Although she's only 32, singer-songwriter Kris Delmhorst is already coming into her own as a singer-songwriter. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that in just three decades she has lived in Brooklyn, Cape Cod, Boston, Cambridge, Ireland, and Maine. She has already made several national tours, opening shows for people she admires like Chris Smither, Dar Williams, and Patty Larkin.
The Brooklyn-raised Delmhorst studied classical cello in her youth at the Manhattan School of Music. But fortunately for fans of contemporary folk music, she decided not to pursue a career in classical music, where her unique voice would likely be lost in some orchestra. She appears Saturday, December 6, at the Unitarian Church in Titusville in a show presented by Concerts at the Crossing.
Delmhorst says aside from the classical music her parents played in her house, she was raised on the music of the Beatles, Tom Waits, Van Morrison, and later, Chicago bluesmen Jimmy Reed and Little Walter Jacobs.
"Each record you make is a learning process," Delmhorst explains from her new home in Greenfield, Massachusetts, midway between Northampton and Brattleboro, Vermont.
"You don't get to put into effect what you've learned on the last record until the next record, a couple of years later," she says. Delmhorst has three well-received records out. She released "Appetite" in 1998 on her own and sold more than 12,000 copies of that. She also has more recent releases licensed to Signature Sounds: "Five Stories" in 2001, and her release from earlier this year, "Songs for a Hurricane."
In Brooklyn, Delmhorst's dad worked on Wall Street and her mother worked in school administration. "Both my parents were very musical, but they loved classical music a lot."
Asked about her first notion of wanting to become a singer-songwriter, Delmhorst says that the idea didn't occur to her until she was already immersed in it.
"It was already happening when I was in my mid-20s," she says, "but to go way back, somehow I discovered the Beatles when I was about four years old. My whole life I was pretty fixated on the radio and listening to songs. It's still kind of mysterious to me why I didn't start writing songs earlier on."
That big revelatory moment came at the age of four when she first heard the Beatles. "The song `Help,' was playing, I think it was on the radio, and I felt like I was going to explode," she recalls. "This was in the early '70s, and I don't know where I heard it because I was only four. But I had found it."
By the late 1970s and early '80s, Delmhorst was listening to a variety of New York radio stations like the old WNEW-FM, learning as much as she could about classical cello at the same time.
"I was one of those kids who was reading `Rolling Stone' like a bible every two weeks, and I would follow little veins of influences back, and that's how I found out about Chicago blues people like Jimmy Reed and Little Walter," she recalls. "I would just pick something up and learn as much as I could about it, suck all the juice out of it, and then go on to something else," she explains.
On "Songs for a Hurricane" Delmhorst covers a variety of styles, including bluesy songs, ballads, and more traditional sounding contemporary singer-songwriter material. The album was recorded at Hi 'n' Dry Studios in Cambridge, owned by Billy Conway, formerly of the popular Boston band, Morphine. She is accompanied throughout by a host of musicians from the Boston area folk and folk-rock scene.
At Williams College in western Massachusetts, Delmhorst says she at first missed the stimulation of the big city.
"It's near North Adams, and the location, really more than the school itself, was the transforming thing for me," she says. "It was in the middle of nowhere. I'd never had any interest in living anywhere but New York City, but after I got up there I really enjoyed living in a small town." After graduation, with a major in art, she moved up to Maine, where she worked on a farm. She played fiddle in college and continued to do so after moving up to Maine.
"That's when I really got back into music, because I found people there who were playing music to entertain themselves. It was a way for them to just sort of keep the long nights away," she explains. "I was living on a farm with no electricity and no running water -- it's kind of like banging sticks around a campfire in a cave."
What was the turning point for Delmhorst? It was when her music and playing out live "just kind of took over everything else I was doing. I feel like I never made the decision to become a musician."
The fiddle was "close to the cello, which is what I had been playing my whole life," she says. "You could saw away at a barn dance with it. I was in Maine for about three years. I started learning a little guitar when I was up there, but I would always sing. I learned covers and would sing for my own amusement, and then I started concentrating on guitar."
"I started writing songs out of the clear blue sky, not even trying to, they just started arriving, and right with them was my desire to go out and play them for people," she adds.
"Later, when I was living on Cape Cod, I just started doing open mike nights," she says. Shortly after this, she moved to Boston. "I guess moving to Boston was the turning point. The Boston music community is this great university of different songwriting, so I was going to different open mike nights every night of the week," she says.
"The scene was like this river and I jumped right into the currents," she recalls. She acknowledges she thought about going back to New York City during this period, but found the cost of living in Boston to be less expensive.
"I think Boston is the place to be if you're a songwriter. There's such a focused community in Boston, and there's a much better infrastructure in terms of the radio," she says, noting the Boston area has a bevy of college and public radio stations that will play contemporary singer-songwriters like herself.
Delmhorst says her professional career was launched in 1997, when she began playing coffee houses around Boston under her own name. Her debut album, "Appetite," recorded independently, got airplay and that in turn drew crowds to her shows. She cited fellow Boston area singer-songwriter Patty Larkin as being a helpful mentor in her early years, and later, the chance to go on tour with Catie Curtis.
Her career, she says, "has been totally about building up its own internal momentum. It's been extremely slow and steady. I'm really interested in building a sustainable life as a musician. You can almost make yourself a longer life if you can just build it well, it was all very grass-roots and one person at a time, pretty much," she says.
Delmhorst often writes songs on the road, but always finishes them at home. For a time she was in the habit of recording song nuggets into a tape deck while on the road. "But I never listen to those tapes, because the good songs are the ones you remember anyway. So I don't even bring my tape deck with me on the road anymore."
Delmhorst will perform solo for her Titusville show but she says she will be sure to cover a lot of stylistic ground, from bluesy to country-ish, from ballads to folk-pop. "You want me to describe what I do? Anyone who wants to describe me is welcome to. It's a night of songs, it's me and a guitar, and my voice."
Kris Delmhorst , Concerts at the Crossing, Unitarian Church at Washington Crossing, Titusville, 609-406-1424. Jake Armerding opens. $15; $5 children. Saturday, December 6, 8 p.m.