By Noah Hubbell
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As the sun sets and "apres-ski" begins at Acoustic Coffee and News, a snug hippie haunt in Nederland, clumps of snowboarders drag in and mix with other flannel-wearing Boulder refugees. It's pretty typical as such scenes go--mellow people with stringy hair and baggy clothes serving coffee, the hiss of steam frothing milk--but one thing's different. People are actually listening to the solitary guitar player strumming for them, rather than merely acknowledging her as a backdrop for journal writing, card playing and cawfee tawk.
Clearly, Karen Capaldi, a silky-voiced singer-songwriter from Denver, isn't easy to ignore. Her songs and her crisp, energetic guitar work immediately bring to mind Shawn Colvin minus the little-girl affectations. And her material is compelling enough to make even the most determined java devotees take notice.
According to Capaldi, "I'm not really folk, not necessarily rock. I guess it's just contemporary folk--acoustic music. [But] I tend to bend the lines a bit." True enough. On her first CD, Mind in a Box, Capaldi treads upon familiar broken-hearted ground but leaves the woman-as-victim theme for others to explore.
To bring Mind to fruition, Capaldi borrowed money from her dad, invited performers close to her to play electric guitar, drums, bass and strings and asked pal Matt McCain to produce it. "I think the fact that all the musicians were my friends shows through," she notes. "There's a comfort in the music, and because the musicians really know me, the quality is high. It was so great having a friend produce for me--because I could have the final say."
Among those impressed by the results were representatives of Fearless Productions, a film company in Atlanta; they chose to name a movie slated for February release after one of Capaldi's compositions, "Change the Frame." That song, as well as several others from her disc, are part of the picture's soundtrack. Capaldi also received recognition at the 1994 edition of the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival, where she was the only Colorado finalist in a national troubador contest. More recently, another of her tunes, "My Town," was released on a sampler disc called American Streets & Cafes Volume II.
Playing guitar and writing songs has always been therapeutic for Capaldi. As the middle daughter of three girls growing up on a farm in Port Norris, New Jersey, she would escape into her music when things got tough. At first, however, learning to play the guitar wasn't her top priority: "I took lessons for five months, but they were on a Tuesday night. And that was TV night for Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley. So I bought a few books and taught myself."
She also absorbed a lot of Top 40 radio. Her influences may not be hip by current standards, but she lists them with pride. "When I started listening to James Taylor, Carole King, Dan Fogelberg and Loggins and Messina, something happened," she insists. "There's just something substantial in that music. And for me, the other music seemed like noise."
Capaldi moved to Boulder in 1984 and received a degree in environmental conservation from the University of Colorado five years later. Upon her graduation, she relocated to Vail, working at a nature center in the summer and teaching skiing in the winter. "I was pretty content," she remembers. "I was outside all the time, but I had to work three jobs just to make ends meet. That seemed really silly--so I started playing music." After several years of performing, she returned to the Front Range in early 1994, shortly after completing her debut CD.
Of course, Capaldi doesn't want Mind to be her only recording: That's why she's packed up her Jeep and hit the ski-town-and-coffeehouse circuit. When the snow melts, she plans to haunt folk get-togethers such as this summer's Apple Farms Folk Festival in New Jersey. "I'm at the stage now where it's important for me to get my music to people," she explains. "I need to get in my car and go to the coffeehouses and cafes and play."
That's not always easy. "Most of the songs I put on my CD were written in '92," she continues. "A lot has happened since then, and sometimes it's hard to connect with some of those songs." Fortunately, many of the tracks on Mind have stood the test of time. "Martyr of This Dance," for example, embraces the strength that comes from lust. "You can't have the love unless you have the lust part first," she likes to tell her audiences.
Still, Capaldi is eager to take an artistic step forward. "My songwriting has gotten bolder," she asserts. "I don't want people to put me under their thumb or to label me. I want to throw a wrench into the system and write songs that linger in people's heads. And my guitar playing is getting better, fitting the lyrics in my songs.
"Someone asked me why I play music," she concludes. "I said it was for the horror of it all. There's something frightening about going up there all by yourself, and at the same time, it's addicting."
The same could be said of the music of Karen Capaldi.