Shining On

The wild ride of Carolyn Wonderland

Carolyn Wonderland, who describes her music as having “one foot in the blues and the other in rock ‘n’ roll,” appears Feb. 3 at Santa Rosa’s Last Day Saloon. The van she’s driving from her current base in Austin includes keyboardist Cole El-Saleh and drummer Rob Hooper, and a variety of instruments she incorporates into her act—her guitar (nicknamed Patty), trumpet, mandolin and lap steel. She also may whistle.

During a phone interview from Austin, Wonderland recounts her adventurous life that’s led to her most recent album, Peace Meal. Her mother, a singer-songwriter who gigged at pizzerias and coffeehouses with a “cosmic country music” band, taught her guitar at age eight. Concurrently, Wonderland began writing songs and formed an a cappella group that performed at school recesses.

By 15, she began sneaking into bars to sing. Two years later, she got expelled from every high school in the district, labeled a “troublemaker,” for challenging the dress code and skipping lunch to take part in a Tiananmen Square protest. (Ironically, though that ended her school career, she’s now invited to lecture at universities.)

For Wonderland, life has been a trip through the keyhole. The redheaded guitarist and singer spent the early ’90s fronting a band called the Imperial Monkeys, but left her hometown of Houston for Austin in 1999. “I needed a change of scenery,” she says, “and Doug Sahm convinced me Austin was the promised land.”

Arriving with a suitcase full of Houston music awards but little money, Wonderland spent two years living in her van. Invited to play at Austin’s famed blues venue Antone’s soon after arriving there, she became immersed in the local scene.

Word got around about Carolyn Wonderland. She toured with Johnny Winter, whom she describes as “a divine human being for his humanity and what he does for his friends.”

One day, Wonderland’s producer Ray Benson told her that Bob Dylan was in Austin and wanted to meet her. Wonderland, out of town at the time, drove two-and-a-half hours of Texas road in record time, she says. Dylan asked for her latest CD and later called to comment on it, track by track. (She describes him as “a good guy and a serious musicologist.”)

Since then, she’s appeared on Austin City Limits and played at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, joining an all-star cast for a Janis Joplin tribute.

And, of course, she’s toured extensively in the van.

Wonderland’s musical influences are “the folks I get to play with, everything that goes on around me,” she says. “I try to be hopeful, and tell a story that’s universal.”

Carolyn Wonderland plays Friday, Feb. 3, at the Last Day Saloon. 120 Fifth St., Santa Rosa. 8:30pm. $15–$18. 707.545.2343.