It's been a big year for Carolyn Wonderland, the Texas-born songstress known for her incredibly soulful Blues/Rock music and frequent comparisons to Janis Joplin and Stevie Ray Vaughn. 2011 brought Peace Meal, her new album compiled of well-chosen covers and biography-based originals, as well as true love and a wedding to comedian/writer Whitney Brown.
On the night I met Wonderland, she was camped out at cozy Bismeaux studios in South Austin with a terrible case of laryngitis and when I arrived, a kind and concerned Brown opened the door to welcome me inside. Even though Wonderland spoke at the lowest audible volume, it was easy to tell that the soulfulness, gentle nature, quick wit and wonderfully bawdy sense of humor I'd seen before on stage were not just a product of show time and that Peace Meal was a labor of love.
In many ways, this became true of the record in a literal sense: "My first love song is on this album," she says shyly of "St. Marks," a tune written about her first real date with Brown in New York and the night they spent wandering the city and taking shots of tequila after a show at Joe's Pub and before a 4am load in at "Imus in the morning."
The splendor of that beginning lead, about a year later, to a honeymoon in Zihuantanejo where "Victory of Flying" was inspired by a struggling bird in a flock overhead as the two stood outside waiting for the aftershocks of the Tsunami in Japan.
"They were calling for water to drop, so we go out and see if there is anyone who needed help, or if there's anything to see ...or whatever the case may be. And really it was these birds that caught my attention more than the people and this one little scrappy fucker kept getting knocked around. But he kept getting back up, so I wrote him a song" she says earnestly.
Another original track called "Shine On" is an upbeat, catchy ditty, also inspired by the wonders of nature during a late night drive through God's Country under a cloudy sky.
"Around 4am there's really nothing on the radio. Sometimes you have to turn it off while you're driving and that's when the songs come to you," she explains.
"So everybody's asleep in that back of the car and it's kind of overcast and one star shining through. And it's like all the different ways you can go to hell on every AM station... So I turned it off and started writing the song for this star, and it's funny because when you're driving you can't write anything down ...so I sat there and sang it to myself until we stopped for gas."
These inconvenient of bursts of creativity during the writing process are apparently not uncommon for Wonderland.
"I've gotten so many speeding tickets before trying to remember a chorus," she admits.
Amongst these originals that showcase her brilliant voice and guitar skills, perhaps the most powerful song on the album is a cover, "Golden Stairs," where Wonderland tears through vocals so powerful and wrenching, it's clear they are tied to something deeply personal.
"Vince Welnick wrote the music for that song shortly after his tenure with the Grateful Dead. We were in a band together 10 years ago and that was one of the songs that we did and I always liked it. It scared the crap out of me the first time he played it for me. I was like there is no way...that's like 2.5 octaves, are you high? But it was so compelling and beautiful, so I thought 'ok', and I've always loved playing it.
But then Vince and Jerry (Garcia) had died a couple of years ago and I found myself unable to do it in front of people, I couldn't hardly listen to it myself."
Then one night at their friend Levon Helm's place while mulling over ideas for the new album, it all came together.
"Maybe it's because the snow was falling perfect or the moon was just right...but we played that one for Larry (Campbell, their producer) and it just sparked, you could see it in his eyes. I hadn't been doing it for years, so it was a little catharsis. Now I feel happier when we do it live, I'm thinking of Vince and Jerry and thinking, look I finally got it right!"
It's the caliber of covers like this and Wonderland's raw talent that has helped make Peace Meal a top selling Blues album and an intensely enjoyable, personal time capsule of the past year full of beautiful tributes and a sense of contentment.