Diana Chittester | The Devil Strip, 2016

If you don’t believe an acoustic solo performance can fill a room with raw power, elegance and intelligence concurrently, you haven’t experienced Diana Chittester (pictured above). The first time I saw Chittester perform was a few weeks ago, as an opening act at Jilly’s Music Room on a triple-bill Friday night. To this day I can’t tell you who the headliner was.

I took a seat at the bar and prepared to wait for the weekend to begin. It didn’t take long.

Her intensity hit me first. On stage was a lone woman, fit and young, belting out a hard but folksy original tune as she gracefully bent around her instrument, wringing every deep, rich drop of melody out of that guitar. It was power and passion, driven by pure talent, in her voice and her musicianship. I asked the bartender her name and, that fast, became a Diana Chittester fan.

Her style is described as “percussive multipart playing, mimicking a full band on a solo acoustic guitar.” This is true. To be clear, when Chittester is on stage you could easily mistake her solo act for two or three musicians on stage. But none of this is by chance. She understands the acoustics of her voice, her instruments and the rooms she plays, and unites them like a maestro.

Raised a preacher’s daughter, Chittester learned to play piano in third grade from her mom, who taught her to read music and understand theory. When she was 14, during one of her family’s frequent moves, her dad’s old guitar resurfaced. She picked it up and that was that. Her dad taught her to strum chords, pick out the rhythm, and finger pick. He taught her “House of the Rising Sun” so she could master the more difficult chords like A minor and F. And he taught her easy ways to use lyrics and rhythm to remember chord changes. Those rhythmic exercises sparked her inner songwriter, and by high school Chittester was performing original music at talent shows. Rhythm and lyric still form the heart of her art.

“The guitar directs so much of my writing,” she says. “The guitar riff is created first. It kind of awakens whatever emotion is there, whatever story I need to be telling.”

When Chittester steps onto the stage her guitars are lined up behind her, like fellow musicians. Each is selected for its unique sound.

“To me, every guitar has a voice and it’s perfect,” she says. She’s not just talking about the strings. Chittester beats her guitars like drums. “It’s not highly recommended to do that to your guitars,” she laughs.

She likes her Gibson for finger picking, and her Takamine for its warm, rich tone. They are both cracked where she hits them. One guitar is not cracked, but it is dented. It’s called a Rain Song and it’s made of carbon fiber. Unlike wood guitars, its neck doesn’t flex, even with the open and alternate tunings she uses, which can wreak havoc on a traditional instrument.

“When I’m hitting it, the sound resonates in the body of the guitar so it sounds more like a bass drum than any other guitar I have,” she says. In fact, she wrote one of her most popular songs, “Breathe Without Air,” because of her Rain Song’s deep bass ring.

She credits Ani DiFranco as her biggest influence, because of her open tuning techniques and artistry. As for rhythmic strumming and pulling full sound from her guitar, Chittester has drawn inspiration from solo artist Melissa Ferrick, who she’s opened for.

Chittester has performed solo since the beginning, because finding core musicians with the right energy has been difficult. Even more important, as a solo musician, the connection she creates with her audience is deeply satisfying. When playing larger venues, Chittester works hard at animating her performances, to fill her stage and push hard enough to touch the audience.

“A lot of times with big stages the audience gets pushed back. They’ll have fencing even, to keep the audience separated from the stage,” she says. “That hurts as a solo acoustic performer who likes to really connect with the audience. The further back they are, the further I have to throw my energy to get it to them.”

But throw it she does, and when she leaves a performance exhausted, she knows she’s done her job.

“When you boil it all down, as human beings, that’s how we connect,” she says. “It’s some sort of energy moving from one person to another.”

On several levels Chittester is about keeping it real, and in her world it’s not a cliché.

For example, her 2014 album, “Find My Way Home,” was recorded in New Orleans and used no layering. That project she observes how living in the world has put distance between her and her religious background. During recording, it was Chittester and her guitar surrounded by microphones. She performed several takes of each song and the best take went onto the record.

“It was something I was really proud of,” she says. “It was real and honest and flawed. That’s what I try to represent when I’m on stage.”

She walks the talk in her personal life as well. To maintain her endurance as a performer she runs to stay fit, often with her big yellow lab Luke. She’s vegan and into healthy cooking. She’s also active in Drink Local.Drink Tap, an organization committed to ensuring safe water is accessible from Cleveland to Uganda.

Born in Pittsburgh, Chittester now lives in Lakewood with her partner and promoter Jessica Rosenblatt. She’s played professionally for about eight years, all but one on the Northeast Ohio circuit, gracing the stages of E.J. Thomas, the Music Box Supper Club, House of Blues, Jilly’s, Musica and many festivals.

// by Jenny Conn