A term that gets tossed around casually, applied to this artist or that athlete or pretty much anyone who excels well beyond expectations. It rarely fits — but it does for Christie Lenée. And don’t take my word for it. In late August, the experts at Guitar World magazine named Lenée one of the “Best Acoustic Guitarists in the World Right Now.” And that’s not all. The 36-year-old graduate of Blake High School was also voted “Acoustic Guitarist of the Year for 2019” by the readers of England’s Music Radar.
So, yeah, world-class.
Monday, Oct. 25, 7:30 p.m. $30.50
Jaeb Theater at David A. Straz Center for the Performing Arts
1010 N MacInnes Pl., Tampa
“It’s an honor to be listed, and to stand among some of my favorite musicians on the planet,” she said in a phone interview from her home in Asheville, North Carolina. “I’ve put in a lot of hard work, and it pays off in different ways, but mostly from the sheer joy of playing music.”
Lenée transforms her steel-string guitar into a one-woman orchestra, employing an array of jaw-dropping skills that spray cascades of beautiful sound. She plays fingerstyle guitar, but that convenient genre tag doesn’t do her virtuosity justice. Lenée plays percussion parts with her feet, incorporates loops (but doesn’t overdo it), and is an expert in tap technique, where the right hand doesn’t just pick and strum but roams the fretboard in an elaborate dance with the left.
Lenée is trained in classical, jazz, the singer/songwriter tradition, and the Dave Matthews school of advanced-harmony rock. She’s not just a fretboard savant, but a gifted singer and songwriter, and regularly plays electric guitar in bands she leads. “There’s been this duality to my career,” she says. “I was mostly known as an innovative guitarist who happened to write songs and sing. Recently, I’ve been blending them—the guitarist and the singer/songwriter have in a sense become one.”
Lenée will perform at the Straz Center’s intimate Jaeb Theater on Monday, Oct. 25. She’ll be backed by versatile pianist and bassist Joe Cosas in a program that will showcase her songcraft, but, she promises, “There will be plenty of me going wild on the fretboard.”
In 2017, Lenée took first prize in the International Fingerstyle Guitar Championship, and her touring really took off. She’s performed in Australia, throughout the Far East, in several cities in China, and in Europe.
Lenée’s musical odyssey began at age 5 when she was part of a Tampa singing group called the Entertainment Revue. “The first time I performed they literally had to pick me up and carry me off stage,” she recalls. She started playing guitar at age 11, but didn’t get serious about it until her freshman year at Blake High School. There she heard one of the teachers, John Michael Parris, play a challenging Andrew York composition called “Sunburst” on nylon-string guitar.
Transfixed, Lenée decided that she would learn it. “I could’ve been one of those kids who came up and said, ‘Oh, Mr. Parris, I want to study guitar,” she says. “At first he said, ‘Oh that’s a very difficult piece; let’s start with something easier.’ I had to prove to him that I was serious.”
She conquered “Sunburst” over the summer, then performed it for Parris, the school’s director of guitar studies. “I have this thing about when someone says I can’t do something,” Lenée says with a chuckle. She committed to practicing classical guitar at least eight hours a day. It was her constant companion, even when she went out with friends. “They knew they had to make room for my guitar in the car,” she says.
Lenée heard the Dave Matthews Band during her junior year. In thrall, she acquired a steel-string acoustic guitar and learned to sing and play Matthews’ songs, as well as beginning to write her own. She matriculated at USF, where she studied jazz guitar and classical composition for four years.
Lenée dropped her pursuit of a degree and relocated to Philadelphia to get started on her career. In the ensuing years, she lived in Portland, Oregon, back in Florida, in Nashville and, for two years, alone in a cabin in Lake Lure, N.C., about 30 miles outside of Asheville. “I learned a lot about myself, played a lot of music,” she says about living solo. “It wasn’t total isolation, though. I would go into Asheville quite a bit.”
Lenée moved into town in September of 2020.
It was in the cabin that she wrote much of the material for her new album, a full-band, song-oriented effort titled Coming Alive, which is slated for release next Spring. Lenée is proud of the project, sees it as a breakthrough, adding with palpable excitement, “I had a friend listen to the rough mixes and tell me, ‘I have a feeling you’ve written some hits.”
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