Christie Lenée Explains the Surprising Sounds and Textures at Play on ‘Coming Alive’
When asked what she believes separates the gutitar from other instruments, Christie Lenée says, “It’s like if you hear your mother’s voice, and you just know that sound and it hits you in the heart. Maybe I heard it in a past life or something, but I know that since the day I first heard a guitar, something happened in me.”
That inspiration led Lenée to becoming one of today’s most acclaimed fingerstyle guitarists, winning first place in the 2017 International Fingerstyle Guitar Championship, among other accolades. Which is why it is curious that, on the cover of her latest album, Coming Alive, she’s pictured holding an electric guitar.
But that statement doesn’t speak fully to the album’s overall sound. Acoustic guitar remains firmly at the foundation, providing a heartbeat and structural underpinning while interacting with the overlayed electric textures. And while this might seem like a bit of a departure for Lenée, she says, “It reflects the music I’ve always heard in my head.”
Coming Alive is an extension of Lenée’s current fascinations, which include experimenting with fingerstyle on the 12-string and an ongoing exploration of alternate tunings. Lenée brings to those musical territories the same adventurousness that got her to where she is now in her career. I chatted with her about how those and other discoveries have been the fuel behind her artistic drive lately.
What was different about Coming Alive for you?
Over the last few years, I’ve really gotten into the 12-string. I’m playing it for at least half of my shows now, which is a big transformation. This album has about seven songs of 12-string, many of them in open tunings, which are fun to explore.
The guitar is always the heart of my music, but on this particular album I really pushed my voice to be the lead and to carry the songs. Something shifted while I was making it. It was an experience of going inward and discovering what more’s in here that I can look at. A lot of that was how the guitar and voice could have this unity, where the guitar can support the voice and sometimes the voice can go underneath and let the guitar take the lead.
What appeals to you about the 12-string?
I could really nerd out about this. The 12-string is often played as a double-coursed instrument, so you’re covering two strings in a single attack. But what I’ve been discovering for the last several years is how to play it as if there are 12 separate strings. So, my thumb will sometimes play just the top string of a course instead of both together. Then the notes that I play with the rest of my fingers are lower pitches. What kind of blows my mind about it is the thumb is playing the highest note of the pattern, kind of like on a banjo, and it makes this interesting harp-like sound. It’s really beautiful, and it continues to fascinate me. My friend Laurence Juber has his 12-string flipped, where the high octave is underneath the low one. He says you have to get it set up a different way [in order to do that].
Playing a 12-string that way must require a lot of dexterity.
It requires a long thumbnail [laughs]. Generally, I have my thumbnail a bit long just so I can have more articulation on those low notes. But I love to pick the 12-string as well. It takes a very meticulous motion to do it, but it’s really fun.
What are some of your favorite open and alternate tunings?
I like DADGAD and variations on it. There’s another one I used on this album, which is C G D G A D. I subconsciously learned it from Michael Hedges—he used this kind of sound where the fifth string, G, is the root note and that big low string, C, is the fourth. It’s this huge open sound, and I can’t explain what that does for my nervous system, but it helps me drop into a space.
I used that tuning on the album quite a bit. It’s fun to try using these open tunings on electric as well. I did that on the song “Fly Away,” and on “That Voice” I used another variation of DADGAD—D G D G A D, just an open Gsus4 chord with the fifth on the bottom. It’s fun playing with these tunings and changing one or two notes and seeing what happens, especially for songwriting.
I recently put out a single, “Christmas Song.” That song is in open F—F A C F C F, which is already high—and then I put the capo on the fifth fret. So it’s in Bb, and it’s such a cool sound. The tension of the guitar is slightly higher, but the capo on top feels so bright and happy.
It’s like kora music.
Yeah! I love the kora. I met a kora player at a festival a few years ago, and I felt like I just wanted to follow him around and listen to him play. But yeah, those open tunings with capos—something special happens when you retune and then put a capo on.
When you play in alternate tunings, do you translate the fretboard in your head or just experiment with different chord shapes?
I mostly do it intuitively. I’m really into sound healing and meditation music—it’s a huge part of my life—singing bowls activating different chakra systems. We could talk about this for hours. I use it intentionally in composition, choosing the key that I’m going to play in a song based on what energy center in the body I want to activate. For example, for “Coming Alive,” I had this idea of writing this triumphant kind of song, about coming back out into the world. The key of E is in the solar plexus chakra of the body; it’s the key of triumph. Eb is right in the middle of the endocrine system. I intentionally wanted to see what might activate if I wrote something in the key of Eb. So, I tuned to DADGAD and put the capo on the first fret, and I started playing with an Eb drone. I found the shapes that worked with it up and down the neck, exploring all of the different sounds I could play while sustaining that one low note. And then I started changing the bass notes and finding different chords. I’ve written a lot of songs like that—starting from the intention of the sound, a mood that I want to activate, and then exploring it. I’m not really thinking about what the notes are; I’m just using my ears and listening and trying to find new sounds.
What acoustic guitars do you play these days?
I have a Martin D12-35 50th Anniversary—that’s the main 12-string I played on the album—and I also played my main six-string, a Martin J-40. On the song “The Victory We’ve Won,” I used my Martin D-18 Golden Era. That particular guitar has a really warm sound to it. The J-40 has a bit more shimmer on the top end, so I used the D-18 on that song because I wanted the strings and piano to create the shimmer and the guitar to be a little more in the midrange. I also have this interesting soprano 12-string, a Veillette Gryphon, which I used to create these little mandolin-like flutters that are panned from left to right. That instrument was really fun to use for some little textures.
What draws you to fingerstyle guitar?
My mom wanted me to take classical guitar lessons when I first started playing, and I said, “Absolutely not.” I just wanted to play rock on my electric. But in my first year of high school—I went to a performing arts school for acting and was playing guitar just as a hobby—I went to a guitar concert, and the teacher played a piece called “Sunburst” by [guitarist-composer] Andrew York. I had never heard anything so beautiful. It really pointed me in the direction of my life in that moment. I heard it and was like, “If I can do that, I can do anything.” So, for three years I dedicated my whole life to everything I had to do to work up to learning that composition. I went a little nuts with fingerstyle classical. If I hadn’t done that, I don’t know where I would be as a musician. It taught me everything I know about technique, how to read music, understanding harmony, and the interaction between bass notes and melody, and then brought me into learning composition.
What have you come to love about the classical guitar?
Classical music has so many different layers and textures that weave in and out of each other and speak to one another. When I was studying composition in college, we would look at the scores on the projector screens and see violin, viola, cello, and double bass—all the different strings. And I realized one day that the lines of the different instruments could be like strings on the guitar. It’s like every string on a guitar has its own voice—there’s an entire symphony in there, but without the technique of fingerstyle, there’s no way to create all those different sounds at the same time. That’s the biggest thing that I’ve learned from fingerstyle: how to harness multiple sounds together and allow them to speak to one another to create a cohesive orchestra.
How do you approach arranging?
When you start to arrange, it’s the same thought process, in a way. It’s like people having conversations, figuring out where they fit in. We can’t all be in a room together, talking at the same time, because nobody will be heard. Jazz handles the problem really well. A soloist will be playing, and the drummer is listening and responding; the keyboard does something and the bass reacts. I always listen for that in music and strive for it in arranging.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.