Christie Lenée might have two world titles and six albums under her belt, but that doesn’t stop her mom from sending her some inspirational words.
“It’s really cute. She sends them to me probably every other day,” Lenée tells me when we met over Zoom in late October, searching through her inbox for the latest message. “‘Dear Music, thanks for always clearing my head, healing my heart, and lifting my spirit.”
Lenée’s spirits must be pretty high these days. The celebrated singer/songwriter and award-winning guitarist spoke with me ahead of the release of her sixth album, “Coming Alive,” which dropped Nov. 18. The album marks something of a departure for Lenée, who is known for letting her guitar take the lead, whether it’s the acoustic, electric, or 12 string (her strumming knows no bounds). In “Coming Alive,” it’s her voice that’s doing the talking – or rather, the singing.
Lenée worked on the album during the Covid lockdown, which gave her “an opportunity for me to go inside and really think, ‘What is my sound and who am I as an artist?,’” she tells GO. “And at the heart, what I’ve always wanted was to sing since I was a kid, and to move around on stage.” Although guitar remains an integral part of the album, which includes numerous instrumental elements, “the vocals in the songs are what drives it,” she says. “It’s very much a singer/songwriter album.”
As a performer, Lenée got an early start. She spent time on stage as a child, acting in commercials and performing in a kids’ entertainment group. The experience encouraged in her a love of performance, in its more expressive elements. By the age of six she was enrolled in piano lessons, which followed a more rigid structure that the expressive young artist found “inhibiting.” Then one day, she heard her half-brother teaching himself to play the guitar by ear to tunes from classic rock gods like Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix. “He was so expressive and having a lot of fun with his music,” Lenée recalls. “I thought, ‘Gosh, it would be really cool to do that.’”
Although she enrolled initially as an acting major in performing arts high school, she quickly found her true calling, evolving from rock to classical guitar and driving herself to take on ever-more challenging pieces. Not that she ever imagined that she could ever have a career as a guitarist. “All I knew is that I loved it.”
While she might have loved the guitar, in the early days of her career she imagined that it would be her voice, and her songwriting, that launched her in the music world. It was one of her managers who had to convince her that guitar might be the way to go.
“She thought that the instrumental guitar thing was going to be [what] catapulted my career. And I completely disagreed,” Lenée remembers. “But she was like, ‘Trust me. Once you get there, you can do whatever you want.’ What was really cool is that she was right.”
That manager entered her into the International Fingerstyle Guitar Championship in 2017 at the annual Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kan. – a competition which Lenée won. Other accolades soon followed. She was named Best Acoustic Guitarist of the Year at the U.K Guitar Show in London in 2019, and shortly after released her album, “Circle ‘Round the Sun (the Best of Christie Lenée). That same year, she played at Melissa Etheridge’s Cruise, sharing the stage with the iconic singer. In 2020, Guitar World Magazine, an industry-leading publication, named her one of the Best Acoustic Guitarists in the World Right Now.
Lenée wrote her most recent album that same year, while in quarantine in a cabin at Lake Lure outside of Asheville, N.C., where she lives most of the time. “It was the most solitude I’ve ever had in my life, and a really amazing place for self growth,” she recalls. The album, itself, reflects the sentiments she felt while in isolation, explored in the song “Windowpanes,” which considers this inward reflection while looking out on the world and wondering just how do I get back there?
“I would say the heart of the album is about internal self-discovery and transformation that literally occurred in me while writing all of the songs and while making the album,” she says. “It was a pretty cool journey.”
Finding a new style to her music, and her voice as an artist, wasn’t the only change that happened while Lenée was in isolation. She also met her girlfriend, Laura, soon after she returned to Asheville. Coincidentally, the title track of the album, “Coming Alive,” proved somewhat prophetic in this regard. “There’s a lyric there that says, ‘Out to the sunsets, maybe I’ll find love, I can’t stop dreaming, it’s so close that I can touch,’” Lenée tells me. “There’s this feeling in there, like something is being created, I could feel that love was on the horizon again. And I felt open to it.”
She wrote the song, “The Victory We Won,” which appears on the new album, for Laura, with whom she has been since 2020.
The song “Coming Alive,” which Lenée has opened every show with in the past year, isn’t just about love. It’s also something of a coming out song, although she hadn’t intended for it to be. However, since writing it, the song has become something of a personal anthem, one that “embodies everything that I stand for.” Growing up as a queer woman in a Catholic family, Lenée had “held my cards pretty tight in terms of being out,” she recalls. She came out to her mom at age 18, and while both her parents were very accepting of her, her mom was worried that being out would negatively impact her budding career.
Lenée, too, resisted opening up about her sexuality for fear of being pigeon-holed in a music industry not known to always be open to, and supportive of, queer artists. However, as her career evolved, she came to believe that being out about who she is allows her to “stand for who I am” and helps others see that they can do the same.
Although “Coming Alive” isn’t a coming out song per se, “the words definitely have that feeling of, ‘Here I am, and I’m going to be who I am, no matter what you think, I’m going to live my life and love my life,’” she says. “So that song just feels very empowering to sing.”
The video, which was released in October, has received nearly 600,000 views on YouTube.
Her mom, too – who sends her those daily inspirational messages – is “my greatest cheerleader,” whether that means literally cheering from the front row at one of her Asheville shows, or encouraging her onto local radio stations. “It feels good to know that you’re seen and heard,” Lenée says. “I think that’s what all humans want.”
It was also thanks to her family’s early support and encouragement that she was given the gift of music, and the ability to pursue her chosen career. While guitars of all stripes remain her primary instruments, “I’d like to have at least some understanding of all the instruments that I write for,” she says. She can play most string instruments, including “a little bit of banjo, some mandolin” and, although she can’t play either violin or cello – “Don’t give me a bow because it might sound unpleasant!” she jokes – she knows enough about both to compose music for them. The same goes for saxophones and flutes. She can also play drums and the piano which, despite finding those original lessons rigid, helped build her foundation of musical proficiency. “Once you learn the piano, and understand it, it’s profound what’s possible.”
Not so easy: deciding which guitar is her favorite. The 12 string – lesson common to see even among seasoned guitar players – is “one of my favorites” but electric, which she doesn’t get to play on stage as often, “is fun and fulfilling” when she does. Then there’s the acoustic guitar, which is where her heart often is.
“I really, honestly love them all,” she says. “Okay, I can’t decide!”
One thing she does know for certain. She would like to tour with a band “that I can really grow with,” she says. On “Coming Alive,” she’s joined by drummer Keith Carlock (who’s played with Steely Dan, Sting, James Taylor, and others), and bassist Adam Nitti (Susan Tedeschi, Kenny Loggins, Carrie Underwood). “With musicians like that, there’s a certain freedom in playing with a really great band.”
She would also like to tour with some of her favorites: Brandi Carlile, Melissa Etheridge, Ani DiFranco, The Indigo Girls.
Ultimately, for Lenée, those inspirational quotes from her mom ring true. Music “is always going to be there, no matter what happens. It’s a foundation and a place to go, a place to land,” she says.
“I want to embrace the community and inspire people” with music, she says. “If I can help people, lift people’s spirits and find joy and love and purpose, or just have a feeling of excitement about life, then I feel like I’ve done my life’s work.”
“Coming Alive” is available to purchase on Apple Music, Spotify, and Bandcamp. CDs are available for purchase through the singer’s website, where you can also find information on upcoming performances.