Christine Havrilla was doing one of the things that makes her the happiest. She was driving in her SUV down I-85 in North Carolina, not far from Charlotte and the South Carolina border.
“I like being on the road,” she says in an interview via cell phone from her car. “I love the trips, driving, seeing different places. Usually when I am on a tour, I have friends everywhere I go, so I really like seeing them and crashing with them.”
The thing that makes her happiest, of course, is singing and playing her guitar. That’s what she has done for a living for about a decade, garnering some serious accolades along the way.
Havrilla, a singer-songwriter who lives in Conshohocken, PA, performs Friday, April 14 at Triumph Brewing Company in New Hope. She is in the midst of a tour of her normal stomping grounds, the Northeast, as well as the Carolinas and Georgia.
“I really like performing in New Hope,” she says. “It is an interesting, eccentric place, with a great mishmash of people.”
A sleek blonde 30-something, Havrilla is touring in support of her new CD, “Ruby Red,” which she released independently early this year. In January, Havrilla was listed as one of the Top 10 indie artists in Advocate magazine. “I wasn’t expecting that. It came at a really nice time, right when the album came out. It kind of fueled the fire,” she says.
She recently performed at the music-industry lovefest, “South by Southwest” in Austin, TX. “I was part of the Go Girls Music showcase,” she says. “For me it was so overwhelmingly great to be there with so many talented people.”
More great exposure is coming from Sirius Satellite Radio, which is playing Havrilla’s song “Loneliest Girl.” She says the song is on the Hot 20 list on the network’s OUT Q station, which caters to gay and lesbian listeners. The title of the song itself seems to speak of alienation and might imply some young girl’s dark inner life, but Havrilla says it’s not like that at all. “This is about a girl who, when she was growing up, always was told what to do and always put everyone else’s needs ahead of her own. She was able, as she got older, to get herself out of that mindset. It’s a positive story.”
Her songs get surprising reactions sometimes. “The reason I write songs are not always the reasons that people react the way they do,” Havrilla says. “I try to get out of them something relevant to themselves. The reaction itself is the key. It’s that they are hearing something in my music that is moving to them, and that is all that matters to me.”
Havrilla collaborated with drummer Darren Keith, bassist Bill Gallagher, and background singer Gretchen Schultz on “Ruby Red,” and the record was produced by longtime associate Rick Slater. A bit of tragicomedy has changed the lineup for her touring band; just before the group was about to go on the road, Keith fell and tore ligaments and broke his right foot — his bass drum kicker foot — while working on his new house. The drum chair is being filled by Duane Large while Keith recovers, Havrilla says.
Partly because she often performs by herself, with just her guitar, and partly because of the type of material she performs, Havrilla often finds herself branded as a “folk” artist. To her, that couldn’t be farther from the truth, even though she does cite folk-rockers such as Jonathan Brooke, Sheryl Crow, the Indigo Girls, and Shawn Colvin as major influences.
‘I think when people see a girl with a guitar, that’s what they immediately think,” Havrilla says. “I’m not saying that a song or two of mine can’t be considered that, but I am a rock, rock and pop singer. I think my stuff is a lot more energetic and aggressive than folk. I mix up a whole lot of different styles.”
On her earlier CDs, four in total, she followed a similar formula. Her music is highly narrative, full of emotional, human stories. But Havrilla says the music she is now writing for a CD she will be recording will have more of an edge to it. “I guess I’ve kind of mellowed out recently,” she says. “I’ve been going through different phases in my life, and I’ve felt different and have been writing differently. The stuff I’ve been working on for the past six months, though, I’ve been playing more aggressively, been getting into my guitar more.”
Another factor in Havrilla’s rocking new direction is that she is not playing solo or in duets as much; she’s going with drums and bass. “Playing with the band is real good too, and being with them is helping me take my music to a different level. It’s been really exciting.”
A former basketball player and coach who grew up in Pottstown, PA, Havrilla says she was surrounded by pop, folk, rock, and religious music as a child. Her father, now retired, worked for AT&T; her mother was a hairdresser and stay-at-home mom. Havrilla is a self-taught guitarist, having picked up the instrument at the age of 6. “My dad (John) had guitars around the house, and I was just a sponge. I absorbed everything I heard around the house.” Her father also had one of those do-it-yourself Mel Bay chord books, and that’s how Havrilla began playing guitar.
It is only in recent years, even though she’s been playing for other people since 1996, that she has felt totally comfortable playing for audiences. “It just comes from doing it more and more. I just realized that I could hang with people (musically) and not be intimidated.”
In early 2003, Havrilla was approached by a publishing company that was putting together a spoken-word project of Johnny Cash reading verses from the Bible. She was asked to put together some solo guitar to accompany Cash’s voice. “I got to show some versatility,” she says. “He had grown up with gospel in his blood, so I was privileged enough to accompany him.”
Havrilla never got to meet Cash, but his management and, presumably, an ailing Cash, had to approve Havrilla’s music. “It was interesting to hear him speak in the passages. He had just begun getting really sick, so you could hear the tension in his voice. It was actually quite intense.”
Cash died in September, 2003.
“It’s funny now, it has some relevance because of that movie (“Walk The Line”) about his life,” she says. “It was really cool to be involved in that.”
Christine Havrilla, Friday, April 14, 10 p.m., Triumph Brewing Company, 400 Union Square, New Hope. 215-862-8300.