Interview with Karen Haglof from Music to Medicine and Everything In Between

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Starting her music career in Minnesota at the young age of 19, Karen Haglof would later join forces with Steve Almaas (Suicide Commandos) and form punk rock trio The Crackers which ultimately moved to New York City. There she was introduced to the art-noise rock scene having the opportunity of playing with painter, sculptor and musician Robert Longo, composer and musician Rhys Chatham throughout the ‘80s, as well as other bands, and then as a guitarist in the early ‘90s for Band of Susans. That would be the last time Karen would perform as she left the music scene for a career in medicine.

Today, Karen is a hematologist/oncologist with the New York University Hospital. However, after a hiatus from the music scene, her love of music never waned and she was inspired to start writing and recording again after the death in 2009 of an old friend and mentor. And, after seeing the music documentary It Might Get Loud, she knew she had to play again. It was then that she picked up her guitar and started her journey toward what would become her debut solo album Western Holiday which she released last year.

And if a medical career and returning to her musical roots isn’t enough, Karen is also an artist and has artwork for each of her songs on Western Holiday.

Karen shares with us her early beginnings in music and musical inspirations, on becoming a physician, her artwork, and more. 

GGM:  A former member of noise rock band of the ‘80s and early ‘90s – the Band of Susans – as well as former guitarist with Rhys Chatham and several other bands, can you tell us a little about your background and how you got involved in the New York music scene?

Karen:  I grew up in Minnesota and started playing guitar when I was 14, taking lessons at a local music store. That led to picking up songs off the radio or from records. My first band experience was at 19, playing lead guitar in an almost-all girl rock cover band on the upper Midwest club and small ballroom circuit. When that band broke up, I gravitated to the Minneapolis independent music scene. I met Steve Almaas of the Suicide Commandos, left that band and formed the Crackers; I was on guitar, and the band moved to NYC. When the Crackers split up, the late great Tim Carr introduced me to the art-noise rock scene via playing with artist Robert Longo. Tim also introduced me to Rhys Chatham, and I toured and recorded with Rhys throughout the ‘80s. I met Robert Poss and Susan Stenger of the Band of Susans as they also played with Rhys. The Band of Susans was the last band I played in, in the early ‘90s.

GGM:  What was it like being a musician at that time and how did it shape who you are as an artist today?  

Karen:  I started jamming and playing rock music out and around in 1974. Being a woman rock guitar player felt like charting unknown territory, exciting and limitless. At the time, there were very few women in rock bands in the Midwest, other than singers. I remember seeing a local group Vixen in the mid-1970s, with Jan Kuehnemund on lead guitar, and she was the gold standard as far as I was concerned. My own first group was mainly a cover band, all women except a guy on rhythm guitarist in our main configuration. We played the Stones, Zeppelin, Iggy Pop, MC5, Chuck Berry, Runaways, the Kinks, girl-group covers, top 40 hits of the day; 4 sets worth of material a night. As a group and individually, we often fielded varying combinations of skepticism, condescension, admiration and encouragement from audiences and other musicians, and comparison generally implied with some male rock musician standard. There was plenty of “hey, you’re pretty good, for a girl….” earnestly stated, and sometimes “you suck, you just got the gig because you’re a chick…” hostility as well. Luckily we all had healthy egos and senses of humor and for the most part the negativity just didn’t touch us—we KNEW how cool we were. As the later ‘70s music scene in Minneapolis developed, and then during the ‘80s in NYC, being a woman player in my sphere was accepted as the norm. A certain aspect of the pioneer sense went out of it at that point, although plenty of frontier attitude remained as the material I’ve generally worked on and been interested in has not been too mainstream.

I think the early experiences shaped my determination not to be deterred from my own vision musically or artistically, and a desire not to sound like anyone but me, for better or worse. I am very glad to have gotten to play both very mainstream rock guitar, and independent and avant-garde as well along the way, and hopefully it all comes together in some interesting way in my material.

GGM:  You started playing guitar at 14. What got you started and who were your musical influences at that time?

Karen:  I decided to play guitar at about age 14 after my younger brother started taking guitar lessons at the local music store, and I did the same. Musical influences were top 40 radio and anything that could be played on an acoustic steel string in some sort of arrangement—anything and everything–a local band Crow that was getting airplay, the Animals, Beatles, Stones, Led Zeppelin, folk songs. I had a rotating parade of guitar teachers who were always filling in at the music store between gigs, and whatever my guitar teacher at the time was into, i.e. blues jams or jazz chord progressions or rock licks or whatever, was what I tried to learn. I might go in for a lesson one week having practiced the last week’s lesson, and have a completely new instructor show up, who would just start showing me something else! Very loose structure, not what you would call an organized curriculum. The first song I ever learned was House of the Rising Sun as done by the Animals, and the first single I ever bought was Ode to Billy Joe by Bobby Gentry.

GGM:  After your musical career from the ’70s through the early ‘90s, you were called to the practice of medicine as a hematologist/oncologist with the New York University Hospital. What inspired you to become a physician?

Karen:  It was part inspiration and part reality check—moving to NYC to play music led to the necessity of a day job to pay the bills. I had done guitar repair working in a music store in Minneapolis, but couldn’t seem to get that kind of job in NYC. So restaurant work paid the bills, and as may typically happen, by my mid-30s I was a restaurant professional who occasionally played music. I remember cooking brunch one weekend and realizing I didn’t want to be doing that in 10 years. So I went back to school. As an undergrad I was drawn to medicine, as it seemed ever changing, challenging and rewarding, personally and intellectually. Once in residency I knew I wanted to go into hematology and oncologic diseases, both for interest in the diseases and treatments, and the patient-doctor relationships in treating life-changing illness.

GGM:  As far as performing and recording professionally, it’s been quite a while. Did you always continue playing as a hobby?

Karen:  I didn’t play at all for 10 years. Then I saw the film It Might Get Loud and I remembered I was a guitar player, and couldn’t imagine why I was not playing! I started working in open D tuning, as it felt satisfying to play alone in that tuning, and I thought I’d probably never be in a band again. Then I started to write songs, and emailed my old Crackers mate Steve Almaas out of the blue for some advice, with a vague idea for a music project. He was interested in what I was doing; the project went forward from there with Steve producing.

GGM:  So the love of music never really left you, as now you’re back with the release last year of your solo debut album Western Holiday, which I understand has been a work in process for several years. Tell us about Western Holiday and the inspiration behind it.

Karen:  Western Holiday is a collection of songs inspired to some degree by my love of horses and riding the trails out West, in Arizona and Wyoming, and my musings about life and love. The songs were written after rediscovering guitar playing a few years ago, mainly in open D tuning—the one standard tuning song Won’t Wake Up To You is my favorite song from the Crackers, written by Steve Almaas. People, places and events from my travels out West inspired several of the songs. Another factor is my current profession. As an oncologist I see a lot of lives completely changed in an instant, and plenty of dreams undone, and putting this album together was personally about pursuing dreams and not putting them off. Stylistically I suppose it falls into indie rock genre, but there is some country, blues, pop and jangly noise to me as well.

GGM:  What music are you listening to today?

Karen:  I have always been a big fan of WBLS 107.5 FM radio here in New York City, urban contemporary, classic rhythm and blues and soul. When I am home that station is always on (as it is now while I write this!). Other than that I don’t follow anyone too closely right now.

GGM:  How do you balance your music with your profession as a physician?

Karen:  I wish I could say there was a balance! I feel like I’m always tipping over to one side or the other!  The doctor side is always there—caring for and about my patients’ and providing the best care in my power, which means always learning and trying to keep up with the literature. I try to stay attuned and open to my musical and artistic side now since starting to play again and getting Western Holiday out there. I try to pay attention to ideas as they come up, in whatever form, and get something down on GarageBand or paper.

GGM:  Besides music and medicine, you’re also an artist. What inspires your art?  

Karen:  The things I draw now are often based on ideas for songs, or become the idea for a song—I write some lyrics and get a picture in my brain of some related scene, and try to put it down on paper. Or the other way around.

GGM:  You’ve got a lot on your plate now, but what’s next for Karen Haglof?

Karen:  Western Holiday was a real accomplishment for me and fairly long in the making– partly due to the learning curve after being out of music for so long. But since Western Holiday, writing never stopped and I have a good bit of material in the works. I want to have album two out within a year. I would also really like to play live again, and it would be fun to make a video or two from Western Holiday. Plenty on the agenda considering what else I get up to all day. But trite as it may seem, I find more and more, if there is something you think you may want to do, try to get busy doing it.

For more on Karen Haglof’s music and art, visit her site HERE.

Cover Photo credit: John Haglof

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