by Michael Witthaus
A shifting music business landscape has turned the studio into a luxury for many performers. Jennifer Kimball had no plans to make another album after 2006’s Oh Hear Us, but on her birthday two years ago, she received a surprise gift from her husband, Ry Cavanaugh: a recording session with an A list of Boston players.
In a recent interview, Kimball — a fixture in New England music circles since her early ’90s time with The Story — recalled the sweet subterfuge that began a process culminating in her new LP, Avocet. It started when close friend and fellow singer-songwriter Kris Delmhorst concocted a story about needing to drop off a guitar at Somerville’s Q Division studio.
“I completely believed her,” Kimball said. “We walk in to give the guitar to Peter Mulvey, with whom she’s playing later, and I know everybody. I said, ‘Who are you recording?’ and no one would answer me. Then my oldest and dearest friend in the room, Duke Levine — an amazing guitar player — said, ‘It’s your session; we’re doing your songs.’ I just lost it; I cried, and then we got to work.”
The work that day resulted in six songs but left Kimball wondering if the experience was simply a great day, or something more.
“After the session was so fun, I was stumped again,” she said. “Now what do I do?”
Among the musicians at the session was one Kimball hadn’t met before: Alec Spiegelman, of Brooklyn chamber pop band Cuddle Magic.
“Ry thought I would love working with him,” she said, and it turned out that the feeling was mutual. “He loved the project, and he took it on.”
Spiegelman brought his bandmates along to make the rest of the record, and what resulted is different from anything in Kimball’s catalog.
“That sound is all Alec and Cuddle Magic,” Kimball said. “They’ve played together for so long and have this real chemistry. They’re all New England Conservatory graduates; that’s where they met.”
Kimball describes Cuddle Magic as “avant folk pop electronica,” and said Spiegelman’s production exposed her songs in surprising ways.
“He unwound them to their essential notes, from the way I played them back to him,” she said. “My instruments basically disappeared into these saxophone and flute lines. It’s magic.”
The unique sound of Avocet is another departure in a career that’s included a few. After The Story split, Kimball rocked it up with Maybe Baby, a Somerville supergroup that included Cavanaugh, Levine and drummer Billy Beard. She later covered Crowded House on her first solo record and has always charted an unconventional path.
“I’ve never really thought of myself as a folk musician, and that’s what I get called, because I’m sort of pretty to listen to, I guess,” she said. “But I didn’t grow up listening to folk ... and I still don’t really know much about traditional folk music. Even folk pop music was pretty far from my early vocabulary. I think I’m drawn to a wide variety of sounds, and I don’t want to be pigeonholed into any one place.”
One constant is the personal nature of Kimball’s songwriting. “Love & Babies,” “All Truth is Better” and “Someone to Read To” reflect her experience as a mother; her son is now 10 years old. “Reedy River,” written on her first tour after his birth, is particularly evocative.
“I missed him so badly,” Kimball said. “There was a heat wave in South Carolina [and] people were wading into the river in the middle of town in this beautiful park and I saw this woman swishing her baby’s feet in the water — it was so moving to me.”
The record’s title comes from a nickname given to her late mother, repeated on “Love & Birds,” the record’s second track.
“Mom had a friend who called her an avocet, an elegant, and to East Coasters, exotic and unusual bird,” she said. “Long-legged ... a little bit aloof, kind of beautiful. That was my mom.”
To mark the release of the new CD, Kimball will perform a short run of shows with Spiegelman and Deni Hlavinka, of alt folk band The Western Den, that includes a March 21 show at Portsmouth Book & Bar.
“Now that I’ve been introduced to this new form of playing, this is all I want to do,” Kimball said. “I just want to play gigs with Cuddle Magic.”