How Venice’s rough edges taught Cristina Vane to sing the blues
By Christina Campodonico
Slide guitarist and singer-songwriter Cristina Vane has known the lighter and darker sides of Venice. SoCal’s sunshine noir ripples through her music — a blend of folk and blues, angst and elation.
“The Driving Song” recalls a lonely journey down the 10 Freeway at night, gripped with self-doubt and foreboding. “Orange Grove Blues” casts a dark shadow over California’s iconic orange trees. “Sending All My Love” takes “a long drive down the 405” to relay a post-breakup message that, in the music video for the song, becomes a sun-dappled jaunt through Venice, its visuals radiating a hazy white glow.
If you haven’t heard of Cristina Vane from her local gigs at venues like the Townhouse, Zinque or Surfside, you may have seen her blue-tipped hair and signature silver resonator guitar on Instagram. Nearly 15,000 people follow @cristinavanemusic, where she’s documented her personal and musical journey since moving to Venice three years ago.
It hasn’t all been picture-perfect moments. Dysfunctional relationships with drug abusers, a boardwalk assault that destroyed her original prized guitar, a totaled car, and the cosmic indifference facing those who try to make a career of music have shaken Vane deeply, but they’ve also made her stronger.
“You can work really hard but never get noticed,” says the candid and feisty 25-year-old. “With the music industry, it’s a total crapshoot.”
Doubt and frustration tinge Vane’s speech, but she hasn’t given up on music yet. She’s actually just putting life in Venice on hold to embark on a DIY crosscountry tour in April, with destinations as far flung as North Dakota, Oregon and North Carolina over the next five months.
“I’ve always wanted to travel the States, because I didn’t grow up here,” says Vane, who holds an American passport but grew up mostly in Paris — her father an American financier, her mother a Guatemalan expat. “My dad would tell me about back when my mom and him weren’t married yet, they went to Montana and stayed with some cowboy. I’d hear about Yellowstone. I would hear about even Maine.”
For Vane, the road trip is partially a way to get to know her distant homeland, partially a way to connect with her fans, and ultimately a way to shift her music career into a new register, she hopes.
“I’m not married, I don’t have a boyfriend, I don’t have pets, I don’t have a job that requires me to really be here,” says Vane, who’s juggled part-time work at McCabe’s Guitar Shop and various odd jobs while gigging around Venice. “In general, maybe it is just time for a change anyway, in a professional sense.”
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If music wasn’t her chosen profession, Vane’s resume would probably land near the top of almost any job application pool. She speaks four languages, attended private schools in Paris, graduated from Princeton University and, once she puts her mind to something, it’s hard for her Type-A personality not to take over.
Since becoming enchanted by the blues, she’s developed an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the musical genre, expertly rattling off idols like Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt and Blind Willie Johnson during our three-hour hang in her rent-controlled apartment near the Venice Canals.
But it was Bach, not the blues, that initially got Vane into music. When she started playing the flute in middle school, she developed an almost religious obsession with the instrument and classical music, thinking she might like to go to a conservatory one day.
“Everyone’s like, ‘Oh do you play jazz and blues flute?’” she says. “I’m like, ‘Hell no!’ I didn’t mess around like that.
I was all about Bach.”
Around the same time, she also picked up the guitar — although less seriously — taking lessons with her brother and getting schooled in the Cranberries, Nirvana, Guns N’ Roses, Aerosmith and Dire Straits.
“At some point I think I realized all my idols were men, and all the music we were playing was male-dominated. I almost felt, not in a conscious way, but that I didn’t really belong and that it wasn’t something that I could pursue seriously. So I really dedicated all my time to the flute at that point and left guitar as a fun thing I would strum with my brother,” she says.
The guitar and the blues began to play a larger role in her life when she started gigging in London one summer during college — her dad’s place in the city offering a perfect crash pad.
“A couple places took me, and one in particular was a really cool spot in Camden that was called Proud,” she says. “I had weekly gigs there because the booker happened to be this really cool French girl. It was just a good scene.”
When guitarist Sam Green passed through one night, she became enchanted with his ability to play slide guitar on his lap.
“It was that kind of British neo-folk, like Mumford and Sons, kind of stompy, but poppy. It’s not actual blues, it’s not actual folk music from the States — at least the way we know it here. But it was so cool,” she recalls.
That led her to explore open tuning on her acoustic guitar, teaching herself to play slide and diving down the rabbit hole of blues history, discovering that some of her favorite songs from Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin and the film “Brother Where Art Thou” were created by bluesmen like Skip James and Blind Willie Johnson.
“I think that was the last time I listened to music past 1930, honestly,” she says.
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Like many transplants, it was the Venice’s funky and bohemian vibe that attracted Vane when she decided to move to L.A. to pursue music. That, and a certain level of nostalgia for the place.
A family visit to Venice Beach during high school — “I was those people I hate now, who take my parking and drive like idiots and don’t know where they’re going” — left a deep impression.
“I came out here and just thought it was such a cool place for the obvious and superficial reasons: the street art and the boardwalk’s kind of energy. I ended up talking to this kid. His name was Puck. He was a ‘traveler,’ which is a specific kind of homeless person, I would say. But I remember sitting next to him, just listening to his story, and it was a world away from …” she pauses, a little self-conscious about the rarefied and, yes, privileged world she grew up in.
She doesn’t want to sound like some sheltered kid, but at that point she was. She’s since gotten to know Venice in a way that few transplants, or even locals, ever do.
“The idea of someone running away from home because their situation was so bad, and getting into drugs and being on the road, that’s kind of what he relayed to me,” she continues. “And that was not romantic, but very foreign.
“So Venice just had an interesting place in my heart,” she concludes. “I ended up writing about him in my essay for Princeton. … I still have a little green Buddha that I got on the boardwalk. I had it with me through my SATs.”
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Yet the boardwalk doesn’t always bring back such rosy memories. Her time living in an apartment on Speedway after breaking up with a drug-addicted boyfriend comprises a dark chapter, she says.
“It was very toxic. I just felt that when you find yourself being able to point out who’s on heroin and who’s on meth and who buys from whom, because you know firsthand from someone who’s in that scene … I mean there were people screaming and diving into our dumpsters. Literally diving in there, screaming, thrashing, f**king, doing all this crazy stuff,” she says. “It was just weird Venice.
“My property manager was a total tweaker, like a really bad methhead,” she adds. “I know how to recognize them because I lived with one then dated another one after that like an idiot … this guy who lived in a van. … I kind of lost myself in the boardwalk, and it got to be a very negative energy.”
Vane eventually broke up with van dude and moved just south of the boardwalk, but “Troubled Sleep,” the title song on her EP, speaks to that tumultuous time — to her two ex-boyfriends, whose restless slumbers haunted her.
“Drug users have really troubled sleep,” she says. “They twitch, especially opiate users. You’ll know because they’ll be sleeping and do weird shit and wake up in sweats or have night visions if they’re doing meth.”
Another time, a transient accosted Vane while she was busking on the boardwalk and smashed a hole in her prized black resonator guitar.
“The whole wooden part was smashed; my headstock was broken. Everything was broken about my guitar. … So I picked it up and started hitting him with it. Full force. I was like, ‘Want to f**king break my guitar? F**k you.’ It was super intense,” she says.
But there was also kindness. A loyal fan and guitar maker heard about what happened and offered to make her a new instrument from the shattered pieces.
“It’s kind of a wall hanger,” says Vane pointing to the reconstructed guitar on her bedroom wall. “But it’s a great slide guitar if you’re not fingering anything. He stamped in ‘Vane.’ He put a blue heel here, because I love blue, and he put a California license plate.”
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When Vane released the full EP of “Troubled Sleep” last fall she was riding an emotional high, hopeful that the self-produced album would generate buzz — calls from producers and labels and agents — but the desired attention never came. By December her optimism had faded.
“It kind of went from cloud nine to cloud minus nine,” she says. “I was actually depressed, clinically. I couldn’t get out of bed. … I’m like, ‘What am I doing here? Pretending that I have something to say.’ And I just felt really shitty about myself. And I felt like I didn’t have what it takes.”
She shared her feelings of frustration and doubt with her fans in a raw and vulnerable post on Instagram that December: “I have not been feeling well, nor myself. … I am disillusioned with this industry and I feel defeated.”
But a flood of encouraging notes and comments came in, changing Vane’s tune and inspiring her to keep pursuing her dream.
“The response was really overwhelming in a good way,” she says. “Every medium that people could, they were reaching out. And for the most part these are people that I’d never met who were telling me things like, ‘My dad had cancer and he died and the song that you covered means so much to me.’ Or people saying, ‘I understand about challenges, too. I was diagnosed with a neurodegenerative disease. But I still love music so much, and what you do is so important.’”
Vane started thinking that what matters most about her music is its ability to inspire and connect others, which is why she’s hitting the road — to get to know her fans scattered across the country and pay homage to the nation that birthed the blues.
“You have to go to places where people appreciate this kind of music more,” she says, acknowledging that as a white woman playing the blues she has a duty to honor its roots. “You have to respect the tradition.”
A car accident this past February nearly derailed those plans — her car was totaled — but once again her fans came through, helping her to raise more than $1,300 on GoFundMe for expenses related to the crash.
Vane will be driving off in a replacement car after an April 3 show at The Townhouse & Del Monte Speakeasy and a semi-private farewell gig in Venice on April 13, but it’s her fans that truly keep her going now.
“[Success] will come if it’s meant to come,” she says. “And if it’s not, I have to be OK with just playing music for a lot of people who love it.”