Making A Scene Presents an interview with Chris Carroll
For most kids, a broken radio in the family van might get in the way of singalongs. But Chris Carroll’s dad loved John Prine, and she’d fill the dead air with “Sam Stone,” entertaining a pair of younger brothers.
Carroll was born in Toronto, but grew up in St. Catharines. “We did a lot of camping; we made the best of it,” she says. “The north part of Ontario is breathtaking.”
Still, things weren’t easy. Carroll struggled with alcoholism, sobered up and found herself living in transitional housing when her grandmother died. Oma’s passing proved cataclysmic; she once told Carroll, “Nothing else makes you happy, so why don’t you just play your music?” So, says Carroll, “I decided to take a chance on my music at 36.”
“I started booking gigs and it was wild,” she adds.
One of those gigs was a slot alongside some country-folk heavyweights at the 2012 Cicada Festival in St. Catharines. Michael O’Connor and Adam Carroll had traveled north from Texas, and they blew Chris away.
“Adam played ‘Rice Birds.’ That’s an incredible song,” she recalls. “And then he played ‘Old Milwaukee’s Best,’ and I just busted up. It’s so funny. I’d never heard songwriting like that live. Then I heard O’Connor play; just the troubadour, the musicianship—I’d never seen that before. There was something different with those two.”
After the festival, during a picking circle, Chris and Adam, who’d just gotten sober himself, gravitated toward each other.
“Everyone started getting really loaded, so he had a sober buddy. We exchanged CD’s, and later I got an email that said he liked my songs. Up to that point, we were just friends. Sure, I thought he was cute and sweet as hell. After talking to him for awhile, he thought I was helping him, but he was helping me. He wrote me a song, ‘Little Runaway,’ from some of the things I had told him about my life. My friend Angela told me to get my passport because I was going to Texas. I was going through some serious stuff and he was depressed. He had to come out of his depression and I had to tone it down a bit. It worked for us. He didn’t talk to anybody, but he’d talk to me.”
Once in Texas, Chris released the well-received Trouble and Time, a stylistically adventurous album that bridges that gap between Neko Case, Natalie Merchant and Big Star. Living and collaborating with the local legend who would become her husband, she fell head over heels not only for Adam, but for the Texas music scene.
“Songwriting is part of what Texas is,” she says. “There are lots of incredible songwriters in Ontario and Canada, but it’s more sparse. Here, it’s a lifestyle. There, it’s sort of like a dream.”
Working with her husband, however, has proven to be a sort of fusion between dream and reality.
“It feels like there was something missing that whole time,” she says. “I was terrified to write with him in the beginning. I was intimidated. I knew who I was married to. I’m crazy about his songwriting.”
The feeling is mutual: The Carrolls just collaborated on an album, Good Farmer, that sees Adam graciously—and shrewdly—yielding lead-vocal duties more often that not to his wife, who instills a certain verve into one of his best songs, “Hi-Fi Love,” that’s enough to dampen the edges of your grin with teardrops. (The pluralizing of “leaf” in “maple leaf” is a sly nod to a certain hockey team in the city of Chris’ birth.)
Chris boldly headed south for her career to go north, and now she’s earned the admiration of those two Texans who knocked her socks off at Cicada Festival so many years ago as we as the rest of the songwriting community.
“As a vocalist, she has the capacity to add just the right mixture of dark and light shades to whatever the canvas of words and music call for in any given song,” says her husband. “As a writer, she’s sensitive to the story in a song, and she’s not afraid to follow the poetry wherever it is meant to go. I can say that I’m a better musician and writer for having shared the stage with her, and a better person for having married her. She’s a treasure.”
Renowned Texas songwriter, Terri Hendrix says of Chris, “She performs like she writes. She’s funny, quirky, introspective, authentic, sincere, and all woman. Her vocals pack a punch or land soft and tender. Her Canadian and Texas roots have intertwined into the fabric of her songwriting making her all the more unique at what she does and how she does it. Chris isn’t trying to be anything other than herself. This is her charm. She’s the real deal.”
Or, as O’Connor puts it, “Everything that girl says sounds like a song.”