The Story's Jennifer Kimball Makes Folk Music for the New Century
It’s an era of pop sensations jump-started on YouTube with marriages played out on Twitter, I know. The notion of a straight-up commitment to songs is quaint, the idea of poetic lyrics is overly hopeful, and the strategy of ignoring commercial appeal is… foolish. It’s an era when deciding to major in English instead of business is the act of a dreamer.
Love live the dreamers, I say. Folks like singer-songwriter (and long-ago English major) Jennifer Kimball.
Kimball has just released her first recording of new songs in over a decade, Avocet. It’s a truly original recording, a unique collaboration with Alec Spiegelman of the indie band Cuddle Magic, and a set of songs with the power to haunt you from daylight to sleep.
PopMatters interviewed both Kimball and Spiegelman to better understand why we can’t stop listening to Avocet.
The Story of Jennifer Kimball
Jennifer Kimball is the most accomplished songwriter and pure singer of the moment that you might have once loved (even if you don’t know her name) and then forgotten about. In 1981 she met Jonathan Brooke during their freshman year at Amherst College in central Massachusetts, where they started harmonizing and, eventually, playing duo gigs in the area. Lit degree in hand, Jennifer spent some years working on book jackets for Little, Brown after graduation. But the music was growing.
It didn’t happen overnight, but she and Brooke kept singing and—eventually signed to Elektra Records as The Story—released two acclaimed recordings in 1991 and 1993. Kimball wasn’t writing the songs and was thought of as the harmony singer, but, ooh, whatharmonies.
It was the early edge of a time when women were starting to make a bigger splash in the music industry. The Indigo Girls (another harmonizing duo) were making great records. Shawn Colvin was singing back-up for Suzanne Vega, and both were making cool, independent sounds. Tracy Chapman, also out of the Boston scene, had led the way to the pop charts for women singing real songs with real stories. Soon there would be Sarah McLachlan, The Cardigans, Fiona Apple, Lisa Loeb, and Joan Osborne. In 1997, the first Lilith Fair Festival would bring all these acts into a kind of moment.
By then, The Story was history but Kimball’s first album as songwriter and lead singer was in the works. Veering from the Wave came out in 1998, produced by drummer Ben Wittman and featuring Duke Levine on guitar, both from her days with The Story. It was something different, however: quirkier, more poetic, more rife with jazzy twists and turns, more… Joni-ish. Like Mitchell’s great albums, Veering from the Wave seemed like a travelogue in search of love (“Kissing in the Car”). A song like “Take One Step” can tell you what’s special about Kimball: a poetic story-song of flirtation set in Newfoundland and in a jagged version of waltz time—“Let my hand go in yours / Don’t look sideways / Don’t look sideways”.
Indirection, rhythmic complexity, poetry, and Newfoundland? Were she a novelist she’d be two-time National Book Award nominee Howard Norman. As a part of the music industry, though, you were supposed to move more product.
There was no more recorded work for eight years (Oh Hear Us in 2006), and then silence for more than a decade. In the meantime, Kimball was busy with the stuff that artists turn into songs: love, marriage, motherhood, reading, family, and the nicks and dents that the years provide.
Still, Music Throughout
Not that Kimball wasn’t making music. For one, she married Ry Cavanaugh, the musician behind Boston’s superb Session Americana roots/ rock/ folk collective. Their musical lives intersected with a who’s who of that genre and that town, including guitarist Levine, Rose Polenzani, Patty Griffin, and Aoife O’Donovan.
Both Kimball and Cavanaugh were connected briefly with Wayfaring Strangers, Matt Glaser’s like-no-other band that mixed folk, jazz, klezmer, and bluegrass. Kimball formed a band with Cavanaugh for a while (Maybe Baby), she sang harmony for all sorts of talented folks (Lucy Kaplansky, John Gorka, Kris Delmhorst, Tony Trischka, and lots more), and she even put together a project, Wintry Songs in Eleventy Part Harmony, to record some seasonal material.
But there’s a good argument that Kimball was saving up her stories for something special, for the right moment.
“I didn’t need to make the record,” Kimball says. “It’s almost impossible to sell a CD these days.”
“I’ve never been that person who has to put out a record every two or three years,” she admits. “I’ve always been impressed by those ‘90s singer-songwriters who can do that and have a nice career. There have been some nice role models—women of my generation who are in the forefront of music like Shawn Colvin and Patty Griffin.”
Why a new record now? “I do it because I love it, but also because I want people to hear these songs.”
Sometimes, too, the recording process itself is a catalyst. And that was certainly the case with Avocet. It started as a surprise birthday present from Cavanaugh to Kimball—a recording session at a top Boston studio. “The session introduced me to Alec Spiegelman and drummer Dave Flaherty,” she explains, who she knew from their work with the avant-pop band from Brooklyn, Cuddle Magic.
Spiegelman found himself in that first session because he had fallen into the Session Americana circle. “They are like my cool older musical uncles in Boston—an incredible collective. I was privileged to gain their notice at some point and enter the orbit of collaborators. I was invited to that birthday session along with Dave Flaherty, the drummer from Cuddle Magic, Kimon Kirk on bass from Session Americana, guitarist Duke Levine, and producer Billy Conway who was one of the two drummers in the band Morphine.”
After the first session, Kimball had whet her appetite. It was time to really make a great record. “I feel, now in middle age, like I really have something to say. And I think my writing has gotten better. I wanted to make the record and work with Alec. I fell in love a couple years before with Cuddle Magic and the music they make. I don’t like to make distinctions between styles of music.”
“I think,” Spiegelman says, “they wanted someone to bring some of the Cuddle Magic aesthetic to the project, I guess. And I think they were looking for someone who was a little outside of Jennifer’s musical orbit.”
Kimball talks about choosing Spiegelman to reimagine her songs and those first recordings as if she were still inside the excitement of it. “I know that he is a musician with huge ears and a monster player. He has an incredible sense of humor and still a gravitas. I’ve always been drawn to people like that. It was a leap of faith—we’d never even had coffee together.”
Folk Music Meets the 21st Century
The result is a recording that dodges easy comparison or explanation. Kimball’s songs are extremely literate and lyrically interesting; their melodies and harmonic progressions avoid cliché at every turn, managing to be beautiful and lush but still quirky; and Spiegelman’s arrangements bathe the songs in stuttering, modern drums patterns, shivering and delicate woodwind parts, chamber-pop use of vibes, cello, and keyboards. It’s a brilliant combination of fresh ingredients. It’s a musical meal with flavors you barely know and, then, crave more of.
“I definitely made two aesthetic choices in the development of this record.” Spiegelman explains. “One was to learn the idiosyncrasies of Jennifer’s voicings and her musical quirks, and the other was opening up the possibility of using other instruments and hiding the origin or her quirks.
“I had a desire not to reharmonizes or rearrange anything or in any extreme way to add what wasn’t there I wanted to bring out the existing elements while removing evidence of where they came from.”
A Musical Meal
Kimball—mostly—knew what was on. “I was very turned on by this process,” she confesses. “He never said that by the end I wouldn’t have very many instrumental tracks on the record. I would sometimes correct him, explaining that the key note in the chord is the 11 or something. I was so moved by his attention to that kind of detail. I put my full trust in his ears to create the arrangements.”
This is clear from the very start of Avocet. “Reedy River” begins with a few clarinet lines slowly intertwining around a harmony that could have come from a guitar… but there’s no guitar. Syncopated brushes against snare drop from drummer Dave Flaherty, and then some electric guitar (no folkie strumming, thanks but no thanks), and finally Kimball’s merlot voice—creamy but with an edge. Horns will find places to play quick flourishes, but nothing distracts from the tone poem of words: a pair of people along a riverbank who are bound together (“We threw our shoes along the steep bank / And rushed from winter into June”) but who are no more in the heat of passion than the water itself: “They don’t rush the way they once did / And neither do we towards each other”. It’s an adult moment and a love song of a different kind.
Most of Avocet is decidedly more funky, but in a new way that threads different musical styles into something fresh. Spiegelman understood from the start of the project that he was seeking a special combination. “We tried to find something groovy and exciting but within that basic folk music frame.”
Generations Find Each Other
The key to much of this recording is in Flaherty, the Cuddle Magic drummer.
“What I know and love about playing with Dave,” Kimball gushes, “is that he doesn’t sound like any other drummer I’ve played with. It’s a complete and utter joy. Locking in with him is a whole other thing.”
SONG: LOVE AND BIRDS
“Love and Birds” is a great example, opening on a super-funky groove that somehow incorporates bass clarinet, flute, electric guitar, and saxophone—as well as thumping electric bass. Flaherty plays straight 4/4 time that is stuttered and syncopated, derivative of ‘90s hip-hop rather than ‘90s folk or pop or even funk. It has a precise, insistent, off-kilter groove that remains unpredictable even upon repetitions. (That this thumping, modern tune also appears to be about memories of Kimball’s mother—a singular, independent woman compared to an avocet, a curious water bird with legs and beak of spindly grace—is perfectly fitting.)
How did Flaherty come up with such a killer groove? “He does something here that we also do in Cuddle Magic,” Spiegelman explains. “You’re not doing your job on a song if you don’t create something novel for it, some way that the beat is unique and has a relation to the lyric and the vocal melody. In a song like ‘Love and Birds’, Jennifer was already playing this very rhythmic, rocking-out pattern, and I wrote a bass line that was contrapuntally interesting relative to the existing vocal melody. Dave was negotiating in between those elements to come up with his part.”
The blending of generations could’t be clearer. Kimball notes, “These guys are all around 30, and they’ve had a chance to branch out. There is an intense precision to the way Dave plays, a focus. But it is never without emotion or feeling.” It’s like Joni Mitchell made a record with A Tribe Called Quest, to our ear.
You can hear it on “Saturday Day”, for example. Flaherty’s drums are, essentially, the instrumental hook, leading the band from the bottom up. “Dave is a fan of hip-hop and other music that really explores what a beat can be,” Spiegelman notes. He does the same thing on “I’ll Build You a Barn”, where the drum groove—almost entirely kick drum and snare in impossible-to-emulate syncopation—has a tribal quality that matches the lyric (borrowed, says, Kimball, from poet Mary Burchenal): “I’ll build you a barn / To hold all of us / The door will swing wide / Swing wide enough for everyone”.
With wise lyrics and grooving arrangements that simply couldn’t have been created 20 years ago, the music itself does seem wide enough to hold lots of listeners. “I think about the generational thing a great deal, in terms of how the music business has changed since the last time Jennifer made a solo record,” notes Spiegelman. “The way I think about making records—and a singer-songwriter record particularly—isn’t the same as how others might do it. Maybe some things are characteristic of my generation. But I was so excited to work on this record because Jennifer is a special kind of songwriter. Many songwriters of my generation don’t do what she does: she writes from her own, odd world of lived experience and musical experience. There is unexpected stuff that only she would come up with.
“Maybe what makes it work is that we’re the same kind of quirky weirdos across a generation,” Spiegelman concludes. “We found each other.”
Stories of Middle Age, Transformed
Lyrically, Avocet is intimate in ways that take some time to appreciate. “Someone to Read To” is a song that performs a brilliant flip. A story about the pleasures of reading to someone at night (we presume, at first, a child), it then has the narrator promise “I’ll be your someone to read to at night”. That is, the reader promises to become the audience down the line. Kimball feel that this song “is like the center of the record. It’s a love song about being content and being thankful for being able to read to somebody. I have some friends I wrote it for. It’s not sexy, but comforting. It’s about accepting things in middle age. And, yes, it’s also something about reading to a child or to an aging parent.”
Spiegelman found a way to keep “Someone to Read To” gentle while still letting Flaherty do his thing. “We took the voicings Jennifer had been playing on the song and turned it into a lead sheet and gave it to the band, and then the guitarist came up with a West African-sounding ostinato.” Spiegelman’s overdubbed flutes are like the words of the lyrics, “ris[ing] and swirl[ing] in the salty night air”.
“Love and Babies”, a dreamy anthem to the stir that every parent feels deep inside, is another song that surely would have sounded very different on another album. The lyric is full of gentle wonder: “With hope’s little hand wrapped around your finger / No beginning nor end has joy / Know it now, now is love”. The arrangement, however, tacks a different direction, driven by an off-kilter groove with a martial quality. Kimball explains: “That started as a little guitar thing, nothing to write home about. I wrote it on a tiple, a Spanish instrument with ten strings. The whole arrangement is Alec. Dave Flaherty had come up with a pattern on electric vibes, and Alec was playing the pump organ. The chord structure and vocal harmony were already in my head, and I kept it there over the elaborate, bouncy new landscape.” Add to that what sounds like a short, electronically distorted flute solo and you have something singular.
“It’s really refreshing to hear a new version of that you wrote,” Kimball elaborates. “I don’t need to hear another strummy-strummy acoustic guitar record, especially if it’s me playing.”
The most folky-strummy song on Avocet is “All Truth is Bitter”, a delicate song about a difficult break-up (“Then I lied to the dog / I’ll be back, I said / And he stayed, good dog / Cocked his head”). “That is her playing a retuned ukulele,” Spiegelman explains, “with fascinating voicings. And those are the precisely the notes that the winds are playing as they take over the song. But that is also a song where, the way she sang this was so sneaky and arhythmic that I didn’t want to remove the strumming.” As the lyrics turn from the second chorus into the bridge (“And the truth is / That she loved me / More than anything else in the world”), Spiegelman allows drums (a cool pattern of snare roll-and-hit) and horns to take over, giving way eventually to a fantastical instrumental passage combining flutes, electronics, and barely audible roll that builds, builds, builds tension until it simply gives way to the ukulele again, and the voice lying to the dog at end.
Finding an Audience
Where does Avocet find its audience? Will fans of The Story know to seek out the latest from the duo’s more retiring member? Will folk and Americana fans get excited about a record that mostly ditches a big Taylor acoustic a flurry of bass clarinets? Will the word spread from Boston outward, reaching New York and an industry insider or two?
Smart stories of love, community, heartbreak, aging, and even death are not supposed to land you an arena gig. But with music this original and spry, and with a voice as sterling and assured as Jennifer Kimball’s, critical acclaim ought to be on the way.
Like the bird it’s named after, Avocet is beautiful, fleet, unlike any other. Your ears give it flight.
by Will Layman
Will Layman is a writer, teacher and musician living in the Washington, DC area. He is a contributor to National Public Radio and frequently appears as a guest on WNYC's "Soundcheck" as a jazz critic. He plays both funk and jazz in the bars and clubs in and near the nation's capital. His fiction and humor appear in print and online., pop matters