Authenticity: Kristina Jacobsen of The Merlettes
by Shelby C. Berry
“I’m a big believer in your journey being about doing what others can’t and living authentically. Songwriting, travel, and mindfulness are those things for me, and it’s all about linking them. It feels like, particularly with songwriting and touring, that it’s something that feels authentically me,” said New Mexico-based singer-songwriter Kristina Jacobsen.
Kristina combines honky-tonk and classic country with western, Americana, and roots creating meaningful music inspired by the places she’s been. Spending time in Norway, Italy, and the Navajo Nation and being fluent in multiple languages across the world led to Kristina’s impeccable talent of putting pen to paper to create the most beautiful and honest songs about the human experience.
The deep understanding Kristina feels for playing music, specifically her lap steel guitar, and the experience of touching people with a perfectly written melody didn’t only come from her time and experience in other countries and with different cultures. From a very young age, she taught herself how to listen well, harmonize, and sing along with her father, a folk musician in her hometown in western Massachusetts.
Kristina, now a multi-instrumentalist, began playing her first note on the flute in the fourth grade. She moved on to the guitar a few years later when her dad bought her one from a local pawn shop. Later, she learned the nylon string guitar, the steel-string acoustic guitar, the lap steel guitar, and even a touch of the dobro.
“Growing up, I wasn’t allowed to watch TV or listen to country music, but when I went to college, I fell in love with The Judds and their tight harmonies. I loved the feeling and the vivaciousness of country music,” said Kristina. “I was majoring in classical flute, so the music I was listening to and the music I was playing couldn’t have been further apart. After college, I moved to Chicago and started taking lessons in songwriting and the lap steel guitar, and I never really looked back.”
But it wasn’t her time in college listening to The Judds that led Kristina to her love of music and storytelling—it was studying the language of the Navajo people.
Visiting Navajo Nation territory and falling in love with the people and the community led to a post-graduate job for Kristina as a radio deejay – learning a new language in a completely different environment while submerging herself into the world of country music.
Kristina later found herself at Duke University in North Carolina, studying for her master’s degree and writing her dissertation on a Navajo country-western band. With this study, her research was to perform and tour with them across Navajo Nation.
This same dissertation eventually became a book that Kristina released in 2017 titled The Sound of Navajo Country: Music, Language, Diné Belonging.
Finding her place as a singer and songwriter, Kristina performed with her band while living in North Carolina and brought The Merlettes to life.
Named for the warm voice of country legend Merle Haggard, The Merlettes got a new rendition when Kristina moved back west in 2016.
As a band focusing on all the twang country music can bring, the modern version of this all-female band, fronted by Kristina, features the tunes of Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn, Kitty Wells, and their original jams.
Dair Obenshain joins Kristina on fiddle, guitar, and vocals along with Laura Leach-Devlin on upright bass and Sharon Eldridge on drums as their air-tight harmonies warm the hearts of listeners while making you want to stomp your feet along to the beat.
“The Merlettes debut show was in Albuquerque at a place called Outpost,” said Kristina. “It is one of the nicest venues in town, and it was packed out. It’s like this sit-down venue, but they let us push chairs back and make a dance floor. We invited friends from the Navajo reservation, and they got a bunch of 2-steppers on the dance floor in this stuffy jazz venue. It was incredible.”
Singing and performing solo and alongside The Merlettes isn’t the only way Kristina graces the world with her talent. She passes her impeccable knowledge of music and songwriting to the next generation of performers as an Associate Professor in the Departments of Music and Anthropology at the University of New Mexico.
Hired at the university due to her Ph.D. in anthropology, she was surprised to use her musical background to teach there as well. Since joining the music department, she founded the UNM Honky Tonk Ensemble and the Songwriting Focus Area program. Kristina uses this opportunity to help songwriters find their voice – literally and symbolically – by digging for their emotional truth in storytelling.
“As a musician myself, it makes me a way better teacher. They challenge me, especially the songwriters. I’m super humbled by them, and it allows the continued conversation,” said Kristina.
Her time with the music department at UNM allowed Kristina to receive a grant to become the U.S.-Italy Fulbright Scholar from 2019 to 2020.
As a teenager, Kristina lived briefly with her family in Italy, traveling and co-writing with musicians in the area. She decided to spend time in Sardinia, Italy writing and recording an album like those she helped co-write in the past.
“I got a grant to write an album of songs. One of the ways that I studied the language in Italy was writing songs with people,” said Kristina. “It’s introducing something you know with something new. It makes learning the language much easier – at least that’s my theory.”
Together with 20 other musicians, songwriters, storytellers, and producers, Kristina completed the album she dreamed of creating.
Earlier this year, Kristina announced the release of this collaborative album titled House on Swallow Street. Although primarily released overseas, it is now available on all major streaming platforms.
Throughout her long, impressive career immersed with culture, Kristina credits two things to making it especially rewarding – songwriting and teaching her craft to others.
“The most rewarding part of all of this is teaching the creative process and songwriting. I got to facilitate a songwriting workshop in Finland, in prisons in Sweden, and North Carolina,” said Kristina. “Those are the moments I feel super connected to humanity. I have feelings of catharsis, nobility, and healing. In writing, we go from having someone else tell our story to tell our own story. It can be very powerful.”
In 2019, Kristina spent the year in Italy recording her album. In 2020, she was under lockdown due to COVID-19.
This month, Kristina performs live with The Merlettes at a local New Mexico venue for the first time in years, finally getting back to local roots in baby steps. She also looks forward to touring overseas in 2022.
“With my music and songwriting, cultural exchanges meet storytelling. Poetry meets medley. I’m biased as a songwriter, but I think there are times and places that music can change the world. It’s an amazing thing to be able to do.”