In this edition of Listen Local, we bring you singer-songwriter, folk artist, traveler and intrepid performer Una Walkenhorst. Walkenhorst released her first album, Scars, last year, a product of six years of intensive work and development of her craft. For the almost the past year Walkenhorst has been on a tour of the U.S., which she discusses in the following interview she graciously made time for. Fans of Laura Marling, Conor Oberst and Angel Olsen will find much to like in her music. Learn more about her creative journey and listen to some songs from Scars below.
Please introduce yourself. Where are you from? Where are you currently? Describe your music.
My name is Una Walkenhorst. I was born and raised in midtown Kansas City, Missouri. At this specific moment, I am in a motel in San Diego, preparing for a gig at Lestat's West. However, when you read this, I will most likely be somewhere else. I change cities every week or so, exploring everything I can.
Describing my music is a bit tricky at this point for me, because everything I've released was recorded over a year ago. "Scars" was an accumulation of songs from many, many years. I wrote the song "Traveler" when I was 15. I wrote many of the other tracks when I lived in Brooklyn.
That first album was definitely a bit more upbeat and, in my opinion, a little less sophisticated than the material I've been working on. I am very proud of "Scars", but I have taken in so many new places and experiences in the past nine months that it doesn't quite seem relevant to me anymore.
I think my new songs are a bit heavier. They're more than just poems about silly boys who broke my heart. They're about things that are really important to me. They're about feminism and mental illness and learning to completely own who you are. I'm really looking forward to start slowly releasing some new stuff.
Tell us about your first album, “Scars.” How long was it in the making? How and where was it recorded? What did you learn from this experience?
"Scars" was technically "in the making" since I was 15. I was writing songs long before I actually started playing for people. I decided to use some of the early stuff like "Traveler" and "Wooden Man", along with some of the newer material I had written at the time. I put the album out shortly after I turned 21, so I guess that album was created slowly over a period of about six years.
As for the process… I honestly remember very little of it. At the time I was recording, I was working about 70 hours a week trying to raise money for my tour. I also tried out crowdfunding, not knowing how incredibly generous friends, family, and complete strangers would be.
On days off my dad and I would sit down for a few hours and churn out track after track. It was really simple. A mic, my acoustic guitar, a few other little things added in. It was really fun getting to work with my dad on something that he had raised me to love.
Last year you embarked on a U.S. tour in support of “Scars.” How did that tour go? What were the highlights and lessons learned?
I quit my job in June of 2014 and on July 8th, I got in my 97 Honda Civic and just started driving. I knew the route I was taking, but I honestly had no idea what I was doing. I went to Chicago, across to the east coast, through Canada, down through Colorado and up to Seattle. Then I worked my way down the west coast, across the southern border, and back up into Nashville. That first leg was five months. It was amazing. I came back to KC through Thanksgiving and Christmas, then headed back out at the end of December. I've been going at it nonstop since then, basically taking my last route backwards.
As far as memorable events… I can't even begin to describe how chaotic and magical and terrifying it has been. I have met amazing people, stayed in insane places, and learned so much about myself and the world around me. I opened for Happy Traum and John Sebastian in Woodstock, stayed in what was essentially a Canadian art commune in Montreal, and drove across multiple states with an infected kidney. I fell in love with the west coast, I walked through the Redwoods, and I saw dolphins and whales on the beaches of Santa Cruz. I explored dozens of hostels, I slept in my car, and I took in as much as humanly possible.
Describe your songwriting process. How do you move through creative blocks? Who and/or what most inspires you?
My writing process has come to the point where I can't have a ritual or a pattern that I follow anymore. I never know where I'm going to be, I seldom have a quiet place to write, and things are constantly moving. I've had to become more flexible with the way I write. I record audio in my car, just rambling random ideas. I've kept a journal religiously for 9 months. I write every day, even if it's just a few scrawled lines or a string of words that stuck in my head.
What other Kansas City area songwriters, bands and musicians would you like to give a shout-out to?
I have a complicated relationship with the Kansas City music scene. I never got into much local stuff. I never played locally. I didn't really get into the it, if only because I felt that I would be cheating. I grew up with my dad always playing around town. Everyone knows him. Everyone knows I'm his daughter. I knew that people would do me favors because of that, which was very nice, but I didn't want that kind of attention. I wanted to get gigs because I worked hard and was a good musician. So, I basically spent all of my time in Kansas City cooped up in various apartments, writing as much as I could so that I could head out on my own. So… can I make a shout out to my cat instead? #MrBaby4Life
Upside Down Mountain by Conor Oberst
One of my favorite albums of all time. Fantastic songwriting, great production. Since starting my tour in July, I have probably listened to this album 100 times.
Just Kids by Patty Smith
Amazing and inspiring book. Patty Smith is a hero of mine because she is truly herself. That really comes across in this memoir. Sitting down with this book felt like I was just sitting with a friend who had incredible stories to tell.
Another story of a strong woman who is not only a creative genius, but also one of the most genuine people I have ever seen. This movie is fascinating.
Burn Your Fire For No Witness by Angel Olsen
Really, if you listen to any album by Angel Olsen, you won't be disappointed. Out of St. Louis, she is - in my opinion - a strange cross between old time folk music and punk rock. You will never hear a voice that sounds like hers.
Beautiful movie starring Maya Rudolph and John Krasinski. The story of two expecting parents trying to find their place in the world, I recommend this movie constantly. You will go through about 15 different emotions during this film, so get ready.
As a disclaimer, this movie is not a true story. It is supposedly based on the life of Dave Van Ronk, but after meeting multiple people who knew him, I've been told it is an incredibly inaccurate depiction of his character. REGARDLESS, this movie was one of the main reasons I started recording and set out on this crazy endless tour of mine. It gave me the last bit of inspiration I needed to get up and start my music career. I saw this movie in February of 2014 and by July, I was on the road.
Rumors by Fleetwood Mac
This will always be one of my favorite albums. It was one of the first records I owned on vinyl as a kid and it is basically the soundtrack to my life.