November 21, 2008

Little Runaway - Christina Dietz steals the show

High school couldn’t hold 18-year-old songbird Christina Dietz.

By Cristina Black

It’s not easy to get Christina Dietz on the phone. You have to time the call right, lest your ring get lost in the ceaseless sounds of her guitar practice, vocal exercises, and songwriting sessions. After all, the teenage troubadour spends at least seven hours a day on these activities, the amount of time that most people her age spend going to class.

But Dietz has lofty goals—“I want to sing like Ella Fitzgerald,” she declares when, at last, she takes a break—so she can’t spend her days on ordinary teenage activities. “I love Billie Holiday and Fiona Apple,” she continues, “all these great women singers, and I want to be on par with them.”

She seems to be well on her way. Her latest self-released album, Jailbird, is full of uncommonly mature tunes about adventure and romance. Ominous yet whimsical, Dietz’s songs delve into the concerns of wayward dreamers who fall in love too easily, like the narrators on “Let’s Just Kiss” and “Love in the Dark.” Whether they’re upbeat numbers or yearning ballads, her songs benefit greatly from her sultry voice: a smoky, sweet instrument that calls to mind jazz crooners of bygone days. Accompanied almost entirely by her own careful guitar work, the album is raw and technically imperfect, but wildly expressive and so rich with romance, it’s hard to believe it was made by a gal who’s barely reached voting age.

But it makes sense when you get to know her. A dark beauty with jet-black hair, snow-white skin and big eyes adorned with long eyelashes, which she is inclined to bat onstage, Dietz is a born showgirl. She figured that out when, at 14, she suddenly turned a bit of junior high poetry into a three-string guitar song. “I came downstairs and played it for my dad,” she recalls, admitting she was a “total bubble gum punk” at the time. “I can’t even tell you what the lyrics were,” she giggles. “It’s too embarrassing.” Before long, Dietz was writing songs she wasn’t shy about sharing, and somehow, that wasn’t cool enough at her school. “People were terrible to me,” she says of her time at San Clemente High, near where she grew up in Southern California. “I really didn’t fit in, and that’s how I knew it was time to take it on the road.”

So that’s what she did, busking everywhere from Venice Beach to Paris and Monument, Colorado, where she now lives with her parents (though she says moving back to Orange County is an immediate priority). Supported morally and financially by her father and manager, Carl Dietz, who has five other daughters, she graduated early via an independent study program and threw herself into music, “I never really looked back,” she says. “And I don’t feel like I’m missing out, because people in school are just partying or whatever. I could never find people my age I connected with.”

Instead, she found friendship with more mature folks. One such grownup is Hurley marketing rep Jodie Hillyard, who discovered Dietz playing at “the loop,” a park overlooking the ocean in San Clemente. Hillyard immediately signed Dietz up to be a Hurley Girl, providing clothes, promotion and performance opportunities that have helped expand her fan base. “High school couldn’t even handle her,” says Hillyard, “she’s just so far beyond that.” Another important adult ally is rock legend Jackson Browne. He too discovered Dietz when she was busking, this time in Venice Beach. “I didn’t even know who he was,” she confesses. “The other people watching had to clue me in.” Since then, the two have been pen pals and musical friends, sharing ideas about guitar tunings and songwriting.

While her elders offer advice and mentorship, Dietz draws much of her inspiration from travel, mainly to Europe, where she has spent weeks at a time bopping around, playing on the streets and meeting interesting characters in cafés and on trains. Several songs on Jailbird benefited from her continental adventures, including the sassy ‘Berlin Baby,” whose protagonist hops into bed with seven different men (“She’s a total skank!” says Dietz) and the mysterious, minor-key “Lullaby Liebchen.” Dietz’s prolific songwriting pace is partially the result of her obsession with the process. Though the self-proclaimed dork is tempted to go to college to study philosophy and writing, she realizes music demands her unwavering focus right now. “I take it really seriously,” she says. “Because I can’t imagine doing anything else.”