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Wendy Woo talks about slapping guitars and growing up beat 

click to enlarge In her new solo album, Wendy Woo gets personal, dealing with family, life and death. - LISA SICILIANO
  • Lisa Siciliano
  • In her new solo album, Wendy Woo gets personal, dealing with family, life and death.

The beginnings of Wendy Woo’s career were, in a sense, preordained by a higher power.

Higher, in this case, being the operative word.

Her parents were among the founding faculty at Boulder’s Naropa Institute, home to the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics and the Naropa Alliance for Psychedelic Studies. Their living room served as a hangout for a rotating cast of ’50s beat poets and ’60s counterculture icons, including the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and Ken Kesey.

It took relocating to Denver, in 2001, for Woo to find musicians who could help her reach beyond her origins as a self-described “hippie jam-band girl” and find something a little bit edgier and more substantive. It was a move worth making.

Woo has gone on to win the Westword Music Showcase’s Best Singer-Songwriter Award five times now, which is the point where an artist is removed from future consideration so that somebody else can win it.

Now based in Loveland, the singer/songwriter/guitarist/bandleader has recorded more than a dozen albums, the most recent of which is The Immigrant. Released in March, it’s an acoustic collection that thematically relates to the life and death of her father Bataan Faigao, who immigrated from the Philippines to New York City in 1964. Although Woo traditionally records and shares songwriting credits with her longtime bandmates, she made this one a strictly solo affair that includes nine original songs plus a cover of Stevie Nicks’ “Landslide.”

Recorded at Fort Collins’ Stout Studios with producer Darren Radach, the album is a compelling showcase for Woo’s soulful vocals, which can variously bring to mind singers like Natalie Merchant, Suzanne Vega and Erykah Badu. It also features some of her best lyrics to date: “I’m just kidding, really, text me back,” she implores on the wistfully unsettling “Insatiable.” “We could go have coffee / I’ll be the one in the Unabomber jacket / And you could be the one who’d get me out of here / Get me out of here.”

We recently caught up with Woo to talk about her unique upbringing and unusual guitar techniques, as well as the new 40-minute documentary Unshaken: The Road to Woo, which will be screened as part of her band’s upcoming Stargazers show.

Indy:  What was it like growing up in Boulder with all those beat poets hanging out in your living room. I imagine the second-hand smoke alone would be enough to have a lasting impact.

Wendy Woo: Well, yeah, but I grew up thinking that was the norm. There was always that party vibe. My mother was organizing these workshops for the beatniks to come to Naropa, and it became like a mecca where they would all hang out. I think that having that kind of creative energy in the house was nice. But, you know, my sister and I grew up in the same household and she came out normal. [Laughs.] We always called her the black sheep in the family. And she was the only real control in my life.

So she was older.

Well, not that much older, like a year and a half. But, you know, she would set the bedtime for me, and she would make the rules. So she kind of took on the mothering role. And my folks, you know, they loved to have fun, and I’ve really kind of gotten that from them.

William Burroughs was never in your house, was he?

William Burroughs was in my house.

Did he kill anyone or do anything bad?

That’s so funny you ask that, because we had this lighter that was shaped like a revolver. And when you pulled the trigger, a flame would come out to light your cigarette, right? So I’ve got this great picture of him with the revolver. I’ll have to dig that out.

Let’s talk about this documentary. How did that come about?

Well, I was doing an outdoor show in Monument last summer and Denise Ferrari from Ferrari Films was there. They do a lot of work with the Air Force, but they’ve also been doing movies about women. And so I was loading in, and I have this big amp, and my daughter was riding it down the hill.

Wait, how old is she?

She’s 7. But, you know, we were holding onto it. And so Denise sees that, and she thought, “Let’s do this.” You know, she wanted to do a movie about women in music, motherhood, and, you know, just basic life. So they followed us around for about three weeks with cameras, and kind of put the story together.

What was it like to see yourself represented in a documentary?

Well, they did a beautiful job. It’s very touching and it’s very personal. You know, it’s just my story. She touched on the passing of my parents, and my relationship with my band members, and all our kids. And, yes, it was really heartfelt, and she did a good job portraying us.

A lot of your songwriting is very personal. But would you say this album was even more so?

Yes, it’s the most personal, for sure. It’s funny, our drummer Chris [Maestas], who’s in this movie, he’s like “Your songs are always so personal. Try to write so it’s not so personal.” So a lot of the band stuff, you know, is more co-written. But with this album, I was able to take songs, some of which I’ve had for years, and finally put them on an album. It’s basically a storyline about home, and about life and death, and growing old.

When you wrote the song “The Immigrant,” how soon was that after your father’s passing?

I wrote that song right away. You know, he was from that period of time where you kept everything, so his house was so full. And cleaning the house, that was really an experience in itself, to kind of going through all this stuff. And so the song came out of that very naturally, but I had it on the shelf for four years, because it was almost too emotional to put out earlier. But I put it on this. And then there’s cello on it, just to make it that much heavier.

Cellos make everything more depressing.

Yeah, I know, right? [Laughs.] That’s what cello’s for. But I tried to add some lighter songs, as well. I’d never done anything like this before, but it was kind of one of my bucket list items, to just do an album of solo acoustic Wendy Woo songs.

One last question: That technique you use, where you slap the body and strings of your acoustic guitar to make it sound like a percussion instrument? Where did that come from?

Well, there are some people who do similar stuff, like Michael Hedges and Trace Bundy. But I actually learned it from a really bad boyfriend I had when I was really young. He was messed up, but I was like 18, and he could play guitar really well, right? So that’s what you look for when you’re 18. And yeah, he would slap the acoustic guitar and I was like, “Wow, that’s amazing.” So I kind of started doing it as well.

You stole it.

I stole it. And yeah, it’s kind of like my circus trick. But I’ve gotten better at it over the years, and it really has become a big part of the percussion in the band. But, you know, you can’t do that forever. So I may end up having to learn some new tricks.

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