woensdag 22 oktober 2014

Interview with Karen Jonas

Interview by Wout de Natris

© WoNo Magazine 2014

One of the first reviews on this blog was The Parlor Soldiers' first and only album, followed by an interview with Alex Culbreth. This summer we ran two different reviews of 'Oklahoma lottery', Karen Jonas' debut album. Two reviews full of praises. We thought it a good idea to let her have the word this time around and find out more about the (making of the) album and Karen herself.

Not all readers of this blog may have heard of Karen Jonas. How would you like to introduce yourself?
Nice to meet you all! I’m a singer songwriter from Fredericksburg, Virginia. I want to thank you all for giving a listen to my new record Oklahoma Lottery. We released the album in March and we’ve been growing with it ever since. It’s a pleasure and an honor to share my music with you. 

This summer and fall you’re bound on a tight tour schedule. How is the tour going so far?
We’ve had a busy few months! Tim Bray, the guitarist featured on the record, and I have been playing 3 and 4 nights a week since the release. It’s really exciting to see the momentum building. We enjoy our travels, Tim drives and I’m in charge of the radio and taking naps. It’s a lot of fun, just ask Tim!

Oklahoma lottery is your first solo album. How did you feel when you were able to share the album physically and online?
It’s an amazing experience to watch songs go from little sparks of ideas to a cohesive album. There are a million moving parts and variables that go into every step along the way, the record is the product of an infinite number of tiny decisions. I am really proud to share this record, and I’m thrilled by the impact its making on listeners. We’ve also pressed LPs for the vinyl enthusiasts out there. I love the way we have to focus on listening to LPs. You can put your iTunes on shuffle and listen for days, but the LP you have to pay attention and listen and flip it when it wants flipping. It’s an aesthetic experience.

I read somewhere that you recorded Oklahoma lottery in two days. It’s sort of unbelievable as this album sounds so tight and loose at the same time. Pray explain.
We recorded in two days, live at Wally Cleaver’s Recording Studio right here in Fredericksburg. It was a whirlwind experience, we were very focused. The live experience adds a lot of grit and authenticity that can’t be replicated. I think it was a gamble, and there are some spots that could have used another few minutes of attention, but the record is cohesive and genuine.

What makes the song Oklahoma lottery so special for you to name the album after it? (And what is the Oklahoma lottery for us non-understanding Europeans?)
Oklahoma Lottery is a song I wrote about the Dust Bowl, a historic moment in the United States in the 1930’s when a series of droughts and dust storms ravaged the plains. Farmers were forced to abandon their homes and fields and seek out a better life elsewhere. Oklahoma Lottery is a term that I invented to describe suffering and uncertainty of the affected people: “I’m sorry we’re losing the Oklahoma Lottery we’re praying on our knees, there’s no work to be done until the rain starts to fall so you pack up your old jalopy.” When I wrote the song I was having a hard time myself, my marriage had recently dissolved and I was forced to find a new place to live for myself and my two kids. I could feel the struggles of people who were leaving home, trying to find hope in a hard situation.

Oklahoma lottery received quite some praises. Were you surprised, “coming out of the blue”, as some people wrote?
I am so grateful to all of the reviewers who appreciated the record and spread the word. They’ve been instrumental in the growth of our fan base. We’re entirely independent, so we rely on reviews, live shows, our own networks and the internet to help us spread the word about the album. There isn’t really time to be surprised, we just keep moving forward!

The album in a very general way can be called a country album. Listening more carefully many different styles come forward. Who influenced you most while composing the album?
I learned to appreciate the art of songwriting from my personal favorites, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell. I have picked up some country influence since then, from Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, and current artists like Justin Townes Earle, Jason Isbell, and Gillian Welch. Mostly my writing follows its own guide, each song dictates its own form. All of my experiences influence my songwriting, including listening to other artists, but each song is unique and genuine.

Does a song when it comes to you dictate the form it takes later on?
Yes, I usually write songs in one sitting, guitar in hand. The musicians I work with aim to support the song. As we play them live, the dynamics and inflections evolve and cement, but everything aims back to the mood of the song as it was written.

The guitar is your instrument. What is your story on starting out on guitar?
I started playing guitar late in high school. My dad played me a Joni Mitchell record (“Miles of Aisles”) and I knew right away that I had met my calling. I got a guitar, learned a few songs from my dad, and started writing right away. I played mostly quiet finger-picking songs. I’ve picked up some country influence since then, and I developed the unusual thumb-strum style featured on the record to support the songs I was hearing,

Several lyrics to the songs are stories, others seem, at least from this distance, personal. What influences you in writing?
It’s true that I have two style of writing: for songs like Oklahoma Lottery and Suicide Sal I did some research about a topic and tried to really inhabit the characters and write from their perspective. Songs like Thinkin of You Again and The River Song are written from my own perspective. I like to think I am able to write in both styles compellingly.

Two titles stand out. ‘Get out of my head’ and ‘Thinking of you again’. They are sort of contrary, aren’t they? Do they look at two different periods?
It’s funny that you mention that, because those songs are written about the same person! I wrote Get Out of My Head before we started dating and Thinkin of You Again shortly after we broke up. I like to look at things from a lot of different angles. If I’m feeling really inspired about something I can write three songs in three days and they’re each completely different. Songwriting is an amazing way to process information and understand different points of view.

Several songs are about hardships in life. Where does this topic come from?
I’ve had my own share of tough times, and I’m pretty intuitive to the struggles of others. Music is one of the ways we have as a culture to talk about our personal struggles, to feel connected in our hardships. I think that’s really powerful and I don’t shy away from highlighting hard moments.

When you’re not playing a guitar, what do you like to do best?
I have two daughters that I spend a lot of time with when I’m not playing shows. They keep me grounded and directed.

You were part of The Parlor Soldiers. What happened to the duo?
They say all good things must end, and we met a pretty quick end for personal circumstances. I enjoyed playing music in that band and learned a lot from the experience. Maybe I even wrote a couple of songs about it.

What would you say is the main difference for you between the two records?
The Parlor Soldiers was a joint effort, Alex and I split responsibilities and decision making equally. So while I had half of the artistic control, that’s nothing compared to having complete freedom to take a song and an album exactly where you want it to go. Oklahoma Lottery is my songs, my voice, and my vision. I’m proud of that.

Was The parlor Soldiers album in any way an inspiration to you in the years that followed?
The Parlor Soldiers album was a big step in my own understanding of what I can accomplish. Our success inspired me to move forward with my own journey.

What are the chances of hearing you play in The Netherlands any time soon?
I’d love to travel to The Netherlands, we don’t have anything scheduled right now but we’d be happy to make a trip when the time is right. Y’all seem to have excellent taste in music.

My review of 'Oklahoma lottery':

Erwin Zijleman's review:

You can listen to and buy Karen's album on her Bandcamp site:

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