touches to the music, and that kind of keeps it fresh. I am fascinated by what different people bring to the table. But, at some point I’d like to have a more consistent band.
What qualities do you look for in your musical partners?
I look for people that are dedicated to their instrument and craft- people who have character to their musical voice and can react in a live setting. I choose musicians who are enjoyable to work with, will spend individual time with the music, and bring a good vibe to the band setting.
How often do you play solo shows versus with a full band, or is it always a mixture of the two on every show?
In my effort to tour frequently, I do my best to balance solo and full band shows- more solo on the road, and “special event” band shows in Philly and Tampa. As of now, it’s probably about 75% solo and 25% band. Playing with a band and performing in various acoustic settings keeps things fresh and exciting. Every show is an experience!
Do you ever perform music by other artists, or is it all original?
My original music is the main source and focus. Of course, I certainly enjoy arranging new versions of popular songs- especially for tribute events, etc. Learning covers is always interesting when the artist puts a fresh spin to it. Likewise, I sometimes do it just for fun.
When you and your bandmates go into solos, I get the feeling that those sections are not entirely pre-planned. How much of it is improvisational?
Certain songs have composed chord progressions and rhythm hits in which a lead instrument (most often a guitar or keyboard) will improvise over it within the structure of the section. For the most part the songs are composed and arranged, but these moments are when the band can let loose a little more.
When working up a song with the band, do you basically tell everyone what to play, or is it more of a give-and-take?
I always have a vision for the song and do my best to translate it to the musicians. For band arrangements it’s nice to get specific with notated melodies and rhythm parts, but at the least there is usually a chord chart laying out the structure of the tune.
I usually start by recording an acoustic demo of the song, then emailing the band a document explaining the form, vibe and feel I’m hearing on each instrument. At rehearsals I’m known to sing drum parts, bass lines, melodies, and tap out ideas on the keyboard. Then I allow the musicians to put in their perspectives and see how it feels- add, subtract, experiment. We’ll rehearse a song until it best fits the initial vision, though of course sometimes it goes beyond what I ever it imagined it could be. Feeling a composition expand that way is an incredible feeling.
You play expansive solo guitar compositions, you also play with a full band in which your sound moves into a more familiar rock/funk/folkish pop territory. I also read you’ve written choral compositions. To what do you attribute such varied interests? Do you prefer wearing any of those hats more than the other?
I don’t necessarily prefer one over the other, because I feel they’re all integrated. I go through phases in which I focus more on writing instrumentals, and then more on vocal songs, and so on.
What I find really inspiring is composing something that I have a vision for, and then going into the studio and seeing it come to life.
Your online bios indicate that you want to project positivity with your music. Do you ever see yourself writing an angry song to vent your frustration at some situation or person? We all get frustrated or angry at least once in a while!
A lot of people ask me that. They want to hear that side of me. But music has been a force of transformation in my life, it has been my saving grace. So, whenever I’m feeling upset or whatnot, and I go and play, it comes out more expressive than angry. It’s my way of letting go of it. That’s why a lot of my lyrics are about moving on, growth, and overcoming obstacles.
Do you ever get any flak for being a female musician? The old “you play good for a girl” or anything of the sort?
Yeah. When people say stuff like that, I chuckle. I usually say, “There’s a lot of great female artists out there you should check out.” But people are going to think what they think.
Did you ever take vocal lessons, or do vocal warm-ups before recordings or shows?
When I started performing on guitar, singing was a sort of secondary thing. I did have some vocal coaching throughout my childhood in performance and theatre groups. However, that was certainly a different school of thought. Once I transferred my career focus from acting to guitar, singing and theatre got put on the back burner. It took years to bring it back and develop it into something that went together. In fact, during my first attempts to sing and play simultaneously, many people told me I should just play the guitar and have someone else sing. At the time that really got under my skin and upset me, but it made me even more determined to practice and improve. So, I took it with a grain of salt and took the necessary steps- started taking lessons and trying to stretch my voice more. I was not going to let anyone discourage me, especially knowing in my heart that I had the music inside of me. The struggle with any person learning could be getting past the elementary stages, but you can really do anything if you want it bad enough. Especially if you keep your focus on the big picture.
I am still practicing and expanding every day and will never become complacent. As for the vocals, if you listen to the earlier albums you’ll hear how my voice has evolved. Being a musician is an incredible journey.
What are your short and long-term goals?
I plan on getting my own studio in the mountains with a broad array of instruments and top-tier recording gear. The main goal is to compose and record an abundance of music, tour, and collaborate with multi-media (film, television, art, dance).
In conjunction with that, I want to inspire people to follow their dreams and travel the world: teach workshops, do community outreach, help charities, and educate people. Anything I can do to bring positivity to the world, I will.
At my first Dave Matthews concert during my senior year of high school, I had another transforming experience. This was before I started writing music, when my main focus was classical and jazz guitar. Acoustic music and singer/songwriters were just starting to come into my life… then this took it over the top. I was front and center at at a beautiful Amphitheater in West Palm Beach. Dave Matthews looked out into the audience while singing and an expression of radiance was captured by the stage lights. I imagined what it must feel like to write something so beautiful that such a crowd of people would come together to experience it live- such a community, such joy brought to these people through the music. I felt the most pure essence of happiness and the gift of giving to the point of tears… just as hearing “Sunburst” for the first time. Dave then looked directly at me: eyes connected, and something happened. Everything I’d done in my entire life came together– guitar, poetry, singing, acting, dancing – it all became one. It was then it hit me that I wanted to write music. This intense desire came to light and I began exploding with compositions. Really, it has continued to evolve ever since.
Christie Lenee on the web: