IN HILLSBOROUGH, North Carolina, above a hanging ukulele on the wall behind Jess Klein, a handwritten sign says “live a good story”. A few days out from the release of her new album, When We Rise, Klein feels like she’s been living that story pretty hard.
She is tired, momentarily a little scattered: there’s been a lot to do; there will be more and the evening is beginning to get away from her. Impatience has been running into schedules, eagerness has been carrying a load of small detail, and she knows that while a few have snuck out pre-emptively, most of these new songs have been waiting a year or more to be shown, and they want out. Now.
They’re a really good batch too, these songs, with their blend of a meaty folksiness and a vibrant pop sense tapping into a lineage that travels from fellow southerners, R.E.M. to the bars of the north-east, from small theatres down the coast to journeys across the dry plains of Texas.
But there’s more to them than that: there’s a higher purpose that isn’t religious but might well be holy in its belief that the rights and lives of women deserve more, that a fractured country in a rapidly deteriorating world might yet be repaired, and that art and creativity can have a role in both.
In the opening song of the album, the title track, Klein declares “Don’t know how I’ll reach the peak, but my mission’s clear.” What is her mission? And how will she know that she has achieved it?
“Oh my God”, she laughs. “I’m never going to achieve it. I feel like I’m just going to be trying to express something until I die. I don’t know, that sounds … but it’s true. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what is the big thing that drives me to write? What propels me forward?
"I just want to get at some kind of truth about humanity and our potential, or something. Our potential to love and be resilient and to be there for each other and do good.”
Nothing major then. Which sets Klein off on a long laugh that shakes off some of the weariness. “Well that’s why I’ll never get there!”
It is a facetious question to a fair extent, life’s peculiarities and paradoxes remaining unsolved for quite a few millennia now. But for artists as much as activists, while a mission gives you a reason to get up and do the things you do, absent a manageable and measurable series of steps along the way, intentions can dribble away.
Since Klein has been on this mission for a while (read a review of her last album, 2019’s Back To My Green) and seems disinclined to stop, what are the measurable, achievable, personal steps along the way for her?
“I feel like as an artist the achievable, measurable, personal steps are express what it feels like right now to want this big thing that we know we may never achieve, but still’s important to work at. What does it feel like to feel that? And all the feelings that go with it: the anger, the moments when you feel your heart exploding with joy and the grief. That’s what feels manageable. I feel that that’s what I can offer,” she says.
“That often does not feel like enough, but when I hear other artists do that, it’s enough, because it’s saying we are together, you are not alone. When I hear other people do that it gives me energy so I kind of run on faith that when I do that it will give other people solace or energy to keep going.”
If a decade ago, as the album title had it, Klein was “learning faith” – again, not necessarily something godly but faith in others as much as herself; in process as much as aspiration – and more recently she found leaving Texas and grounding herself in the soil of North Carolina (read about that physical and musical journey in this 2020 interview) has the 2023 version of her settled with it?
“I feel like what I found is a practice to stay on my part, and maybe that adds up to faith. Like, if I get triggered by something and I want to shut down, and instead I soothe my nervous system and then I can get up and keep going, that feels like maybe the equivalent of some kind of practical version of faith.”
For some of us, faith is a trust in a values system we have and in the potential for it in others. If you don’t believe that you can be better and people around you and therefore the systems can be better, then everything else is pointless. Klein’s new album is peppered with examples of fracture points but matched with change and improvement that coincidentally or presciently have been lived out in recent weeks.
For example, Athena addresses the so ubiquitous it is almost unnoticed pressure on so many decisions women must make under the male gaze and expectation, while Never Gonna Break Me, beginning with a personal story of being slut shamed at 14 tries, traces the path of never-ending, and so bloody tiring, resistance.
Ask any female Spanish footballer about some or all of those subjects. Or maybe ask Luis Rubelias how we might accept what has changed. You know, it might just give us faith.
“Yeah,” says Klein. “Amen.”
Or it might have us wondering about measurable change.
“Last night I was watching Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret, the movie [based on Judy Blume’s novel of teen life], and earlier this week we watched You Are So Not Invited To My Bat Mitzvah [based on Fiona Rosenbloom’s more recent life-as-a-teen novel] and I was thinking, is this different? These girls are just so obsessed with these boys,” Klein says, before answering herself. “I don’t know, because I’m not 14 anymore, but I feel like the one thing I see is young women sticking up for each other. I think such a part of the pain of being a teenager, at least when I was a teenager, was the girls not being in my corner. It was so easy to fall into that peer pressure of ‘the boys are laughing, so I’m going to laugh too’.
“I think that women are rising up and coming together in a powerful way, and that has to shift something.”
Some of those ideas of support and community as an antidote, or a foundation, come up in several songs on the album, Annie’s Place (friendship and support and a glass of wine), Safe Harbor and Over The Line (putting trust in a lover and being rewarded). How solid is her confidence in that idea of there being good around?
“I feel that the more we choose to move towards the good, the easier it becomes to believe. The more I surround myself with people who know how to be there for me … I’ve been thinking a lot lately about intentional joy. I went to this online event maybe a month ago, called Joy In The Time Of Apocalypse. It wasn’t about just pretending this isn’t happening; it was like, this is a crazy fucking time, insanely tumultuous, and it’s unprecedented – can we find joy next to the grief? Can we accept everything we are grieving about and make space for the joy?”
She cites the writings of Adrienne Maree Brown, author of Pleasure Activism: The Politics Of Feeling Good, about how it has to feel joyful changing the world, otherwise why would be keep doing it in the face of all aligned against it. But it’s something Klein has been working on for longer than that. Does that give her any more insight in how maybe she can teach others what is joy? Referring to Brown again she mentions an interview where the author was asked how can we ever feel satisfied.
“She said that she had been thinking about that a lot and the more she lives, the more it’s the simplest things that bring her joy. Like, I’m just going to get together with these friends that totally understand me and we’re going to sit outside and have a glass of wine. Or, I’m going to totally give myself over to playing with this child.
“I think we all have the innate ability to experience it, and I feel like if something sparks joy for you then you have to move towards it.”
Maybe you agree, maybe you don’t, but it’s a good story to live.
When We Rise is out today