Before Roger Deitz interviewed Christine Lavin for Sing Out! magazine, he watched her finish a lesson with instructor Mike Moore. Moore was not teaching Lavin voice or guitar technique; a Georgia and Florida state champion, he was helping her through a particularly complicated baton twirling routine. This may seem a strange pastime for a musician. But for Lavin - who in concert twirls while her tape recorded “deepest thoughts” wonder “What if I drop it” and “Did I leave my iron on?” - it is an integral part of her show. It also comes in handy when she loses her voice, as she did at the 1988 Ann Arbor Folk Festival. Lavin, whose music is sometimes labeled pop, more often folk, and occasionally even stand-up comedy, is, as Vin Scelsa described in Penthouse, “a driving force and enthusiastic cheerleader of the eighties Folk Revival.”
Lavin has built a reputation as one of the observers and chroniclers of modern urban life, with recordings like “Prisoners of Their Hairdos,” “Sensitive New Age Guys,” “Good Thing He Can’t Read My Mind,” and “Mysterious Woman,” a brilliant parody of folk-pop singer Suzanne Vega. Although she has received little attention on mainstream radio stations, Lavin has built a wide following among critics, folk music fans, and public radio listeners. In his Penthouse article on Lavin, Scelsa called her “one of the country’s best songwriters – period - regardless of genre or backup instrumentation. For her literacy, humor, and compassion, her keen, observant eye and ability to translate the most mundane moments into magic, I can only compare her to the likes of, say, a [songwriting giant like] Paul Simon.” Concurring in the Utne Reader, Jay Walljasper wrote, “Her lilting, elegant voice and sweet, soft melodies belie a tart wit that is somewhat similar to [cartoonist and writer] Lynda Barry’s.... At times hilarious, at times absurd, at time touching, and sometimes all three at once, Lavin is not going to be mistaken for one of those warbling songbirds who give folk music a bad name. She’s definitely got an ‘80s edge.”
Lavin grew up one of nine siblings in Peekskill, New York, where her father was an administrator at a military academy. As she explained in Frets Magazine, her mother felt that each of her children needed something that made them individual, because she was afraid they would get lost in such a big family; Lavin got the role of family guitarist. She couldn’t afford lessons, so she learned how to play by watching New York City’s public television station, which broadcast guitar lessons twice a week. “So if you contributed to public television, you played a part in my musical development,” she told Deitz in Sing Out! In the same interview, she said that her musical influences also came from mass media, as she couldn’t afford records either. Lavin listened to New York’s WNEW-FM, and the musicians she heard there - Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, Joni Mitchell - shaped her musical taste. Lavin attended Rockport State and in 1975, after a sojourn in Florida, moved to the Cafe Lena in Saratoga Springs, New York. In Sing Out! she explained that she had a goal of someday opening a club, so she took a waitress and bread-baking job at the cafe to see what running a club was like. The time she spent there was a “tremendous education,” as it afforded her the opportunity to hear some of the greats of folk music. In February of 1976 folk-pop singer Don McLean’s manager heard Lavin perform at the cafe; he told her that if she learned to play the guitar better and moved to New York City, she might have a career in music. As fate would have it, singer-songwriter Dave Van Ronk visited the club the same evening and reiterated the manager’s suggestion that she move to New York. Van Ronk also offered to really teach her how to play the guitar; by March she had moved. Two months later Lavin found herself working as a wandering minstrel in a Mexican restaurant on Columbus Avenue. The job was less than ideal; in fact, she told Sing Out!, she hated it. Yet in spite of such incidents as being ordered to sing while a knifing occurred in the restaurant, she lasted until the fall, earning enough money to buy a better guitar.
In the early 1980s a New York club called the Speakeasy asked Lavin to perform. Her then-manager told her not to take the job because, she said, “It’s just a bunch of folk musicians hanging around at this club behind a falafel stand! You don’t want to be involved with these people,” Lavin told Frets. Shortly thereafter she realized this manager was “sort of a maniac” and in checking out the club found it exactly the place she wanted to be. At the Speakeasy she became involved with the house writers cooperative that had created Fast Folk Music Magazine. A non-profit production, Fast Folk is published every six weeks; a subscription includes a twelve-cut record as well as a magazine containing essays, reviews, bios, and a guide to folk music events. Since joining the Fast Folk team, Lavin has written for, produced, and edited several issues of the magazine. She has also worked on publicity and has emceed performances at the Speakeasy club.
During the early years of her involvement with Fast Folk, Lavin also worked full-time at New York’s Bellevue Hospital. She told Sing Out! that those were her “giving-up years.” She took some guitar lessons and performed occasionally, but felt it was time to try something else. She did not give up on her music completely, however, and managed to record her first album, Another Woman’s Man, during this period. In 1984, after giving up the “giving up period,” she recorded Future Fossils, which she produced herself. At that point Lavin was becoming a fixture on the New York folk scene. With the release of Beau Woes and Other Problems of Modern Life in 1986, critics began to pay attention. A review in Spin noted that the album “presents a clever lyricist equally adept with humorous tales and sensitive ballads.” By this time Lavin was developing a wide following in clubs and festivals across the country.
The 1988 release of Good Thing He Can’t Read My Mind marked an important change in Lavin’s style: While the earlier albums were distinguished by the singer’s very witty and ironic comments on American culture, this one included only two outright comic songs. In David Hinckley’s New York Daily News review of the album, he suggested that Lavin may have wondered if her wit and charm were overshadowing her songs, and reported that in Good Thing she had created “her most ‘produced’ work and the [one] least reliant on one-liners.” Scelsa agreed: “There is less immediate silliness than on past efforts; her humor has grown more subtle.” Lavin told Sing Out! that it had actually taken time to become comfortable performing the more serious songs. The humor worked as a shield; it was easier to be funny under pressure. She had also felt that the often too-serious folk music needed some lightening up. Critics took the change as a sign of Lavin’s maturing style and burgeoning talent.
Lavin’s career took a worrisome turn in 1989 when she began having trouble with a tendon in her hand, a grave problem for someone who makes a living playing the guitar. According to Lavin, the difficulty stemmed from holding her instrument wrong, and also from carrying too many heavy things. Fortunately, she caught the disorder early enough to avoid surgery, but her recovery included treatment at the Miller Health Institute for the Performing Arts, physical therapy, and lessons with members of the Metropolitan Opera orchestra on how to properly hold her guitar.
Lavin’s continuing maturation as a songwriter was particularly evident in her 1990, self-produced album, Attainable Love. According to Rounder Records, it found its way onto many critics’ ten-best lists. Billboard magazine called it “delectable,” and described one track, “The Kind of Love Your Never Recover From,” as “gut-wrenching storytelling of the first order.” “Sensitive New Age Guys” - penned with John Gorka and featuring a choral group comprised of all the sensitive guys she could find in New York - became a favorite on alternative radio stations. Attainable Love often focuses on the darker side of relationships; as the New York Daily News wrote, it “takes a wider psychological perspective,” than do her previous albums.
After Attainable Love Lavin directed her attention to what was possibly folk’s first all-female supergroup. In 1990 Lavin joined up with folk singers Patty Larkin, Megon McDonough, and Sally Fingerett; calling themselves The Four Bitchin’ Babes, they set out on tour. According to Rounder Records, one publication raved, “If one great woman folk singer on stage is a sheer delight, then this group’s quadruple bill is the height of bliss.” In 1991 Rounder released a live recording of the show titled “Buy Me Bring Me Take Me: Don’t Mess My Hair...”: Life According to Four Bitchin’ Babes,” complete with the “feminist fight song” made famous by Nancy Sinatra, “These Boots Are Made For Walking.”
Placing Lavin in a genre slot became no easier as her popularity grew and her writing matured. She doesn’t mind her usual “folk” label, and as she told Sing Out!, her roots are definitely in folk music. But she sees herself moving in a more “multi-dimensional,” more “theatrical direction.” “Eventually,” she mused, “I think I will be viewed as doing a one-woman show - or ‘An evening with Christine Lavin.’” The best role for Lavin may be as social commentator. “It’s as semidetached observer that Lavin is most striking,” People concluded. “If we could get her and Loudon Wainwright III named our national folk music laureates, we’d have most of the country’s problems accurately described, if not solved, in no time.”