Fredericksburg, Virginia’s Karen Jonas surprised everyone in March when she released one of the year’s most unexpected, yet critically-acclaimed albums called Oklahoma Lottery. The album showed tremendous musical wisdom for a freshman effort, and scored high marks for songwriting, musicianship, arrangement, singing and guitar playing by Jonas. It’s so rare that such a talent comes out of nowhere, I had to reach out Karen and discover more about her story.
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It’s pretty rare that a musician with such adeptness and resonance comes out of nowhere like you have. What is your musical lineage? Where did Karen Jonas singer-songwriter come from?
I’ve been singing forever. Even as a little kid there’s silly little videos of me singing. And I sang in choruses in school and things but they never really resonated with me. I liked to do it, but I was never really good at it. I was never that confident about it. And then my dad played guitar just around the house. When I was about 16 he played me a Joni Mitchell record—Miles of Aisles actually. I remember him very specifically putting it on the record player and I thought, “That’s what I want to do.” I do really come from more of a folk background than a country background. My parents didn’t listen to country music, and I didn’t know much about it until just a few years ago. But buy the time I was 16 I started playing and I started writing, and I never really took guitar lessons which is why I’ve developed sort of a strange style of playing I guess. I played at bars and coffee shops and things sporadically. And then I started a band called The Parlor Soldiers with Alex Culbreth, and he played country music and knew a lot about country music from old country to modern Americana. I learned a lot from that and it really changed my style. We only played together for a year, maybe two, and started writing together. And since then I’ve done a lot of my own exploration of the genre, especially the old stuff. And now I’ve got my own band and am playing my own songs.
You’re a local musician very much embedded in your local music community, yet you appear to have a drive to get your music out to a wider audience. Where does that drive come from?
It seems like the next natural step. I love playing music, and I could do it every night and be really happy. And there’s only so many places. Fredericksburg, VA got a great little scene, but it’s very little, and you can only play so many nights a week. I wanted to make a record. I wanted to have a way to give people what I do so they could hear it somewhere where they could listen to the words. In bars and things sometimes it’s hard to hear everything. I like words, and I like writing words. I love being based in Fredericksburg. I love the people here and the venues, but you can only play here so often.
There appears to be two primary veins of your writing style: One that relies on past people and events in history, and another that comes across as very personal. How personal are your personal stories, and how much does your personal narrative play into your historical storytelling?
You’re exactly right, I do tend to write in two ways, and a lot of it is the process. Sometimes I sit down on a Saturday afternoon with nothing really on my mind and I think, “I’m going to write a song about Bonnie & Clyde.” I’m not in any particular state-of-mind, it’s just a Saturday afternoon writing a song. That’s how I wrote “Suicide Sal”. I read Wikipedia. I’m a big Wikipedia nerd. There’s probably all sorts of terrible errors there. But I’ll read an article or I’ll go online and look at pictures. I have an English degree, so I like to research and read and write. I’ll take notes, and then I’ll sit down and write a song. But sometimes I’m just in a real foul mood and something unfortunate has happened and I’m full of feelings and things, and I sit down and I write some really meaningful, personal song about myself. I think with the story songs, I’m able to relate enough, and put myself in them enough, and I get really involved. If I’m thinking about a Bonnie & Clyde song or the Dust Bowl or whatever it is, I can spend a whole afternoon looking at the pictures and reading Bonnie’s poems. I was reading The Grapes of Wrath for the “Oklahoma Lottery” song, and really picturing, and wondering what it was like, and what those people were feeling. But the personal songs are just really personal feelings of emotion written in as artistic of a way as possible.
How did your guitar playing technique emerge?
It is a little different. I used to just fingerpick, and then I wanted to make a little more noise. I wanted to fill up the space a little better. And at some point I went from fingerpicking to what seemed natural to me which was sort of a thumb strum thing that I do. It’s pretty percussive. It eats up my fingers. I’ve bled in most of my guitars a good bit. I’ve toughened up though. I don’t really bleed in my guitars anymore. I pick a lot of alternating bass notes with my thumb, and then I strum down with my fingers. I’m sure there’s other people who do something like that, but it’s not normal. The guitarist I play with Tim Bray, he’s a guitar teacher and he had a student come to one of our shows. The student was probably twelve, and he watched the show and afterwards he went up and said, “Mr. Tim, do you yell at her for playing like that?” because it’s really against a lot of rules. But it all works for me, and I enjoy the sound that I get from it. It was never something I did on purpose.
How much of a sacrifice is it to make music a priority in your life?
I’ve never ever thought of it like that. I don’t know what else I would do if I didn’t play music. I’d be miserable. To me, whatever time and money and energy I put into it is so natural to me it just makes sense. It’s just what I do. It’s not something that I consciously plan out very well. Tim Bray and I book the shows and I organized the making of the album, but writing and singing all the time is just what I do. It’s part of who I am. I want to play for a lot of people. I want to play bigger rooms than what I am now. I want to make my next album. I’m already ready to make another album. I’m not going to yet, I promise. But I will as soon as it makes sense to. I have a ton of songs I want to have available for people to hear, and I’m working on a ton of new songs. I’m excited about what I’ve learned from making this first album.
I started making this album way too long ago. I think I started talking about it two years ago. I had scheduled a date to go into the studio and I just wanted to record live solo acoustic versions of some of these song, and a bunch of other songs that fell off the album at some point. And I woke up that morning with laryngitis, and I never went in and did it, and the whole thing got muddled. Then I ended up finding a couple of musicians to play with, and I started playing with them. And I started talking to a guy to was going to help me record an album that he was going to produce. We recorded scratch tracks for that in January of last year, but everything was going very slow. It was sweet of them to help me and it got me to where I am now, and we started adding drum tracks and things, and by the time September rolled around I was impatient at best. And artistic decisions we had made six months ago didn’t even make sense to me anymore. I’d started playing with a new group by then, and this album that was going to be produced in a basement somewhere just never happened, and I had to bow out of it gracefully and say “Thank you for your time.” But it wasn’t getting done, and I had new songs that I wanted, and I had new ways I was hearing things.
So what we ended up doing is in a matter of a couple of weeks, we lined up with the new band I was playing with to go record Oklahoma Lottery live at a studio. I brought in this band that I hadn’t really even played with much, and we went in two days in December and recorded the album the way it is. The only thing we added was the lap steel and electric piano later. So it’s sort of a winding road and it’s funny how things work out, not in ways you expect them, but sometimes the unexpected things lead you to where you are going.
Really I’m just excited about the future of my music, and the future of playing music. I feel like I have a lot to offer, and I’m really excited that people like this album. I didn’t really expect anyone outside of Fredericksburg to care too much. So I’m really grateful. I thank people all the time, and I’m so grateful to people who’ve listened to it and cared about it, and cared about the songs. A lot of the songs are so personal, that it’s almost scary to have them out there for people to hear, and to judge and think about. But I’m so grateful to anyone who’s taken the time to care about it, and listened to what I had to say.
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