Pic by Mike June
YOU MAY HAVE NOTICED there’s a lot happening In the USA at the moment. It’s a lot to take in, it’s a lot to make sense of. Jess Klein, a singer and songwriter whose career has taken major geographical, musical and philosophical turns across her 11 albums, is processing what it means being an American right now.
“The only way I know how to process it is to write,” she says from her home in North Carolina as the sun begins to set over her left shoulder. “I’ve got a lot of songs that are taking shape [at the moment] so I’ve been doing a lot of that. In the most intense, overwhelming moments, that’s where I go. Once I realise that I’m getting overwhelmed, if I sit down and I start writing, it becomes something.
She describes herself as someone who is trying to educate herself about racism, and about being more than just an aware white woman but one taking action. Being proactive is a start, but only a start.
“I was just listening to Krista Tippett, her podcast On Being, where she interviews a lot of writers and artists about trying to intentionally create a more human world. She was interviewing this poet called Gregory Orr: when he was 12 he went out on a hunting trip with his father and brother and he accidentally shot and killed his brother. He was talking about how any kind of pain, you can survive it if you put it into words or make a story from it.”
(There is one more thing that’s working for her and her partner and collaborator, Mike June, gardening. “We’ve planted a lot of stuff.”)
What’s coming out in her writing?
“I think both a feeling of having to reckon with a lot of fear and admit to a lot of fear in myself. For a lot of people, for me especially, it’s often hard to admit I really don’t have an answer. So, accepting that I’m just afraid and I don’t have the answer has been one thing I’ve been writing about.
“Also, stemming from that, a willingness to put myself out there more on behalf of other people.I can only imagine what people of colour have to deal with in addition to whatever fear I have to deal with. When I can look at my work as being in service to something greater, to speaking up against racism and for social justice, then the desire to be of service becomes larger than my fear. And I’ve also been writing about that.”
While the urgency of today’s debates are new maybe, this is not new territory for Klein whose past few albums have worked further and further into questions of what exactly it means to have a place and a purpose in the world, what does that ask of you and, can you grow and change. And in the spoken word piece about her Jewish heritage and the migrant experience, Chicken Soup – For My Grandmother – she took those questions into history, family and love.
The titles of recent albums Learning Faith and Back To My Green , give a sense of some of that internal exploration, which accompanied a physical uprooting from Austin, Texas, to Hillsborough, the shift to North Carolina bringing her nearer to her roots in upstate New York and her early base in Boston.
Consequently, she’s probably further down this road of self-examination than most of us who keep deferring those sorts of questions for as long as we can
“Part of it was when my dad passed away in 2011 and, to be honest, that was the first time I had to really grow up. I think that that kind of started me thinking a lot more about what kind of legacy am I creating with what I’m recording and what I’m offering people? What am I giving to them?,” says Klein. “Self-expression is still really important but what is it giving to someone else?”
Having travelled musically through folk rock, vibrant, almost New Wave pop, rootsier styles and now a blend that probably is best summed up as Americana, and having embraced the notion of crowd-funding albums for her past four recordings, Klein seemingly has been unafraid to veer left or right.
But in truth it was the relocation to what the conservative end of this southern state calls the Socialist triangle (of Raleigh, Chapel Hill and Durham), that challenged her daring the most.
“We probably knew five or six people here, none of whom were in this town, and it forced me to stand on my own two feet more, artistically. I had to take the reins a lot more than I had in the past, I had to direct the production, I had to step up a lot more than I was used to and didn’t necessarily want to,” she says. “I don’t know about you but I really only grow when I’m forced to.
“In the end I feel a lot stronger and find it easy to take some risks in a way because I think when I lived in New York and even in Boston, I had a much broader definition of what kind of music I was going to make. Living in Texas there are a lot of the Texas influences, some country and some blues and stuff, and I loved that, but I think it was good to be back in a wide open space creatively.”
Challenged by the move, what did she have to give up to accept the new in how she makes music now?
“I think I had to accept the idea that someone was not going to come in and rescue me, that someone was not going to have a really definitive opinion and I was going to go with that,” she laughs. “The guys that I work with have a much more collaborative approach so I had to give up the idea that someone would know better than me what we were supposed to do.
“That’s something that I’ve noticed in other parts of my life. I have long held the desire for someone to come in and be like, okay this is how you make this decision, this is how you run your career, and don’t worry sweetheart I’m going to take care of it. And that’s not the path universe has laid for me. I’m supposed to learn how to be more and more in charge of my work.”
I think a lot of us wish there was someone to come in, look at our lives and say don’t worry sweetheart I’m going to take care of it. Some of us haven’t given up on the idea so maybe there’s an opening there for Klein if she were to set up a sideline in life advice.
“That’s so funny, because I did train as a life coach when I was in Texas.”
Well if this music lark doesn’t pan out later …
“It’s actually the only thing I’ve ever done that I have almost the same level of passion for as creating music. I think because a lot of it was helping someone else express their own truth. I’ve actually been thinking a lot about how to do something that would combine those two in a way. Soon I’m going to be teaching a class that’s about creative writing and healing, almost like a group coaching experience that’s woven into self-expression.”
Giving and giving back is one thing, asking, especially asking for help or money, is another. Klein is one of many musicians who have tried to find a way to maintain a performing life, retain a connection to fans and sustain some kind of income during the covid lockdown. And along the way redefine herself.
In her case, along with online songwriting lessons, she has Sunday shows with Mike June, album-centric shows (including next week a full play through of her brilliant 2005 pop record Strawberry Lover) and weekly Tuesday concerts streamed out from her home. Mastering the technical issues was an experience - more difficult than those she reckons is how when she turns off the camera, there’s no audience to talk to afterwards - and now has begun asking fans to contribute a tip: a polite version of saying please give me money for my work so I can eat.
Was that another one of those steps in learning or change for her?
“Yeah, it seemed like a slow realisation dawning over the last several years that most of us have to do that in some form,” she says. “That’s been a process. But also the stronger I’ve become as a person, the more I’m willing to recognise that people must be getting something from this: they are tuning in.
“And so it becomes cyclical: if you confidently ask for what you need, then it comes in and you’re like okay, I must deserve it.”
Feeling like you might actually deserve it? Now that is a new world.
Jess Klein will perform the whole Strawberry Lover album for her US Tuesday evening/Australia Wednesday morning livestream show next week.