© 2024 WKNO FM
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Karen Haglof, No-Wave Guitarist Turned Doctor, Relaunches Music Career


Karen Haglof made a name for herself as a guitarist in 1990s, playing on New York's alternative rock scene. She performed with avant garde composers and collaborated with visual artists before deciding to make a change of career and putting down her guitar. That was more than 20 years ago. Now, she's back with a new approach to her instrument and a new album called "Western Holiday." Rick Karr has more.

RICK KARR, BYLINE: When Karen Haglof moved to the Twin Cities to New York, she saw right away that she faced a lot of competition. Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, among many others, were coaxing new sounds out of their guitars. But by the end of the decade, she was playing in the acclaimed post-punk group Band of Susans.


BAND OF SUSANS: I'm talking to you. I'm watching what you do. I'm keeping a score - one, two, three, four.

KARR: Haglof off collaborated with visual artist Robert Longo and played in composer Rhys Chatham's ensemble, but she paid her bills working as a chef in the East Village. Then she had an epiphany that led her to set her guitar down.

KAREN HAGLOF: The guitar was away for a decade, at least. I mean, it was kind of like waking up one morning, working at the Levy Restaurant at 1st Avenue and 1st Street and realizing that in 10 years, I did not want to be working in a restaurant, however great restaurant work was, and deciding to back to college, because I'd never finished college.

KARR: She finished not one, but two degrees. And finally, around the time she turned 50, she had her new career.

HAGLOF: I just got these results on this patient I've been following who was sent to me with a coagulopathy.

KARR: She's Dr. Karen Haglof when she's at her hematology-oncology practice in midtown Manhattan and consulting with another physician on treating blood conditions in cancer patients.

ALEC GOLDENBERG: And the family history doesn't suggest that.

HAGLOF: Family history is negative.

KARR: Haglof says she got too busy to play guitar in med school. That didn't bother her through her internship, residency and a fellowship at NYU.

HAGLOF: I didn't really miss it until "It Might Get Loud" came out. And then suddenly saw that movie, and it all came back that, oh, my God, I'm a guitar player. Why aren't I playing the guitar?


KARR: Haglof says she had to start from scratch. She wanted to be able to play in the East Village apartment she's lived in almost since she moved to New York, so she learned to play acoustic guitar, finger-style and with a slide, by watching online videos.


HAGLOF: (Signing) Oh, little back button on the floor. Pick it up, use it for the one I adore. Off of the shirt that you wore when I dragged you back from the door.

KARR: She started writing songs influenced by what she heard on vacations at a dude ranch in New Mexico. She grew up on a Minnesota farm and still loves riding horses.


HAGLOF: (Singing) Listen, time slows, stands still, doubles back again where you were my half muscle, my dream, my loss.

KARR: She was thinking about recording her new songs when she ran into someone who she hadn't seen in years, a band mate who'd moved from Minnesota to New York with her, Steve Almaas.

STEVE ALMAAS: A while later she called me up and said she wanted to get a home studio together and would I help her?

KARR: Almaas is a solo artist who cofounded the early Minneapolis punk band The Suicide Commandos and the group Beat Rodeo. He was surprised by Haglof's new approach to playing guitar when he heard her songs. But there was a bigger surprise.

ALMAAS: I think she's just blossomed as a songwriter. And it was clear she had the goods to do a whole album.

KARR: Haglof asked Almaas to produce that album.


HAGLOF: (Singing) I'd like to talk to you. I'll see what's behind that charming smile. (Unintelligible) for you (unintelligible) brand new boots on a part time rider, looking for a western holiday.

KARR: Almaas says she has the same ability and focus as ever. And in the studio, some of her old heavy guitar sound came back into her playing.


HAGLOF: (Singing) Righteous anger - well, I've got what you let me get down to (unintelligible). Look at me, look at me now.

KARR: Haglof says she aimed to make her lyrics lighter than her guitar tone, but she acknowledges they have a dark undercurrent.

HAGLOF: By the nature of my career and by the nature of anybody getting to the age that I am at and having seen people live and die and having friends live and die and seeing, you know, the type of things that happen in this world, I think there can't help but be some feeling of darkness, at least for me.

KARR: Haglof's practice makes it hard for her to find time to play live, but she says she'd like to. Touring is out of the question, though, for her patients' sake. For NPR News, I'm Rick Karr in New York.


HAGLOF: Emotions run high on the edge - on the edge. Fingernails gripping to the ledge, ledge, ledge. My body needs peace, not going to get it too soon. Living... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rick Karr contributes reports on the arts to NPR News. He is a correspondent for the weekly PBS public affairs show Bill Moyers Journal and teaches radio journalism at Columbia University.