I moved up to Seattle from Southern California in 1997; same year I sold my car. I partially picked this city because it had functional transportation. I grew up mostly in the south-west of the United States between Southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Florida; that kind of area. I went to like twelve elementary schools.
Me and cars are like a reformed smoker and cigarettes. You know how they just smell cigarette smoke and they’re like Yeccch! Because they smoked themselves. Well, I owned over eighteen cars before I gave up my last car. I was a car-culture person. I started driving when I was fifteen. I always had Cadillacs and Slant-Six Dodges and flat head Ramblers…
And I drove them a lot. I’ve been up and down the I-5 corridor on gigs all through the eighties to mid-nineties. That is until I thought, ‘I hate cars: they’re killing the planet. I’m going to get rid of mine.’
So, I sold my car and I’ve really been happy. The first effect I noticed was, wow, I’m like a rich lady! I have all this disposable income because I don’t have to spend it on my car. And then I also noticed that Seattle in particular is really small: you can get anywhere in this town, and it has really good public transportation.
My parents would probably qualify as bohemians. But they were so isolated they had no idea there was anyone else like them in the world. They didn’t know they were bohemians. My dad was a “ne’er-do-well” and my mother just went along. He always had a tiny little pension from the army and he would always have a job under the table so he could, you know, still keep getting his pension; and he would always have odd jobs. Like get a big format 8”X10” camera and go round all the massage parlours in San Diego and take pictures of the girls and come back later with the developed pictures and sell them to them. So, he would think of his own jobs.
I think what I have from my dad is: ‘any way to not play by the rules’. My dad spent a lot of time finagling things that would have, admittedly, been a lot easier had he just done it the normal way [Laughs].
I started playing guitar when I was four. My mom, is from New Orleans, and is a pretty musical person. She danced with the New Orleans Opera Ballet Chorus when she was a young girl. And her whole family …her sister Ermonie ended up in New York as a dancer and worked as Carol Channing’s dresser (the person who helps a star get ready for the show) and her other sister, Mary, played the piano. Mary could have been a concert pianist but it didn’t work out for her to leave home.
Mom got a guitar for herself when I was about four. We lived in a trailer park in Venice Beach, California and so she came home with a guitar and I wanted one, so they got me a little three-quarter size guitar and then we followed along with Frederick Noad’s classical television show: Solo Guitar Playing. I’ve had experience working with kids and the minute they get over ‘Oh look it’s so cool!’ and then have to practice, they’re like, ‘I don’t wanna practice’. I was like that too, but my mom said, “Oh no. Twenty minutes a day. We bought the guitar, you gotta practice!” So, I was forced to practice until I was about ten. Then I started hearing things that I liked and by then I already had the skills to figure them out.
I remember just liking the sound that my mom’s guitar had. I remember really vividly going to the trailer park recreation room (we didn’t have a television) where we would park ourselves before the lesson for the week came on. It was a PBS show. Frederick Noad was a classical guitar player. I remember looking at the little notes on the page and trying to do what he was doing.
My dad entered me in a talent show probably about two years after that. We were living in El Cajon, California, which is a little bit further out, into the inlands. It’s the citrus growing area of California. Nowadays it’s probably just suburbs but then it was all like orange groves and lemon groves. It was really pretty. And we lived in a trailer court out there.
It was just a local talent show at the Eagles Hall. I remember he set me up with my little music stand and I played The Red River Valley. Well, I thought it was just the most horrifying experience ever: all those people looking at me. I didn’t like it very much. But my dad: if anyone came over, like a friend from the garage, would always make me play my little song, so I got used to it after a while. I think my first paying gig was the San Diego State Folk Festival. I was probably about fifteen.
My style of playing starts in the 1910’s and ‘20’s. That whole African-American fingerstyle guitar thing that connects to the southern country players like Merle Travis. It’s a compelling guitar style and I think easier for me to learn, having already been trained to use all three of my fingers and my thumb as a classical player. Not that I was classically trained, it was just the TV, but I did work through the whole book. I have really nice technique because my mom looked at the pictures and said, “No no, your wrist doesn’t go like that, it goes like this” – And Frederick Noad was a high-level pedagogue – and the fact that he was on a PBS television show and you could send for the book was what trained me.
When I discovered music that I really liked, I could now figure it out. As I started to play it more, I met people who had played with older players and then, when I played with older players myself, I saw exactly how they did it. I was playing with Sam Chatmon by the time I was fifteen or sixteen, and seeing all these players like Howard Armstrong and Lydia Mendoza at the San Diego Folk Festival. It was a big deal when I was a kid. This was in the early seventies, before Reagan got elected and defunded the arts: it was a really major festival.
Everyone loves to be loved and you love the audience loving you and there’s no feeling better than people responding to you playing music. Right? It’s just a great feeling. But I had this experience back in the mid-nineties. I was at a festival in Canada. And you know how Canadian festivals are: there is nothing they like better than getting a completely disparate group up in a round table where your main job is keeping a straight face while you listen to those other people, as you wait for your turn. Couldn’t I just do my three songs and get off? But it’s an old folkie tradition. It goes back to Newport in the sixties – I can dig it.
So, I’m up there and I’ve been a really big hit at this festival. And I’m thinking, ‘Ah this is it, I’m in the big time now, everybody loves me…’
Then I get up to play and this kid, who’s in a jam band – one of those Grateful Dead-esque kanoodle bands – gets up and I’m playing a Dr. Seuss song from a musical and it has four key changes – and it starts in E flat. And this little [****er] gets up there and he just starts [Del makes sounds of a guitar making random noises] all over me. I just keep on; you know, through the key changes, through the song, trying to keep my concentration. And, at the end of the song, I look over and I’m just about to rip him a new one when the audience bursts into wild applause. They just think it’s the greatest thing they’ve ever heard. And right then I got this really strong clear thing: The audience might love you, they might hate you – but they don’t know what it is they’re loving or hating. They have no idea. But something is affecting them.
So, ever since then, I just do my work: I try to practice so that I’m in good shape. And I try to not do things that are completely predictable – as much as I can, given that I play in a predictable style that’s traditional – I just try to do good work. Sometimes they’re going to love me, sometimes they are going to be so-so. It doesn’t matter to me. You just get up and do your show as well as you can and it’s not a big deal. You do enough shows and you’re in enough situations where you become like, ‘My show was great – it’s their problem’.
But at the same time, you care deeply, not about the specific reaction to a show, but about the art. You’re in the service of the song. You’re not in the service of that audience or your ego performing for that audience – which is clearly in operation – but it’s about that little song. Especially when you play traditional material. It’s just like “This little song! Check it out! It’s so… look I’m playing it!” [laughs]
In part 2, Del tells us about her move towards the ukulele.
More about Del Rey at: www.delreyplays.com
Her albums are available as downloads from: www.hobemianrecords.com