Interview by Nick Cantwell for Belles and Gals
July 6 2017
I came across Karen Jonas earlier this year when I caught a listen to her second album ‘Country Songs’ and I became an instant fan – it’s easily one of my most listened to albums of the year. So I was absolutely delighted to catch up with Karen for a chat recently.
Hi Karen, can I start the interview by asking about your sophomore album ‘Country Songs’, which came out at the end of last year. You recorded the entire album live – what was the thought process behind that?
We did – both Country Songs and Oklahoma Lottery were recorded live in the studio, without vocal overdubs or studio tricks. We added some additional instrumentation on Country Songs, but the bones are all live. We’ve been playing some 200 shows a year for four years now, so it made sense to us to go straight for it. We also wanted to capture a very non-Nashville country sound, something raw and unfiltered. It’s a statement about what I think country music should be: real and genuine.
After the success of your debut album ‘Oklahama Lottery’ did you feel any sense of pressure when ‘Country Songs’ was released?
I was pleasantly surprised by the success of Oklahoma Lottery. We recorded it in a weekend for our friends and fans here in Virginia, but it received a much broader reception. I felt like we had plenty of ways to improve, both sonically and from a business perspective, and we worked hard to create a more organized and thorough release for Country Songs. We try stay focused on what we can control – that’s enough to worry about!
What I love about the album is the way you change the pace. One moment you’re delivering an emotional, vulnerable number, before moving up the gears and belting out a highly charged intense track. Two good examples are my favourite two songs from the album in ‘Wasting Time’ and ‘The Fair Shake’. I’d love a quick insight into both of these songs.
Thank you! Those are both very honest songs, and actually I wrote them about the same situation. Wasting Time is a sad recounting of unrequited love, and a dedication to something that isn’t working. The Fair Shake was written a few weeks later, in a moment of clarity, when I was reflecting on a bigger picture and the strength of letting go. I am really happy with both of those recordings, I think we were able to capture the true spirit of the songs in a way that supports the story.
Both of your albums have been released independently. I guess this has its advantages and disadvantages?
It sure does! We’ve been finding our way and learning so much. I think if we do eventually partner with a label, our DIY approach will benefit us because we have a pretty good understanding of how things work. Creative control is invaluable and not a sacrifice I’m prepared to make, but there is a machine in place with resources to help us to be heard by a broader audience, and I’m not adverse to tapping into that if the right opportunity presents itself.
You collaborate in your music with Tim Bray, who you also tour with. How did the collaboration come about and what gives the partnership that magic?
Tim and I have been playing together for about four years. He came to hear me play at a local venue and we started working together shortly after. We’re also best friends now, which helps immensely when it comes to long car rides, long gigs, and busy schedules. I couldn’t ask for a more supportive, fun, dedicated musical partner.
You recorded ‘Country Songs’ in your home town of Fredericksburg, Virginia. Tell us a little about Fredericksburg and how it has influenced your music?
When I started on the scene here I was more of a folk songwriter. The local bluegrass and country players helped me gain an appreciation for the country sound. Fredericksburg is also an amazingly supportive and growing community, for which I am very grateful.
On the subject of influences, which musicians would you say have had the most effect on your career?
Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan. I love the great songwriters. Paul Simon and Leonard Cohen too. For added twang, I’ve also developed a love for Hank Williams and Dwight Yoakum.
And give us an insight into your song writing process – if you have a set process!
I try not to work too hard at songwriting, a song will waft into my brain and I figure it out and write it down. I enjoy songwriting like a good jigsaw puzzle, all the pieces are there, you just have to put them in order.
I’ve just had a look at your schedule and you are certainly one of the hardest working artists we’ve featured. Does anything beat playing live music? And as a UK based website, please tell us that you’ll come and play over here one day!
We do keep busy, and it beats having a day job! We hope to make a visit to the UK in support of our next album.
To finish, tell us about your plans for the summer and the rest of 2017.
We’ve got a busy schedule into August, then we’ll take September off (maternity leave for me, I’ll be welcoming my fourth baby at the end of August!). We get back to work in October, in the studio and on the road!