A new kind of schoolhouse rock

Ms. Maxine brings old soul, jazz and blues to the stage with an awe-inspiring presence.

Lisa Kjernisted

To say that Lisa Kjernisted isn’t your average elementary teacher is an understatement.

Better known musically as Ms. Maxine, the 44-year-old, with her band One Wish, rocks out on stage, channelling the powerful soul of Nina Simone and Ella Fitzgerald, with a dash of funk thrown in for good measure.

Her talents are well-recognized locally with a solid fan-base and the guitar-playing singer recently made the cut into CBC Searchlight’s regional semi-finals with her song This Dish.

Kjernisted, who teaches at Sidney Elementary School and made the Searchlight regional semi-finals last year as well, says the support from her community, both personally and from her school, has been amazing.

“My kids treat me like a rock star,” she says with a smile.

She and a fellow teacher got the kids to listen to Kjernisted’s song — without telling them who’d sung it, she emphasized — and the response was resoundingly positive.

“They were grooving along. It was so awesome to see these kids totally rocking out.”

Kjernisted’s been musical her entire life, she says, taking up ukulele, clarinet, trumpet and guitar at various ages with equal parts passion and determination.

The variety of instruments is interesting, considering Kjernisted’s right hand has been mostly paralyzed since she was an infant, the result of an extremely high fever and a temporary swelling of the brain that caused motor damage.

“My parents were very wise,” she says. “They said, ‘we’ll never tell her she can’t do anything.’”

That unconditional support certainly helped, but as Kjernisted herself admits, “I’ve always been a very determined person.”

When she first picked up the clarinet, she loved it.

“But what a ridiculous instrument to play,” she says, laughing. “I could play half the clarinet. I asked my mother years later why she’d ever let me learn it, and she just said, ‘well, we couldn’t have stopped you.”

So instead, she took up trumpet, and played at a high level for years.

But though she lived for music, a debilitating case of stage fright developed as she moved into her teen years and any hope of performing in front of an audience disappeared under the profuse shaking that took hold of her before a show.

Kjernisted finally conquered the shakes in part when she shifted genres from classical to blues, jazz and soul, feeling like she’d finally found her place in music.

Songwriting came about five years ago.

“I wrote a bunch of tunes in a period of a couple

years,” she says, including her song, Catching Up, which made Searchlight’s regional semi-finals last year.

It was a necessary shift into focusing on her own creativity, after spending a number of years doing band photography, and helping others with their music.

But though her stage fright may have been left well behind, Kjernisted found the daunting prospect of having to ask for votes nearly enough to dissuade her from entering Searchlight for the second year.

“I found it horrible to ask for votes,” she says. “It’s a little overwhelming and it’s a bit uncomfortable.”

That feeling lingered until she read a blog post by a musician she admired who reframed the situation into a sharing experience.

“Think of it from a sharing perspective. You’re sharing your music,” says Kjernisted. “If you don’t share it, you could have fans that may not know they like you.”

She’s also stopped apologizing when she shares her songs, she declares with a slap of her hand on the table.

“I’ve stopped!”

Entering into Searchlight nearly didn’t happen this year, she adds, but for a tweet.

“A senior producer at CBC sent out a bunch of emails to everyone who’d entered last year, encouraging them to enter again,” she says.

Kjernisted hummed and hawed, then sent him a link to the song she was thinking about submitting.

“And he tweeted back! I thought, just go for it!”

The next round of Searchlight cuts each region’s top 25 down to the top 10. The results were set to be released Tuesday (after the News Review’s press deadline), and while Kjernisted is excited, her biggest goal is just to keep getting her music heard.

“I just have to keep doing things like Searchlight to get the music out there,” she says.

“It’s been 20 years of hard work, but I do it for the love of it.”

For more information and for free tracks, visit http://music.cbc.ca/#!/artists/MsMaxine.