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Folk Music Couple Savors Independence


Steve Gillette knows the rewards of being a successful songwriter. Over the years, he's written or co-written songs that have been recorded by veteran folkies ("Darcy Farrow," Ian & Sylvia), '70s pop stars ("Bed of Roses," Kenny Rogers; "Back on the Street Again," Linda Ronstadt) and country music biggies ("Unto This Night," Garth Brooks; "Glass Houses," Tammy Wynette).

These days, however, Gillette is drawing royalties in personal satisfaction. Since marrying singer Cindy Mangsen in 1989, with whom he'd already had a working relationship, the Orange County-bred singer, songwriter and guitarist has moved further away from the commercial center of pop music and returned to his folk roots--"his center," as he puts it--and he's discovering far deeper rewards.

"When you're starting out, you need something to justify yourself, to validate what you're doing--and that's what I got from all the artists who sang and recorded my songs," Gillette said by phone while visiting his sister in the San Francisco suburb of Lafayette. "But that was quite a long time ago. To [try to] write something now for someone like the Spice Girls . . . well, I'd just feel like I was going back to the yoke."

Without having to keep commercial considerations in mind, Gillette said, he and Mangsen can strive for music that's more meaningful, music that's connected to a larger tradition than who was No. 1 last week.

"Only those below the [pop] radar screen are building on the wisdom of what came before . . . are using songs that emphasize story and mythology to communicate in a dimension that's deeper, more subjective and even subliminal at times," he said.

The Vermont-based couple, who perform Saturday in Anaheim as part of the Living Tradition Folk Music Series, released "The Light of the Day" in 1996, a song cycle of life, death and redemption.

Not the hottest topics on top-40 radio.

"It's my belief that you can take people into dark places if you're respectful of your audience," said Gillette, 57. "Rarely are life and death handled in pop music without some sort of exploitation or unnecessary melodrama. The challenge is finding the insight, or meaning, that maybe the listener hasn't discovered yet in a particular topic."

More recently, Gillette and Mangsen each released solo albums for Chicago-based Redwing Music. His "Texas & Tennessee" (1998) documents the years he traveled between the studios of Nashville and the campfires of the Kerrville (Texas) Folk Festival, while her "Songs of Experience" (1998) is an album of familiar and lesser-known traditional ballads sung with her usual grace and conviction.

"With these ballads and words, you get an idea why they meant so much to someone, say, maybe 200 years ago," Mangsen, 49, said of the material on her album. "And sometimes, you'll revisit a song because maybe you personally have changed since originally hearing it.

"Like I never really cared for 'The Cruel Mother,' [an old folk song] about this woman who bears children out of wedlock and then murders them. It's absolutely horrifying! But now, it speaks to me about the social setting of that culture and also issues like abortion. So some of these traditional folk songs have layers that can be peeled away."

Gillette and Mangsen perform as a duo about 100 times a year. To escape the chilly weather, the couple regularly play during the winter months in Southern California, usually at least once at Shade Tree Stringed Instruments in Laguna Niguel.

This year, however, the couple--through local musician and concert promoter Steve Dulson--have enlisted Shade Tree owners Greg and Margie Mirken (and their daughter, Sally) to open their show at the larger Downtown Community Center in Anaheim.

"We don't have an agent or publicist," Mangsen said, "so we have a direct relationship with the people who hire us to sing--and we like it that way. We choose whether we want to play somewhere and who we work for. We're not rich, we're not poor, but we are independent."


Steve Gillette and Cindy Mangsen play today at the Downtown Community Center, 250 E. Center St., Anaheim. Greg and Margie Mirken open at 7:30 p.m. $10. Presented by the Living Tradition. (949) 646-1964.

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