Jennifer Kimball


Chapter Two (Veering from the Wave, 1998)

"Walk back down the aisle/No cameras, no flowers this time," she sang, swaying from side to side, with her eyes shut and thick hair closing over her face like a curtain. In her hands was a tiny stick of an instrument-- three strings, a sliver of a wooden body with a soundhole the size of a silver dollar-- on which she strummed hypnotic drones and fragments of chords. "You will find your way back home, no one at your side," the song continued. "Only absence will be your lover, regret your bride."

It was February 1997, and while the Toronto winter winds howled outside, a small group of listeners at the Folk Alliance conference sat mesmerized by this performance by Jennifer Kimball, known to most of us from her stellar singing with Jonatha Brooke in the folk/pop duo the Story. I didn't make the connection until later, but what we were hearing was as close in sound and spirit to the sweet melancholy of Joni Mitchell's Blue as anything I've encountered, especially because of the similarity between Kimball's tiny ax-- the Strumstick-- and Mitchell's dulcimer.

A year and a half later, Kimball sits in a Thai restaurant before a show at Berkeley, California's Freight and Salvage, shaking her head at the memory of the Folk Alliance showcase-- one of the first handful of shows she had ever played by herself, doing the first batch of songs she had written since college. "That Toronto thing was thoroughly intimidating and terrifying," she recalls, "because I felt like I could sing, but I didn't believe in my playing at all. It was so hard to get through the songs."

Listening to Kimball these days on stage and on her superb solo debut, Veering from the Wave (Imaginary Road), it's hard to believe that she was so lacking in confidence so recently. On Veering, Kimball works a similar territory as Patty Larkin or Shawn Colvin but strikes her own singular balance of hooky melodies and pop orchestration with eccentric rhythms, delicious dissonances, and off-the-chart chord moves. Kimball's singing is gorgeous throughout, her lyrics are literate and true, and her playing on acoustic guitar, baritone ukulele, and Strumstick is full of surprises and amazingly sophisticated considering that she only started to play these instruments seriously in the last three years. Clearly, Kimball has had this music in her a long time, but only after leaving her supporting role in the Story did she have the chance to let it out.

"All through the Story I didn't play," Kimball says of the duo she formed with Amherst College classmate Jonatha Brooke. "In the very beginning, we each played a lot of instruments, and I played some guitar and some piano and some drums-- it was just totally complicated. As we started to really play a lot of gigs-- we're talking about 1983, '84, '85-- we got rid of the instruments and eventually went down to Jonatha's one guitar. There was so much being said on that instrument the way she was playing it, so many beautiful things happening, and the voices were what was really hip." By the early '90s, the Story was on a roll, getting airplay on the new AAA radio format with the album Angel in the House (Elektra) and touring with such high-profile artists as Jackson Browne. But along the way the Story became more and more Jonatha Brooke's show-- her songs, her vision-- and, Kimball says, "I backed myself creatively into a corner."

When Kimball left the band in 1994 and began to consider new musical avenues, she opted away from the piano, which she had played for years as a child. "I didn't go to the piano, because I knew too much," she says. "And I thought, well, G7 is supposed to go to C-- I know that's supposed to happen. I know the relative minor of C is A minor. Those are very simple things, but I couldn't explore."

Kimball wound up being nudged in the direction of guitar by touring with Patty Larkin's band in 1995 and '96, singing and playing keyboards and tiple, the Latin-American instrument. "I played four chords on the tiple on 'Me and That Train,' off of her Stranger's World record-- a beautiful song," Kimball recalls. "It took away some of the fear, and it was fun to tour with her-- she's a very nurturing person in her own inimitable way, a very funny person. I put the capo on my guitar so it sounded like the tiple. I put the capo up on five, and I duct-taped the E string because the tiple starts on the A string-- that's the relationship. And I went off on that: all right, what can I do? That's why so many of my songs are up there in the fifth capo [position]. In fact, I don't have any songs without the capo-- its four or five or six or seven or eight. New songs, next record, no capo-- pure instrument. I'm learning so much about sound and how to play. Initially it was just pure energy going into what the notes were. What does it sound like harmonically? I was bashing away on the thing. I didn't have much finesse with it. That's why I started writing on the guitar."

The Strumstick and ukulele found their way into Kimball's hands through similar kinds of happenstance, and like the guitar, both were attractive to her because of their unfamiliarity. A Boston neighbor loaned her a Strumstick, the dulcimer-inspired travel instrument (see Gearbox below). "I thought it was so fun," she says. "Again, I had no idea what I was doing. I had never played a dulcimer. That, I think, was what allowed me into songwriting. It didn't occur to me that it had anything to do with anything I'd ever heard before, except for banjo, because it uses banjo strings. Way after I was playing the [Strumstick] songs, people started saying, 'Joni Mitchell, Joni Mitchell.' I didn't get it, and finally I remembered 'Case of You.'"

On Veering from the Wave, Kimball takes up the Strumstick for a full-band rocker on "Meet Me in the Twilight" and for the moving divorce song "(This Is) My New Vow," performed solo. On the latter, the Strumstick's lone little sound is devastatingly right for the mood. "That's a pretty naked song anyway," she says, "and then you're standing there with only this little broom in front of you. It's not like holding a big guitar. You can almost hide behind that." With three strings tuned G D G and a diatonic fingerboard (like a dulcimer), the Strumstick has serious harmonic limitations, but Kimball turns them into musical opportunities. "What's fun about that is that you can only get three notes out of it, obviously, and you've got to stretch [to get them] because two of the strings are an octave. So if you still hear other notes in the chord, you have to sing them." When the melody soars beyond the accompaniment harmony, as in the chorus of "My New Vow," it makes her voice soar all the higher.

As for the ukulele, Kimball's musician friend Ry Cavanaugh gave her a $30 uke to fool around with, resulting in the song "Lullaby" (played in the non-standard uke tuning of C G C F-- the same note relationships as the bottom four strings of a guitar in dropped-D tuning). "It was incredibly inspiring," she says of the uke. "Again, it sort of took away any fear or preconception of 'I'm sitting down with a beautiful instrument, I must write something.' It was just, 'Oh, what's this? Cool. . . .' Kind of go with your gut and your heart-- some other place where the judges are not sitting in a row with their wigs on."

On the guitar, Kimball's off-road chord voicings had convinced me before the interview thatshe was straying far from standard tuning, but in fact dropped-D (the sixth string to D) and double dropped-D (first and sixth strings to D) are as far as she goes. The ballad "Ordinary Soldier," for instance, is in double dropped-D (capo V), as is "Kissing in the Car" (capo IV), in which she four-wheels across all sorts of unexpected chordal terrain while still delivering an exhuberant pop melody. Accompaniment parts like these are the result of Kimball's highly evolved ear for adventurous harmonies and happy ignorance of standard guitar moves.

"I've always been drawn to dissonance," she says. "I love that in classical music. There isn't enough of it in folk music. But the combination of voices in a folk tradition and strange harmony from a classical tradition-- that sends me. There's nothing fancy about that; it just turns me on. It feels really great to find the dissonant notes. That was what I always loved about singing with Jonatha: holding onto a minor second dissonance for a very long period of time-- an uncomfortable time. I don't mind making people uncomfortable; I like this."

When she's not toying with harmonic tension and release, Kimball also keeps listeners on their toes with rhythmic shifts and syncopations. On one of the album's hippest and most unusual songs, "Take One Step," she and producer Ben Wittman-- former drummer for the Story-- fuse her (literally) off-beat guitar part with a funky, muted percussion track and Mary Chapin Carpenter sideman Duke Levine's "forwards and backwards electric and baritone electric guitar." The song's playful, experimental vibe is akin to Patty Larkin's home-recorded gem Perishable Fruit (High Street), an album on which, not coincidentally, Wittman worked extensively and Kimball sang backup. "She created this environment in which it was really cool to try stuff," Kimball says of Larkin's Perishable Fruit sessions, "and she'd be really honest about, 'You know, that's not working for me-- try something else.' And I would have to come up with idea after idea and sometimes layer them. Sometimes they used all of it, sometimes they just used one thing. It's like that working with Ben. It feels very free. It feels sage to experiment and criticize each other."

While Veering from the Wave establishes Kimball as a top-flight singer-songwriter, another project is percolating on the side: an acoustic supergroup called Wayfaring Strangers, led by fiddler Matt Glaser and featuring Tony Trischka (banjo), John McGann (guitar), Andy Statman (mandolin and clarinet), Bruce Barth (piano), Kim Whitney (bass), and Kimball and Lucy Kaplansky (vocals). "It's always on the verge of spinning completely out of control," Kimball says. "It's probably the most exciting thing I've ever done musically. It's bizarre and difficult." Glaser's evolving vision for the band, Kimball says, is "this place in music where it's cool to have a jazz solo and a bluegrass section, and then the Hasidic band plays on top of that and Lucy Kaplansky and I sing haunting, weird harmonies. And you have all these virtuoso guys just knocking your socks off. It's so humbling and beautiful to be on stage with them." To date, the band has only a handful of gigs and a few recorded tracks under its belt-- including a session with bluegrass elder Ralph Stanley singing "Man of Constant Sorrow"-- but with luck, we'll all get a chance to hear this extraordinary assemblage of talent.

All this is pretty heady activity for someone who just a few years ago had so little faith in her abilities and future in music. When asked to pinpoint what changed to allow her creative flowering, she reflects, "When you come from a place-- whatever place it is-- and you leave that place and venture one step in any direction that you don't know, it's like falling off the earth. You have no idea what you're going to do, how you're going to make money, how you will be in the world, how you will be seen." And with the self-possession of someone who's not only survived that leap but thrived because of it, she adds, "From there, I was free to start again."
Gearbox: What They Play Jennifer Kimball's guitar was built through a unique arrangement between John Colvin and T.J. Thompson, a Concord, Massachusetts-based custom luthier and restorer of early 1930s Martins. When Thompson worked as a repairman at Elderly Instruments in East Lansing, Michigan, Colvin came to him for advice on constructing a guitar and wound up building it according to Thompson's specs and under his supervision. The guitar itself was Thompson's payment for the consultation, and he later sold it to Kimball. It's an M-size model with a mahogany body and a German spruce top, thoroughly scraped up by a feverish rhythm player in an Irish band who borrowed the guitar from Thompson before Kimball got it. For amplification, the guitar is wired with a Fishman Matrix pickup and a Crown internal microphone, which run through a Fishman Blender system.

On stage, Kimball refers to her three-stringed Strumstick as "the love child of some illicit affair between the dulcimer and the broom." The Strumstick was invented by Bob McNally, who also designed the Martin Backpacker guitar, and it now available through Netstuff, PO Box 725, Neconset, NY 11767; (800) 472-0757; (516) 361-6921; fax (516) 979-6305. Thompson replaced the top on Kimball's Strumstick in order to improve the sound, fix some string-wear problems, and add a Fishman soundboard transducer into a box that, as Kimball says, "by all rights should never have a jack in it." In honor of her Strumstick ambassadorship, Bob McNally recently presented Kimball with two new Strumsticks, including a baritode model tuned D A D (the regular model is tuned G D G).

Kimball also plays a Martin baritone uke ("the D cup of ukuleles," she quips) that's amplified with a Fishman soundboard transducer. The cheap uke that got her started with the instrument is now her official "beach ukulele." Finally, she has a Martin T-28 tiple, the instrument that she first played in Patty Larkin's band and that inspired her to begin writing on the guitar. Her tiple is strung with five double courses, like a 12-string with the lowest pair removed.