Press

Locals’ Christmas song taking national stage

NIKKI GREY, NEWS-PRESS CORRESPONDENT

Santa Barbara songwriters Kate Wallace, left, and Annie Dahlgren will perform, “Peace, Peace, Peace” in Sonora Saturday when a 65-foot white fir from the Stanislaus National Forest will be unveiled as the 2011 U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree.
STEVE MALONE/NEWS-PRESS

October 29, 2011 6:20 AM

The two songwriters joke that they are the same person. They love to sing, write, and laugh together — they even dress alike (though they swear it’s by accident).

That explains why the songbirds were able to collaborate so well to create the official song for the 2011 U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree. Every year, one state presents a tree and a song to the nation.

In a statewide competition, “Peace, Peace, Peace,” co-written by Santa Barbara locals Kate Wallace and Annie J. Dahlgren, was selected to represent California.

Ms. Wallace, an award-winning Americana folk singer and songwriter, has penned songs for the likes of Billy Ray Cyrus. She has worked as a staff songwriter for Universal/Polygram Music in Nashville, Tenn., recorded sound tracks for such major movies as “Something to Talk About,” and continues to book Santa Barbara’s acoustic music series, Trinity Backstage. She has also recorded five CDs of her own.

As Ms. Wallace puts it, “This is nothing new for me.”

Ms. Dahlgren, a screenplay writer and editor with her own production company, Over 40 Productions, says she is a little more green. That’s why she was so shocked when their song won the competition.

“I was just amazed,” said Ms. Dahlgren, whose day job is bookkeeping. “It’s not like me to go winning competitions, and it’s not for lack of putting myself out there.”

Ms. Dahlgren gives much of the credit of the success of the Christmas song, and to most of her songs in general, to those around her, including Ms. Wallace and her producer, David West.

Mr. West, who also co-produces for Ms. Wallace, introduced the two singer/songwriters more than six years ago and they have been friends ever since, Ms. Dahlgren said.

She said Mr. West heard about the songwriting competition from a friend and encouraged them to apply.

“Peace, Peace, Peace” is about joy, love, understanding and peace, the songwriters say.

Ms. Wallace said that when she and Ms. Dahlgren sat down on a Tuesday afternoon, as they usually do every week for singing and songwriting, they decided peace would be a good theme.

“I hope a lot of people hear it,” Ms. Wallace said. “I hope it puts them in a open and peaceful mood for the holiday season. (I want to go) back to Washington and remind our representatives that that’s what people want.”

Ms. Dahlgren said the holiday is the perfect time of year to put forth such a message because it is when people get another chance to start over.

She has high hopes for the song.

“In my wildest dream, I would love for it to become a Christmas song that people sing,” Ms. Dahlgren said. “I can hear little glee clubs singing it at elementary schools or Christmas carolers singing it. I would love for it to catch on.”

The duo will perform their song in Sonora on Saturday, alongside a 65-foot white fir from Stanislaus National Forest that will be sent to Washington, D.C., for a special tree-lighting ceremony in December at the U.S. Capitol. The Capitol tree is not to be confused with the National Christmas Tree near the White House.

Stanislaus National Forest officials estimate that as many as 10,000 people will come to the celebration in Sonora.

“I haven’t performed in front of 10,000 people in a while,” Ms. Wallace said.

“Yeah, me neither!” Ms. Dahlgren added, laughing. “Not in my whole life.”

Ms. Wallace said she thinks the song represents California well because “Californians are pretty open-minded and generous people.”

Both of the songwriters said writing the song came pretty easily because they knew what they wanted to convey.

“The fun of songwriting is the act of writing the song, so it doesn’t matter if we are writing about Christmas or a failed romance,” said Ms. Dahlgren, who is finishing recording her fourth CD. “Writing is just joyful fun.”

Ms. Wallace said she loves music because it has the ability to express many emotions in different ways.

It has “the ability to alter the human state,” she said. “If you’re feeling unhappy about something, it can lift you up. If you aren’t paying attention, it can make you tap your foot. It can teach you things.

“It’s a universal factor. No matter where you come from, music is a thing that is very uniting between people, and I like that about it.”

Both women expressed excitement about being selected as the winners of the competition. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime honor to be part of something that represents the state of California, but also the country,” Ms. Wallace said. “Whether five people pay attention to it or five million that the song was picked and to be able to put it forth is incredible.”

Ms. Dahlgren says she is thankful that she can continue to do what she loves.

“Just generally speaking, I’m so grateful that I still get to do this,” she said. “Everybody would like to sing and write songs and I get to and I’m so happy. I want to share it.

“That’s what’s so great about this competition,” Ms. Dahlgren said. “I get to.”

Ms. Wallace says the joy of music is enough reward in itself.

“We folk musicians joke we have tens of tens of dollars, but we have great lives,” Ms. Wallace said. “An empty wallet and interesting life is way better than the kiss of death, which is boredom!”

For more information about the Capitol Christmas Tree and to listen “Peace, Peace, Peace,” visit http://www.capitolchristmastree2011.org.

Santa Barbara News Press

September 24, 2011

By JOSEF WOODARD, NEWS-PRESS CORRESPONDENT

IN CONCERTSeptember 24, 2011 7:52 AM

MICHAEL LILLE

When: 8 tonight

Where: Trinity Episcopal Church, “Trinity Backstage,” 1500 State St.

Cost: $10 suggested donation

Information: 962-2970, trinitybackstage.com

Over in the warming, song-loving ambience of the “Trinity Backstage” series, one Saturday a month at Trinity Episcopal Church, the song is mostly the thing. Singer-songwriters ranging from obscurity to the established come by to perform in a fairly ideal context. And some artists throw into the usual songster mix something extra, beyond the song factor.

In the case of Michael Lille, a favorite of the series who has been here a few times and returns this Saturday night, that extra something is an uncommon facility as a guitarist. A musician who works with the Taylor Guitar company and other instrument businesses, the Austin, Texas-based musician has opened for a laundry list of greats, including Bob Dylan, Leo Kottke, Warren Zevon and Alison Krauss, who has also appeared on Mr. Lille’s own recordings.

Now with four solo albums to his name, the latest being “Suitable Disguise” (produced by pedal steel ace Lloyd Maines), Mr. Lille also maintains an active, thrill-seeking extra-musical life. When not matriculating his songbook and his guitar fretboard, Mr. Lille can also be found whitewater kayaking, tooling around on motorcycles and pursuing the life of a global outdoorsman.

Meanwhile, his musical life continues, and brings him back to our town. As he said of the Trinity Backstage experience in a recent interview, “it’s one of my favorite gigs.”

It seems that there is a kind of new paradigm for performance venues for singer-songwriters, involving more house concerts and special series such as the “Trinity Backstage” shows here in Santa Barbara. Have you found there to be a thriving kind of “under the radar” network in place now?

I think it has been there for quite some time, it’s just that there are so few conventional listening rooms and opportunities for those kinds of gigs, that the house concert, private party, intimate in-the-round types of shows are just getting a little more attention now. You even see higher profile artists participating.

Your music moves around in a natural way between genres, from folk to country and pop and back. Do you have a sense of where your musical sound fits, or are you happily a genre-hopper, by instinct?

I think I could be a genre-hopper — that sounds serious — but it’s completely unintentional. It could partly be because I despise that music needs to be categorized. Americana, folk, rock, blues, country, bluegrass, jazz… I mean they are all melodies, changes, lyrics, structure. A good song can be performed or produced in so many ways. The very word Americana to me means that they just couldn’t settle on what to call good music anymore.

Is live playing something you really enjoy and find a special satisfaction in doing?

Yes. I spent years playing live long before I ever wrote a song. I always tell people that the part we get paid for is the part we would do for free. It’s the travel, road, food and hotels that make playing on the road tough. Being in front of people whether it’s two or 2,000 and sharing music is about the absolute best gift. There’s something completely unpredictable about each gig and every night is unique.

Where did the songwriting impulse enter in your life, and were there particular songwriting heroes you were inspired by early on?

I wrote a handful of songs in my early 20s, and then had the chance to record them with some very seasoned pros, with John Jennings producing and Mary-Chapin Carpenter and her band helping. It inspired me to write more, and then later, a move to Nashville and a trip to the Kerrville Folk Festival really stirred it up.

I had many musical heroes but I think “Souvenirs” by Dan Fogelberg was the first record where every single thing about it grabbed me — the songs, the playing, the production, the vocals.

Is songwriting something you’re perpetually working on, to the point of being obsessive about it?

No, I’m not. In fact, I would say that I enjoy co-writing more than writing alone now, and probably always have.

You’re a fine guitar player, as well — not just the “good enough” variety — and have earned the approval of Taylor Guitars, for one. Was that instrumental part of music something you always worked on, in tandem with the singer-songwriter aspects?

Thank you and yes, especially in the beginning. I consider myself a player first, then singing and writing just fell in behind. Later, however, I learned that some of the most beautiful songs and melodies ever written are very simple musically, so I then made an effort to let the song be what it wants to be and not try to always fill it up with fancy licks or “out of town” chords.

How has the “folk” scene changed in the 20-odd years you’ve been engaged in it?

Again, I think there is a ton of music that people call “folk” that’s not really folk. I mean when I go back to my early records that featured more acoustic guitar, it was a short leap from Jim Ringer and Mary McCaslin to Cat Stevens and James Taylor for me, but I don’t consider James or Joni or Cat Stevens folk.

email:life@newspress.com

Santa Barbara News Press

May 2, 2011 10:34 AM

JOSEF WOODARD, NEWS-PRESS CORRESPONDENT
Eric Taylor doesn’t appear to be a holy man, at least in any traditional sense. The acclaimed Texan songwriter has a dry, salty Lone Star wit, a gruff-but-loveable whisky-toned voice, and he can let slip his longshoreman’s tongue even when trying to keep it in check (or jokingly so). The tall, stocky fellow wears a backwards hat, like Jimmy LaFave, and keeps his fashion real, in a red T-shirt with shorn sleeves.

But, appearances and secular appurtenances aside, there was something just right about this intriguing song force and performer’s poise and the inherent church setting of the “Trinity Backstage” series, held in the large atmospheric “go to meetin’ ” room at Trinity Episcopal Church. Mr. Taylor became our man of song in this wonderful monthly temporary “coffee house” situation, a haven for singer-songwriters of worth and wit, where Mr. Taylor made his third welcome visit on Saturday night.

Nine years into it now, the “Trinity Backstage” series is one of our several strong fellowships and forums for singer-songwriter culture in the 805, hosting inspired and established songmakers — if often better known for having written songs covered by other, better-known artists (Mr. Taylor’s famed songbook has been tapped by his friend Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith and many others).

On this particular Saturday, Mr. Taylor’s slow, rambling but hypnotic tales between songs took the form of a laconic preacher’s patter, with the spiritual and life lessons often left implied rather than hammered into our heads. His songs, too — and the best ones are the sad ones — have a kind of hymn-like contemplativeness beyond their ruffian complexion.

Like most rootsy American musicians, matters of the Bible and gospel music’s loamy foundation worked into his art, specifically on a song about a Catholic homeless shelter, “Mission Doors,” with its quote of “Rock of Ages” and the refrain “hold hands and go dancing on the old devil’s grave.” Mostly, though, this evening was rooted in a more identifiably Saturday night fever of a down low kind, as his emotional tendencies lean into the darker side of things, to cathartic ends.

He may be tired of the once-removed connection by now, but Mr. Taylor is also famous for who he knew and was friendly with — the late, great Texan singer Townes van Zandt, another specialist in the art of the melancholic Texan song. After regaling us with a funny tale about a humble old Texan venue from his salad days of the early ’70s with a “popcorn girl” sentinel, Mr. Taylor launched into a righteous fine version of Van Zandt’s tune “Highway Kind,” about the march of mortality and dreams of salvation through the agency of an unattainable woman.

Saturday’s set also included the tender and rolling “Whooping Crane” (recorded by Mr. Lovett on his 2009 album “Natural Forces”), and image- and detail-rich homage songs to bygone artist friends, Kate Wolf (“The Great Divide,” as an encore) and William S. Burroughs (“Whorehouse Mirrors and Pawnshop Knives”). Returning after intermission, Mr. Taylor offered up a slow-brew, disarmingly poignant and oblique tale of “where I was” at the time of the JFK assassination, easing into the relevant song “Kokomo, Indiana.” In the song “Peppercorn Tree,” he showed his mastery with telling an epic tale, of a humble Eastern Texan couple’s life and love, full of historical and cultural detail, creating a vivid world within the space of a five-minute song.

On this occasion, the self-reliant singer, guitarist and coolly magnetic performer was also joined, to colorful ends, by the intrepid creators and hosts of “Trinity Backstage” presenters, singer Kate Wallace and singer-multi-instrumentalist Douglas Clegg, who added choice fiddler licks and a telling role in “Manhattan Mandolin Blues.”

Ms. Wallace lent her warming, harmonious vocals to the meandering “Dean Moriarty” (the song that drew William S. Burroughs’ attentions to Mr. Taylor’s artistic gifts) and later to a touching song he wrote for a documentary about a Mexican youth’s brave fight with a muscular disease.

Come to think of it, that song is also rife with religious imagery, including the motif of angel wings and the power of faith. Mr. Taylor may be a holier character than he lets on.

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