Gift started it all for singer-songwriter Jennifer Kimball
Ten years had passed since acclaimed Somerville-based singer songwriter Jennifer Kimball (who was one-half of the late '80s/early '90s outfit The Story) released her last record. Ten long years. Lucky for us, she was granted a unique birthday gift, and out of said gift came "Avocet." Kimball will be celebrating that release and more when she plays at the Book and Bar in Portsmouth on Tuesday, March 21st.
Seacoast Media Group caught up with Kimball to chat about, well, everything.
SMG: Well, let's jump right in and talk about "Avocet." Your first solo record in 10 years? It's been awhile. How does this feel? What all went into the making of this record?
Kimball: It feels fantastic. I am reveling in this moment. But at the same time, it's a little scary. The landscape of the music business is so changed. I am learning how to navigate though and really enjoying the new tools: social media, crowdfunding, bandcamp. In the end, the game is the same. How do you get anyone to pay attention to your little project?
SMG: What all went in to the making of this record?
Kimball: Well, the usual heart and soul, and disproportionate number of hours worked versus time paid. But this one really has an interesting story, one I'll get into in your following questions. The songs had been written over the 6 to 7 years since my last record. And in brief, there were three phases to "Avocet:" first, the surprise birthday recording session to start it all off, a session which captured four tunes, two of which made it onto the record: "Reedy River" and "Saturday Day." Then after Alec Spiegelman took the helm to produce a full-length record, there were two more phases: basic tracking with a new band at Old Soul in Catskill, N.Y., followed by many overdub sessions at Christopher McDonald's home studio in Philly doing vocals, sax and flute overdubs, percussion, bass, etc.
SMG: Is it true that the "beginnings" of this record happened to some degree with a birthday gift presented to you by your husband (Ry Cavanaugh)?
Kimball: True! Bit of an unusual (and fabulous) beginning to the making of a record. The surprise session was truly a surprise. I had no idea, not even an inkling. Ry enlisted our friend Kris Delmhorst to take me to Q Division under the pretext that she just had to drop off a guitar for Peter Mulvey before taking me to my next "thing." And Peter was hanging out at Q for some reason. All I knew was that Ry had asked me to keep my birthday day free and that it was beginning with coffee with my best friend Kris D. In the meantime, the session Ry had orchestrated was getting set up at Q; he'd chosen a band, chosen the songs, got the demos off my computer, brought in our friend Billy Conway to produce and Matt Beaudoin to engineer. It was an incredible gift. I'd been feeling unclear about how to proceed with the songs I'd been writing. And was looking for something new, perhaps a bit quirkier than the sounds I'd been making with a kickass rock band for the preceding five to six years.
So Ry brought together a bunch of musicians for this session who represented both worlds for me – new friends and old friends. He didn't intend to put the pressure on to make a record. It was just a session for my birthday – to record some of the songs I'd been playing for five to six years already. It was an incredible gift.
SMG: Music. Why do you seek it? Why do you create it?
Kimball: I can't seem to stop writing songs – or at least pieces of songs. It's a combination of words and music that I feel pulled toward. I've always loved both – writing little poems, letters, essays and playing little melodies and chord progressions on the piano or guitar. Hard to unravel all the mysteries that lead to these compulsions. But somehow they bring me contentment, a sense of peace, completion.
SMG: You've walked an interesting path in regard to your artistic endeavors. Obviously, you're known for your part in The Story – a major label entity – and now, as an independent artist. How has the industry changed with regard to the way records are made, marketed and sold? What is your appreciation for both ends of the spectrum?
Kimball: Well, the major labels basically played a dirty game, but they sure funded projects. The scale was always tipped in their favor financially, but the benefit for artists was that they threw a lot of money around upfront; money that put you on the road with a band when you couldn't have afforded it yourself. Money that paid for radio promotion, publicity, studio time, salaries. The old system of "pay to play" (for radio) is still in place, albeit for slightly less dough. But who knows if airplay makes a difference in this new era of fragmented listening and streaming. It's still the same dilemma of figuring out publicity – how do you get anyone to pay attention to your music? While you don't need a major budget anymore to make a beautiful sounding record, you do need to figure out how to attract and hold an audience. It's still about putting on a great show. And being lucky.
Streaming has changed everything though. It kind of levels the playing field. But it's still the major artists who dominate. Sadly, we don't earn hardly anything from getting our songs streamed. It's too bad that our performing rights organizations haven't kept up and sued the hell out of Spotify to pay songwriters for "plays." In the meantime, musicians have to tour harder and sell other stuff to make up the difference in lack of record sales.
I'm grateful for the big rides I had on major labels. They gave you such a lift in terms of publicity and reach. But I don't miss the bureaucracy and the lunacy that such a small group of (mostly) male executives got to decide which bands they wanted to "make it." Indie music making is a smaller adventure, but it's yours. Nowadays the model is that you reach far fewer people, but they are hard-won fans and they are yours. They actually listen, actually support what you are doing. They are not casual fans.
SMG: Somewhere along the line, you also became a landscape designer. I find this fascinating. How does this profession inform your music/writing? How does music/writing inform your design practice?
Kimball: Landscape work and design are kinds of work I've always loved to do. And to be able to keep your head in the clouds while you work outside as a freelancer has been a real gift. When I was in my late-30s and 40s, it was the perfect part-time work while I was touring – and then parenting. I went back to school and got a degree in landscape design from a program at Harvard called the Landscape Institute. And I cobbled together a couple of different kinds of work in that industry; I have a small practice of my own designing landscape for local clients – small urban backyards. I also draw illustrative landscape plans for a colleague in Arlington. With a pencil, I might add. I just love that work. Pruning trees and shrubs is still at the top of my favorite kind of work list. But I don't do that much physical work anymore.
I would say music informs design more than the other way. There's so much rhythm and melody in the initial phases of drawing; so much art in brainstorming. I've written a whole lot about trees – and some of that writing has found its way into songs. On this record, I've also taken three poets' work and basically written music with their words. "The Valley" (Track 3) explores the idea that just as trees are in a constant process of dying and renewal, we as humans pass in and out of the past and the present, the way the natural world does. "In earth, in blood, in mind, the dead and living into each other pass." That's Wendell Berry I've quoted and paraphrased in The Valley. About five years ago, I tried to sing a song naming all the New England native trees in the verses and two of their Latin names in the chorus. "Liquidambar Styraciflua" was the title. Not so successful. But fun to try!
SMG: You're heading up to Portsmouth to play a show at the Book and Bar. What excites you about getting up here to the old Granite State?
Kimball: I've always had an affection for the town of Portsmouth since performing with The Story in the early '90s and checking out Bull Moose. But now that we can hang at Jon Strymish's joint and get caffeinated while we read Proust – THAT is delightful. Plus it doesn't hurt that we can sleep at home after a Portsmouth gig. Always a plus.
SMG: What can you say about BandB proprietor Jon Strymish? Heck of a dude ... Great set of ears. Great set of eyes.
Kimball: Brilliant photographer, bibliophile, music fan, sweet man. Yes, heck of a dude. What's not to like? There are so many musicians from Boston who come up and play at the BandB because of our connection to and our love for Strymish. He has been so supportive of musicians for so many years – coming out to gigs with his camera and taking the most fantastic, unusual photographs of us working. Strymish is one of those quiet community builders. Generous. Supportive. Portsmouth is lucky to have him.
SMG: What can folks expect when they come out to see you play?
A great show! Joining me will be the producer of "Avocet," Alec Spiegelman, on bass clarinet, keyboards and vocals, and the lovely vocalist Deni Hlavinka singing with me and playing keyboards as well. I switch between guitar and baritone ukulele. There will be three-part harmony singing, interesting lyrics, grown-up love songs - like about reading to each other - and melodies/chords that people seem to find compelling. When was the last time you enjoyed a nice bass clarinet line with a baritone uke and two ladies singing? We'll play lots from the new record as well as songs from my first two records and some covers.
Go and Do
What: Jennifer Kimball in concert
When: 8 p.m., Tuesday, March 21
Where: Portsmouth Book and Bar, 40 Pleasant St., Portsmouth
More info: www.bookandbar.com