Artist Spotlight: Chatting with Christine Ohlman

From singing on Saturday Night Live to working with some of the greatest artists of our generation, the Beehive Queen Christine Ohlman tells all.

Performing arts intern Melissa interviews Christine Ohlman before her  rock n’ roll-soul concert on Saturday, April 21, at 8 PM in the Club B-10.

You started in the music business young – age 16 if I’m not mistaken – but why did you decide music was the right path for you?

The reason I knew that music was right for me was because it was the most comfortable I had ever felt in my life. Since I was really a small child, I saw other people communicating in that way. So I started to and it wasn’t in my bedroom, not alone, but communicating back and forth with other people. I do consider music to be a very high form of communication, so it was just the place that I always felt the most comfortable, and as I grew up, there became a chance for me to sing with a band, and that’s really how I got into it, as the “chick singer.” As time went on, I began playing guitar and I began writing, and once I began writing there was a lot of empowerment that came with that, and I became a band leader myself. So it was kind of a progression from “chick singer in the band” to the leader of the band, and as B.B King so elegantly put it, I was “paying the cost to be the boss.”

 Did you try other things? Did you go to school?

I was a national merit scholar. I went to Boston University to the school of journalism and I have a degree in journalism. I never used it really until about ten years ago, when I was asked to come onto the staff of the All Music Guide. Also, Boston had this great magazine called the Record Round Up, and I started reviewing for them and then I started writing. Actually it was more like 15 years ago, for the original version of the All Music Guide, which was a big fat print book, not the website like it is now – it was a print, enormous thick book. From then on, I became known as a historian of music and I’ve done a fair amount of writing since then for magazines. That’s how I use my degree, but for years I didn’t use it.

So your nickname, the Beehive Queen… When did it start?

I think when I started teasing my hair. It was probably early 90s. I did it for a photo shoot and I liked it so much and everybody else liked it, and I thought, well maybe I’m on to something. I was really in love with vintage clothes, cocktail dresses, and things like that, so it kind of went along with my style. In later years I dropped so much vintage, like dresses and things, but you know I kept the hair. It’s kind of a lot of vintage but it’s not so retro-retro anymore.

Did someone say, “Well, you’re the Beehive Queen,” or did you kind of make up that nickname yourself?

Ummm… I’m not quite sure. You know a lot of people ask me that. I think someone else suggested that (but I can’t remember who to tell you the truth) and then I liked it so I started using it, and then at some point someone said, “You know if you Google ‘Beehive Queen’ you are by far the number one hit,” and I laughed so much when I heard that, but then I was like, “Okay, well let’s go with it.” It’s kind of cute.

So how did you get started with Saturday Night Live?

Oh, that’s a great story, really a great story. Ummm, G. E. Smith was a friend of mine and we had been in a band together in Connecticut called The Scratch Band, and then the next thing you know, he hooked up with the people on Saturday Night Live as the musical director, and we still stayed in touch. I used to make mix tapes for everyone, and G.E was one of the people that I sent tapes too. Then one day the phone rang and he said, “Hey Chris, its G. E., I have this gig out on Long Island, do you want to do it? It would be two nights,”and I was free so I said yes. So we picked 12 or 14 really pretty obscure songs from those tapes and the next thing I know, he tells me that the gig is with the Saturday Night Live Band, with me as the vocalist! And it’s for the wedding celebration of Lorne Michaels at his estate in the Hamptons. So we did the wedding ([at] which every celebrity in the world at the time was there), and I thought, Well that’s it, that was a great gig, but that’s it.” Well, the next week the show was starting up for the season, and Lorne Michaels kept walking across the studio (which I now know so well) and walked up to the band stage and beckoned G. E. down to the front and said, “Where’s the girl?” And G.E. was like, “What do you mean where’s the girl?”, and Lorne said, “The girl at the wedding,” and G. E. said, “Well she’s not here, it was a one-time thing,” and Lorne goes, “No no, she was great, call her up and tell her to come next week!” So I got on SNL from a wedding gig. So there I am til this day. G.E.’s not there anymore but the band changed very little, and um it’s a wonderful gig, and Lorne has been a prince, you know, forever.

Do you have a favorite moment of being on the show?

Yeah, my favorite moment to this day is the first time we had Paul McCartney on. He had never been on the show and everyone was really excited about having him there and he played a little set at his sound check, he played extra songs, and the late Chris Farley and I were standing there watching him and he started to play Hey Jude, and Chris Farley grabbed me and we waltzed all around the studio and it was just a wonderful moment. We were dancing, everybody was there,it was great. You know it’s very like a family there, so I’m just really grateful to be a part of that family for so many years.

Do you have a favorite artist that you’ve ever worked with?

Honestly I’ve worked with so many. I was lucky enough to sing with Al Green, which was a thrill, and the Bob Dylan thing at Madison Square Garden, because it was the first of its kind ever, where multiple, multiple, multiple artists were gathering to pay tribute to one artist. Also I must say, I am so saddened about this news about Levon Helm. Levon Helm appears On The Deep End with me, and I had not realized his cancer had come back. I’m very, very sorry to hear… One of the great voices of American popular music across the board and one of the deepest. Also an amazing, amazing drummer. I can testify, having been in the studio with him. He recovered and he was singing, and that voice just cannot be denied. I think the blessing in this whole thing was that he was able to sing again.


So your band is called Christine Ohlman and Rebel Montez; how did you come up with the Rebel Montez part of it?

We were just trying to think of a name that maybe I could use as sort of a nom de plume or whatever, and first we had Cortez from Cortez the Killer, the Neil Young song, and then it kind of morphed into Montez. We were looking for another word… Maybe I was reading it and I was like, “Oh, how about Rebel?” Anybody who has ever thought of a band name can tell you there’s almost nothing harder to do than think of a band name, it’s ridiculously It was probably a serendipity kind of thing, the day when we put those two words togeher.

I just have one last question for you. You’re playing here Saturday. What should people expect when seeing you live?

One of the things that has always been said about our shows is that we rock really hard but there’s also a sense of continuity to it and a sense of history. I’m a pretty good storyteller, so I’ll tell some stories in-between the songs. The music will rule the day, you know, but we really include a few surprises. The cover tunes that we do are pretty well chosen, and they’re historic, all of them. People have always said that it’s very soulful. [The audience] should expect to see a very deep performance. I’m out there to connect on a deep and visual level.  I’m really excited to meet all of you, and to meet some new friends from the area, and to see some old friends from the area, ’cause we definitely have some. It’s a great area for music, and  have nothing but respect for MASS MoCA and everything that you guys do up there. I’m really honored.

Watch Christine perform on SNL.

Interview by Melissa Page


Posted April 20, 2012 by MASS MoCA
Filed under Artist Spotlight, BLOG, Music, Uncategorized
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