by Stephen Hu
It was a busy 2017 for Fredericksburg’s foremost alt-country artists Karen Jonas and Tim Bray. They played over 150 shows, recorded a new album, and Jonas had a baby boy. The new album, “Butter,” will be released at a show Friday at The Kenmore Inn. The sessions for the album stretched out from January 2017 all the way through the beginning of this year.
“It was nice to have that time to listen and reflect every week on what we had done,” said Jonas. “We undid a lot of things and changed our minds. We had the opportunity to do that because we had time to think about it.”
“We would record after she put the kids to bed and I got off of work,” said Bray. “We would get there at 8 some nights and be out by 10:30 … Karen encouraged me to think through my parts a lot more. Most of the songs from the last album, we had been out playing live. It was new for me not to have the performance angle under my belt when you go in the studio and to come up with stuff on the spot. Karen did a great job of parsing all the instruments out.”
“Butter” covers a lot of new musical territory for Jonas and Bray. The songs have a variety of moods and styles. The title song has a swing feel, which is accentuated with a horn section arranged and led by Zack Smith of the Dixie Power Trio. Jonas and Bray had first asked Smith to add some improvised trumpet to the song “Icarus.” They were so pleased with the results they sent him some additional songs, but Smith heard an opportunity to add something more.
“We were looking at the next set of tunes we were working on and we thought we have to get Zack back in,” said Jonas. “So we sent him ‘Butter’ and ‘Mr. Wonka,’ thinking maybe he could come back in and put some trumpet on these two. He said, ‘Yeah I could do that but I’m kind of hearing this eight-part horn section.’ We said, If that’s what you’re hearing then we should do that. So he wrote all that up and brought in those guys.”
“That’s one of my favorite memories from the recording,” said Bray. “We didn’t know what it was going to sound like. It was Zack, Dan Haverstock on trombone, and Steve Patterson on saxophones. They went in and played all the different parts written out. They did one pass and we thought that was pretty crazy hearing it for the first time. Then we rewind and they do the second layer of it and then we thought, oh, this is it.”
Part of the difference in the recording process for “Butter” was the planning that went into recording each track. Producer Jeff Covert from Wally Cleaver Studio was an important collaborator in the project.
“This one we built in more of the classic way to record something, which is to layer everything up and start at the beginning, and work everything until I felt like it was perfect,” said Jonas. “[Covert] was a great sounding board for ideas. He helped ferry us along on a direction to keep us going. I think he hears a broader picture than I do. He was really great at working with us, with what we were trying to accomplish.”
“He was also a mediator between us and the other musicians,” added Bray. “We would say, I don’t know if I like that drum part. We would tell him and he would translate for us.”
The lyrics also reflect changes in Jonas’s life since her last album. A prolific songwriter, she keeps notebooks full of songs that give her a lot of material to choose from.
“I really enjoy the idea of an album as a broader concept than just a collection of random songs,” said Jonas. “I want the album to have some kind of theme to it. To me all of these songs tell a story about my life and what I’ve been up to, even though a few of them are from further back in my catalogue. Some of them I wrote while we were recording and some in between. But they’re songs I selected in order to tell a story. I didn’t want to record another heartbreak album. I think there’s more things to talk about.”
One outstanding track on the new album is “Mama’s First Rodeo.” Definitely a song written from experience, the sound is classic country up to the refrain which includes the word “bull[expletive],” which makes it unlikely to be played on the radio.
“We tried to explain it to the radio lady and she’s like. ‘well if you just say it once it’s probably OK, but that one was too much,’” said Jonas. “It’s about big talkers who don’t have a lot to back it up. There’s some BS-ers out there for sure and we’ve run into a few of them. We’re out working hard and trying to make a living at it. These people are saying they can do all kinds of things for us then not having the means or wherewithal to back that up. We don’t have time for that.”