The Rite of Passage
By Barbara Strickland
JULY 20, 1998: The first thing you notice about Red Hand, Ingrid Karklins' latest release, is the total absence of plastic. From the outside, in shape and size, it resembles your average CD jewelbox, but inside, a heav y bond cream-colored paper, hand-folded and hand-bound around the lyrics, replaces a manufactured casing. The whole thing resembles that most archaic of all artifacts, an elegant little book, complete with its own red ribbon bookmark. Tucked into the back of the case, wax paper folded around it, is the CD itself, the color of it the same unflinching shade of crimson as the hand print on the outer cover. That's Karklins' palm print, on every copy. You can feel the slight ridges where the paint sinks deeply into the lines of her palm before being transferred to the rich cream paper. Sitting cross-legged in her small purple house in South Austin, Karklins tells me how, with the help of her bassist Steve Bernal, she assembled each case, sewing in the lyric sheets and printing the mark of her hand on every one. She did this at her cinderblock coffeetable, in her cozy living room, next to her fireplace that does not light.
Could say it's a calling
In 1978, Karklins stopped in Austin while visiting friends and found herself immediately charmed. She had grown up in Chicago, the piano-playing daughter of Latvian immigrants with an Old World appreciation for awards and a tendency to be a trifle disturbed by their daughter's need for individual creative expression. Unmusical people themselves, who regarded emotions with the same distaste that some people feel for dirty dishes left in the sink, the Karklins showed little interest in Ingrid's classical music lessons, other than to drive her to and from recitals.
For her part, Ingrid disliked the pressures of formal piano competitions, finding pleasure in music completely apart from what was to her the restrictive atmosphere of concert halls. Karklins' environment growing up was a cold one. Many years later, playing rousing folk music with her band Grimalkin on the renaissance festival circuit, she had often heard people speak about Austin - great town, they said. Coming to town as part of what she calls the Great Hippie Influx of the late Seventies, Karklins was easily seduced by the state capital's breezy hospitality and casual warmth, which the city was known for in those days. She decided to stay.
"You know, sometimes I wonder, if I hadn't been forced what might have developed instead," muses Karklins. "I'm grateful for the training, actually. But I can remember sitting at the piano in tears."
For her, music was less about technique and homage to the masters than it was about getting across emotions and ideas. And if Austin's weather was more amenable to Karklins' bones, then its musical climate was equally kind to the rest of her. Most of the other members of Grimalkin soon followed her down to Texas from Chicago.
Grimalkin, too, was a warm place for Karklins. The music they played was traditional folk, but played without limits, providing the pianist with ample opportunity for creativity and innovation within a comforting framework. Folk music is easily divided into genres and subgenres, each with its own distinctive, almost predictable style, but Grimalkin merged, for example, Eastern influences into reworked Gaelic ballads, introducing electrically amplified instruments into a traditionally acoustic standard. Karklins found a qualified freedom in playing this vernacular music; she could, if desired, play Latvian dainas - the story-songs that she had heard from relatives as a child - and rearrange them to her liking.
At night, freedom was also the name of the game, the bandmates often finding punk rock shows as good a place as any to drink. For Karklins, this was a time for expanding her skills and learning what she was capable of. After Grimalkin dissolved in 1987, she even tried her hand in an all-female garage rock band called Amazon. Although she shakes her head and calls most of Amazon's music "awful," on at least one song - "Hue Shade" - you can hear the main riff of "Leatherwing Bat," a song that Karklins recorded on her 1992 album, A Darker Passion.
"Who's gonna promise my dreams'll come true? Little one..."
Grimalkin made one self-titled album before going their separate ways. Not long after, Karklins and her husband, fellow Grimalkin member Mark Williams, also separated, eventually divorcing. This left Zebran O. Williams in his mother's care; Karklins worked full time at the Austin American-Statesman library to support herself and her son. Her mornings fell into a grinding routine: get Zebran up, make breakfast, take him to day care. Then go to work. She had an arrangement with the daily where she could have a few hours off in the middle of the day on certain days of the week. She would rush home, trundle her keyboards down the street to a friend's house, and practice feverishly for as long as she could. Then back home and back to work. Do it all over again tomorrow.
Karklins has written that she felt the first stirrings of her own creative voice during her pregnancy. If so, the period right after Karklins' divorce gave her little chance to express it. Nevertheless, she formed a band, Backbone, which consisted at the time mainly of bassist Steve Bernal and a drummer, Thor, as well as various assorted "vertebrae," such as Craig Ross and Mike Barnett. The list of vertebrae would eventually include drummer Chris Searles and vocalist Malford Milligan, among others.
"One thing that Ingrid's always been good at," says engineer Stuart Sullivan, who has worked closely with her on all three of her albums, "is picking the right people for the job and then getting out of their way."
In 1990, Karklins and Backbone were signed to Green Linnet Records. Green Linnet was known at the time for Celtic and traditional folk bands, but was attempting to expand its horizons. The pianist, with her electric but still folkishly styled rendering of Latvian dainas, seemed to fill the bill. While fitting well into Green Linnet's catalogue, it is perhaps not surprising that this sort of material did not make for colossal sales ("'Latvian folk,'" shudders Karklins. "The kiss of death"). Her original compositions, featuring spare-sounding instrumentation, her distinctive gypsy vocals, and modern influences, seemed to go unnoticed. She was hard to define, and therefore difficult to book.
"Basically what kept happening, you know, no matter how much you explain, record companies, booking agencies, managers, they can only listen so much," explains Karklins. "Griff Luneberg, the guy who books the Cactus, once told me, 'Ingrid, ya gotta have a good hook!' And I said, yeah, yeah. I wrote in my journal, 'Get your hooks out of me, I'm not a fish.'"
Booking agents saw the Green Linnet name and immediately imagined Karklins and her band as jig-playing Gaelic musicians. Once, on a winter tour of the Northeast, she picked up a newspaper to look for the announcement of their gig. She finally found it under the headline, "Ye Olde Drum and Harp."
In addition to fighting to have her music recognized as something more than just another category of folk on a mostly Celtic label, Karklins had other conflicts with Green Linnet. She felt the label did not work her albums hard enough, especially at a time when female artists with folkish leanings were gaining popularity and publicity. Also, she wanted some say as to how her albums were packaged.
With her first album, A Darker Passion, Green Linnet at first seemed willing to accommodate her, providing an artist who worked according to Karklins' specifications. With her second album two years later, the process broke down.
"On Anima Mundi, the concept, my concept was there, but this striking image had become this sort of anemic image. And I wanted to make more changes, but they told me 'No.' And then later on, actually one of the fellows at Green Linnet even said to me that he felt that musicians should have no part in the designing of their album cover."
She raises an eyebrow and smiles. It's about control, certainly, but even more, it's about providing the total experience. Any Ingrid Karklins fan who has seen her playing under thundery skies at Laguna Gloria Amphitheater knows that the pianist would rather see a show interrupted by raindrops than diluted by an improper setting. It's about the total experience and it's about individuality - very different from being the concert violinist who appears on stage in the usual rustly black satin, lifts her violin to her chin, and plays with precision and grace.
Karklins continued developing, writing songs both in Latvian and in English, using whatever instruments moved her at the time: the classical piano and violin of her early education, the Latvian lap harp, toys taken from Zebran's toy box. She was searching for a mode of expression that would both take her back to her roots and forward, beyond them. She had already found a deep connection in her Latvian background.
"I believe very strongly that if you keep following your own cultural roots far enough, you hit some kind of source of greater knowledge. For me, knowing my culture gave me access to that through the ancient beliefs and songs and mythologies."
But she didn't want to stop there. It was no longer satisfying to re-create/rearrange traditional folk standards inventively; she wanted to express herself, the things she had learned, the things she believed she knew. It had always offended Karklins to be pigeonholed as simply a folk artist.
"It's annoying when people get to that point and stop," she remarks. "They hear 'Latvian' and that's it. It's defined."
"This human self, this human sin, this human stain"
Karklins has never quit her day job. One of the reasons for this, besides feeding a growing son and at least one cat, is touring. A small, independent record label like Green Linnet, which puts out maybe 20-30 albums a year, does not finance that necessary aspect of album promotion. The label might front money to hire a studio and get an album recorded, which they will package and pitch to radio stations and booking agents, but the actual costs of touring come out of the artist's own pocket.
The 1994 Northeast tour to promote Anima Mundi was hard in more ways than one, the sort of tour where after a certain point no one says, "Someday we'll laugh about all this," because laughter is almost impossible to imagine. Oh, some things at first were amusing, like the sleepwalking guitarist, and the night they stayed at a bed-and-breakfast whose roof collapsed under snow. But then again, there was the bitter February cold, traveling in a drafty van piled high with equipment, and costly repairs that came when said van broke down. There was also the frustration of traveling from town to town only to find that audiences expected pipes and drum, not Latvian music with Laurie Anderson style-vocals.
Tempers naturally frayed under these conditions, not helped, in part, by having to perform up to the exacting standards of a bandleader whose need to communicate perfectly is paramount. Disagreements with one band member flared into painful arguments toward the end of the tour. Karklins was told that she lacked respect for others.
"He sort of lashed out," she remembers. "'Oh my God,' I thought. I may have faults, but I'm very respectful of people."
It was this incident that helped Karklins come to the realization that perhaps the ideal of musical and personal perfection that she aspired to was just that - an ideal. Maybe there was a difference between her aspirations and her actuality.
"That was the genesis of the whole thing," she confirms. "You know, [the song] 'Red Hand' really sort of defines the whole album. Recognizing that my human self is by no means perfect - you know, 'This human stain.' And that's okay. That's what being human is."
While A Darker Passion had been strongly traditional, combining Karklins' kokle (the Latvian lap harp), with electric and classical instruments, its follow-up, Anima Mundi, showcased several of the musician's own original songs, such as the minimalist "Eyes I" and the haunting "She Says." With Red Hand, Karklins steps even farther away from the modern folk classification that first attracted Green Linnet to her - indeed, possibly further away from any category at all.
When Karklins put her finger on a new artistic concept, she was eager to begin exploring it in the studio. Unfortunately, Green Linnet was in no hurry to finance her exploration. The label had undergone some changes since she had signed on with them in 1990. They had expanded quickly, and suddenly there were financial pressures on Karklins and Backbone; Chris Teskey, vice-president at Green Linnet, describes sales of A Darker Passion and Anima Mundi as constituting "hardly what you'd call a building trend."
Submitting a rough demo in April 1995, which contained most of the songs that would appear on the final version of Red Hand, Karklins' progressive vision featured folk instrumentation and traditional arrangements as well as influences ranging from Alexander Pope to Randy Newman. According to the faxes saved by Karklins, communication between her and Green Linnet over the next several months, mostly regarding questions of royalties and a marketing fee that had been placed on Karklins' tab against her wishes, evinces no comment on her demo.
When Chris Teskey finally did contact her about the album, in November 1995, it was to say that Red Hand was not "fully realized." He encouraged Karklins to continue working on it, and to provide him with updates, but no more money would be forthcoming from the label. She complained that she couldn't pay these expenses out of her own pocket, and relations between the label and Karklins became tense, strongly worded faxes flying back and forth between Texas and Connecticut. A year later, Karklins suggested that Green Linnet pass on their option to make Red Hand. They did.
It would be two more years before Red Hand would be completed, years that Karklins says actually contributed to the depth of the album. The frustration, however, seemed unbearable to her.
"It was this three-year period of: 'I need to do this now, I need to do this now, I need to do this now,'" she says, wincing.
"What is the greatest truth you know?"
During the fax war between her and Green Linnet, weltering in her need to communicate, Karklins began transcribing 30 years worth of journal entries onto computer disk. In the beginning, they were pretty basic - people she loved, favorite things, good days, bad days. But as the task progressed, they took on a complexity and color that allowed Karklins could see the roots of the person she'd become. And as is typical for her, self-revelation led to the desire for communication. She wanted to publish the journals, still does.
"I had a woman who had never heard our music read the journal," recounts Karklins. "She said, 'I have struggled with music for so long. And it was great to read how you have had your successes and failures and come to closure with it.'"
Disconcertingly blunt, Karklins admits her journals are often hard to read. She wavers over the question of whether or not to edit them. Although publication plans for You and I have been temporarily shelved due to financial restraints, Karklins has discovered a cheaper, more modern way to share this creative endeavor with fans and non-fans alike: the official Ingrid Karklins and Backbone web site, http://www.hear.com/passion.
"I guess my take on the world is an odd one, so I don't feel that I can just walk around and say anything that I feel. But I can write it. And the List is something that I'm very grateful for."
"The List" is the Passion List, a worldwide circle of e-mail subscribers who receive and respond to current sections of Ingrid's journal, as well as other writings. When joining, members are requested to fill out a questionnaire called the Rite of Passage. The Rite of Passage is part marketing tool, part introduction to the community: questions include "Do you own any Ingrid Karklins and Backbone albums? Which ones?" and "If you were to hold a celebration, who would you invite (dead or living)? Why? What would it be like?"
Karklins credits the List with providing a great deal of personal support during the making of Red Hand. For her, it has become a source of comfort; recently the List posted her plans to visit the Pacific Northwest. Within hours, Karklins had been offered a venue for a house concert in Seattle.
As an independent musician unaffiliated with any label, Karklins has certainly chosen a more difficult road. There is no money fronted for studios, or for engineers, or session musicians. Red Hand will possibly reach a smaller audience without the assistance of paid publicists. But smaller venues and a perhaps more limited fanbase are in no ways a tradeoff for Karklins. It has always been about communication for her, about providing a complete experience.
"I'm just compelled," she explains. "It's this ongoing desire to challenge people to respond, to make them think." She leans forward, pulling a strand of long brown hair out of her eyes.
"Even the distribution of it [Red Hand] is a challenge. Can you find this?"
And yet she is certain that had she still been signed to Green Linnet, Red Hand would be a very different album. "I can't even begin to imagine. The handprint wouldn't be there, certainly. I don't ... I just can't imagine it."
I can. It would be boxed.
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