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What Did Kate Do Next?

Hoboken singer-songwriter Kate Jacobs discusses family history as a source for songwriting, going solo and how to use children's choirs without being twee

Kate Jacobs

Kate Jacobs has always been fascinated by stories; even as a small child she was always eager to know what happened next. Small wonder that the singer-songwriter from Hoboken, New Jersey, writes songs that are often based on real-life. Not something too unusual you might think in a musical field where obsessive self-examination is a common mode of _expression. But Kate Jacobs is not your typical confessional writer. When writing she often uses the raw material of her family's history as the starting point for a song. Then, like a creative biographer, she fleshes out the archival documents, photographs and oral family stories changing them into moving songs which capture the heart of the matter all the more effectively for being based on real life. She could be said to describe real events not in terms of the the grand sweep of history, but by painting tender portraits in miniature.

Three albums and a five track EP into her career Jacobs is currently taking things a little easier to spend time with her baby. Triste caught up with her after a solo performance in Leyland during her last solo tour of the UK. In person she is as petite as you would expect from hearing her singing voice and has striking eyes and hair. Jacobs knows her Chekhov well and would probably think this an implied criticism: it isn't. In conversation she laughs a lot and shows concern that our conversation might be too loud - even though I sometimes have to lean forward to catch what she's saying.

Kate Jacobs was born in Virginia, but having a father in the foreign service she spent a lot of her childhood travelling around the world. "My father and sister used to sing all the time, so I would think we just grew up in a very musical, singing household"she says, but at first wanted to be a ballerina. It was only when she got to the point where she realised she was never going to dance Giselle that she changed direction slightly. She went back to the States and became interested in modern dance choreography which led to her doing Performance Art and multi-media work. It was then that the early grounding in song started to make an impact as she explains: "In the context of these performance pieces I started writing and performing songs and it became so obvious to me that this was the easiest and most expressive way I had of getting things across. I could sing and write and basically morphed from a performance artist to a folk singer over a number of years."

I wonder how this change was facilitated. "I guess it's different for everybody, but for me it was a gradual process," replies Kate. "I suppose it came from my performing arts background. I didn't have the nerve to stand up as myself as a songwriter and say, 'This is me and these are my songs'. So the first thing I did was to create a wacky sort of theatrical persona of a singer-songwriter and told stories that I made up and made a character out of it?"
So, was it an ironic take on the music? "It was totally ironic, but I gradually got away from that. I started doing it in a straighter fashion until it's the way it is now basically."

The first big break for the new-look Kate Jacobs was when lady luck walked into her life in the shape of an Italian impresario seeking musicians to take part in a Venice music festival. He wanted various R'n'B, rock and roll and country artists for the bill, but didn't know exactly where to find them.
"I think he was only over for three days so he was in a hurry," explains Kate. "He ended up talking to a friend of mine and he was looking for a country act and she said, 'Get my friend Kate'. He came down to see me and he didn't really have a clue. I told him that we weren't really country - and he said 'You're country enough for me - sign here on the dotted line!' It was great. I worked up a load of covers - things like Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton songs. I wanted to be a little truthful in my presentation."

At that time she was playing with her band which, with the exception of the drummer, she still plays with today. Jacobs cannily used the bait of a trip to Italy to persuade top Hoboken guitarist-in-demand David Schramm to join the band. "It was the first time he started playing with me. He took his lap steel over. Dave's very talented; he can play really great country. That's how I persuaded him to be in my band. I asked him, 'Do you want to go to Venice for two weeks?' And ever since then he's been hooked". Indeed, Dave Schramm has been an ever-present on Jacobs' records and has toured with her, as well as keeping his own thing going with his own band The Schramms.

While she might have rode her luck by getting a place on the festival, she seized the next step herself by having the confidence to record her own album on the bounce after returning to the States using the well-honed performance of the players. "We came back from Italy and the band was really tight as we had been playing together for hours every day. So I went to the studio and recorded an album practically live and really fast. That was my first album and I put it out myself." The album created some interest locally and Jacobs was approached by local Hoboken label Bar None, who first asked to distribute the record, later turning this into a licensing deal and later still a fully-fledged recording contract.

I wonder how she rated her early albums. "The Calm Comes After was recorded really fast and, as I said, it had much more of a country feel," she answers. "Apparently it's a real heart-break record, which I wasn't really aware of when I recorded it. Many people have come up to me and told me that they'd just broken up with so-and-so and that they had loved listening to the record. I wrote this record when I was going through that - it was a phase in my life and you often end up writing about what you're going through - so it came out as a heartache record".

Kate Jacobs' more recent work has seen an increase in narrative songs based around real-life stories. I ask whether this first record was more of a personal statement than she was later to make. "It's got a lot more of my heartache in it", she replies, "But I don't think of myself as a confessional writer. I like to use narratives, but the first album is, I suppose, on more confessional lines."

The second album continued this development with more story songs on it: "I don't know if it works better as an album, but in terms of individual albums it's got some of my favourites on it."
One of the songs from this album, "A Sister", was taken and used as the basis for a children's book and later also an EP. Kate explains: "A woman who worked for Hyperion, a Disney Company, heard me playing live on the radio in New York and she called me up. She told me she'd heard me playing the song and thought it would make a great children's book. She hooked me up with an illustrator and asked me to give it a happier ending. At the end it was more of an existential 'up in the air' ending, but emotionally it's okay. The illustrations are beautiful. The EP was really just to tie in with the book coming out. Bar None said I needed to put something out. I don't think these versions are very good. The only thing I really like is "The Heart Of The Matter" which I sang with Dave (Schramm) - that's cool and weird. Everything else I don't like".

Jacobs is perhaps a little unfair on the record; it's more than a mere throwaway promotional tool. As well as "A Sister" there are four other new songs - two of which ("You Sleep I'll Drive" and the previously mentioned duet with Dave Schramm, "The Heart Of The Matter") are unique to this EP. The songs "Shallow" and "Eddy Went To Spain" were later to appear on Jacobs' next album Hydrangea, but here the limited time available to record the new tracks meant that they have much more of a live feel about them with stripped down production and more prominent guitar work. Whether this is actually inferior to the more arranged version on her next album is a matter of interpretation.

At Worden Arts Centre and on the other tour dates in the UK Kate Jacobs has played solo. In America she usually plays and tours with a band. I ask her how the two compare - does she prefer the freedom and flexibility of playing solo or does she like the camaraderie of a band?
"It's difficult to decide" she replies after a pause. "I really like playing solo. You can take your time to gab and you can do more things more dramatically. I feel I can tell the stories more explicitly, but with a band behind you ticking away you feel that you've got to keep up. On the other hand with a band you have so much more fun and the sound is fuller musically. I'm not a fancy guitar player. All I do is basically strum, strum, strum. It's great to have beautiful things happening musically."

The album Hydrangea appeared in 1999 and showed a maturing of Jacob's work. Although not a concept album as such, it is certainly the most unified of Jacobs' records; both in terms of subject matter and sound, despite being recorded in a variety of studios from New York and Hoboken to New Orleans, where featured guests Peter Holsapple, Vicki Peterson and Susan Cowsill added their musical contributions. Long-time cohorts Dave Schramm and James MacMillan again feature quite prominently in the musical mix, but rather more unusual collaborators were to be found in the shape of The Hudson School Choir and The Mustard Seed School Children's Choir, who add their vocals to several of the songs on the album. The key songs on the album are taken from her family's history "Never Be Afraid" is based on a phrase of her Aunt Katia's in 1938 when the family was emigrating to the US; "A Snowy Street" is based on a journal entry of her doctor grandfather in post-revolutionary Russia; "Eddy Went To Spain" is about a left-leaning uncle who went to help fight in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade for the republican side in the Spanish Civil war and never came back, and "Good Doctor" was based on a journal of Elena, a fourteen year old TB patient of her great grandfather's, who fell in love with her physician. That's not to say that Jacobs has lost her abiding interest in flowers, birds and general affairs of the heart, they're there too - but all are woven together into a seamless whole.

Although a lot of the songs are based on real events Jacobs believes that when you take true stories and change them into song they lose their value as archives. I ask her to explain this a little more in relation to "Eddy Went to Spain" - a song which in turn is referred to indirectly in another song on the album ("Honeybees") as having been based on letters and sketches that were found in the attic of the family home.
"Simply that they aren't true anymore - they're not the letters." she explains. "These are songs about how I feel about my uncle. It's not a valuable piece of history anymore; it's just a piece of artwork. I just want to make it clear that when I'm using stuff I'm expressing my version or take on things. That's not to say this is how it was, because I don't know, but it's my subjective view." I agree with her about the value of primary source material, but wonder if there can't also be a certain inherent 'truth' in a well-written piece based on archival material. Reality is often messy and a piece of art can emphasise certain things and perhaps sharpen the focus on the events taking place creating its own 'truth'.
Jacobs agrees with me to some extent, but although she is prepared to alter subjective impressions of the events taking place she prefers to keep as true to the story regarding hard factual issues. In "Eddy Went To Spain" her uncle drops out of a forced retreat and awaits capture under an olive tree. An evocative image, but would she have changed it if it had been less appropriate? Say he had been sat in a bus shelter?
"I probably would, but for me, the great delight in writing a song about a true story is the opportunity to pick out the details that are the most evocative and using them" she says. "You hear a lot of detail and the part about sitting under a tree is the one you use. That's the one that works best. There's always something there to use. You really don't have to make it up."

In fact, this desire to record real-life stories is something that must run in the blood. Both sides of Jacobs' family are renowned as keepers of journals and diaries over several generations. "What to me is so remarkable is the amount of things that survived from Russia after having to leave" she says. "The documentation we have is so cool."
Probably the most amazing piece of documentation is the previously referred to diary of Elena, a long-term teenage patient at Jacobs' great-grandfather's TB clinic on the Black Sea during the latter days of tsarist Russia. Although she knew she was dying, her unrequited love towards her doctor is expressed in poignant terms in her diary. The song "Good Doctor"re-tells her story with Jacobs pleading to the doctor on behalf of the young girl. To take the diary when you're fleeing your homeland, with all your worldly possessions in a couple of suitcases, must show how important the diary was to Jacobs' great-grandfather. "It was very important," she says. "That's fascinating to me as my great-grandfather was a very successful doctor. I didn't know him, but my mother, who grew up with him, told me that he was a very proud, critical and forceful: a very difficult kind of man. Elena's mother must have given him the diary when she died. It's amazing that he kept it. My mother had it in the attic in an old battered suitcase which was full of wild things. That diary, which was a beautiful thing, was in there. That's so incredibly moving to me." It also contains more than Elena's time in hospital. Jacobs explains: "She tells about going down to the wharf and seeing the Empress with two of her daughters and paints a great picture of pre-revolution Russia. She's such a wonderful writer; she's really funny and precocious."

One of the distinctive features of the album is the use of children's choirs on the record. What inspired her to do this? It's quite a high-risk strategy and could be seen as being twee. "It never occurred to me that people would think it twee, but some people certainly did. I was in Vermont with my boyfriend, visiting his daughter who was at a beautiful all-girls camp and they were singing camp songs around an open wood fire. They sounded great - like birds singing - and I really wanted that sound on my next record. I just think it's such a beautiful, natural sound. I suppose there are lots of connotations of using children's choirs, but to me it was just another colour in the palette. I might do it again even if people think it is twee."

With her baby she says she's insufferably happy at the moment and you can bet that she will soon be passing on the family stories to another generation of the Jacobs family.

Written by Steve Wilcock - Originally published in Triste 4


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