From her third album, Butter, released earlier this year, comes this deceptively simple song from Karen Jonas. As she says, it’s a song “reflecting on the absurdity of the life of a full-time touring musician and the myriad characters one meets along the way from the perspective of a mother of four.” Very much in the classic country mould with some added folk, blues and the like, it’s quietly excellent.
KJ and Tim made this live BUTTER video for The Boot’s Guest Room Sessions - enjoy!
For The Boot's September Guest Room Sessions installment, singer-songwriter Karen Jonas performs her song "Butter" alongside guitarist Tim Bray. Readers can press play above to watch.
Jonas chose an entirely fitting setting in which to film her Guest Room Sessions clip: a kitchen -- but not her own. ""Butter" has a fun, retro-domestic vibe, about a mama who’s got it all put together, so we shot the video in Tim’s kitchen (because it’s cleaner and more stylish than mine!)" Jonas explains to The Boot.
With its vintage instrumentation and Jonas' striking vocals, this performance of "Butter" is equal parts polished and intimate. In this story, mama "loves straight whiskey" and makes fine Manhattans and martinis, turning the strait-laced identity of motherhood on its head.
"Butter" is the title track of Jonas' new album, released in June. Its subject matter is deeply familiar to Jonas, who has four kids of her own at home. “Whether I’m finishing up a gig at midnight or getting pounced on by my kids at 6:30AM, I usually feel like my life is a circus,” she admits. “So I started writing songs about my circus.” Bray, whom Jonas describes as her "guitarist, musical business partner and all-around best friend" for the past five years, joined Jonas for nighttime recording sessions at Wally Cleaver's Recording Studio in her hometown of Fredericksburg, Va., for the project.
Butter is out now on all major streaming platforms, and fans can catch Jonas out on the road this fall. Visit KarenJonasMusic.com for more details.
Singer-songwriter Karen Jonas released her third album, Butter, earlier this year. I caught up with her and her guitarist and producer, Tim Bray, before a show at Washington, DC’s Pearl Street Warehouse. In a wide-ranging interview, we discussed topics ranging from musical genres to discrimination against mothers to arts in the schools, as well as Karen’s personal background and influences.
Jonas came to my attention as an artist local to my region; I live in Arlington, Virginia, and she lives about an hour south, in Fredericksburg, as does Tim. Both Jonas and Bray grew up in the area: Bray is a lifelong Fredericksburg resident, while Jonas grew up Damascus, Maryland, located in nearby suburban Montgomery County, just outside of the District.
I asked Karen how she got involved with music when she was growing up. “My dad played guitar,” she said. “I sang in choruses at school, and started playing guitar when I was 16. I started writing songs right away, so that was what I wanted to do all the time.” Performing was a natural step, and followed shortly after.
Jonas’s musical hero was, and continues to be, Joni Mitchell. “The first Joni Mitchell record I heard was Miles and Miles,” she told me. One of things Karen admires about Mitchell, she said, is that, “She’s just so versatile.” Karen described Mitchell’s songwriting as “serious, but she also has fun. There’re some jokes in there.”
I asked Karen and Tim how they met. Tim answered, “I was going to go hear another band, and it was hot, and I was running late, and I popped into a bar that I never, ever go to, and she was playing by herself, and I thought it was amazing.” Although he “got to listen to her set [and] told her how great I thought she was,” Tim says, “that was kind of it.” Later, in what Tim calls “a happy coincidence,” they reconnected.
The issue of musical genre was a big part of my discussion with Jonas and Bray. Her second album is titled Country Songs, and if you search for her on Google, a sidebar will claim that she is a “country” artist. Neither Karen nor Tim feels comfortable with the label. Tim joked, “If you had a stack of $100 bills you could give us each one for naming all the artists that are on the country charts right now, [and] I don’t know if we’d make one.” Karen said, more seriously, “Country isn’t where I come from. I didn’t listen to it growing up, and I still don’t to very much country music.” She added, “There are a few artists in any genre that I listen to. It may be just one album from them, but I listen to it over and over. There are a few country artists I have fixated on their albums here and there but it’s definitely not my primary listening.”
Jonas prefers to classify her music as Americana. “I don’t like to get too caught up in it, but we’ve heard lately that we have some jazz and ragtime and blues influence on the new record in addition to the country sound, and I think that all fits well into an Americana genre.”
Jonas keeps up a full-time schedule of shows, more than 200 a year, while raising four children, ages nine, seven, two, and nine months, with her husband. I asked Jonas how the music industry can be more supportive of parents, particularly working mothers. “The music industry,” Karen told me, “is a hard industry for anyone to navigate whether you’re parents or just somebody trying to make it. There’s certainly no easy way unless you make it big and fast, and that’s pretty rare.”
While the music business is tough for everyone, Jonas has encountered additional challenges as a working mother. “I’ve played through two pregnancies, there’s just things that people discount me for because they know about your family and your personal life. ‘Well, she couldn’t do that because she’s got kids and she’s six months pregnant, or she’s got a baby, so let’s not give her this opportunity.’ Or maybe, ‘We can’t count on her longevity, because she’s just going to go raise her babies and not make music anymore.’ People really give don’t give mothers, especially, those opportunities. Women really need a voice in the industry because there are a ton of women out there who have had babies, obviously and still what write songs.”
One of the songs on Butter, “Mr Wonka,” addresses this discrimination. “‘Mr. Wonka,’” Karen explained, “is a story about a guy that we had a deal with sort of in the works, and I had to let him know that I was pregnant with my third baby, just because it seemed like good business practice, before we signed the papers, as far as timing of things, it was relevant. He sort of disappeared for a week and came back. He said ‘Yeah, we made some other plans. It’s not going to work out.’ I think that was a pretty direct opportunity there we lost, just because I was on the third baby, now I’ve got four, and we’re still going. It was unfounded.”
I asked Karen if her kids are taking an interest in music. “They just see what I do as a job,” she answered. At their young age, she said, they “gravitate toward all kinds of things. I don’t know if I want to pigeonhole any one of them into being musicians just because I am. I’d say they’re all artistically inclined.”
Do you think schools do enough with music and the arts, I asked? “Oh, no!” Karen exclaimed. “I wish they did! I wish that they had some stronger programs available for kids. It puts a lot of pressure on parents to buy into extracurriculars that will support arts, or have more things available for them at home. Which is fine, but not every parent has the resources to do that. It would be great if schools would support that, because I think it’s really important that kids’ creativity is supported.”
Finally, I talked to Jonas and Bray about music in the Northern Virginia area. Tim jumped in, saying “Our challenge is that we play 200-plus shows a year. So we really don’t get a chance to see many artists. If I have one or two Friday nights off a year, the last thing I’d do is go hear music.” They were able to recommend two acts they’ve worked with, though, blues-rock band Revelator and upcoming country artist Jason Morningstar, who has a song on the new Cody Jinks album [For our review of this album, click one of these bolded words.] Check for her tour dates, and album info, here: http://www.karenjonasmusic.com/
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.
We're excited to join the Seven Voices: A Patsy Cline Tribute!
September 5, The Hamilton, Washington DC
September 6, The Soundry, Columbia MD
Enjoy our (slightly technologically challenged) live video for SCENES Magazine!
Butter and more on Facebook Live via Oddbox Studios in Fredericksburg - watch it here!
Butter debuts at #23 on the June EuroAmericana Chart!
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.