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 deep 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, is released on Jan. 21, 2022 — Christensen’s birthday — on Wirebird Records.
Christensen and Brett Ryan Stewart co-produced, 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 its understated dignity. Guitarist Chris Tench and guitar/dobro/mandolin player Sergio Webb also provide standout moments throughout. Other contributors included Gregory Boaz on bass and Chris Benelli on drums.
Iowa is a place where Gordon and Christensen literally did travel the same terrain; both attended the University of Iowa. A hawkeye state native, Christensen majored in Asian studies there before dropping out to join a country-rock band based in Iowa City. Gordon earned a master’s degree in poetry at the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop program. Julie chose “Jimmy Reed is the King of Rock n’Roll” as the song related to Iowa, 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.”
“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.” 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.
His starkly minimalist imagery has a photorealistic quality — further enhanced by Christensen and Stone Cupid’s ability to heighten his Southern Gothic dramas at pivotal moments. When Christensen sings a line from “Down to the Well” — 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.
After traveling with that country rock band, Longshot, which opened for John Prine and Asleep at the Wheel, among others, Christensen quickly integrated into the Austin TX scene, often singing jazz with members of “Jack-of-all-trades” band Passenger, who toured with Cohen twice.
“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 (aka Chris D). When that band split, Christensen and Desjardins joined forces as the Divine Horsemen — and as husband and wife for a time. (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.
In 1988, Passenger bassist Roscoe Beck became Cohen’s musical director. He recommended Christensen for backing vocals on the 1988 Leonard Cohen tour of Europe and North America,
Following the tour, Julie 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. After 32 years in California, Christensen hit Nashville in 2013 and stayed for 7 years. She home-recorded her vocals in mid-2020 and the band safely recorded for 11 From Kevin…Then she made a move with Diehl to New Mexico, near a zen monastery Cohen had introduced them to.
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, Darrin Bradbury and Tim Easton covers; she’s also covered Jim Lauderdale, Randy Newman, 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, 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 ‘n’ 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.
Glide Magazine premiered "Find My Way," the lead off track. They had this to say:
"GLIDE is excited to premiere her rendition of “Find My Way,” which serves as the first track on the album and rightfully so. Christensen exudes soul as she absorbs the song and presents it in her own fashion. Compared to Gordon’s version, which is a slowburning roots rocker, Christensen gives it a bluesy Southern rock treatment that brightens the track even more. Her vocals get amplified by greasy slide guitar and even more soloing than the original, ultimately giving the track a full sound that truly showcases just how great of a songwriter Gordon is while also putting her vocals in the spotlight. "
"Her swagger is true to her rebellious punk-rock roots, and refined through working with the likes of Cohen, Iggy Pop, Public Image Limited..." Christensen has worn coats of many different colors, and this one's red.” No Depression
“With a background that includes gothic cowpunks Divine Horsemen and two tours as Leonard Cohen’s backing singer, Christensen has no problems bending musical boundaries. Here there’s East Nashville back porch country, tattooed barroom rock (Honey Let’s Go To Town): a lovely, Blue Valentine-esque ballad (Like Nothing Hurts), as well as a fine cover of Tom Waits’ Hold On.- Sylvie Simmons, MOJO
"Julie Christensen is a singer who paints the moon every time she gets near a microphone. Maybe that's because songs run through her veins, whether she writes them or chooses them. It's not hard to discover today who's up there on the tightrope risking their lives to stay in the music business, because for them there is no other way to live. This lady has been singing a long time, but on A SAD CLOWN Christensen sounds as new as tomorrow. Her heart is pounding, her ears are glowing and her voice remains a miracle. And she'll take you there too." - Bill Bentley, author/writer/A&R
"You have wrought another thing of beauty and guts and all the good stuff of which you are made! Really wonderful— (A Sad Clown) the songs, the vocals, the band vibe. You are on a roll, my dear.” Joe Woodard (Rolling Stone, LA Times)
“Julie Christensen is a Nordic Zephyr. Get her!” Van Dyke Parks
“Julie is gold. Solid. Gold.” Chuck Prophet
"It was her ability to sing with conviction in a variety of approaches that made her extraordinary to me." Todd Rundgren
“Julie Christensen’s music is deep and wide and speaks of experience. Her voice has amazing range, her own songs are little gems and her choice in material is assured. Wherever she is taking you, you’ll want to go.” Jeff Turmes (Mavis Staples Band)
"--one of the truer singers you’ll ever hear — straight up, no mannerisms, perfect taste; listen to.. her piercing new Something Familiar, and recognize how she could sing with both Leonard Cohen and Chris D. “--Greg Burk L.A. WEEKLY
“Simply put, this gal’s voice can raise every single hair on my body— and all at the same time! Be it R&B, pop, rock, she can sing it all, and with style, too.” -- LA Weekly
“…Do what you love, ‘cause you only get paid in lessons…
Your mama’s just a sad sad clown. How long has she been around?
There’s work to be done, and no time for her to slow down.
Your mama’s just a sad sad clown.” —Julie Christensen