Alumni ProfileKarisa Wilson '99
Finding her voice

When she listens to her album, Karisa Wilson '99 remembers a little girl drifting through her parents' house, wailing. Not unhappy—just experimenting, vocally. “Even then,” she said, “I was trying to find my voice.”

Titled Little Girl, the CD was released at a sold-out Wealthy Theater concert in Grand Rapids last August. In February, the recording was named best local album of the year by Grand Rapids community radio station WYCE-FM. The recording is Wilson's first and features her jazz- and blues-flavored vocals and acoustic guitar on tunes that hint at the many styles she's played in her music career.

“I'm learning to say ‘no' sometimes when people ask me to play with them,” Wilson said. That's now. But when she was starting out, newly graduated and trying to find her place in music, it was helpful to say “yes” a lot.

In 2000, Wilson was teaching high school Spanish by day and by night playing violin with Sweet Japonic, a band well known in west Michigan's live music scene. Other musicians heard her, and as a result, Wilson said, “I got asked to play with all kinds of groups”—heavy metal, hip-hop, bluegrass—“some of them good, some not so good.”

Wilson had played classical violin with the Grand Rapids Youth Symphony and Calvin's orchestra. With Sweet Japonic and other bands, she learned “to transition from reading music on the page to creating music in the moment.”

But after a time she began to feel the instrument trapped her. “I had grown as a musician to the place where I wasn't happy being the violin girl in the corner who doesn't have a place on every tune and therefore doesn't have a whole lot of say in the creative process of the band,” Wilson said. “I really felt I had more to offer.”

So she picked up an acoustic guitar and began with the few chords a Calvin suitemate had taught her years before. Soon she had written a song. Nearly sick with nervousness, she took her guitar and new song to an open mic night. “I got good feedback,” Wilson said. “I think people were surprised I could sing.”

She kept going to open mic venues—two or three a week—and writing songs. One of those venues asked her to host its open mic night. In 2002 she had her first solo gig, opening for a band at Aquinas College.

Six-plus years after her nerve-wracking open mic debut, Wilson recorded and released her CD. “Long overdue,” she said of it. But she's already thinking about the next one. “This is my job now.”

Besides hosting an open mic night at a local bar and performing, Wilson teaches private lessons to support herself. It's not as secure as a teaching job, but, Wilson said, “I want everything to revolve around music now. It's the only thing I feel I'm really good at; it's the talent God has given me, and I don't want to bury it.”

These days, Wilson finds her music changing. Her mother died in 2006 and her father last November, leaving her to help care for a teenaged sister. She's turned 30. And, she said, “The Holy Spirit has been working in me. I'm more grateful for blessings. Even the experiences that have been hard, I see, have often become the most precious. I want my music to reflect that.”

To see and hear more of Karisa Wilson, visit