BLURTING WITH… Christina Courtin

Forget
the Norah Jones comparisons. The classically trained violinist would rather
folks think Tom Waits.

 

BY HAL BIENSTOCK

 

Christina Courtin started off life as a musical
follower, yet by the time she entered New
York’s prestigious Julliard School of Music she was
so intent on following her own muse that a professor regularly referred to her
as “my rebel.” A classically trained violinist, Courtin started playing the
violin at the age of three for the simple reason that her two older siblings
were doing it.

 

“My oldest brother saw Yitzhak Perlman playing
violin on Sesame Street
and said ‘Mom, I want to play violin,'” Courtin explains. “My parents said OK.
Then my sister started to play too. And if they were doing it, I had to do it
too.” But Perlman wasn’t the only musician on the stereo at Courtin’s house.
She also spent plenty of time listening to Michael Jackson and the Beatles, as
well as her dad’s Steve Miller and Boston
albums. Put it all together and you get a singer-songwriter whose self-titled
debut uses string arrangements and instrumentation a coffeehouse folkie would
never dream of. While her professor may not have understood, plenty of other
people are catching on.

 

We talked to Courtin about how the challenges of
keeping one foot in the classical world and one foot in the pop world, and why
she’s no Yngwie.

 

***

 

What
are you happiest about with how your debut turned out?

 

Just the feel of it. I think it has a beautiful
feeling, and if you listen to whole thing from beginning to end, I feel like
it’s a work that holds together.

 

Do
people listen to full albums that way anymore? Isn’t it mostly about singles on
iTunes these days?

 

I guess I’m old fashioned in that way. I’m a
Beatles fanatic and the thing that’s so great about their records is that you
want to listen to them from beginning to end. All great records have that,
where you can listen to the whole thing and get this complete feeling. Even if
other people don’t care about that anymore, I still do.

 

What
made you decide to become a singer-songwriter instead of following the career
path of a classical violinist?

 

It wasn’t something I sat down and decided. I
always sang and I started writing songs when I was 15 or 16. As a kid, I was
into writing stories and even writing music. It’s always been a part of my
life.

 

Did
you see pop music and classical music as similar?

 

I think some things share a similar spirit.
Maybe there’s not much similarity between Mozart and Boston, but certainly a band like The Beatles.
In both cases, the sound is incredible, the performances are great, the playing
is great. It’s so magical.

 

Were
you nervous that Julliard people would disapprove of your decision to embrace
pop music?

 

I was pretty scared to play my stuff at first,
but people were really supportive. Most people there were interested in other
things besides having classical music tunnel vision. You kind of have to be,
because that’s a pretty small world.

 

But
you had a lot of success as a classical violinist. It seems like one minute you
were sharing a stage with Yo Yo Ma, the next you’re in a dirty rock club
playing to a tiny crowd. Was that a hard transition?

 

Not at all. Part of it is that I never thought
of myself as being particularly successful as a classical musician. And anyway,
I’m not the kind of person who thinks “I’m doing great at this one thing, so I’m
going to grab on to it as tightly as I can.”

 

And
you haven’t completely given up classical music. Do you think you’ll be able to
continue in both worlds?

 

I hope so. I need both in my life. Right now, I’m
in one orchestra, called The Knights, which I’ve been in since my first year of
college. The problem is that when people in the classical world find out you’re
doing something else they assume you don’t want to play classical music anymore,
so I’m not getting as many calls as I used to.

 

Is
it hard to bring rock and classical together? It seems like whenever people try
it, you wind up with some bombastic Emerson
Lake & Palmer-type
thing.

 

Or Yngwie (laughs). That’s not exactly what I’m
going for. But I do think you can do both. The drummer for Wilco does a lot of
new classical stuff, along with his pop music. So does Nico Mulhy. Then there
are groups that straddle the line like the Bang on a Can All Stars or Newspeak.

 

A
musician you often get compared to is Norah Jones. How do you feel about that?

 

I don’t feel great about it. She doesn’t write her own music
and is so far away from what I am. I think people say that just because we both
have brown hair and brown eyes. She’s very talented, but her music isn’t the
kind that resonates for me.

 

Is
there someone whose career you do admire?

 

I’d love to be thought of like Tom Waits someday.
He’s a guy that’s done it right. He makes great music that everybody knows and
respects, but he also chills with his family, lives in a beautiful place and
does what he wants. If I wound up like that, I’d be pretty happy.

 

 

[Photo Credit: Autumn DeWilde]

 

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