She’s a UP gal who’s cut an album for Atlantic records, sung at the Montreux Jazz Festival and once toured with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra. She’s now returned to the UP where she still performs with a style all her own. Brian Cabell sat down with this independent-minded jazz singer.
BC: You were raised in Newberry. What was your hometown like back in those days?
KG: It was just a small town, pretty cozy. I didn’t realize it at the time but most other people didn’t have relatives all around them. But we had family next door, across the street, and on the other street behind, and way down there on the corner. We were just related to all our neighbors through my dad.
BC: How would you describe yourself as a girl?
KG: I was so brave, so adventurous. I would run faster than any of the boys. I would challenge all of them. I’d also climb a tree higher than any guy would. I don’t know why but I just had to do it (laughs).
BC: What were your mom and dad like?
KG: Oh my gosh, they were so busy! They were both teachers. My mom taught elementary school and my dad–he took a job teaching physical ed at the state hospital in Newberry. We lived pretty close to the hospital so he could just walk to work.
BC: If you could think of the happiest moment of your childhood, what would it be?
KG: I was the kind of person who didn’t want to go to sleep right away, and if it was late enough and dark enough, and a nice evening, I would climb down the TV antenna which was right next to my bedroom window, and then I would get on my bike in my nightgown and I would ride up and down the street. I would ride up and down and I would think that this night and everything that’s out here is mine! It was great!
BC: How about the opposite end of the spectrum. Can you think of the most traumatic time of your childhood?
KG: (Pauses) Yes…I don’t know if I can really talk about it… (Cries)…I think my mom was bipolar. She was so great in some ways…and so…so horrible…”
BC: Was that ever resolved between the two of you?
KG: Not while she was living. Now it has been…because I forgave her.
BC: Let’s talk about your singing. Did you sing as a child?
KG: Yes, my mom said when I was little and I could pull myself up to my feet, I would stand in front of the black and white TV and try to sing along with all the commercials. There were so many jingles back in those days. My mom studied voice so she encouraged me to sing–but it was the way she wanted me to sing and what she wanted me to sing. I was supposed to be an opera singer.
BC: When did you first decide, in a serious way, “Yes, this is what I want to do. I want to sing”?
KG: I just kind of wanted to do it for a long, long time. I knew I could do it but I was very shy. I was probably in my early 20s before I finally said, “Okay, I’m really going to do this.”
BC: How about your first performance before an audience?
KG: Our first gig, I think, was in Munising. It’s a place that’s all torn down now–it was called the Old Forest Inn. I was probably 23 or 24. I had joined a band that needed a singer and they said they wanted me. I was so excited! I couldn’t get over it! We did popular songs of the 70s, we did some country music, Willie Nelson. Oh gosh, and there was the disco music, you know…boogie boogie oogie…(laughs). And we did an occasional polka.
BC: So you started singing. What happened next?
KG: Well, I got married to the guy who was the new drummer. He was the band director at Northern and then we ended up moving to Florida, and then to Georgia….and then after about five years of being together, I had to leave with my daughter.
BC: And during all this time, were you singing or doing other kinds of work?
KG: I did waitressing and hostessing, I worked retail–I was doing three jobs at one time, I took care of greeting cards for American Greeting at different stores, and I sold May Kay cosmetics.
BC: Was it frustrating during this time not to be able to sing for a living?
KG: A little bit. We’d pick up a gig or two here and there.
BC: And then you eventually came back to the UP?
KG: Yeah, where else was I going to go? (laughs) So then I decided to finish college and got a degree in secondary education with a German major and a speech minor. I did it but hated it, and just wanted to get the hell away, so off I went to Denver where my sister was waiting for me.
BC: But then you returned here again.
KG: Yes, It was twelve years ago. I came back from Chicago after a several year relationship ended, and I was thinking, “You know, it takes so much energy just to be in the city and to get around and to just deal with everything that you have to deal with.” The UP is so much easier in so many ways.
BC: And what keeps you here? Obviously, this is not a place where singers are going to make a lot of money.
KG: Well, I don’t know. Time just goes by really fast. I can’t believe it’s been twelve years already. What’s kept me here? Well, partly my dad. He’s now in assisted living. My brother and I just got him in there a couple of months ago, so I guess you’d say that’s why I’m here.
BC: You’re best known as a jazz singer. How did that happen?
KG: It’s amazing that I actually did get into jazz because I really had very little exposure to jazz when I was younger. In my hometown, until we finally got a radio station, there was no radio to listen to in the daytime, only at night. I remember listening to a lot of Motown as teenager on WOWO. And when we finally did get a radio station in town, only occasionally did the guy who ran it play Wes Montgomery. And of course, that’s no lyrics, that’s just Wes. But I thought, man, I really like that! I wanted to hear more. In the beginning I was singing popular music but I really wanted to branch out because in my head I was hearing all kinds of different ways that you could sing something.
BC: When you’re up there singing, and it’s going well, what does that feel like?
KG: Hard to describe. It’s like I’m completely in this moment, I’m creating in this moment. It’s not like I’m singing this song, it’s like I’m breathing this song.
BC: How would you describe yourself as a person? As a personality?
KG: I’m an optimistic, pretty practical person but I’m disorganized. (laughs) I don’t do what people want me to do, what they tell me to do, and if I do, it’s in my own time and on my own terms. I’m also very sentimental–I think a lot about the past, the people I’ve known, and our ancestors.
BC: Are you at all political?
KG: Not very. I don’t want to get too caught up in that kind of activity because I think it’s …(sighs)…maybe a waste of energy. Unless it’s something I really care about like choice for women. Reproductive choice.
BC: If you had your life to live all over again, would you do anything differently?
KG: I don’t know. I don’t how I could. I wouldn’t be me. And that’s not so bad.
BC: At the end of our lives, is there anything there?
KG: I was hoping you’d ask me about this! Because there is no ending, there is no beginning. We continue, maybe in another form. It might not always be on this planet or in this universe. Once we’re gone, we’re not really gone! We’re only gone to the people that are left behind. We’re still radiant, doing plenty of things, just operating in a different place, at a different energetic level.
BC: Thank you, Kirsten.