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On The String: Cristina Vane’s Education In American Music

Cristina Vane
Lizzey Oakley

Americana music is full of conversion stories - artists who didn’t grow up amid the traditions they inhabit but who, like Paul on the road to Damascus, experienced a revelation. Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch discovered country and bluegrass music as young adults and made it their own, in two famous examples. Cristina Vane had a similar epiphany, but she had to travel farther to manifest it.

Vane grew up in London, Paris and Turin, Italy and didn’t live in the United States until her college years. Her dad’s an Italian American, her mother a native of Guatemala. And their career in European banking meant that Cristina lived among youngsters who dubbed themselves “third culture kids.”

“For a long time, my own sense of identity was really convoluted and confused,” Vane says in Episode 221 of The String, in accentless English. “We had grown up kind of rejecting the American side. We have American family. We love them, and we liked coming to visit. But in Europe, I didn't want to be the American person. I didn't feel American. I'd never lived there. I'd never connected with the culture.”

That began to change, musically speaking anyway, when Vane came to the States for college, taking advantage of her four functional languages to study comparative literature at Princeton, which is pretty heady stuff. She’d already started playing guitar and writing songs, inspired by indie folk and rock artists like Bon Iver. On a visit back in Europe she saw the first lap steel guitarist she’d ever seen and that struck her enough to buy a slide and start experimenting with that new bluesy sound. Then she got hold of an album on which female fingerstyle guitar master Rory Block paid tribute to the songs of Skip James.

Cristina Vane Cover

“Rory Block's recording of Skip James was like the bridge,” she says. “What is this music? And Skip James happens to be an especially interesting artist, very different from anything I've ever heard.” And before long she was living in Los Angeles, soaking up historic source recordings and studying blues and ragtime guitar seriously at McCabe’s Guitar Shop, where she also landed a job. She would eventually add clawhammer banjo to her arsenal, lending an Appalachian kinship to her sound.

“From there, if you know anyone who's into this kind of music and even if you're not, you can guess, it just sort of snowballs right?” she tells me. “What other blues singers were around? Reverend Gary Davis came along and Memphis Minnie and then eventually the (Mississippi) hill country stuff - Jessie Mae Hemphill and Junior Kimbrough - and just a lot of these amazing things that I had never heard of, and never in a million years would have imagined would be informing in such a strong way my music and my career now.”

The thing, probably the crucial thing, is that Cristina Vane doesn’t cover traditional American blues. She has interpreted important repertoire to grow as a musician, but on her new album Make Myself Me Again we hear a modern folk artist informed and inspired by the blues, singing in a clear, unaffected voice, carving melodies that are entirely her own. The title track features a steady rolling fingerstyle figure against a steady thumb bass line and slide guitar motifs. The song’s a contemporary perspective on pursuing one’s own light with confidence, something Vane’s certainly doing.

Find the podcast version of the show and the whole archive of The String here.