Spend any amount of time trying to figure out exactly what’s happening with Flagstaff’s music scene and you’ll quickly realize that it’s best described as a series of hills and valleys. Trying to put your finger on it is as about as effective has spinning a globe, closing your eyes, and pressing down. But lately, and particularly over the past couple of years, a resurgence has started to take shape, a big part of which can be credited to the number of talented musicians who have emerged from the depths of the college crowd—one of whom is Theone.
Like many musicians who find themselves in the heart of the American Southwest, the country folk music of 22-year-old Mikayla Khramov, a creative media and film senior at NAU, whose middle name, Theone—a family named passed down from generations (not The One, a common mistake)—is also her stage name, has been shaped largely by a sense of place. She notes that “maybe” music would have happened for her, but had she not decided on a whim to move to Flagstaff to attend college several years back, music likely wouldn’t have happened wherever else she landed.
“Flagstaff is a big culture for a small town. It’s been a good place to discover my talents,” she says. “You can find a home away from home out here. It’s very special.”
Having moved from Southern California, the musical background was always there. Her father was a musician, composer and performer from Russia, and came to the U.S. as part of the band Limpopo, which won International Star Search in 1993 and, according to Khramov, toured “everywhere.” On the other hand, she says that her mother and family in general has also been a big inspiration for the music she makes.
“She’s never been the kind of parent that says, you need to get a job, music’s not a good career,” Khramov says. “She’s just like, go do it … I was able to find my passion through her support.”
With early musical influences spanning Russian folk, rockabilly blues and Celtic music to personal favorites Dwight Yoakam and Tom Petty, Khramov “adapted” to the country and folk vibe here in Flagstaff. Since, she has fashioned a style that features Americana, blues and folk rock, country and Russian folk. But when she first arrived, the trick was to find other players.
“When I first came to Flagstaff, I put up fliers around town that said, ‘Music for hire,’ and it was a picture of me playing guitar with my number on it,” she says, laughing, recalling that it was probably the dumbest and maybe one of the smartest things she’s ever done.
Initially, she says people didn’t want to play, they just called to hook up, and some even stalked her.
“Why did I put my number on a flier?!” she laments, laughing.
But then she received a call from Arizona Music Pro’s Rich Neville, a longtime, well-known and respected musician in town, and it wasn’t long before she sat in on vocals with his band during a gig at Altitudes Bar & Grill. Eventually, she was introduced to the John Reuter Band, further opening the door to Flag’s music scene.
“That was my in with the [local] music world,” she says.
A multi-instrumentalist in her own right, capable of playing everything from guitar, bass, drums and piano to the Celtic harp, balalaika (a guitar-like, Russian three-stringed instrument), trombone and accordion, she regularly sits in with other local groups, one of which is Andrew See and his Swinging Jamboree, and has attracted the attention and services of numerous established local musicians including guitarist Brad Bays, drummer Ron James, and most recently fiddle player Hannah Prizznick.
“I like playing with people that make me better, and everyone I’m playing with now makes me better,” she says.
Many of those people that helped her find a home in the local music family also helped lay tracks on her debut, full-length album, Empty Feelings, recorded here in Flagstaff as well as San Diego over the course of several years, and released officially in June.
A solid mix of upbeat western bluegrass and country sounds with melancholy lyrics, Empty Feelings, is, again, driven heavily by her family.
“It’s kind of a sad album because I’ve never done anything musically with my dad (who passed away in 2013) watching it, so everything on the record is stuff that he’s never going to hear. I think it’s a little bittersweet,” Khramov says.
She recalls initially writing the title track as a poem 10 years ago at her dad’s house.
“When I came to college, my freshman year, I had a dream one night, and all these numbers were popping up in my head, and it was my dad’s voice, right after he passed away, and as soon as I woke up I wrote down the numbers, and it turned out to be the progression of ‘Empty Feelings’,” she says, noting that she later combined the two to see the song come fill circle.
She adds, “My dad was a gigger, so he’d be happy that I’m living off of my gigs right now. It’s just too bad he can’t be a part of it.”
Her newest song, “China,” which she regularly plays live and plans to record soon, has a similar feel.
“It’s about talking to ghosts, and I wrote it right after my grandma died,” she says. “It’s about my mom literally sitting on the floor looking at all these [fine china] pieces that my grandma treasured so much, and my mom seeing my grandma and looking back down at her.”
Outside of her music here in Flagstaff, when she returns to L.A., she also performs as part of the Nesting Dolls, a Russian rockabilly duo with her younger sister. But it is her solo endeavor that in the past year has landed her opening gigs for national touring musicians who have passed through town, such as Vance Joy and Dale Watson.
She even unknowingly gained the attention of Garrett Dutton of G. Love and Special Sauce, who said about her album, “Theone’s music takes it back to the reason we listen to music. Pure love and passion come through the speakers in this exciting new artist's first record.” It started when she saw a photo of Dutton with Dwight Yoakam, so she decided to follow him on Instagram, and he followed her back. They messaged back and forth for a while and finally, she realized Dutton was G. Love. Before long she found herself at one of his shows in Phoenix with backstage passes and a signed guitar.
“I text him a day later and said, ‘Hey, will you review my album?’ And he text me back the next day,” she says.
In listening to Theone’s record, it’s abundantly clear that this place, Flagstaff, and the people she’s found musical connections with have shaped her style of music and helped her grow as an artist—which she’s worked hard to see come to fruition. But outside of the studio, she’s most comfortable on stage, something that shows, and has transitioned from years of theatre performance, a passion she still follows.
“Whatever stage you’re on, if you’re playing music, or you are singing at a bar, or you’re on a professional stage doing Hamlet, or even if you’re in a film, there’s this energy and you become a different character,” she says.
And while she embodies country music’s early pioneering female artists, off stage she’s a humble artist who has a lot left to accomplish and the ambition to see that through. She is not just another set piece in a generation of people playing country folk who find themselves following the paths of modern country music; Theone follows the roots, back when it was, as she says, “real.”
“These are songs I love, and if I love my songs, I think other people will, too.”
Catch the Theone Band during their Halloween party at the Museum Club, 3404 E. Rte. 66, on Sat, Oct. 29. Music starts at 9 p.m. and tickets are $5 at the door. To learn more, call 526-9434 or visit www.theone-music.com.