EVERYONE LOVES A MIXED GIRL
by Julia R. DeStefano
“I am definitely not in the acoustic folk bag anymore. I thought of a phrase like “The love child of Buffy Sainte-Marie and Lyle Lovett” or “The offspring of Patsy Cline and Nick Lowe.” I’ve also considered “Native Americana” as a catch-phrase, and a nod to my Native American roots.” ~Thea Hopkins
Noise: In the beginning, what led you to pursue music? Was there a catalyst of some sort?
Thea: It was a gradual evolution. I was fortunate to have grown up in an artsy home. My mother was a commercial artist and encouraged my creative interests. I wrote a lot of poetry and studied both violin and viola. I was encouraged to pursue my classical training but lost interest, oh, somewhere around puberty. I then studied and performed ballet and modern dance for many years, but I was spellbound by the sound of an acoustic guitar, so I eventually picked one up. It is still a never-ending mystery to me, a mystery that I am still trying to unravel.
Noise: Can you share your musical history, including your involvement in past bands?
Thea: I am a performing songwriter. I went to Berklee and focused on composition. Then I took a break from music, and came back to it about twelve years ago. I didn’t learn to really sing until I was an adult. I studied with an excellent classical teacher, Marilyn Evans. I also studied guitar with the gifted guitarist and teacher, John Curtis. As a teacher, he’s probably best known for teaching and inspiring Patty Griffin, who is one of my favorites. I learned a lot from John. I was very lucky that one of my songs, “Jesus Is On the Wire,” was recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary on their last studio album in 2004, and again in 2010 on a live album with the Prague Symphony Orchestra.
Guitarist Andy Hollinger has been performing with me on a regular basis over the last couple years.
The two most thrilling musical accomplishments for me in 2012 was opening up for Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, a true American legend, at the Museum of Fine Arts’ Remis Auditorium this past May, and winning first prize in the Americana Songwriter Magazine’s lyric writing contest for my song “Chickasaw,” which is the title track of my last album. The prize was a truly beautiful-sounding Gibson guitar. You can see a photo of me proudly displaying it in the photo (on this page). The reason I look so transcendently happy is because it had arrived in the mail just minutes before the photo was snapped. It was a guitar I had dreamed about, down to the very model.
Noise: Who were (and are) some of your influences? I imagine you have many. In what ways, if any, do you incorporate them into your music?
Thea: My first musical influences were folk artists: Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and Leonard Cohen. Recently, I have been listening to a great Bert Jansch collection.
In recent years, I’ve moved more in an Americana direction with Johnny Cash, Rosanne Cash, John Hiatt, Hank Williams, Lyle Lovett, and K.D. Lang, who are among my favorites.
Noise: How do you write your songs? Is there a particular process that you go through?
Thea: It varies. Sometimes, a melody will come to me and that will be the starting point. Other times, I will start with a title and build from there. I keep a tape recorder and notebook by my bed because it isn’t uncommon for me to wake up with a melody or words in my head. I have literally dreamed songs. Catch them, or lose them forever! Once I get the essence of a song down, I work it, and work it for a long period of time. I throw out much of what I come up with as far as lyrics go. I’m a perfectionist. My model is Leonard Cohen, who sometimes works on a single song for years.
Noise: How has your songwriting progressed stylistically and lyrically since the days of your previous albums?
Thea: My first CD, Birds of Mystery, was released in 2001. It was a well-recorded album but a little too ambitious—going in too many directions. My 2007 CD, Chickasaw, was more focused with better writing and a more rootsy sound, but it was still within the contemporary folk genre. My upcoming EP, Lilac Sky, to be released in January, is much more Americana—upbeat, rockier, more twangy and rootsy. More rip it up. It was recorded slowly, over the course of a year, but it sounds very live and hot. It contains the instrumental work of pianist Tim Ray (Lyle Lovett), guitarist Peter Parcek, Blues Foundation award nominee, drummer Mike Piehl (Chris Smither, Peter Wolf), and bassist Paul Kochanski (the Swinging Steaks). Four of the songs feature substantial contributions from my current guitarist/mandola player, Andy Hollinger, and former guitarist, Cameron Peterson. Country rock singer-songwriter Susan Cattaneo adds harmony vocals to two of my songs, “Lilac Sky” and “Might’ve Stayed in Memphis.” Pat DiCenso engineered and mixed the CD. It was a fantastic experience working with all these folks. Ed Valauskas at Q Division treats you right.
Noise: How would you describe your style to someone who hasn’t heard your music?
Thea: My style is Americana, rootsy folk. I’ve been trying to come up with a slogan to replace the one I used on my previous album, “American Short Story Folk,” a nod to my storytelling songs and narrative instincts. My new songs still tell tales, but they’re more pared down and rhythmic, with prominent electric guitar and a molten-hot rhythm section. I am definitely not in the acoustic folk bag anymore. I thought of a phrase like “The love child of Buffy Sainte Marie and Lyle Lovett” or “The offspring of Patsy Cline and Nick Lowe.” I’ve also considered “Native Americana” as a catch phrase, and a nod to my Native American roots. I’m about half-Indian, a member of the Wampanoag tribe of Acquinnah (Gay Head) on Martha’s Vineyard. My uncle was the tribe’s chief, a post now held by my cousin. I am also of African American, Irish, Portuguese, and French heritage, and consider myself to be mixed race. I have a T-shirt that reads: “Everybody Loves a Mixed Girl,” though I have found that, in the music biz, it is often easier to be labeled with one ethnic or national heritage. Simple definitions are convenient shortcuts in the music business.
Noise: What is next for you?
Thea: My new EP, Lilac Sky, is coming out in January 2013. It was recorded at Q Division in Somerville. I am starting to book dates for the New Year.
Noise: Do you have any words for younger folk following in your footsteps?
Thea: Follow your bliss and have a good day job.