Jennifer Kimball


Jennifer Kimball's Story: From Duo to Solo

Two hours before her show here at the Rich Forum, singer-songwriter Jennifer Kimball, attired in ripped jeans and an oversized sweater, is perched perfectly on the back of a chair talking about what it takes to sustain a successful career in music. Like a rookie in a major-league farm system, Kimball is having the time of her life but knows that while she has had to be both hardworking and talented to get even this far, it will take something more to move beyond her devoted but small following.

She may have it with her confident and original first album, "Veering From the Wave" (Polygram). The album, which is being favorably compared to the music of Sarah McLachlan and Shawn Colvin, is free of overblown and self-indulgent production values, just as her lyrics are intelligent, intelligible and free of the violent nihilism that many leading bands and rap groups have in common. Read aloud without music, her songs are compelling poems.

The most impressive attribute of the album, however, is the way in which she weaves together the threads of many musical traditions -- including early American folk songs, folk-rock, the Beatles, jazz, even a hit of klezmer -- to create an emotionally powerful and coherent chronicle of the loss and recovery of love in her life. This is not an album full of self-pitying dirges and laments. Kimball shows many sides and in doing so demonstrates a versatility with her music, voice and lyrics that is rare. And she is being noticed. Along with such luminaries as Emmylou Harris, the 34-year-old Kimball has been nominated for a Gavin Award for best alternative adult album of the year.

Not bad for someone who had never written a song or performed on her own until last year. While Kimball had not anticipated being on the verge of stardom, she has been in preparation for years. She has been singing and taking music lessons since she was three. She sang in church choirs from the age of 12 and organized and conducted madrigal groups. "I was the typical madrigal-group geek, getting up there to keep everyone in line," she recalls. Her love of and attention to harmonization paid off. While attending Amherst College in the mid-'80s she formed a band with her college friend Jonatha Brooke called The Story. The duo was popular in the Boston-Cambridge folk-rock scene, and Billboard magazine called their music an "airborne metaphor for heartbreak."

But The Story did not have a happy ending. In an earlier interview, Kimball noted that she ". . . had painted myself into a corner. I didn't write, and Jonatha was increasingly writing songs that were just for her . . . I had no creative place." The Story broke up in 1994. At the same time, Kimball herself was going through a difficult divorce and had no intention of going out on her own: "I didn't plan to be here," she said. "I had never written a lyric before, let alone sung one on my own." Instead she continued to provide harmonies and back-ups with other bands while starting to write her own songs. She saw songwriting as a way of getting on with life, not the means to start a new one. But when she and others heard what she had created, Kimball knew it was worth going to a music company for a recording contract.

Hence, she feels "triumphant" precisely because the artistic expression of her emotional turbulence of the past few years has been so widely praised. The tonal quality of her singing changes with the mood and lyrics of different songs. The first song on the album (soon to be released as a single), "Meet Me in the Twilight," is an audacious invitation to try again at romance. It is followed by "Kissing in the Car," a song that seeks to fight off the comfortable reality of relationships ("I'd say almost anything, or tell some kind of truth/ To be wild again and hungry and trust you"). "Gagna's Song," about her 97-year-old grandfather's readiness to die, is nearly chanted, like plainsong, underscoring both the finality and completeness of death with beauty and courage. ("Oh, there've been disappointments, but mostly I'm sure/I wouldn't change a thing for this world.")

While her lyrics are tone poems, Kimball uses musical dissonance to provide her music with realism and touches of edgy humor. "The Revelations," a buoyant affirmation of love, has the production values of "Penny Lane" but is quickly followed by the sparse sadness of "My New Vow," which chronicles the end of a marriage. It is followed by two complex and wistful songs about falling in love all over again, including the title song, "Veering From the Wave."

In that song there are hints of where she is heading. Kimball is not likely to play it safe. Indeed, the song with the most Top 40 potential, "Meet Me in the Twilight," is unlike anything The Story ever performed, more progressive rock or country-rock in sound and audacity. She says she can't wait to get past this first album and its final links to The Story, and she has written many new songs that take her in a different artistic direction than most other female songwriters are pursuing. "I bought myself an electric guitar this Christmas," she says with a sly smile. "The next time you see me, I won't be nice Jennifer." That may be true, but watching the evolution of Jennifer Kimball promises nonetheless to be a very nice experience.