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Carla Olson: Playing and Producing

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I first met Carla Olson and her band the Textones in the office of the LA-area ski resort Goldmine in the mid-’80s. The late, great drummer/singer Phil Seymour was in the band at that time and I was a huge fan of his as well. We were there bidding on DJ jobs, and they were there to set up for a gig that night. We got a real low-ball offer on the DJ gigs, but the band rocked as usual so the trip was well worth the drive.

The Textones never quite busted out of cult status – a crime against all that is holy – but Carla is back with a new disc, and has carved out a very successful second career as a record producer. The LA Times checks in on her today:

    The woman on stage has done this before. Carla Olson is no amateur, but at 50 she still looks just as she did back in the early ’80s as the celebrated leader of the Textones: blond hair long and straight, dark vest over a white shirt, a restless electric guitar in her hands.

    She is one of three guitarists crowding the stage at the Derby, where the dueling is overlapping but cohesive, at the place where the roots of rock, folk and blues meet. There is a bit of the Byrds now and then, but most of all the Rolling Stones, a sound raw and sophisticated, and a personal obsession since Olson’s days as a teenager in Austin, Texas.

    “I’m always headed back to Loserville,” she sings anxiously, with toughness and warmth. “I can’t stop, don’t think I ever will.”

    Olson and the band are gathered at the Los Feliz-area nightclub to celebrate the release of “The Ring of Truth,” her first album since 1994 and maybe the best of her career. The album is also a welcome showcase for ex-Rolling Stones guitarist Mick Taylor, a frequent Olson collaborator over the years and a major player too often missing from action.

    Just as important for Olson is that the long-delayed project marks a high point in a recent twist to Olson’s resume: her work as a record producer, somehow still a rare achievement for a woman, and the source of unexpected new forays into jazz and other styles.

    “This is our party, so I’m going to be as silly as I can be tonight,” Olson says from the stage. But silliness is not her specialty. Instead, it is a darker, muscular rock sound steeped in roots and “classic rock” radio.

    That lineage shows clearly on “The Ring of Truth,” which was completed last summer. Olson’s title song is the kind of thoughtful ballad on age and rebellion that could easily fit into the repertoire of a Jackson Browne or Bonnie Raitt.

    It’s been a long time in the making. There have been regular club shows and overseas trips between production gigs, all of which have helped keep the bills paid. But Olson acknowledges that her career as a recording artist was largely “waylaid” over the last decade.

    “I haven’t had a record deal in a long time,” says Olson, who lives in Studio City with her husband and longtime manager, Saul Davis. “And keeping a band together is really tough. When you get older and you get families and people to support, it’s not easy to keep a band together. And I like playing with the same people.”

The Ring of Truth is super and fans of female roots rockers from Lucinda Williams to Marti Jones should listen up. The songs are memorable and tight, Olson’s voice is strong throughout, and ex-Stone Mick Taylor sounds as great on bluesy lead guitar as ever. She still looks great, too.

And don’t forget her production work:

    “It’s a very good album,” says Taylor, speaking from his London home. “Once she sent me the finished album, I was really surprised with how bright and powerful and sparkling the production was. She’s learned to become a very good producer.”

    Olson first began serious work in that capacity in 1997 for singer-actress Mare Winningham. In the years since, she’s recorded a wide range of styles, from elegant jazz and blues with Phil Upchurch to some rowdy Texas guitar heroics with Jake Andrews.

    “It was very easy because she is a musician and knows how to relate to musicians,” says Upchurch, whose well-reviewed “Tell the Truth!” was Olson’s first jazz project. “I’ve worked with producers who have no idea how to communicate with a musician. With her, the communication was always dead-on.”

    Sipping coffee at the Bakery, the North Hollywood studio where she does most of her work, Olson says she aims for that same raw spontaneity on all of her productions. “Things that are impromptu can be so fresh,” she says. “I really like working like that. I like that kind of pressure. It brings out the best in me and the best in my players. Flying by the seat of your pants, you know!

    “I’ve tried to develop a relationship with the performers where it’s not an adversarial relationship,” she adds. “I’m here to help. I’m not going to tell you what to do. And most of the people I’ve worked with have a real sense about themselves. They know what they want to sound like. And I need to help them get there.”

    Olson’s attitudes are little different from when she arrived in Los Angeles from Texas in 1979. And she isn’t going to change now.

    “Look at me,” she says with a laugh. “Long hair. I’ve been wearing cowboy boots all my life. I’m just what I am. I can’t be trendy.”

And back to the late Phil Seymour: he was Dwight Twilley’s partner on the classic ’70s albums – some of the greatest power pop ever recorded – and his first solo album is a lost exemplar of power pop-leaning new wave. The available hits collections of both Seymour and Twilley are well worth having.

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About Eric Olsen