Tuesday, June 29, 2010
I Talk to Elsa Cross
“I hate to be pigeonholed,” says singer-songwriter Elsa Cross right away, and once she starts talking about her influences and favorite music, it's clear how hard it is to label her. If you call her country, she’ll answer with a Breeders cover. If you call her rockabilly, she’ll tell you that Frank Black of the Pixies is one of her favorite artists. Her foot-stomping mixture of blues, country and rockabilly has earned her a reputation as a “female Johnny Cash,” but Cross is making a name for herself in the Seacoast and well beyond as a true original.
While growing up in Exeter, Cross’ musical education included a high school punk rock phase, a mother who listened to country music around the house, and a boyfriend who introduced her to rockabilly music. “I was like what is this?” Cross said of rockabilly. “It’s so cool. I never figured I’d end up playing it.” Some of Cross’ biggest influences are Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Tom Petty, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley. “I love Elvis, I think he’s just such a rock and roll vessel, you know?” Cross said. “I collect Elvis stuff…I’ve toned it down a bit lately though.” she said with a laugh.
Cross got her first guitar when she was eighteen. “I had played clarinet all through high school, I was a band geek.” Cross said. “Guitar always seemed cooler. I had really basic lessons, and I sort of fell out of it for awhile…I was probably distracted by boys.” Around age twenty, Cross began to write her own songs. She decided to leave Vermont College, where she had been studying social work, in order to focus on her “I couldn’t work and go to school and work on my music all at the same time.” Cross said. “So I figured I should do it while I’m young.” “It’s kind of a blur,” Cross said of her transition into an active music career. “I didn’t plan it, I’ve always felt that it just happened.” Cross started out solo, but says that she was afraid to play in front of people for a long time.“I was kind of stuck in my bedroom for a long time.” she said. “I wouldn’t even play in front of my roommates. I had a boyfriend who said I had to start playing open mics and get out there, and I had some horrible open mic experiences where I froze up. But that’s what I always tell people who are starting out though, you’ve got to break through that stage.”
Cross started going to bluegrass jams at The Stone Church in Newmarket, an experience that she says changed her musical path entirely. “I don’t know where I’d be if I hadn’t gone [to bluegrass jams]” she said. “I started meeting people, I met my first band there.” Her first band was made up of guitarist Steve Roy and her current drum player PJ Donohue. “They were really experienced musicians,” Cross said. “They taught me everything I know about playing with people. It was Steve, especially. He’s one of my best friends to this day. He still plays with me sometimes, but he plays all over the country now because he’s so talented and he can play with people who can actually pay." Cross says she mostly taught herself the basics of songwriting by picking apart classic country songs and looking at their chords and structure. But in the end, she says it all comes down to emotion. “It’s all in how you sing it, what’s going on in my head as I’m playing it and singing it.” she said. Cross says although she didn’t start playing guitar until her late teens, she has always been a singer. “I was always very into singing as a kid, singing around the house, in the car, annoying the crap out of my brother.” Cross said. “And one day I was singing a Loretta Lynn song, just in my bedroom…and I just heard this voice that I had never really heard from myself before. I was like, whoa, I think I can actually sing.” Like most songwriters, Cross says her songs are based on personal experience. “It’s life,” she said. “It’s how I process what’s going on in my head. I was on my own a lot as a kid, I didn’t really have an ideal childhood. So this is kind of the way I relate to people, if they’ve felt similar to how I’m feeling.” “Girls who come to my shows, they relate.” Cross said. “ I’m not a man hater or anything but I’ve had a broken heart before, let’s just say that.” For now, Cross is a waitress at Geno’s Chowder and Sandwich Shop in Portsmouth. “It’s how I support my band…the money’s not always coming in [from music] so I work daytime hours and play music at night.” Cross said. Although she admits that the balancing act is a lot of work, Cross said that she sees this time as a necessary part of the process. “I’m paying my dues.” she said. “Waitressing, getting my name out there, booking my own shows, and it’s progressing.” she said. “But sometimes I feel like I haven’t had anything happen in awhile, that I’m just playing all local shows and treading water.” At 28, Cross says that there are times when she considers moving on. “There’s always going to be some people who won’t take me seriously because I don’t have a bachelors degree.” Cross said. “When people ask me what I do it’s like, well, I’m a waitress and a musician and they kind of go oh, she’s one of those.” When she feels discouraged, Cross said she turns to her bandmates. She lives in Durham in an old farmhouse with bassist Mary Dellea, drummer PJ Donohue and guitarist Nick Phaneuf. “We’re like this wacky artist commune.” Cross said. “We’ve got dogs everywhere, every instrument you can imagine, acres of land.” The “wacky artist commune” that Cross calls family is also her support system. “They keep me going,” she said. “I have that network to back me up. My real family’s like, you know, you could come visit us once in a while.” Cross’ debut album “Unavailable” came out in 2007, and Cross estimates that she has about twenty finished original songs that she performs. Her second album, “Me vs. Myself” comes out on August 27.
Cross' shows are a mix of original songs and covers of some of her favorite artists. Once again refusing to be typecast, Cross doesn’t stick to straight country or rockabilly, choosing some classics and some surprises. “Some of my favorite covers right now are Sam Cooke, The Breeders, and Ernest Tubb.” Cross said. For the future, Cross said she’d be happy to make a living playing music. “I’d like to be able to sing and live comfortably.” She said. “The goal isn’t so much to be rich and famous, not that I’d complain. I love to tour, so I want to be able to travel, be with my friends. So I’d like to be able to travel the world, and buy groceries.” Cross is a regular at local venues such as The Press Room in Portsmouth, the Barley Pub in Dover and The Stone Church in Newmarket. Increasingly, she and her band are also playing festivals and shows in Boston, New York and beyond. On Cross' playlist at the moment are Gogol Bordello, Frank Black of the Pixes, and, naturally, the man in black himself. “I'm always listening to Johnny Cash.” Cross said. Tom Petty another artist in heavy rotation on Cross' iPod—an addition so important to Cross that she emails after her interview to make sure he's included in her list of influences. Even if doesn't pay the rent for now, the most important thing about music for Cross is that it is what she's truly passionate about. “This is what makes me happy,” she said, “and I feel privileged to have it clear as day what makes me happy. Even in hard times I have my music.”
Elsa Cross plays the Barley Pub on July 2, and the release of her second album“Me vs. Myself,”will be at The Press Room on August 27.