Performing tonight at Milkboy Coffee in Ardmore after a three-week solo tour on the West Coast, Christine Havrilla has returned to her own back yard. For the past seven years, she’s lived and recorded in her home studio in Bryn Mawr—and played all over the place.
Of late, much of Havrilla’s time has been spent alone. In part, it’s resulted in her sixth CD, In My Chair, released earlier this year. On it, she did all the recording, mixing and production while playing every instrument.
“If you love it, it’s me,” Havrilla says. “If not, it’s still me. Every sound on it is me.”
Recording at home has opened new doors for Havrilla. No longer is she restricted by time. At 2 a.m., if she has an idea, she’s up trying it. But she’s still a stickler for structure, making lists and leaving sticky notes everywhere. Still, none of it equates to the pressure of having five or 10 hours of rented studio time.
In My Chair isn’t a drastic departure from Havrilla’s existing work. Self-described as organic and earthy, it follows Velocity (2006), Ruby Red (2005), This Whirlwind Life (2002), Halo (2000), Some Other Thing (1998) and Christine Havrilla (1996). Velocity’s leadoff track, “Hole in the Ground,” hit No. 1 on the Sirius Satellite Radio Hot 20 in early 2007. It remained there for 14 weeks. Another song from that CD, “Letting Go,” was a Sirius No. 1 for 10 weeks, and seven of her songs have enjoyed multi-day No. 1 stays on the popular music download site MP3.com. In fact, she had seven songs in MP3.com’s top 40 all at once.
On In My Chair, Havrilla’s music and message remain as high-energy and introspective as ever. “Relating and relationships are always relevant,” she says. “There’s [even] an anger song.”
But as she’s matured, Havrilla has become more awakened as a writer. That much is evident in “Sober Up Betty,” a Bonnie-and-Clyde-themed fiction-brought-to-life song about a couple that robs a hometown store. “It’s different,” she admits. “But like the rest of the CD, it’s about being open to people and whatever comes into your life, and never turning a blind eye to those who are different.”
Another In My Chair track, “Want To,” makes you want to question others around you. “It’s a song to provoke people to think, listen, and hopefully open their minds and mouths to discuss more than what may or may not take place in their own lives,” Havrilla says.
Essentially, Havrilla is dispensing advice while sitting “in her chair.” But if she vacated that chair and another sat in it, “what would that person see or hear?” she poses. “It’s about perspective, about how and why we see things. It’s about walking in someone else’s shoes.”
For Havrilla, the guitar is easy. She has a much harder time “figuring out what she wants to say.” Ninety-eight percent of the time, she writes the music first, and the lyrics follow.
“I’m not doing anything extraordinary,” she says. “But I’ve been consistent.”
A Pottstown native, Havrilla was surrounded by musical instruments when she was young. A great-grandfather played the accordion, a great-uncle the mandolin, her father and aunt the guitar, and an uncle the drums. Her father, John, played in a gospel band, even recording an album with Grammy-nominated producer/engineer David Ivory.
When she was 5, Havrilla taught herself how to play guitar. “I’d sneak in and get my father’s guitar from under his bed,” she recalls. “When he was playing, I always wanted to touch his guitar.”
Though she’s never formally studied music, Havrilla has become quite the student since, receiving two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts for its “Meet the Composer” series. She grew up playing basketball, and even coached for a spell when she was running youth camps and working as an elementary school aid. Still, Havrilla maintains she’s never had a real job—or at least one that seriously cut into her time as a musician.
In first grade, Catholic nun Sister Anne Richard let Havrilla bring her guitar into school on Fridays. Then she helped her learn some songs for a church performance. “I was young, but I was always playing with adults,” Havrilla says.
She spent two years at Eastern College, then started dating a drummer—and that was that. Some might say she lacked focus; Havrilla maintains she always had it. She played on—and kept meeting musicians, including two at Eastern: Bill Gallagher, her current bass player, and Tim Schumaker, a jazz musician she worked with on Some Other Thing and Ruby Red.
After releasing her first CD in 1996, Havrilla saw that more and more artists were going independent and working out of small studios. “I decided I’d write songs, have a band, go for it—and struggle,” she says. “As I played out more, I came to realize I was doing what I was supposed to be doing.”
Playing live remains “what it’s all about,” Havrilla says. “It’s about writing songs and sharing.”
That, she does—and always from the heart, dispensing medicinal lyrics for the soul. “Take these words from me. I’ve been there, seen the good against the bad,” she sings in “Ride” (from Velocity).
Back at Milkboy, Havrilla is playing with her trio, which includes vocalist Gretchen Schultz and vocalist/violinist Wendy Fuhr. She tells the audience that she’ll offer up a self-help session. “We’ll cover it all,” Havrilla says. “Ah, feelings!”
With her parents and sister sitting center stage, she opens with her edgiest and most requested song, “Hole in the Ground,” which kicks off Velocity. Its opening line: “You’re taking vitamins with vodka and cryin’ a little less each day.”
Havrilla tells bits of the stories behind some songs. But others—like “Really Really Good Kiss,” the second song in her Milkboy set—she just plays and sings. “I can’t give it all up,” she says. “Take it as you will.”
Often, she invites the Milkboy audience to sing along. “Really, I don’t mind,” she says before starting “Blinders,” another off Velocity. Havrilla’s set list fluctuates, depending on the venue, how she’s playing or what the song suggests. And some tunes she just “plays the hell out of”—like “Daffodil,” “Sing,” “Waiting,” “Hole in the Ground” and “Blinders.”
Her own influences include U2, Sheryl Crow, Indigo Girls, Shawn Colvin, Jonatha Brooke and older idols like Bonnie Raitt and Joni Mitchell (“who paved the way for girls to play the guitar”). Unable to classify her own sound, she categorizes it as “Neofunkadelicfolkpoptwangrock.”
It truly is all of that.
“Deep down, I’m a rocker,” Havrilla admits. “I have that energy, but I can also play solo with my guitar. It gives me flexibility at different venues or towns.”
Over the years, Havrilla has performed at Philadelphia’s World Café Live, the Tin Angel, the Kimmel Center, Steel City Coffee House in Phoenixville, and many other area venues. When she needs a six-piece band, she augments her trio with Gallagher on bass, Duane Large on drums and Bob Beach on harmonica. And while it’s hard to say what lies ahead, Havrilla’s goals are as clear-cut as her songs.
“Of course, I want people to buy my music, like it and tell friends,” she says. “I want to explore new areas. I want to tour Europe. I’d like to sing in a film.”
One thing she doesn’t want to do is sell out.
“It’s important to me not to lose the intimacy,” says Havrilla. “If I feel disconnected from the music, sirens ought to go off.”
And she’s determined and committed to the long haul, regardless of the riches—or lack thereof.
“I’m not a person who needs five houses and six cars or the biggest TV,” Havrilla says. “I want to live a sustainable life without stress, and I want to keep playing long past when so many others have given up.”
Christine Havrilla performs Oct. 3 at Triumph Brewing Company, 400 Union Square, New Hope; and Oct. 4 at the Delmarva Folk Festival near Hartly, Del. To learn more, visit christinehavrilla.com.