'Each One Is A Story:' Wendy Woo Reflects On Career, Latest Solo Album
For almost 30 years, Wendy Woo's unique mix of folk, rock, and blues has made her a Colorado mainstay. Her name is ubiquitous with the music festival scene. She's made practically every Colorado "best of" list at least once. In 2010, then-Denver mayor John Hickenlooper performed her wedding ceremony. Oskar Blues Brewery even named a beer after her — Woo Woo Wheat.
This last year, she released her first solo album in almost 15 years and was the subject of the new documentary Unshaken: The Road to Woo.
She was born and raised in Boulder, but now makes her home in Loveland, along with her husband Charles Snyder, and children Chris, 12, Cooper, 9, and Emma, 6. Loveland reminds her a lot of Boulder when she was growing up.
"I really like that there's a lot of people here who grew up here and then stayed," said Woo, whose actual last name is Faigao.
"'Woo' was always a nickname," she said. "It was easier than my Filipino name, which was longer and harder to spell … Kalayaan Faigao. Kalayaan is my middle name, which means 'freedom' in Tagalog. And 'Faigao' is a Portugese name because the Portugese settled the Philippines and gave everyone last names."
Woo's path to music was non-traditional. The daughter of Naropa University founding faculty members Bataan and Jane Faigao, Woo said their home was often the site of regular visits by beat poets such as Ken Kesey and William S. Burroughs.
"Usually it was just a bunch of beatniks hanging out at the house, cooking dinner," Woo said jokingly. "Allen Ginsberg would wear his apron and cook dinner with his boyfriend, Peter Orlovsky ... Just another Tuesday at the Faigaos."
Looking back, she said those dinners and poetry readings had an influence. The metered wordflow and hand gestures of spoken-word poetry would find their way into her songwriting, and the family trips to see the Grateful Dead lead to her signature "slap tap" on the guitar.
"I used to seek out the drum circles and I think a lot of that really came naturally as I put those pieces together," Woo said.
Her first performance was in 1992 at the former Marquis Theater. Her father videotaped it. But it's her third show that she remembers best. At the time, Woo was a bartender at Boulder's Fox Theater. When the opening act for a show that night bailed, the owners — having seen Woo perform earlier at a staff holiday party — asked her to fill in.
"And it was Sheryl Crow who was headlining that night," Woo recalled. "So I played my little early music set and then she came out with 'All I Want to Do is Have (Some) Fun.' Me and my mom are like, 'Wow! She's great!' It was the next day that she skyrocketed."
And, so did Woo, who started playing all around the state, and finding her name on a host of "Best New Artist" lists. She even won the Colorado Lilith Fair Talent Search along with the opportunity to share the stage, once again, with Sheryl Crow.
In those early days, Woo said she was hungry for a shot at the big time with her group, The Wendy Woo Band.
"I wanted it so bad when I was younger," she said. "And when you're young, anything and everything is possible. So you dream big and you work hard and you go at it. Then you get a little bit older and you get set in your ways and you kind of see how it's gonna be. And so ... I do it a little bit more for fun now."
During festival season, Woo doesn't lack for those opportunities. Her summers book up fast. But during the "off" season, she admitted her schedule can get a bit sparse.
That caused her to start thinking about having a Plan B. Five years ago, she got her EMT license.
"Cause I was like, I'm almost 50," Woo said. "And when you're my age and you tell someone you've been playing in a band for 30 years — they're like, 'Oh my God, I'm so sorry!' It's maybe not realistic to them to see someone my age still (performing)."
But the schedule of an Emergency Medical Technician didn't leave much time for rock 'n' roll and the stage quickly lured her back. To help make ends meet, she also returned to bartending and waiting tables at several local establishments.
She said going back to her service industry roots — the ones that got her through the lean years when she was just starting out — was humbling, but it also has brought unexpected joys. Like an impromptu jam session with customers at West End Lounge where she bartends or the look of recognition she gets daily waiting tables at Henry's.
"I'll bring people their food and they'll look up and be like 'Is that Wendy Woo?' And I'm like, 'Yes, would you like ketchup?'" she joked.
This spring, Woo released her 12th album, "The Immigrant." It's only her second solo record counting her 2005 live acoustic CD, "Angels Laughing." While she mostly works with her band, she said these songs — written throughout her career — felt a little different.
"Each one is a story and I was just being really honest, kind of thinking I would never even put them out," she said, adding it was hard to get so personal. "Especially cause I've been trying to be, like you know the 'rock diva' for 20 or 30 years. And then you come out with this very raw (album) — not trying to get any radio airplay or anything. I'm just trying to put something out there."
Like "Plane to China," about the death of her father in 2012 while he was on sabbatical in the Wudang Mountain region. The song follows the aftermath of looking at a house full of memories and is one she doesn't often play live.
"It's just kind of a sad song," Woo said. "But I think that my audience, who I've kind of grown up with, that's just the kind of the things people are experiencing right now. Either loss of a parent or having to care for a sick parent. So I think that it's a little more relatable."
She's also begun looking at her older songs in a new way.
"After I've first written them and I'm playing them as a therapy for me, I still get very emotional with all of it, but honestly, now I'm just hoping to remember the lyrics," Woo said. "'Cause people will be like, 'Oh, I want to hear 'Angels Laughing.' And you know, it's a song I wrote 20 years ago and it was a really emotional song so I was afraid to play it because I want people to be happy but people would come and request it. And it's a song about getting an illness or getting cancer."
As we wrapped up our interview, Wendy Woo's three children emerge from downstairs to see if their mom is done with 'work.' Toy Story 4 is playing at the movie theater.
When asked how she would feel if any of her kids followed her path and went into music, Woo said it might be too late. They all love to sing — just like their mom.
"My oldest son wants to go into art, so that's kind of the same thing, right?" she laughed. "And I'm like, 'Oh geez!' But what can you do? He's so good (at it)."
Woo said she wants to support her kids' pursuit of their own dreams, just like her dad did when he videotaped her first show and let her chase the Grateful Dead looking for drum circles and festival tents. After all, it seemed to work pretty well for her.