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Dreams Come True For Local Graphic Artists

Wednesday, September 8, 2010 | Dane Anderson |

Karen Chisholm is quickly rising above Austin’s sea of singer-songwriting talent with songs that range from addictive pop to dark, sensual blues to in-your-face rhythmic rock.

By day, Chisholm works as a graphic artist for companies like Westbank-based SmartDog Services. By night, she shimmers on stages from Cedar Park to downtown Austin, entertaining a growing crowd of enthusiastic fans. With a clear, sweet voice she is gaining a reputation for bringing life onto the stage – the good and the bad – full of the sound of being human.

Her music and lyrics drew in industry veteran Gretchen Barber, who books entertainment for Romeo’s.
“Her songs have melodies and pop sensibilities that stick around in my head,” Barber said. “People mostly have to like you first and then your music. Karen was different. She has true star quality. People are drawn to her right away.”
Others in the music business seem to agree. Chisholm’s original song, “Snow Globe” was recently selected as a top prizewinner in the Rockin’ Mom’s 2010 Songwriting Contest.

Respect in the business hasn’t come easy. Chisholm has been through a lot in her young life, and the color of that experience is in every one of her songs.

Raised by teenagers in Michigan, she found her own way in the world, landing in Texas as a young teen, putting herself through the University of Texas and developing a career in music and graphic arts. She has survived the suicide of friends and battled thyroid cancer. She balances motherhood, family and two careers. It’s all there in her songs – not the details, but the sound and the feeling and the hard-earned wisdom.

“All songs come out of some experience; it’s a way of processing,” Chisholm said. “I’ve always made up songs in my head as a way of dealing with how hard life can be sometimes – it’s like painting word pictures. It gets that thing inside of you out. When you are writing from your soul, a lot of times you can get down things that have been brewing around inside for awhile.”

In the 10 years since her husband, Robert, put a guitar into her hands, Chisholm has proven she has the writing and singing chops to be successful in a tough business and a gift for making music people love. Her first CD, the alternative collection “Random Year,” is set for release in October.

Chisholm has played and collaborated with a legion of well-known artists during her seven years of stage experience. Some of the names that filter across he CDs include Ramy Antoun of the Blackeyed Peas, Seal, Goldspot and Buckethead and AlphaRev’s Kate Mine, Katie Walsh, Dave Wiley, Tanya Winch and Brian Batch. She’s also worked with J.J. Placensio of Sixpence None the Richer and Plum; Elizabeth Wills, Jacob Hildebrand of Deadman; Sergio Andrade formerly of Lifehouse; Frank Favacho of Second Day Red, Jon Napier and Colin McDonald.

Austin music journalist Duggan Flanakin first noticed Chisholm when she was playing around town with some of Mandy Rowden’s students from Girl Guitar. Although Chisholm never participated in the program, she enjoyed sharing gigs with other female artists who entered their music careers a little later in life.

“Karen stood out,” Duggan said. “[It’s} her songs, yes, but more than the songs – it is her passion that turned me into one of her biggest fans. She is an artist, not a hobbyist, a woman whose songs lilt across the stage into the crowd and find resonance in the hearts of her listeners. It is the radiance in her face, which reflects the love in her heart [because] she is making contact, that makes her one of the town’s most beautiful people on stage.”
Robert gave Chisholm her first guitar right after her cancer diagnosis.

“I had been busy working and earning a living since I was 13,” she said. “After the cancer diagnosis, I realized that I needed to start doing stuff for myself.”

The moment she picked up that guitar, Chisholm began to write songs. She hasn’t stopped since. If she had her way, Chisholm would write music and sing from the time she got up in the morning until she went to bed at night.
“I’ve learned to respect the gift,” she said. “When something starts coming down, I grab whatever I can – a napkin, a scrap of paper – and I write it down. I process things during the day. Then, late at night, when everybody else is asleep, I start writing. I’m a slow writer. Sometimes, I stay up all night.”

During a recent interview for KOOP Radio’s “Writing on the Air,” Chisholm garnered new fans in show hosts Dillon McKinsey and Lee Davis. They like the way she takes the difficult things she has been through in life and uses them to connect to other people.

“It’s honest songwriting,” McKinsey said. “She writes into the pain, honors the pain. You can hear her processing through situations, and the hook lines seem to come to her. She has met the enemy, and she won.”
Chisholm doesn’t spend a lot of time bemoaning the bad things. She just learns from them, she said.

“I’ve been through so many things in my life,” she said. “At one point, I just had to begin to believe that there was something bigger than me.”

Learn more about Chisholm by visiting her online at her website, You can also catch her performing at Romeo’s on Sept. 18 or headlining Purple Stride in support of the battle against pancreatic cancer at the Hill Country Galleria on Sept. 25.