|‘Gracie and the Atom’
By Claudia Price
dork /ˈdoɚk/ noun
informal : a person who behaves awkwardly around other people and usually has unstylish clothes, hair, etc. (Merriam–Webster)
Author, TV personality, writing musicals, public speaker, riding a bike through Israel (alone), mechanical engineer, savior of lost pets and superb singer/songwriter. Oh, yes, outstanding sense of humor and good looks…Let me grab my box of chocolates and a cold beer.
We are talking about Alaska native, Christine McKinley. Not only is she one of the lead investigators on Brad Meltzer’s Decoded on History (I swear, if I’d let him, my husband would proudly display posters of Buddy Levy, Scott Rolle, Brad & Christine on my walls.) but she also has a daytime job as a mechanical engineer and just finished her first book “Physics for Beautiful People” (Spring 2014 via Perigee–Penguin).
What we find to be very interesting is her work as a musician. McKinley’s work with the spot-on Dirty Martini (w/Stephanie Schneiderman & Lara Michell) has had us intrigued for some time now. And now she brings the world, “Gracie and the Atom”, the soundtrack to the same-titled musical that opened in late 2010.
“Gracie, a high school sophomore and non-Catholic, is sent to an all-girls Catholic boarding school when her father suddenly dies. Having never known her mother, Gracie is alone and confused. She finds friendship in her classmates, who also help get her up to speed on a lifetime of missing catechism and religious tradition. In class she struggles to reconcile what she is learning from Sister Francis in Religion class and Sister Lidwina in Physics. While one teaches Archimedes, the other talks of Jesus walking on water. As she tries to make sense of her new surroundings, she also longs for the loss of her father, and wonders about the identity of her mother.” (artistsrep.org)
“Gracie and the Atom” is magnificent story telling in album form.What a treasure in a time that, seemingly, a majority of modern artists have forgotten the good ole story-in-song format that makes a music lover like me listen in delight and eagerly anticipate the next track. I won’t pick any standout tracks, I find that this is a work that should be listened to front to back with your music device set on repeat.
We just had to find out a few things about this, self-described, ‘gigantic dork’ we have been following for some time now. Not physically following, that would be creepy.
If McKinley is a ‘dork’, she is making being a dork so cool!
If McKinley is a ‘dork’, she is making being a dork so cool!
Here is my conversation with Christine McKinley…
How did you get into songwriting?
Well, I wanted to be a musician when I was a kid but never got a guitar for Christmas despite being very clear that I wanted one. So, while getting my engineering degree I played bass in a band in college. At some point I just started bringing songs to my band.
I’m pretty sure people in Europe only know investigator McKinley from Decoded. Would you mind telling us how the musical “Gracie And The Atom” happened and when you decided to put out a record?
I’ve been writing and recording for years. I wanted to write a group of songs that had a story, then I added the script, and then a theater in Portland, OR agreed to produce it. The whole thing just kept tumbling forward.
Since you’re also an author does songwriting give you a break sometimes?
Definitely. In these last few months while writing my first book (Physics for Beautiful People) I was also working on a revision of “Gracie and the Atom” and would bounce back and forth between writing the nonfiction book, the fiction script, and the new songs for Gracie. I’m also writing songs with my band here in Portland – two other women who co-write songs with me.
Is it a process that you’re doing all by yourself?
“Gracie and the Atom” has been a solo creation. Well, sort of. I wrote the story and most of the songs. For a few of the songs, my band mate Lara Michell helped me with her incredible piano playing. I’m lucky because I’m surrounded by brilliant, funny, and generous writers and musicians. We all weigh in on each others work.
When you were growing up who were your musical influences?
Johnny Cash, Elvis Costello, The Jam, The Clash, Cat Stevens, The Beatles, and so many more. It wasn’t until I was a young adult that I heard Kate Bush and thought, “Who is THIS?” I devoured everything she recorded. Here was a woman writing, producing, and singing these gorgeous songs that were works of art.
How much of those influences do you put in your own music?
I think that Elvis Costello definitely influences my lyric-writing still. He’s so good at being clever without showing off or losing his listener. I want to write like that. Kate Bush made me brave. When I got my first four-track, I would play anything to get the sound I needed. An old xylophone, a salt shaker.
With your busy time schedule how often do you get to play live shows?
I play live shows with my band pretty regularly. We schedule rehearsals in the weekday evenings when I’m done with my work day (as a mechanical engineer.) Writing the book was tricky. I did a lot of writing on weekends and on lunch breaks. I brought my laptop everywhere.
You live in LA and Portland, is that correct? Do you have any musical recommendations that we should watch out for?
I’m in Portland these days. I’ve been so buried that I haven’t been paying attention to new bands. But I will now that the book is done!
Name 3 things on your bucket list.
Jumping off of a cliff into the ocean.
Learning another language.
Running in a masters track meet.
Name 3 songs that will stay with you for the rest of your life.
Invisible Ink by Aimee Mann
Almost Blue by Elvis Costello
Hello Earth by Kate Bush
Worst venue you’ve ever played in?
SO many bad ones. My band and I have a great time remembering them. We played in a place in San Francisco that didn’t have a working door on the one single bathroom. You had to kind of hold the door in place while you were in there. Worst audience is a category of its own. We’ve had plenty of those.
Name one nasty habit you can’t live without.
I live a pretty clean life. Hmmm…dark chocolate?
Aimee Mann or Tori Amos?
Aimee Mann. I adore her and have seen her live in LA and Portland.
Oh, and when did you become so good at nodding on TV (Decoded)?
I became good at nodding right after the producer and director told me to stop taking apart the conspiracy theories with logic.