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"I got a feel for what it meant to play music with people, and the blues made it really easy to do that," Guillen says. "It's easy to just pick up and start jamming with someone. Those years were invaluable."
Fast-forward a decade and a half, and Guillen is making use of everything she has learned. In January, her band — Katy Guillen and the Girls, with bassist Claire Adams and drummer Stephanie Williams — traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, to compete in the 30th Annual International Blues Challenge. Of the 255 acts vying for the prize, Katy Guillen and the Girls — the only all-female band — placed fourth.
"The final was at the historical Orpheum Theatre," Guillen says. "I mean, they filmed part of Walk the Line there. Getting to that point, that was by far the biggest stage we've ever played on and the biggest crowd we've ever played for. And the sound inside the theater was unlike anything we've ever played. It was kind of a landmark moment for us."
Not bad for a band that has logged just a year and a half together, with only a three-song EP to its name. ...And Then There Were Three doesn't push past the 15-minute mark, but it explodes with feral rawness. If Katy Guillen and the Girls were an animal on your street, you'd double-bolt your door at night.
Guillen herself is nothing but tame. She apologizes for rambling, for sounding awkward. She doesn't ramble much, and she's not all that awkward. She's just one of those artists more comfortable onstage, roaring into a microphone, than telling someone in a midtown coffee shop where her talent comes from and where her music is going. I ask her about the state of folk, and she looks around the room, perhaps hoping to find an answer hanging on the menu.
"When I think of folk ... it's a pretty overarching genre," she says. "I still think of it as a pretty traditional singer-songwriter style, one of America's simplest forms of music, but the most acceptable and, I think, one of the most rooted forms. I feel like I play folk music naturally, when I'm at home, just playing my guitar or my banjo. I relate to it."
A little more than a year ago, Guillen quit her day job to focus entirely on music. This, she says, has been her best decision.
"I've never been at the stage in my life where I've had this much control over my career and my time," she says. "I get to do what I love to do on pretty much a daily basis, which is play music with a lot of different people."
A Katy Guillen and the Girls record is in the works. The band has plenty of material, and demand for its time is only growing
"Really, we're just going to keep moving forward," she says. "The only plan that I've ever had for us is just to keep playing shows."
Katy Guillen and the Girls play at 10:15 p.m. Wednesday, February 19, on the Pershing West Stage.
In person, Connor Leimer comes across as your average high school student. He's tall and lanky, with a fresh face and a wide, easy smile. He trusts easily. His tender 17-year-old heart has yet to be split open by life.
That's fortunate — at least for the rest of us — because we wouldn't have his excellent debut EP, Like It's June, if not for that ingenuous, youthful spirit.
Leimer, a Blue Valley North High School junior, has been writing songs for the guitar since seventh grade, but he composed most of the EP's five tracks last summer. Leimer was part of the Grammy Museum's 2013 Music Revolution Project, a four-week summer school of sorts for teens interested in developing their craft. There, Leimer met fellow artists Hank Wiedel, Blair Bryant, Haley Ryan and Brandon Thomas, all of whom appear on June.