Hey, have you heard the news? You know – the news that some of us believe Karen Jonas’ “Oklahoma Lottery” is pretty much the best thing since dinner mints? Oh, you haven’t? OK, then. Let us run through it just one more time: Karen Jonas’ “Oklahoma Lottery” is unquestionably one of the best records the area has seen in 2014. It’s got heartbreak and anger and fun and cussing and sadness and happiness and everything else in between. If you haven’t noticed by now, it’s sort of an obsession.
Naturally, then, when we got the news that the singer would be at Cafe Nola on Thursday, Oct. 23 … well, we poured a glass of whiskey, let go of a smile and immediately made plans to be very tired on Friday, Oct. 24. Or, well, that and email Ms. Jonas to see if she’d be up for a Q&A that we could publish on this silly website. And luckily for us … well, look at that: She was! Thus, behold a whole bunch of insight into one of the great local singer-songwriters around and what went into one of 2014’s most impressive sets:
So, how exactly do you make a perfect album? OK, OK. I’m kidding (sort of). Let’s start with Frederick. What’s your overall impression of the Frederick music scene? I know you aren’t here too much, but how does it compare with other music scenes in the D.C./Maryland/Virginia area?
Surely making records is not about perfection (but thank you for the sentiment)! A million moving parts make up every record, from the time of day it was recorded to what the singer ate for breakfast that morning. And that’s not even getting into the infinite possibilities of songwriting! I’m so glad that, for all its imperfection, “Oklahoma Lottery” came together in a way that is compelling. We’ve been to Frederick several times this year and we always enjoy seeing the town. If we aren’t eating on a gig we’ve been frequenting The Orchard or Pizza and Pretzel Creations — yum! I don’t think we’ve hit the scene yet, really. One of the funny things about being a full-time musician is there isn’t always time to scope out the local scene because we spend most of our evenings on the job. We’ve played at Brewer’s Alley, The Cellar Door, JoJo’s Taphouse, and now Cafe Nola. We’re excited to meet more local musicians and get more involved in the local happenings. The feel of the town (not to mention the name!) reminds me of our current home base, Fredericksburg, Virginia. Also, I’m from Damascus originally, so Frederick feels close to home to me.
You had backing players on your latest record, “Oklahoma Lottery.” Will you be bringing anyone with you, or is this a Karen Jonas-only show? Along those lines, which do you prefer — band or solo and why?
Tim Bray, the guitarist featured on the record, will be joining me at Cafe Nola. I play a couple of solo and full band shows every month, but usually Tim and I play as a duo. There are a lot of practical advantages to the duo arrangement, it’s low maintenance (except for me) and inexpensive and still allows for a really dynamic range. We have a great time traveling. Tim drives and I’m in charge of the radio. Ask him about it.
Can you give us some names of a few local artists we might not already know about from down your way, who we should check out? Someone whose work you really admire who might surprise us?
A few from Fredericksburg: Our friends and regular co-bill Cabin Creek released an Americana album just a few months ago. I sit in with the guys from Trucker Troy and the Convoy from time to time. They’re a new old-school country, funk and rock project that’s gaining some speed. My dear friend Ashleigh Chevalier is a talented blues singer, and her record “From the Soles” was released last year.
Where are some of your favorite places to play, both locally and nationally? What sets them apart from other venues?
I’m a songwriter at heart, so I love the listening rooms where people want to hear the songs. This year we’ve had the opportunity to play at some great listening venues in the D.C. area, including The Birchmere, Gypsy Sally’s, Jammin’ Java, and Iota. We play a lot of House Concerts too, which are really unique ways to play smaller groups of enthusiastic listeners (everybody loves a potluck!). We also love playing some more raucous shows for our hometown friends here in Fredericksburg.
Who were some of your major influences when you decided to pick up a guitar and start writing songs? Is there anybody you consciously try to emulate today? Why or why not?
When I started playing guitar late in high school I was listening to a lot of Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen (isn’t that what all the cool kids were listening to in 2003?). I’ve picked up some country influences since then. I don’t aim to emulate anyone really. I think that what’s on my turntable might influence my writing, but for me, songwriting is personal and precise and private. There isn’t really room in the process for emulating.
When might a new record be in the cards? I know “Oklahoma Lottery” is fairly new, but if you’re like me and are eager to hear what’s next … well, I had to ask.
Good question! I’m always eager to keep moving forward. I’ve got all of the songs written for the next album, but “Oklahoma Lottery” released in March and it still needs some time to air out before we rush off with the next album. We’ve been an entirely independent operation, relying on word of mouth, reviews and the web to help move us forward. It’s a slow boat but I’m really excited to watch the album continue to grow. Right now, we’re starting to develop a stronger international presence. All that being said, I think we’ll start working on the next album this winter. These things have a way of falling into place when you let them.
What’s your favorite song on “Oklahoma Lottery” and why?
My favorite song to listen to is “Suicide Sal,” a tune that chronicles the adventures of Bonnie Parker. I am so happy with the writing and the framing of the story, and I think the production helps to build the intensity in a way that is powerful and playful at the same time. My favorite song to play is “Steppin’ on Your Toes,” which is a sad love song with a lot of soul. I think we’ve grown that song since the recording and I love where it’s landed.
Conversely, is there a song you listen back to now and you wish would have turned out differently? Why?
All of the songs were recorded live in the studio over two days, so I think they all could have breathed a little more during the process. It was a rush job. That lends some authenticity and grit to the recording, and definitely a cohesiveness to the record. But to my ear I hear a lot of places where a third day in the studio and a little more attention to detail might have made a big difference.
And finally, what can we expect from your show at Cafe Nola?
We’ll drink bourbon, or Manhattans if we’re feeling fancy. Tim is always dapper and ideally will not be wearing a sweater vest, but it’s hard to promise now that the weather has turned autumnal. My wardrobe choices lean between rockstar sassy and country sweetheart depending on my mood. Tim plays a big orange hollow-body Gretsch, I’ve got my dad’s old ’74 Cortez acoustic. The music will flow straight from us, to the PA, to your earholes between the hours of 10 p.m. and 1 a.m. We’ll play the album, some new songs, and some of our favorite classic country (think Hank W. and Johnny C.). You can dance, tap your toes, or sit eerily still depending on how the spirit moves you. Either way, it will be darn good time, and we look forward to meeting y’all!