A new Jennifer Kimball record is like a soft, sudden shift in the wind, something rare and miraculous has come into the world, the heart is pulled center-forward like the ends of a compass reaching for direction in the deep, wayfaring dark, a remarkable event to be celebrated. Jennifer's lyrics, like tree-etched-poems illuminated by waning sunlight, and her sounds, unique combinations of dissonance and harmony, ebb, disruption and flow, articulate worlds that are nearly impossible to forget. A music so alive and aware, so seeking. Veering from the Wave, Oh Hear us and now Avocet, a trilogy of the human experience. The latest described as "splendid chamber pop over and through which floats the unadorned and honest voice of a truly literate songwriter; a voice which conveys warmth without affect. The voice of Jennifer Kimball." 18 years after Veering, Jennifer proves, time and again, that the waiting is well worth it. What began as a birthday gift, in the form of studio time, now becomes a gift to the rest of the world. The unique and unforgettable art of one of our greatest contemporary voices.
AHC: You have spent over three decades now making music that is both highly original and critically acclaimed, what has this incredible journey been like for you, its highs and lows, and what life lessons do you feel you've picked up along the way?
Well, thank you! It’s kind of an impossible business to be in - so I guess the biggest lesson I’ve learned (and I’m still learning it) is to be ok with where you are. There’s always someone else doing better, getting more attention. And those folks are not always the people you think are the best musicians. They might be the best entertainers, the best at shaking hands, the most business-savvy, or simply the hardest-working. But in terms of being a musician I would say that continuing to search yourself for your own best ideas without censoring them is the only way to maintain your own integrity, to create your own sound lyrically and musically.
AHC: Could you talk some about your years as part of the duo 'The Story', how it came to be and the whole musical circuit you were in at that time in the mid to late 80's?
The short of it is - we met in auditions for singing groups the first week of freshman year in college and began singing together outside of the a cappella group and the choir. Jonatha already played guitar beautifully and knew a lot of songs and I immediately fell into making up harmony. We did a lot of experimenting. Our first paid gig happened at the old Iron Horse in 1983, junior year. And for the next six years we pretty much played the same 12-15 gigs a year (Iron Horse, Nameless Coffeehouse/Cambridge, Bitter End/NYC, some college gigs) while I worked in book production at Little, Brown and Jonatha pursued her dance career. Around 1989 we decided to make a conscious effort to step it up: got more gigs, made a really good quality recording - on cassette! - sent it around to labels and booking agents. Everything fell into place and we let go of our day jobs, started driving all over the country playing gigs. The circuit was much the same as it is today. And the singer/songwriter community was generally totally supportive.
AHC: 'Veering From The Wave' was your first solo album after your work with The Story, could you talk some about this new chapter of your career in the 90's and what it was like recording and writing your first solo album?
I made friends with my piano, picked up the guitar again and started to write. It was a strange time for me. The public perception of The Story was that we were equal partners; when in fact, we were far from that. I didn’t write. And was really relegated to the harmony parts. But I had a strong stage presence and we had a strong friendship. And anyway, from the beginning I gravitated toward that role. So after I left the Story I had to reinvent myself as a songwriter and a lead singer. I did a lot of harmony work on other people’s projects and began touring with my own songs. Some folks I’d met years back at Windham Hill had started a new label called Imaginary Road and they had a deal with PolyGram Classics & Jazz. They signed me in 1997. In terms of the recording I wish I could say I was totally ready and psyched - but the fact is I had something to prove and I was incredibly nervous. All the responsibility was mine this time. Big pressure. Big budget, big studio - in Manhattan! But great musicians, and a fabulous producer made it all happen pretty gracefully. Ben Wittman had my back. He produced Veering and both Story records. And it didn’t hurt that the budget allowed us a good many weeks to record my parts.
AHC: Could you talk some about how you've incorporated your life experiences, the loss, the heart ache, and the beauty into the compelling tapestry of voice and poetry that defines so much of your work?
I don’t think I really have a choice. I mean I guess I do - you can always choose not to write about certain things. But when my mind is open to ideas and I can catch the occasional one floating by and write it down, I try not to censor. Later when I’m editing, I guess I prefer honesty to comfort or accessibility. I don’t mind if the words make people uncomfortable. I try to write with an open heart. And sing that way too.
AHC: Who are some of your favorite songwriters and musical influences? Is there a particular album or song that you can't live without?
Different songs become favorites over time. But the records I listened to in my room on my close’n’play still resonate: Harry Nilsson/Nilsson Schmilsson, CSN&Y, Carole King, Carly Simon, Beatles/Abbey Road, Stevie Wonder/Talking Book, David Bowie/Hunky Dory, Elton John/Yellow Brick Road. I really wore those LPs out. But there were other musical influences: singing in the children’ts choir at church, Dvorák’s New World Symphony (which I studied in a music program after school), the piano pieces I learned (Debussy, Saint-Saens, Ravel). My dad and my uncles would also break into the old gentleman’s glee club stuff they’d learned in college which I loved. I think I sing a lot like my Dad - eyes closed, feeling out where the next note is and pulling it out of the air. Right now I’m listening to Duke Levine’s new record, The Fade Out.
AHC: Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?
I wrote a lot of fragments of songs until college when I mustered a song called ‘On an Island’ for my dad.
AHC: What were your early musical surroundings like growing up? What were your parents listening to and did any of it have a lasting impact on you?
I don’t really remember what my parents listened to. They’d lived in Nigeria for almost 5 years - the last two with me as a baby (wish I could remember those years) - and I know they had some Miriam Makeba records. There were a couple symphonies, some musicals which I loved - My Fair Lady, Godspell, The King and I - and some operas which I didn’t. My grandfather, a sculptor in his retirement, had an 8-track player in his studio and I would go out there and make my own art while he worked away. We’d listen to Simon and Garfunkel and Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, the Soviet Army Chorus and Hungarian Folksongs, too. Mostly I listened to music on my own little record player in my room.
AHC: What are your fondest on-tour, on-the-road memories?
Hanging with old friends in far away places! Spontaneous story-telling and star-gazing post-gig invitation outside Santa Fé, 1992; all ladies, starry, moonless night - a women’s Decameron evening. It’s always nice when a room of 500 fans sings happy birthday to you - Pittsburgh, 1993? Hearing the Blue Nile for the first time on an all-night bus ride in the high Sierras,1996 Patty Larkin tour.
AHC: Do you have any words of advice for young singer-songwriters who are starting out and struggling to find their voice and their way in the world?
Play gigs. Write all the time. Make community. Try and get a sense of what feels good to you and/or what you’re good at. They don’t always match up. Then I think the trick is to figure out how to live your life doing the thing that you love. Maybe it’s not touring, but writing. Or maybe it’s writing 20 second songs for advertisements, or string quartets, soundtracks, folks songs, operas, and not pop songs.
AHC: Can you talk some about the new album, Avocet?
I’m really proud of this work. And so excited to have teamed up with this new group of musicians in the Brooklyn-based band Cuddle Magic. Saxophonist/songwriter Alec Spiegelman produced Avocet and is a brilliant arranger. Avocet sounds different from my previous work. Hard to describe outside of the obvious omission of my acoustic guitar/uke parts around which the songs were arranged. There’s a precision in this band - a different feel. A move towards the center of the beat. New colors - electric vibraphone, distorted flute solos, new electric guitar sounds. In terms of the lyrics, the songs are about par for the course for me. I think they’re all really about love. But love and loss. Love and reading. Love and babies. And I like to leave space in songs for listeners to imagine their own love or loss - of a parent, or a friend, or a partner. I guess I’ve explored those ideas amidst other scenes - like reading aloud, waking from dreaming, missing your kid on the road, taking yourself home from a party when you recognize that you’re not ‘one of the girls.’ And that it’s ok to be not ‘one of the girls.’ Funny how that feeling hasn’t changed for me since high school.
AHC: You have a kickstarter campaign up for this new album, where can people go to help?
Yes! Pledgemusic, actually. It’s up and running and a lovely way to hear some new music. And if you pre-order the cd you get first (and instant) access to a bunch of - what do they call it nowadays - oh yeah, ‘content.’ I’ve generated some content - interviews, music videos, live videos, stories about the songs…
Visit Jennifer's website at jenniferkimball.com/
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