Jennifer Kimball


Life in Harmony

A great and unique singer is returning to the Boston scene this month. Jennifer Kimball is making her first appearances as a bandleader in two years, some 10 months after the birth of her son, Waylon.

Singing at Toad in Porter Square, Cambridge, this Tuesday and next, Kimball will be fronting a superb band made up of local roots music notables: guitarists Duke Levine and Kevin Barry and singer/songwriter/cellist Kris Delmhorst. All three are featured on her upcoming, self-produced CD, to be released in the Fall.

Nationally, Kimball is still best known as the co-founder of The Story, the erstwhile duet act with Jonatha Brooke, which broke up in 1994. Kimball is returning to a singer-songwriter role after spending much of the early part of this decade working with group projects such as Matt Glaser's bluegrass experimentalists The Wayfaring Strangers, and Maybe Baby, the roots-pop outfit featuring Kimball's husband Ry Cavanaugh.

Over the past 10 years, Kimball has also become one of America's premiere harmony voices, having recorded her agile, angular and sometimes other-worldly harmonies with dozens of artists. Her most breathtaking work is with Lucy Kaplansky, collaborations Kimball calls "the most transcendent harmony singing of her life."

"I've always had my own voice. But in the last five years - my mom dying, having this baby, playing in a rock band with my husband, singing with Lucy in Wayfaring Strangers, being in Faith Soloway's (comic theatrical) rock operas - all of this has allowed me to develop my own voice as a writer and a performer, " Kimball says from her home in Somerville.

As Kimball embarks upon a new chapter in her professional life, she is, oddly, a victim of her previous success.

In a better world, the music industry might look at Kimball as a thrillingly singular vocalist who has already proved her ability to grow and progress. In 1994, when the Story broke up, Kimball was basically Garfunkel to Brooke's Simon. From 1994 to 1998, Kimball learned, from scratch, the crafts of songwriting and arranging. She kick-started a solo career for the first time, and learned guitar and ukulele. Her strikingly beautiful debut solo album, 1998's "Veering from the Wave" (on PolyGram) was the direct result of this amazing period of growth.

Yet in the real world, many in the record industry see Kimball as an aging artist on a downward financial spiral.

"The second Story album "the Angel in the House" sold 100,000 copies. My solo album sold 15,000. So if a label thinks of it purely by the numbers that's a massive failure, a disaster, " Kimball says.

Now in 2005, after the regional projects and the baby break, even the small, folky, once-adventurous labels are hesitant to take a chance on a hard-to-pigeonhole artist whose biggest sales are 10 years gone.

"Even small labels are very cautious now. They're afraid, and they want a sure bet: someone who's been touring nationally and steadily," she says.

And so, one of New England's great ideosyncratic talents is releasing an album on her own. Kimball says her new music is somewhat more mainstream, influenced by the rock, pop, bluegrass and jazz of her side-projects.

"My singing still flies around, and the bridges in my songs still take left turns, but some of the chords have straightened out a little bit. There's a bit more harmonic simplicity, more allowing the songs to tell their own stories," says Kimball.