By Noah Hubbell
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Kristina Ingham was in the Austin, Texas, airport a few years ago, waiting for a flight to somewhere or other with her guitar slung over one shoulder. Three fashion-conscious, almost-teenage girls ran up to her and shrieked, "Are you Sheryl Crow?" "I was like, 'No I'm not,'" says Ingham. "This one girl just looked at me -- she couldn't stop staring at me -- and she said, 'Are you sure?'"
It's easy to see how the autograph-seeking youngsters mistook the Boulder singer/songwriter for the pop superstar. At first or even second glance, she's pretty much a dead ringer for Crow circa The Globe Sessions, with tousled curly long hair, a petite frame and girl-next-door natural good looks. When on stage -- which she's been a lot since last April, doing gigs in venues ranging from an Evergreen tavern to a Costa Rican disco -- she exudes a veteran presence. Yet once she starts playing, the similarities to Crow cease. Tiny enough to be almost dwarfed by her guitar, Ingham (who performs under her first name only these days) masters the instrument with a hard-rocking skill. Though her vocal style is often sweet, almost angelic, her playing is gritty and down and dirty. This is not your typical "pretty girl" music.
Tommy Nahulu, Ingham's unofficial manager and president of the local music advocacy group LMNOP Colorado, was among those who recognized that star quality when he first saw her perform last June at the Mercury Cafe; Ingham was on a bill that included some familiar local female folkies, namely Wendy Woo and Melanie Susuras. "I was pretty much blown away," Nahulu says. "I see a lot of new acts, and very rarely am I taken by everything. Usually it's the sound or stage presence that gets me, or the way that the crowd reacts, but at this show, it was really everything. Kristina is dynamic; she has a sense of maturity and passion, and she performs like she's been doing this for years."
Ingham actually has been playing for years, though you were unlikely to catch her act a few years back -- unless you hung out with religious types in Texas. She began her career singing in a Houston Baptist church choir during high school. She'd joined the church so that she could hang out more with her best girlfriend; the choir director, however, realized she could sing, and Ingham was soon elevated to soloist status. Eventually she hit the golden road deep in the heart of Texas (and all of its other parts) with choral director Darryl James, singing Amy Grant-penned tunes such as "El Shaddai" for myriad congregations. "Believe me, there's plenty of work in Baptist churches in Texas to stay busy," says Ingham.
Though she found success within it, Ingham eventually quit the singing-evangelist circuit, primarily because she wasn't a Christian, she admits. But she credits the church-based gigs with helping her gain a handle on performing in front of large crowds. "In some of these churches the show was televised, and there were as many as 4,000 people in the congregation -- it was just humongous," she says.
Ingham traded one type of crowd for another when she moved to New York City in the mid-'80s, where she studied radio and television communications at Hunter College. She took a break from music, focused on her studies, worked as a waitress in a Mexican restaurant in order to help pay for school, and felt, at times, like life was passing her by. Then, one night during her last year of school, she took a fateful ride in a Big Yellow cab. Ingham struck up a conversation with the cabbie -- a good-looking guy who, she discovered, was a self-made musician of sorts. "He passed some headphones back, and it was his own original stuff, and I just flipped out," she says. "I thought, 'Oh, my God, he sounds like Michael McDonald, but better -- in a rock way.' I fell madly in love with him, quit school, hung out with him, and he taught me how to play guitar. He'd been writing songs for so long, and I hadn't really written any songs, so I got to hang out with somebody on a day-to-day basis and watch the process of him just kind of work it out, and I was like, 'Oh, I can do that...' And then -- boom."
That little musical explosion -- which basically led Ingham to the realization that she could write, not just perform, music -- led her and her former cabbie boyfriend out West. On the way to L.A., the pair stopped in Boulder to visit Ingham's sister, who enticed them just to "stay and chill out" (as Boulderites are wont to say). They stayed. They chilled. And though they parted ways, she's been there since.
In the early '90s, Ingham first paid her dues in a hippie band known as Funky Blue, and then later with a group called Wall of Windows. The Windows sound was progressive guitar rock, but Ingham found life as the so-called lead singer somewhat difficult. "It was a band with a female trying to sing in there somewhere," she explains. "The music was full and crazy and progressive, but there really wasn't anything to sing on top of it except for things like 'oop' and 'wa.' Guys in the band would say, 'I wrote a new song for you,' and it was an instrumental piece. Now that I look back, it was really comical."