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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."
As silly as her role in the band may have seemed to her, Ingham's contributions to Windows managed to catch the ear of fellow musician Brian Nevin, now best known as the drummer for Big Head Todd and the Monsters. Nevin currently plays drums on The Sun I Built in You, Ingham's CD-in-the-making (a five-tune CD sampler can be purchased at her shows), and he has also played some local gigs as part of her band, when he's not out touring with the Monsters. Like Nahulu, Nevin has seen his share of top-rate talent across the country, and he's got a lot of good things to say about this particular Boulderite. "I like the fact that she rocks, that she's got a rock-and-roll attitude," he says. "Her music affects me the way Pat Benatar's music did (though it doesn't sound the same), in the classic-rock, big-chord, epic rock-ballad way. There's not a lot of female musicians in that niche."
Thematically, Ingham's music deals primar- ily with the most basic of emotions: love and the struggles of life. Holding a mirror to a musician's life in "Race," she delves metaphorically into how "disposable" a person can be if she can't bring a profit to someone: "They say this horse may never ride again/Broke his leg therefore he can't win/And we all do play/For we don't believe in your pain." Though she is prone to unabashed, rock-based guitar playing, many of Ingham's tracks have a dreamy kind of quality, like the mellow "Did I Lie," a song that describes the ups and downs of a relationship. Kicking off with a simple military-esque drumbeat from Nevin, the tune unfolds with guitars reminiscent of the Cranberries or even the Sundays as Inhgam sings about a "magic carpet ride" of love that her beau is trying to push away.
In 1996, Ingham was fixing to take her own magic ride. She was slated to release her major-label debut, a solo effort, on Relativity Records, a company under the Sony umbrella. After she'd recorded nearly half the songs for the CD, and just as she was shopping around for a producer, Relativity went all urban and shipped its rock department to Epic Records, whose execs told Ingham they needed time to "figure some things out." Crestfallen after coming so close to finishing up her first major release, she took some time off and went to Hawaii. Shortly thereafter, she became pregnant, which took her life temporarily into "another dimension," as she explains it. Six months after the birth of son Tiger, now four, Ingham was back on the coffeehouse and local music circuit, playing solo. "I knew that I was serious about my career, getting back in shape and back into writing and getting my voice," she says.
In searching for that voice, Ingham knew she wanted to get a band together, to help round out her sound and bring out the rock qualities of her songwriting. She joined up with some fellow local musicians, but finding the right combination of players took a while. "I did form a band, but it was just with a group of friends," she explains. "People liked what they heard, but it wasn't anything unique. To have any endurance or to make any impression, you need that certain magic"
Ingham found the right combination of elements when she hooked up with Todd Ayers (formerly of Twice Wilted, now of Antelope), who helped arrange, produce and play on her CD. An admirer of his music for years, Ingham views Ayers as a role model and mentor of sorts, and she credits him in part for her musical success today. "Todd, to me, embodies a [complete musician], with his music and his playing. So it makes logical sense -- if you hang out with somebody, they rub off on you. And I stole some of his cool chords," she says with a giggle.
While she works on those cool chords, and finishes up the CD project that seems to linger on, and continues to shop her sound to national groups as they come through town, Ingham is at peace with herself musically -- despite the occasional anxiety attack that the big break hasn't boomeranged back her way. "Ideally and philosophically, there was a place that I wanted my music to resonate from and that I wanted to come from as a person," she says. "When somebody writes a script for a movie, they have certain actors and actresses in mind for the roles, because they know the combination of the words and the intentions mixed with this person's vibe would just make it all come to fruition and [be] real. That's a really good analogy for the reason why my music is working, because it's something that I've been cultivating for years."