After a string of potent self-realizations – lightbulb moments, really – Christie Lenée found her groove. Her niche. Her life’s calling.
Lenée, a Tampa native, was named Acoustic Guitarist of the Year for 2019 by England’s Music Radar, and in the last few months has recorded duets with guitar legends Tommy Emmanuel, Phil Keaggy and Laurence Juber.
Three years ago, Lenée took 1st Place at the International Fingerstyle Guitar Championship.
Her joyful, exuberant playing is a blend of classic fingerstyle, two-handed fretboard tapping (which has to be seen to be believed) and body-slapping (the guitar body, not her own). She uses foot pedals and a stomp board. “Watching Christie Lenée perform her solo acoustic act is like seeing a firecracker execute a high-wire circus routine while doing flips and juggling flaming bowling pins,” Guitar Player magazine said in a July profile.
Now a resident of Asheville, N.C., Lenée returns to the bay area for a Saturday show at the Hideaway Café. “It’s my favorite venue on the planet,” says the woman who’s performed throughout China, Australia and in virtually every European country. “It’s my hometown venue. Usually when I play the Hideaway, my mom is there, my sister is there, and possibly my nephews … so that’s a really cool experience for me.”
Christie Lenée Jimenez was 5 years old when she became a member of the Entertainment Revue, the Tampa-based “professional song and dance ensemble” that groomed young girls for showbiz, through music and dance training and performances at public and commissioned events. She brought the house down singing the National Anthem at MacDill Air Force Base.
As a student at Tampa’s Howard W. Blake High School and its performing arts magnet, she majored in theater. “I wanted to be a singer, and to perform on Broadway, and do more theatrical-type things,” she remembers. On the side, she played drums, and electric guitar.
“I wasn’t really interested in learning classical guitar,” Lenée adds. “I thought it was going to be this really academic, structured thing that was going to take the creativity and joy out of it for me. Which is what happened to me studying piano at the age of 6! I wasn’t really interested in that – I wanted to learn by ear and play rock ‘n’ roll. Jam out and learn guitar solos.”
Then came lightbulb moment No. 1. At Blake, she attended a concert by the students from professor John Michael Parris’ classical guitar classes. Parris himself performed “Sunburst,” a stirring solo piece by contemporary composer Andrew York.
“It forever changed my life,” Lenée says. “I just knew in that moment that he (Parris) was my teacher. Not my teacher necessarily just of music, but my teacher of life. He was like a father to me.
“Something really clicked when I saw him perform. There was a level of heart, soul and expression that I had never, ever witnessed in a human being onstage. His whole energy was just embodied in the music that he was playing. And the piece was just unbelievably mind-blowing! I couldn’t believe that it was one guitar that did what he did with so much grace and ease. And I thought ‘My God, if I can do that, I can do anything.’”
She immediately switched her major to guitar. Turned out, Christie Lenée Jimenez was wrong about the instrument. “It wasn’t the academic thing that I imagined in my mind,” she recalls. “Of course, there was a lot of studying, and eight hours of practice a day. Really intensive studies throughout high school. I knew that’s what it would take for me to get to where I wanted to be.”
By age 16, she was hiring out as a classical guitarist for weddings and private parties. She conquered (and owned) York’s “Sunburst” in her junior year. She graduated from Blake in 2003 and immediately entered the music program at the University of South Florida.
Music had always been an important presence in the Jimenez household – Christie’s dad was nuts for the classics, Bach in particular, while Mom leaned towards the SouCal rock sounds of Bonnie Raitt and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
Christie began to absorb the music of innovative singer/songwriters Joni Mitchell, Ani DeFranco and Dave Matthews – multi-faceted acoustic guitarists who employed unorthodox tunings and playing techniques.
“I thought wow, this acoustic guitar thing sounds cool. I had an electric and I had a nylon. I didn’t have a (steel string) acoustic guitar.”
In 2003, in West Palm Beach, she made her way into the front row of a Dave Matthews concert. “I remember looking at him and seeing this amazing gratitude on his face. The light hit his eyes and he just looked … so happy. He was singing and playing guitar, and he was dancing onstage.
“I remember thinking wow, imagine what it must feel like to create something that brings thousands and thousands of people together, that are so joyful and happy and singing along at this cultural experience that he’s created.”
Immediately after that moment of musicianly clarity, Lenée says, “He looked right at me, and it really was if my whole life changed right then. I was like ‘Oh my God! I have to write songs.’ That was really powerful for me, because I had a really strong musical background – singing, dancing, musical theater, that kind of stuff – and I’d always written poetry.”
It was then, she explains, when she dropped her surname. Professionally, she had a different identity.
With all those diverse musical impulses swimming inside her head, and with her love of singing, dancing and theatricality, starting a band was the next logical step.
Christie Lenée and the Funk Grass Groove gigged up, down and around the bay area while its singing, guitar-playing focal point was deep into her classical guitar, jazz guitar and music composition studies at USF.
Enter another transformative event; lightbulb moment No. 2. Lenée discovered the work of late acoustic guitar wizard Michael Hedges, a pioneer in (among other things) using both hands to “tap” the guitar neck – turning the instrument into something melodically percussive, like a piano. Hedges also had a background in classical guitar studies.
Hedges’ Aerial Boundaries album rarely left her CD player. “I had been really hardcore studying classical guitar for years up to that point,” Lenée says.
She had been wondering how to hold an audience in her sway without other musicians. “I started trying to figure out how I could play more than one part at once,” she recalls. “It started more out of necessity than trying to tap into this niche that I actually didn’t even know about. It was just Michael Hedges! Years later, I found out there was a whole culture of people trying to play this style.
“I still kind of ended up in the fingerstyle genre by default of being a composer with a classical background. But not wanting to play traditional classical music. I wanted the technique. Or course, I love classical music, but I was always into the more modern classical like Andrew York. More modern and singable.”
Six albums into a prolific career as an independent artist, she has finally “found” herself. “It’s been an ongoing process of learning how to be the best artist I can be,” Lenée says.
Saturday’s Hideaway concert will be Lenée’s second live show since the Covid closures in March (she returned to the stage Nov. 12, in Asheville).
Lenée reports she wrote enough songs during quarantine for a new album, and will release a second duet wih Phil Keaggy this week. She’ll shortly record one with Muriel Anderson, the other American female fingerstyle champion.
“My instrumental music has done really well on streaming sites, better than my singer/songwriter music, so I just decided to put out some more of that and feed that audience,” Lenée says.
“As for booking anything too far in the future, there’s a lot of unknowns. I definitely plan to do a fall tour in 2021, and hopefully some stuff in the summertime. But I just don’t know what is going to happen, I think we’re all just doing our best with the current global situation and figuring it out.”
Details and tickets for Hideaway Cafe show are here.