Musician Kristia Di Gregorio shapes own destiny

Kristia Di Gregorio is all smiles at the moment.

The singer-songwriter is prepped to celebrate the release of her new album, The Whiplash Curve, with a star-studded concert this weekend, yet another step in a career that never seems to be without something interesting on deck.

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“I have certain creative goals that aren’t passive,” Di Gregorio said. “I really want to put the energy into achieving them.”

Di Gregorio started on her quest at an early age.

The native of North Vancouver started taking guitar lessons at five, the perfect practice for an active child who had dreams of stardom right out of the gate. She joined her first band — “a ’50s rockabilly thing,” according to Di Gregorio — at 12, jamming on weekends with a band of peers that included future bluesman James Buddy Rogers, who earned a Juno nomination earlier this year.

In her teens, Di Gregorio moved into the singer-songwriter realm, eventually incorporating Celtic-themed material. She never stayed still for long, moving often with her family (which had moved from North Vancouver to Squamish to East Vancouver during her youth). Immediately after high school, Di Gregorio bought a sailboat and moored it at False Creek. It was just Di Gregorio, her boat and her cat from the age of 18 to 21.

There were a few respites in between, she admitted. “I got really cold in winters, so I would run back home to Mom and Dad’s place. I really missed having a bathtub. The summers [on the boat] were glorious, but the winters were pretty chilly.”

If there was a point that could be considered the start of her artistic awakening, it would be this stretch.

Under her given name, Kristia Jeanne Sheffield, she released the Celtic-leaning Songs for the Fallen in 1995, making music a full-time proposition at this point. In addition to her frequent gigs, she was running a collective of independent musicians, the Pacific Alliance of Independent Recording Artists.

The purpose was to create promotional opportunities and gig-sharing for like-minded Vancouver-area musicians, many of whom would find themselves on her boat for meetings-cum-jam sessions. “It was a wonderful place to reflect and write. I had my guitar and my books on board, so I had a little floating library.”

After a stretch of semi-retirement (brought on by a bad bout of pneumonia), she mined her library of influences for The Whiplash Curve, which is named after a tenet of the Art Nouveau movement. The velvety sounds on the album (which was recorded in Victoria by star producer Joby Baker) are meant to mirror the subject, much of which involves the spirit of the late 19th-century, early 20th-century music and art worlds — and the women and courtesans who populated them.

Many of the musicians who appear on the recording (Quinn Bachand, Von Loewen, Richard Moody, Adrian Dolan and her husband, Tony Di Gregorio) will join her for Saturday’s concert. She organized the gig largely herself, the latest in a long line of self-directed moves in her career.

Di Gregorio, it would appear, does not sit back and wait for opportunities to present themselves.

“I don’t believe I have that luxury. Things don’t seem to happen unless I make them happen. When you look at the surface there is lots of good luck coming my way with music, but it is because of constant focus. When I don’t put that conscious effort into it, things don’t happen at all. I can’t rely on happenstance.”

 

What did it feel like to be a part of a fully functioning band at such a young age?

I started lessons very young, so [playing in a band] simply came out of the private lesson environment. It was the next stage, putting those lessons into practice. I was learning performance, and not just playing, so it was part and parcel of my creative exploration as a kid.

What was your upbringing like?

I grew up around the Lower Mainland, including a really rough trailer park in Squamish. It was a very beautiful, natural setting, but a very run down place.

When you were young, I understand your family lost all of its possessions in a fire, which prompted the move to Vancouver proper.

I’ve had some scares in my life, which have made me feel like life is very short. I don’t want to get to the end going, ‘If I had just tried a bit more.’

What were some of your other scary experiences?

Almost three years ago I had a near-drowning experience. I got swept up in a current in Murray Canyon while tubing on the Cowichan River. I came as close to drowning as I really ever want to.

How did you survive?

My father fished me out of the river. Two days later, I found out he was dying of cancer. They caught it too late. We went from cancer to terminal immediately. He died five months later.

Is there anything to be gleaned from such a situation?

He was an exceptionally creative man, but he was filled with a lot of self-doubt. He didn’t fulfill all the things he needed to. That has created a certain amount of urgency and passion in me.

You moved to Victoria eight years ago, immediately following the release of 2005’s Any Given Night. Your first record arrived a decade before that. Why the wait?

I quit music for a bunch of years. I got very disheartened with the industry, to the point where I really needed a break from trying to promote myself. I wanted to settle into a normal life.

Your three recordings are vastly different from each other. What is the through-line that connects them all?

The writing was more condensed on The Whiplash Curve. It was written within a pretty short amount of time. Any Given Night was a collection of songs, and I was trying to make them work together. This one was very much, ‘Joby, here’s a tune.’ If he liked it, I would sit down and write more like it. This is more focused.

Kristia Di Gregorio performs Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at Oak Bay United Church (1355 Mitchell St.). Tickets are $15 at Long & McQuade, Ivy’s Bookshop, and Lyle’s Place, or $20 at the door. For more information, visit kristia.ca.

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