Singer/songwriter Ellen Cherry would like to thank all the folks who helped her get to where she is today - most notably, the state labor department.
When Cherry was laid off from her accounting job in May 2004, she filed for unemployment, which gave her six months to pursue a career as a full-time musician. She never looked back.
Cherry founded Wrong Size Shoes, a home studio and personal record label, and has since recorded and released five albums. Her soft yet striking voice and versatile songwriting have helped make her a notable player on the local music scene. Saturday, she will perform as part of the Visionary Solstice Gathering at Sonar.
"She's got a warm, soulful, very human voice," said Baltimore Americana singer/songwriter Caleb Stine. "She's got an emotional connection that people just want to hear in a singer."
At 34, Cherry acknowledges that she's a late-bloomer as far as music is concerned. She didn't start pursuing it seriously until she was in her late 20s. Born in Plano, Texas (a suburb of Dallas), Cherry sang in a choir for six weeks in sixth grade. That's about the extent of her vocal training - which is not necessarily a bad thing, she said.
"Everyone comes to this at their own time and on their own schedule," Cherry said.
While studying history at Hendrix College in Conway, Ark., Cherry began writing poems and taught herself to play guitar. She moved to Baltimore in 2000 and recorded albums, when she had the money, until she went full-time in 2004.
Cherry is actually the stage name of Kristin Putchinski. It comes from Ellen Cherry Charles, one of a cast of capricious characters in Tom Robbins' 1990 novel "Skinny Legs and All." Though Cherry and Putchinski are essentially one and the same, Putchinski is strict about drawing the line between the two. Cherry is the performer. Putchinski is the person. Why the separation?
"It helps me get in the mode of performing for other people, which I find to be really nerve-racking," Cherry said. "I like to think of Ellen Cherry as an interpreter of Kristin's songs. It makes it a little bit easier."
It also makes it a little bit more confusing. Once, via e-mail, a fan grew angry with Putchinski for the way she was managing Cherry's career.
"I laugh about it, because what can I do?" she said.
The songs on Cherry's latest album, "(New) Years," are brimming with historical personas, from "1864: A Civil War Bride" to "1933: To California." The latter was inspired by Dorothea Lange's well-known Depression-era photograph, "Migrant Mother."
"I know what I've read about the woman in the picture, but I don't really know what her life was like," Cherry said. "For me, as a songwriter, that's part of the fun - putting yourself mentally in their mind-set and trying to figure out how they feel about what's happening to them and telling their story."
With "(New) Years," Cherry revisited and repurposed an EP she released in 2005 called "Years." Each song on "Years" examined a woman at a certain time and place throughout history, stretching back to the mid-1800s and running through 2010. For "(New) Years," Cherry rerecorded the songs on "Years," adding several newer tunes, and released the finished project last week.
Many of Cherry's songs have strikingly long titles, such as "1998: The Things I Long For and the Things I Have Are Not the Same." She's almost notoriously bad at naming her material, she said, but she also enjoys watching people react to the titles.
"I get a little pleasure out of thinking about a DJ saying, 'And here is a song by Ellen Cherry, blah blah blah blah blah blah,' " she said.
For the past several months, Cherry has teamed up with Stine to work on a batch of new songs. Stine envisions them as stripped-down pieces featuring little more than Cherry on piano and vocals. Their progress shows real promise, he said.
"The songs she's writing now are cutting down deeper into who she is, and into some of the more personal and darker territory," Stine said. "To me, that's where an artist has to go if they want to dig up worthwhile stuff."
About two years ago, Cherry felt alone and was seriously considering packing up and moving away from Baltimore, most likely back to the South. She said she seemed isolated from the music scene here, until she realized she was to blame for her situation.
"I started making some real connections with other artists in the city, and I realized how much I was missing by not truly interacting with the city and its amazingly diverse artists," she said. "There's just something about Baltimore. I feel it's got everything I need right now. So I want to stay for a while longer."
If you go
Ellen Cherry performs 8 p.m. Saturday as part of the Visionary Solstice Gathering at Sonar, 407 E. Saratoga St. Tickets are $30-$50. Telesma, M80 DubStation and See-I will also perform. Call 410-783-7888 or go to sonarbaltimore.com.