“Local Singer/Songwriter Throws Self to Wolves, Is Eaten Alive.” That could’ve been the title of my 2005 interview with Christa DeCicco, a shy songstress who’d recently been dipping her toes in the shark-infested waters of local open-mic nights. Her voice—a precocious, velveteen purr—was pretty, no doubt. But was it a worthy opponent for the cruel, cold world?
I can still see her sitting across the table, clutching a mug of herbal tea the size of her head, cautiously feeling her way through each question. She told me of her dreams, but all I could see were daisies sprouting forth from a sidewalk crack, waiting to be trampled. Part of me wanted to scoop them up and repot them somewhere else. Like Narnia, or at the very least Asheville.
As it turns out, no transplant was necessary. Over the past four years, the 28-year-old nightingale has had no difficulty carving out a place for herself and her band, Christabel and the Jons, in the local music scene. DeCicco attributes their success, in part, to Knoxville’s fertile soil.
“I really don’t think I’d be where I am if I’d started the band in any other city in the U.S.,” she explains. “There’s a non-competitive vibe in Knoxville that’s really unique and very encouraging. People tend to really care about each other and support each other.”
Bandmates Jon Whitlock (percussion), Seth Hopper (violin, trumpet, mandolin), and Milly Cavender (upright bass) complement DeCicco’s voice with jazzy, vintage-inspired arrangements. Their new album, Custom Made for You, would sound at home on a 1930s phonograph or in a juke joint crammed with swing dancers in saddle shoes and suspenders.
DeCicco, who once suffered from stage fright, now seems perfectly at home in front of the microphone, usually outfitted in an antique dress and gloves. Since our last interview, she’s had her long, tangled locks cut into a smart, sassy bob that suits her confident stage presence, and she’s no longer afraid to let her personal life leak into her lyrics.
“I think you can see from listening to the new album where I’ve been the last year,” DeCicco explains. “It’s really honest, personal. I just kind of wrote what I knew, what’s been going on in my life.”
Bravery is a prerequisite when you decide you want to perform music for a living. In her former life, DeCicco was self-employed as a landscape designer and gardener. As the band demanded more of her time and energy, she finally opted to lay herself off. “To make the band my first priority was a weird transition, a leap of faith,” she recalls.
The romance of becoming a full-time musician came to blows with the reality of her new occupation soon enough. “When I was still going through that bright-eyed, bushy-tailed phase, we’d get a show in Colorado and get in the car and go out there and make $70, which doesn’t even cover gas,” she says.
These days, the band sticks closer to home, only touring states that are adjacent to Tennessee—even if it means turning down a gig somewhere more glamorous, like New York. “We’re making better decisions now,” DeCicco says. “People who are creative are sometimes not business-minded—they’re two different halves of the brain. We’ve struggled as a band, keeping both sides healthy and working.”
Even today, the wolves are never far from DeCicco’s heels. But the band has found that as long as it keeps moving forward it can keep the hard times at bay. “It takes a lot of organizing, a lot of money. There have been times when I’ve gotten depressed over it, not sure where to turn. But it’s always turned around. It’s always gotten better,” DeCicco says.
She has a laundry list of people and programs she credits for Christabel and the Jons’ success: her booking agent Virginia Prater, radio station WDVX, and the Knoxville Swing Dance Association, to name a few.
“I’m really proud to be from Knoxville,” DeCicco says. “When we play a show, I always say, ‘We’re blah-blah-blah from Knoxville, Tenn.’ And there’s always one person who claps. No matter where we are, there’s always one person from Knoxville, or someone who went to UT, or who has parents in Maryville.”
But the band itself deserves the lion’s share of credit, for sticking it out and putting its music where its mouth is. “I’m proud of where we are now,” DeCicco says. “I’m happy. I feel like we’ve grown gradually, and we’ve kind of done it all ourselves. We’re not in debt, we don’t owe some record label a bunch of money—we don’t even really want a record label.”
She hesitates, reconsiders, and revises her last statement. Her voice underscored with the lofty resolve that got her here in the first place, she adds, “OK, maybe someday.”