- Courtesy of Diana Chittester
A couple of years ago, local singer-songwriter Diana Chittester got wind that Fleming Artists, one of her favorite booking agencies, had sold and purged many of her favorite artists from its roster. Several of those musicians subsequently dropped out of music altogether.
Deflated, she thought that it was maybe a sign that she should pursue a different path and try to get full-time work as a music teacher.
“I did a workshop at Hathaway Brown [in Shaker Heights], and the entire experience was really good,” she says one afternoon over a cup of tea at Nature’s Oasis, a Lakewood grocery store/café that’s near her home. She performs at 8 p.m. on Friday, May 11, at the Beachland Tavern. “The things I missed the most were the community of people you work with. I play music with other people, but that’s different from the day-to-day of having coworkers. I had even called a few schools [about enrolling in education programs]. Musically, I was running out of fuel.”
She began to think that teaching had “more reason behind it,” but she became encouraged when she started showcasing to perform at regional performing arts centers.
“I saw there are people out there who are still doing good work, and they're people who don’t have to be celebrities,” she says. “That revived the whole thing for me. It’s such a positive thing.”
That energy drives the songs on Chittester’s new EP, Paradox
. Chittester says she initially started writing the songs after her last album, Find My Way Home
, came out in 2014. But she found that too many songs seemed to repeat the themes found on that album.
“[Paradox] took me a long time to write,” she says. “I learned that there’s a point where the ‘voice’ stops. I was writing about the same topics that were found on Find My Way Home.”
About three years ago, she wrote the tune “Freedom” on ukulele. She composed the track after being at a party and hearing her friends complain about feeling trapped in their jobs and lives. She then wrote “On My Own,” a simmering tune that, with its powerful vocals, recalls Tigerlily
-era Natalie Merchant, and the EP came into focus.
“As I was writing ‘On My Own,’ I realized that I was writing a personal testimony about what it was like to be not just an independent musician but any person pursing their own track,” she says. “For me, pursuing music put me on a different track than what most other people do. It made me feel left out, but I knew I couldn’t stop. I was in it, and if I did walk away, I knew everything I worked to build would crumble.”
After writing those two songs, she realized her viewpoint was rather paradoxical and started assembling a set of songs around that theme. She recruited Matt Troja (Keith Urban, Sara Evans and the Dave Matthews Band's Jeff Coffin) to produce the album and worked out of both Somewhere Studios in Euclid and Troja’s home studio in Willoughby.
“I originally thought Matt would just mix the album, but he politely told me that if I tried to do it on my own, it would be disastrous,” says Chittester. “We had a long conversation about ideas and how to approach the album. The most convincing thing he said was that he wanted to produce an album he’d be happy to put his name on. That’s what I needed — somebody who cares as much as me.”
A diverse album, Paradox
shows off Chittester’s musical range. The aforementioned “Freedom” includes some beefy B-3 organ riffs courtesy of local keyboardist Chris Hanna, and the title track includes both ukulele and a beautiful bit of cello — Sam Kristoff from the Speedbumps plays the cello on the song.
Some songs even have a classic rock feel to them. The classic rock connection stems from the fact that Chittester learned Heart’s “Crazy on You” while she was recording her album and realized what a challenge it was to play the song’s opening riff.
“[Heart guitarist] Nancy Wilson used the acoustic guitar in rock music, and Led Zeppelin inspired the songs too,” she says. “As a singer-songwriter, I get shoved into the Americana category, but I want to play acoustic rock, so I referenced those other bands.”
Chittester wrote the ballad “Thy Will Be Done” in response to “violence in America.” The song's distorted vocals really resonate and the song slowly builds in intensity.
"I felt really hopeless at the time, and it was a hard song for me to write,” she says. “We wanted something that best captures that emotion, so we made the vocals very lo-fi to indicate the underlying frustration and anger that a lot of us are feeling. There’s then an angelic part in the bridge.”
Album closer “Cry” was one of the hardest songs for Chittester to write.
“I sat with the chorus for a little while,” she says.
A student came up to her at a workshop and asked her for advice about coming out to his parents.
“The song is written with that in mind," she says. "It was a hard time for me. I came out to my family, and it was the main in reason I moved to Ohio. It was ten years of fighting and one of the hardest times of my life. Sometimes, you just need to cry. That was the message I wanted to send out.”
Because of the expense involved in recording, Chittester kept the release to six songs. She hopes fans will take the time to listen to each track and not just one or two tunes.
“I wanted each song to get recognized on the album,” she says. “And I really hope this album opens up new avenues for me.”
Diana Chittester, Olivia Martinez, 8 p.m. Friday, May 11, Beachland Tavern, 15711 Waterloo Rd., 216-383-1124. Tickets: $10 ADV, $12 DOS, beachlandballroom.com.