Julie Christensen’s performances these days fall somewhere between rock, alt-country, and roots music. As for the alt-country part of that equation, the long and winding musical road she’s traveled began during the seminal days of the genre. She first made her mark in music as coleader, along with her then-husband, Chris D. (Desjardins), of the influential Los Angeles punk band the Divine Horsemen. Between 1984 and 1987, the band produced three studio albums and two EPs. The Divine Horsemen were one of the early practitioners of alt country, as evidenced by the twangy, tremolo-ridden Telecaster in “Tears Fall Away” from their first album, Time Stands Still, on Enigma Records. Chris D. sang low, while Christensen let fly powerful high harmonies. They played the West Coast circuit, including Club Lingerie and the Music Machine, which was a popular venue that often featured punk heavyweights, such as the Circle Jerks. As their popularity grew, they headed east, playing venues on the East Coast, including Washington’s famed 9:30 Club, as well as the legendary CBGB in Manhattan.
But the touring and night life took its toll. Christensen fell into destructive habits, abusing alcohol and using heroin with regularity. “I realized I needed to quit that lifestyle a couple of years before I was able to do it — it had become a daily thing,” she says. “I must have tried to kick it 15 times before I finally tried 12-step meetings. I felt my story was too gnarly for some fellowships and not gnarly enough for others. I related to the guys who had gotten out of prison and had tattoos on their face because I felt like I had been in a prison of drugs
After she and her husband divorced, she redirected her career toward performing in nightclubs as a soulful pop singer. A few months later, she auditioned to be a featured backup singer with Leonard Cohen, an eventual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee. At the end of the audition, he asked her to contemplate the rigors of a world tour before accepting the position.
“He told me this was going to be a grueling tour, playing four or five times each week,” Christensen says. “I told him that I had just come off the road myself and had recently changed my clothes in the bathroom at CBGBs. Just picture the bathroom in the movie Trainspotting, and you’ll get the picture.”
She toured with Cohen from 1988 to 1993. “I was only six months clean when I first went out on the road with him,” she says. “He is a centered, focused individual. I felt safe touring with him. He wasn’t somebody who was out of hand with any of his vices.”
It was through Cohen, whom she describes as one of the most centered people she’s ever known, that she met the master Buddhist teacher Joshu Sasaki Roshi. Although she’s not a practicing Buddhist, she meditates using the techniques she learned from Roshi, credited with popularizing Zen Buddhism in the United States.
Christensen appears in the award-winning 2005 documentary Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man. “We played beautiful concert halls and opera houses around the world,” she says. “We played Carnegie Hall and the Fillmore. It was a beautiful, magical time.”
Christensen carries a quiet-but-commanding gravity with her. She’s tall and striking, with tight, short blond curls that, at times, seem to be living lives of their own. She dresses stylishly — often offering a tasteful reboot of film-noir glamour. And she moves that way, too — slowly and deliberately. She is not the kind of singer who demurely clears her throat as she sidles up to the microphone. Nor is she the type of singer who delicately clinches her fist to indicate to the audience that she has entered the soulful part of a song. No, Julie Christensen belts out her songs in a way that is demonstrative, expressive, forceful even, and at times, explosive. She describes singing as “an athletic event.”
“I have exercise-induced asthma, and I usually use an inhaler before a show,” she says. “I was touring with Leonard in 1993, and they used a smoke machine [onstage] and one day I threw a hissy fit offstage. Leonard was in the green room in Norway — I didn’t know that he was talking to a journalist at the time, when I burst in and said, ‘Who do I have to fuck to get those smoke machines turned down?’ ‘That would be me, darling,’ he said.”
The writer featured the encounter prominently in his article.
To say Julie Christensen is a diva would misrepresent the wholeness of her being. To say that she is not would deny an inarguable truth. Her swagger is true to her rebellious punk-rock roots, and refined through working with the likes of Cohen, Iggy Pop, Public Image Limited, and Todd Rundgren, who produced a solo album of hers in 1990 that fell victim to record-label politics and was never released.
She decidedly goes where the music carries her, until the music doesn’t carry her where she wants to go — then she kicks it with spurs. She was on the bill to sing Cohen’s “Joan of Arc” as a duet with Lou Reed in 2006 in Santa Barbara, Calif. The two had performed the Cohen classic together earlier in the year, but this time Reed, widely regarded as a temperamental genius, had worked up a new guitar part, raising the key four steps in the process. To hit the notes in the already-demanding song, Christensen brought out the spurs and belted a forceful performance that she would later describe as “well-received” and “favorably reviewed.” But before published reviews could support her claim, Reed wanted to register a review of his own.
“It was two-and-a-half keys higher than we did it in Dublin,” she says. “In order to get out my part, I had to really haul off and sing, or else I would have had to sing it falsetto and that wasn’t going to be the same. Lou thought I was trying to hog the stage. When we went backstage, he said, ‘You couldn’t have done that with your jazz guys, this is rock & roll.’ He’s right, and I know not to upstage the bandleader. But that was the only way I could have performed it in that key. That was the last time I spoke to him. And I felt bad about that, especially when he died.”
Christensen moved from Ojai, Calif., to East Nashville in 2013 with her husband, actor John Diehl, who has worked steadily in film for decades, and is perhaps best known for his role as Det. Larry Zito on Miami Vice. Their son Magnus, a recent college graduate, relocated with them. Christensen had met singer-songwriter Amelia White while attending the 2012 Folk Alliance International conference in Memphis. White, who is based in East Nashville, told her about the fertile music scene there, and encouraged her to come to Nashville for the Americana Music Festival later that year — which she did.
“Nashville wasn’t on my radar until I met Amelia,” Christensen says. “It felt like Austin, Texas, felt in the 1970s. The unpretentiousness of it, and the willingness of the creative community to be open to new blood while being loyal to the people who are already here.”
She played a gig the night before the Americana festival at Two Old Hippies with White, Tommy Womack, and John Jackson, and visited The Family Wash for the first time a few nights later, playing with Doug and Telisha Williams of Wild Ponies.
“I immediately felt like the Wash was like a vortex and a place to call home,” Christensen says. She asked Diehl to visit Nashville as a relocation test drive. They moved as soon as they could sell their home in Ojai.
“People were incredulous that we would leave Ojai for East Nashville,” she says. “ ‘Why would you leave paradise?’ Well, East Nashville is our paradise.”
After getting settled in East Nashville, Christensen put together Stone Cupid with guitarists Sergio Webb and Chris Tench, bassist Bones Hillman, and drummer Steve Latanation. This winter, Stone Cupid will release The Cardinal, a powerful 12-song album she coproduced with Jeff Turmes. While Christensen wrote five of the cuts and cowrote another three, the record also includes songs written by Dan Navarro, Amelia White, and Chuck Prophet. Perhaps the standout cut on the album is “Saint on a Chain,” by Kevin Gordon. In typical Gordon fashion, the song is an oddly romantic tale of a small-town guy whose bad choices lead him to contemplate steering his speeding car to a
white-knuckle, fiery end.
“As he’s driving toward his death at 85 mph, he asks this Saint Christopher medallion to carry him across to the other shore,” Christensen expains. “It feels like a male version of Thelma & Louise. The first time I heard Kevin play it, I was blown away. I could hear my band doing it — I could hear it, the whole thing, it was like an aural hallucination. It just came over me like a wash. That song is like a Faulkner story.”