By Jenny Neyman
With a bright voice and rich lyrics, Karissa LaRen’s music can evoke a sparkle of summer even in the darkest period of Alaska’s winter.
While she’s shining through a tour of Anchorage and the central Kenai Peninsula this week, opening for singer-songwriter Ernie Halter, back in her new home of Baltimore her music is nourishing in a whole different realm. She’s helping a green spaces initiative flourish, establishing gardens for schools so that students grow strong and healthy.
“The idea of wanting to be involved in my community and that giving back sort of humanitarian work was what I had always been into and what I was raised with. So when I started playing music and putting this record together I had my radar up for something that I could connect with and support through music,” LaRen said.
In recording her debut album, “We Are the Sounds,” releasing on iTunes on Dec. 12, she embarked on a fan-funded campaign to cover the costs of the album, so that sales of the record can go to the Parks and People organization in Baltimore, to create gardens at city schools so that kids have fresh produce to eat.
“I think probably having grown up in Alaska and growing up around lots of nature and what not, the draw to green spaces in the city is a big one for me. But more so it’s just sad — some of the elementary schools I visited, it’s not uncommon to see what once was a grocery store, or I hear constant stories about kids just living off of the corner store,” she said.
Friends who work with kids would tell her what a difference it would make if city kids just had some fresh, healthy food to eat. The mission of Parks and People is to do just that, and LaRen decided to support the gardens in schools project through sales of her album.
“It was a natural fit for me,” LaRen said.
Contributing to her fellow citizens, whether in her immediate community or beyond, is the larger natural fit for LaRen. She’s volunteered to help Hurricane Katrina victims of New Orleans, serve the HIV community in Baltimore, work with orphans of Liberia, and other endeavors. While attending the University of Alaska Anchorage, her focus had been on humanitarian aid, for which she made several service trips across the country. But it wasn’t until she found her niche in music that she discovered the way she could really bring her natural talents and interests into harmony.
She’s always had a musical inclination — “Mom said I was dancing in my diapers and that sort of thing, but (music) wasn’t something I did much,” she said.
She played in her church youth band, starting off on drums. She picked up the guitar as she started writing songs. But it was pursued as more of a hobby than a possible vocation. Then LaRen visited friends in Baltimore about two and a half years ago, and they proposed to have her share her songs with a music producer.
“And I said, ‘No, no, no, guys. I don’t want to do this.’ But I think, really, the second I stepped into the studio I just felt it to be a creative zone and I knew I wanted to be in there all the time making music. So that was the beginning of working on recording, and since then my dreams have very much been orientated around playing music, and that’s what I’m doing full time now,” LaRen said.
That first song was “‘We Are The Sounds,” which became the title track for her first album, being released this month. LaRen describes it as acoustic pop soul, and said her inspiration for the songs came from her recent travels.
“It’s just kind of been taking in my environment and sharing those stories. The main theme of the record is unity. It’s anywhere from, there’s a relationship song over a bad fight I’m trying to work through with those loved ones and the people that you’re just not going to give up on. To just traveling across the world for adventure, and seeing people that you love,” she said.
Completing the album and touring as it’s released, all to raise money for a community project she believes in, has been a culmination of her own hard work and the support she’s gotten from friends and fans.
“Honestly, it feels like just all my dreams are coming true, and not in a romantic way as much as I kind of was really stubborn about not letting anything else into my life and this being my main goal, so this feels incredible. It feels like I’ve worked hard on something and it’s happening. There’s a lot of opportunities ahead that I just have so much confidence now to go after and make the most of what’s happened thus far, and just make the most of the incredible support that so many people have shared over the last few years — not only friends letting me crash on couches at times but also everyone coming together to raise the money to make the album,” she said.
Touring with Halter has been icing on the already sweet experience of seeing her album through to
“I’m really excited about opening for Ernie Halter. He’s really, really great,” she said.
Halter, a singer-songwriter from California, currently based in Nashville, Tenn., debuted his first album, “Lo-Fidelity” in 2005, followed by “Congress Hotel” in 2007, a “Christmas” album in 2008, “Starting Over” in 2008, “Ernie Halter: Live” in 2009 and “Franklin and Vermont” in 2010. His songs have been heard on several TV shows, including “General Hospital,” “Cougar Town,” “Army Wives,” MTV’s “The Real World,” and Disney’s “Sonny With A Chance.” His song “Whisper” was sampled from in Burial’s 2007 album “Untrue,” and Justin Bieber covered Halter’s “Come home to me” in 2011.
LaRen and Halter will perform at 7 p.m. Thursday and Friday at Triumvirate Theatre in the Peninsula Center Mall in Soldotna. Tickets are $15, available at the door and in advance at the Triumvirate Bookstore in the mall, open noon to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays.