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Like Father Buddy, Local Girl Makes Good : Kiki Ebsen, Who Grew Up in Newport, Expects Her Band’s Coach House Gig to Be Like a Homecoming

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Kiki Ebsen can remember when being her father’s daughter made her the most popular girl inschool. Some three decades later, she says it sometimes makes her the object of curiosity.

Jed Clampett’s daughter playing keyboards for Chicago, Al Jarreau and Belinda Carlisle? Barnaby Jones’ youngest girl fronting her own band and writing her own songs?

“Being related to someone famous can open doors because people are curious about you,” said Ebsen, 34, the sixth daughter of actor and former Newport Beach resident Buddy Ebsen. “They’ll say, ‘Oh, this is your father? Well, what have you got to say?’ A daughter or son of an actor always gets scrutinized a little bit heavier. Some people want to see if they can bust your chops. But you come out of it. To me it’s just something to talk about, like having red hair.”

Some of the curiosity will return tonight when Ebsen appears with her own band at the Coach House (opening for Al Stewart), but the singer-songwriter--who, incidentally, has red hair--said she expects it to be benign and friendly, not unlike a homecoming.

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“I have a lot of friends in Orange County and San Diego County, and the audiences down there have really responded in ways they haven’t at other gigs,” she said this week in an interview over lunch at Le Cafe, a jazz club where she frequently performs. “They’re so enthusiastic, and they really listen. They’re the most supportive audiences.”

Which should be a tonic for Ebsen, who is at what might be called an artistic crossroads. She recently released her first CD of contemporary pop songs, “Red” (Sin-Drome Records), after seven years of touring with Chicago, Jarreau and others. She just returned from a tour of Japan, during which she promoted the album and recorded a theme for a Japanese television show, and in the United States “Red” is getting wide airplay on adult contemporary stations. It all came together fairly quickly, she said.

“I got serious about songwriting about three years ago,” Ebsen said. “Getting it together and honing it down. I didn’t know that I could do it, and then I started writing songs that just came out. It was a means of escape for me. I’d been writing songs forever, since I was little, but it was a question of whether they were good enough to play for someone else.”

The years of touring, she said, gave her a better feel for which sort of pop songs worked and which didn’t.

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“It was great being out with the other artists,” she said, “learning from their mistakes and from what they did right. They were such a diverse group: Chicago, Al Jarreau, Belinda Carlisle--how different can you get?”

Ebsen said she has always been a bit difficult to pigeonhole. Born in Santa Monica, she and her family--including five older sisters and a younger brother--moved to Newport Beach shortly after she was born. Her father set the family up in “a two-bedroom bungalow on Onyx Street, which is still there. Then he got a gig and we moved into a bigger house.”

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Her childhood was filled with oceanside life.

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“It was a lot of fun growing up down there,” she said. “It was like a special little place. All the kids hung out together, and we had the obligatory sailing lessons. My dad is such a sailor, and he insisted we all learn to sail.”

Some of Ebsen’s earliest memories of those years are of a kind of adulation at school, the result of her father’s television transformation into Jed Clampett.

“When ‘The (Beverly) Hillbillies’ came on, all of a sudden I was the most popular girl in school,” she said. “But that eventually settled down. My father moved us there partly to get us out of Hollywood, and it was a really nice place to grow up out of that loop.”

By the time she entered high school, she and part of the family had moved to Agoura, and she had begun to study piano and play in various rock and dance bands.

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“I was just constantly playing in bands,” she said. “It was a great way to meet guys, and all the cutest guys were in bands then. That was kind of my initial motivation.”

Slowly, however, that motivation changed. Though she still favored songwriting and improvisational playing, she recognized a need for a certain musical structure and entered the California Institute of the Arts as a music student. She wanted to study classical piano but said her musical reading was not up to standard. However, after she auditioned for a choir, she was encouraged to declare a major in classical voice. She obtained a bachelor’s degree in that discipline.

But, she said, what she wanted to do most was play popular music, particularly on tour.

“I started knocking on doors and cold-called management companies,” she said. “My first job was as a roadie for Chicago. I was a technician. I had a keyboard setup that I played offstage. But from then on, I had something to build on. All it takes is one or two good tours and you’re in.”

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She eventually played on tours and at other appearances with James Ingram, Dave Koz, Steven Bishop, Patti Austin and Tevin Campbell.

Three years ago, she was encouraged to play and sing her own music at Le Cafe. She was well received and has played there regularly since, in between recording sessions and other dates.

But, she said, her time away from the keyboard is usually spent at home at her ranch near Agoura, where she keeps a menagerie of animals, including several horses. She also paints and has had an exhibit at a Malibu gallery. One of her paintings, of a red coyote baying at the moon, was used for the album cover of “Red.”

One of Ebsen’s most ardent fans, as it turns out, is her mother, Nancy.

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“My mother’s very supportive and comes out to see me quite a bit,” said Ebsen, whose parents divorced several years ago. “It’s interesting now, because I was encouraged to do music when I was younger, but it was a very specific kind of music. My dad wanted me to play jazz, and my mother wanted me to do musical theater or opera. The pop thing was never exactly their first choice.”

She laughed. “Dad’s still not quite sure what I’m doing.”

* Kiki Ebsen opens for Al Stewart tonight at 8 at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. $17.50. (714) 496-8930.


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