Penny Black Music Interview

Fredericksburg, Virginia based singer/songwriter Karen Jonas recently released her third solo album, ‘Butter’. Both her earlier albums, ‘Oklahoma Lottery’ (2014) and ‘Country Songs’ (2016) demonstrated that for all the country influences in her songs, Karen was not afraid to experiment by working in elements of blues, jazz and even ragtime into her music. Both albums were critically acclaimed and rightly so; not only is Karen a songwriter who could set astute lyrics to immediately appealing melodies but she has a powerful, commanding voice. 

‘Butter’ is Karen’s most personal set of songs to date. The title track relates what is not only the life of countless mothers throughout the world but is also a snapshot of Karen’s own life; that of a hardworking woman who still has to find the time to cook and look after her family and who manages to do all this successfully. The lines that are scattered through her songs like sipping whiskey before 5 o’clock as she’s preparing yet another meal and a few sly digs here and there about some of the devious characters the music business tends to attract go some way to making her songs even more believable. It’s not just Karen’s life that runs through this album, her lyrics will connect with many listeners, too. 

Despite the tenderness displayed in her vocals at times, there’s this underlying impression that you wouldn’t want to mess with Karen Jonas. There are songs where her vocals are nothing short of sensual, other times they are touching but there’s little doubt that this is the voice of a strong, powerful woman, one with something to say and you’d better listen. 

Karen Jonas maybe isn’t receiving, just yet, the attention from the music press that she deserves, although she’s doing just fine. There are those who are less talented both vocally and in their songwriting that are walking down a similar country path as Karen yet gaining far more attention. If Karen keeps releasing albums of original songs like ‘Butter’ then it won’t be long before all that attention is focused on her, although one gets the impression that even if her face were on the front of all the music monthlies Karen would still go her own sweet way and continue making music on her terms. ‘Butter’, even more so than her previous albums, shines because of the passion and enthusiasm that seems to come naturally to Karen as soon as she straps a guitar on. 

Currently touring America promoting ‘Butter’ while looking after a young family is not easy but Karen still took time out to answer a few questions for Pennyblackmusic. We thank her for her time and wish her all the best on the tour. 

PB: If my math is correct you were a mother of at least two children before your debut album, ‘Oklahoma Lottery’, was released in 2014, which would be a period when most mothers felt least like entering the music business! Why did you choose that point to release your music? When did you start writing and performing your songs? 

KJ: That’s true, in 2014 my daughters were three and five. I was a recent divorcée with no money and a part time job that hardly covered my child care costs. As it’s been said in many songs, I didn’t really have anything to lose. I was writing a lot and working through a lot when I ran into Tim Bray, Fredericksburg Master Guitarist and Organizer of Things. He helped me get my music out of my living room and into the world. 

PB: Apart from the obvious country influences that inform your music you also, successfully, blend in jazz and blues to name just a couple of genres that can be heard when listening to your albums. But country music was your first passion? Is that what got you interested in making music? 

KJ: Country music was not my first passion, and I’m not even sure if it’s my passion today. I come from a folk/songwriter background, my true loves are writers like Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and Leonard Cohen. I do love Dwight Yoakam and Hank Williams, but those are more recent interests. I love great songs and great stories. I don’t really care what genre they’re called. 

PB: Having guitarist Tim Bray on all your albums must have helped define your sound? How did your working partnership come about? 

KJ: When I moved to Fredericksburg and started playing the open mic circuit and little gigs here and there, people started telling me about Tim. Meanwhile folks were telling him about me. Eventually we met and started this project together, which has been a really defining part of my life and career. His guitar gives my songwriting that country twang, and he’s a really exciting live performer. He’s helped us reach a lot of ears, and helped me grow into the capable, successful person and musician I am today. 

PB: I read somewhere that you did 150 gigs in one year alone. That’s a lot of time away, especially for a mother of four children! What’s the most challenging part of being a working musician while being a mother? 

KJ: The hardest thing about being a working musician and a mother is finding time to sleep. Aside from that, scheduling really is a challenge. I’ve got an amazing fiancé and support system here to help me with the kiddos while I do what I do. We do a lot of shows within a few hours drive so that we can get back home after the gig. 

PB: Your albums are, I think, self-released, and this must also take up your valuable time. If an established label came along would you be tempted to sign? It appears from some of the songs on ‘Butter’ that you’ve not had good experiences in the past. 

KJ: We’re always looking to move forward in business, because I want to reach as many people as possible. As you mentioned, we’ve had a few false starts that led to a few snarky songs, but we’re building a great team now that we trust.  

PB: What advice would you offer to any other mothers who have musical aspirations but are unsure about how to take that all-important first step because they feel they maybe couldn’t cope? 

KJ: Surround yourself with people who believe in you, and prioritize your art. 

PB: Have you toured Europe? Any plans to tour there in the future? 

KJ: We have not, but we’d love to. 

PB: The vast majority (I think there is only one co-write over three albums) of your songs you write alone. Who would be your dream co-writer? 

KJ: Bob Dylan. Or Ryan Adams. Mostly I like to write alone. I write very personally. 

PB: Looking back on them now is there anything you would like to change on ‘Oklahoma Lottery’ or ‘Country Songs’? 

KJ: We tracked those albums live in the studio, so I didn’t get to make any vocal or guitar changes. I’m a real perfectionist, so I would love to go through and sing each song 100 more times. I think people appreciate the rawness of those albums though. 

PB: Do you have a particular favourite song from your three albums? One that means just that little bit more to you? If so, can you explain why it holds a special place? 

KJ: Different songs feel more relevant at different times. Recently, 'The Circus' has been my favorite. My life really does feel like a circus, and sometimes I’d just like to go have a good nap instead. 

PB: What can those who have yet to experience a Karen Jonas gig expect? I’m sure that, again, I’ve read that they can be a little lively! 

KJ: If you run on over to our Facebook page, Karen Jonas Music, we did a Facebook Live concert a couple of weeks ago where we tried to create a real performance atmosphere. Go give it a look! 

PB: What’s next after the tour? Spending time with your family is a given which makes me wonder; with what must be such a hectic life how do you find the time to write your songs and where do you do your writing? 

KJ: The tour never ends, if we’re not on the road we’re playing local-ish gigs 3-4 nights a week. I mostly write in my head. I take notes and then I pick up where I left off when I have a chance to sit down with a guitar. 

PB: Thank you.

3 Songs & Out Review

Karen Jonas’ career has followed the pattern of the past and shows why artists were given time to develop and not expected to seize millions of sales and fame on their first release. Her first solo album ‘Oklahoma Lottery’ contained gems but was rough around the edges with Jonas still finding her sound. Follow up album ‘Country Songs’ showed even more development with stronger songs and an added confidence to Jonas’ vocals. ‘Butter’ shows that Jonas (vocals/ acoustic guitar) and guitarist Tim Bray have made a stellar album that finds everything taken to another level from the wonderful vocals of Jonas to the added instrumentation. With all 10 songs written by Jonas, she establishes herself as one of the best singer-songwriters in my world right now. 

Lead song ‘Yellow Brick Road’ gets things started with an up tempo Country song crossed with some Soft Rock. On your first listen of the album, you might think this is the best singing you have heard from Jonas, and I will tell you that you will think this during all 10 songs. ‘My Sweet Arsonist’ is Country perfection with beautiful piano touches and a wonderful chorus that will burrow its way deep inside your head with each listen. I positively love the down and dirty 1940’s Chicago style horns by Zachary Smith, Steve Patterson, and Dan Haverstock on the title track and the sultry, Jazz infused vocals that I imagine would have Dinah Washington patting Jonas on the back. Bray provides a killer solo here that perfectly compliments the song. Jay Starling’s piano work shines bright here. ‘Gospel Of The Road’ deserves to be heard far and wide on Country radio, Roots radio, and Classic Rock radio. This song hits the soul hard with Jonas wrestling the happiness of homelife with the happiness of playing shows on the road. It has occurred to me that I might not hear another song for the rest of the year that taps into the magic of this one. I would love to see her make a video for this one. Heck, I think I have a treatment for one in my head now.  

Jonas shows new dimensions to her vocals across this album with the initial verse of ‘Kamikaze Love’ finding her singing with an intentionally tentative, delicate touch and then adds power as the song’s power increases. Backing vocals by Jeff Covert are subtle but add tremendous depth with Bray again standing out on the guitar throughout the song. The downhome traditional ragtime feel of ‘Oh Icarus’ is a testament to Jonas’ growth as a vocalist. She sings the notes effortlessly, and I find it easy to imagine everyone in the studio staring at her in awe as she lays down these vocals. The old time Country electric guitar introduces the 70’s infused Country crooner ‘Mama’s First Rodeo,’ as Jonas throws a warning out to those that might blow smoke her way. Clever lyrics here highlight that this record label man still has the tags on his western shirt, revealing how fake he is before he opens his mouth.   

Reaching the final turn of the album, a quiet acoustic guitar and a killer soft vocal introduce the waltz of ‘Dance With Me,’ and Jonas puts on another clinic of how to deliver an amazing vocal that will make the hair on your arms stand. ‘Mr. Wonka’ addresses an individual who promised big things and then revealed himself to be nothing more than a loser whose label missed out on a chance to have the album of the year. The horns add great touches and make an incredible song even better. There is an emotional weight with last song ‘The Circus’ that at times reminds me of the way ‘The Dance’ on Garth Brooks’ ‘No Fences’ album touched the soul.   

Jonas’ growth from album to album has been remarkable, and, while it is still early, I will go ahead and declare this the first classic album in her career. From the first note on this album to the last, I am entranced by what Jonas has done here in telling a story that leaves us begging for more. The best remedy for that I have found is to play all 10 songs again… and then keep repeating. I was positive that Wade Bowen’s latest would be my Country album of the year at the midpoint of the year, but this one might have just surpassed it and is an album of the year contender regardless of genre.   

IOU Music Review

Karen Jonas Continues to Define Herself With 'Butter'

It’s no secret that Karen Jonas is one of my favorite country artists; I’ve talked about how well she harnessed the alt and honky-tonk sounds in her two previous albums, peppering them with a healthy helping of strong female protagonists. With ‘Butter’ I knew the recipe would have a more personal feel, but what I was not prepared for was the genre-defying sound that would present itself throughout the album. Karen and crew took something that was working very well and bulked it up, making it even better than before, something I wasn’t sure was possible.

I pre-ordered and to say that I enjoy this album would be an understatement; so much so that I waited two weeks to write this, mostly because I wanted to really listen to it several times and be sure I wasn’t coming across as a super-fan who was going to like it regardless.

I really enjoy seeing an artist spread their wings and not feel locked into a certain style. Karen and friends took everything that worked well and added a few ingredients to create an album that straddles the lines of several genres. This hopscotch act creates something that can be appreciated by a wide audience, shows many influences, and evokes a mature sound.   

One of the hallmarks of Karen’s music has been the strong leading ladies featured in the songs; on ‘Butter’ we still have edgy heroines, but they are a bit more of a personal characterization now, allowing the listener to feel closer to Karen than ever before. That personal side shows, not only in the lyrics, but in her voice as well; she has never sounded so real. 

It’s kind of funny how many not-so-subtle jabs at certain snake oil salesman can be found if you listen. The quality of this album (Recorded at night, after the little ones went to bed) proves that Karen and crew don’t need anyone’s help to produce a quality product; they are certainly growing and honing their craft just fine on their own.

This album deserves a top-to-bottom listen, but my hands-down favorite has to be “Kamikaze Love” with its spooky undertones at start, its gradual build, and subsequent ease-out. My number two is going to be “Oh Icarus”, perhaps because it reminds me a bit of “Suicide Sal” with horns. “Mama’s First Rodeo” is number 3 with its unapologetic lyrics and honky tonk vibes. The rest are also top-notch and I suspect my favorites list will move around a bit the more I listen.

“Just like Abraham Lincoln said, ‘I Pity the fool’”… who doesn’t give this album a listen.

Karen and Tim are making their way up to NYC next month, which is a bit too far for me to drive, but if they ever make it to New England I’ll be in the front row throwing my Manzere (Or is it a bro?) on stage.

Innocent Words Presents 10 Questions

Innocent Words Presents IW10 with Karen Jonas

TEN: Starting in 2013, each Friday, Innocent Words started shining the spotlight directly on up and coming artists/bands with 10 questions we like to call IW10.

Members and Instruments:
Karen Jonas – vocal/guitar
Tim Bray – kickass big orange Gretsch or Tele with a seatbelt strap (safety first)
And sometimes Seth Brown on drums and Jimmy Griffith on bass.

Short Bio/Hometown:
I’m a country/Americana songwriting/mama of four in Fredericksburg, Va. Tim and I play an outrageous number of shows annually, and the rest of the time I chase my kids around and cook and do normal mom stuff. I rarely sleep, but if I get the chance, I’ll take a killer nap.

When you are on tour and you need to get away from everything and everyone what do you do?
I bring a pillow and blanket and sleep on the backseat floorboard. Not because I need to get away, just because I’m tired.

Name three people, living or dead, you’d love to have dinner with?
Can I go to dinner with Bob Dylan three times instead? I think the first dinner I’d be too nervous to talk, but by the end of the third we might be friends. If not, let’s go with Bob D, Paul McCartney, and Leonard Cohen. I’ll fall in love with all of them.

When you are out on tour where is your favorite place to eat?
When we have a little extra time I like to visit a local coffee shop.

Where would you like to play a show – city, state or specific venue – but haven’t yet?

Who was your first and who is your current celebrity crush?
Bob Dylan and Bob Dylan

What is the craziest thing one of your fans have done?
Some guy brought me a big trash bag full of stuff at Christmas time and chased me across the street with it when I didn’t want to take it. I’m still not sure what was in it, we drove off and the venue threw it away. Could have been anything, really.

What’s the most useless talent you have?
All talents are useful! I wish I could juggle or whistle or something. Tim is a really good mouth trumpeter. I saw a guy riding a unicycle down the highway main road here last week.

Folk Radio UK Review

Very much in the easy rolling honky-tonk style for which she won an Ameripolitan Awards nomination, Yellow Brick Road, the opening track on the Virginia-born Karen Jonas’ third album ‘Butter’ is a tad misleading. While  both the pedal steel laden Mama’s First Rodeoand the softer My Sweet Arsonist hark to the easy on the ear country of Dolly Parton, Gospel of the Road is organ backed barroom soul and Dance With Me is a slow waltzing old school country-soul ballad, there’s also a heady helping of jazz and blues.

The shift comes with the arrival of the title track,  which opens with a blast of horns and slides into a fat, brassy groove and bluesy guitar solo, slinking its way through the tale of a whiskey drinking mama who also happens to be a hardworking mother and a dab hand in the kitchen, making cooking with butter sound incredibly sexy.

Elsewhere, capturing the same sultry mood, Kamikaze Love is bluesy slow burn, Oh Icarus again brings a jazzy snap with its muted trumpet  and skittering guitar runs while the whimsical  Mr Wonka heads to the carousel for a swaying retro sassy sashay that, name-dropping Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant in her put down of some preening smarmer, has an old-school show-tune style.

From the fairground it comes to a close at The Circus, echoes of early ingénue Melanie to the vocals, backed again by Dustin Brandt on organ and Jay Starling’s piano, as, underlining the idea that the Yellow Brock Road may not be paved with gold and Oz may prove a disappointment,  she unfolds an I want to go home metaphor about discovering the world’s not  the life on the flying trapeze she’d imagined and that  “the Ringmaster’s kind of a creep” and “Everyone here has a mask on.”

It’s something of a downbeat ending, but, very much a reflection of juggling life as a mother of four as well as a professional musician trying to deal with the industry, this is an ultimately affirmative and self-affirming album. Spread the word.

Belles and Gals Review

Today sees the release of ‘Butter’, the third album from Karen Jonas. Previous albums ‘Oklahoma Lottery’ (2014) and ‘Country Songs’ (2016) were released to great critical acclaim – but already it seems that this is the best and boldest body of work from Karen Jonas yet

The title track ‘Butter’ sets a fantastic scene of a confident mother in the kitchen – she’s sexy, she’s a great cook and she’s sipping Whiskey at exactly 4.53pm. Here we have a character who’s not interested in messing around – the Whisky is straight and ‘Mama cooks with butter, You know the real thing‘ and the song sets the tone in some ways for the whole album. 

While not a concept album, the 10 songs have recurring themes – she’s been messed around by some in the music industry and she introduces these characters in the songs, Karen a singer who is now wise to and fed up of those who make those big promises. The album also focuses on being a mother/singer and finding the right balance between the two. By the end of the album you feel you know Karen Jonas and you’ll like what you find.

As with her previous albums, the singer is not going to be pigeonholed into one genre. Yes, there is an overall country feel, but throughout the album you’ll hear blues, jazz and many other influences.

Many reviews move from track to track, but while highlights for me include’My Sweet Arsonist’ and ‘Mama’s First Rodeo’, this is an album that needs to be listened in its entirety. A first class album from an artist who is at the very top of her game.