“Well,” Kari Arnett thought to herself, “what do I know? I’m only a woman.”
It started as a feeling when Arnett would try and offer songwriting suggestions to her male band counterparts and would get shut down. Maybe my opinion doesn’t matter. Festival organizers would tell her they’ve didn’t want a lot of female artists on their bills. The reason? The music was slower, more sad, and they needed to sell beer. People would rather hear “fun, more upbeat guy bands.”
The combination of experiences frustrated her into writing a song “Only a Woman” that is now the centerpiece of her debut album When The Dust Settles to be released September 20. In the Me Too era it strikes a nerve, almost anthemic in its blistering dry delivery. Set against a hypnotic beat, it’s a front porch sing-along like she did on Concert Window with friend Vicky Emerson –or perhaps a song you’d instinctively turn up as you reach for your radio dial.
When Arnett emerged with her debut EP Midwestern Skyline, she created an intriguing set of songs that defined time and geographic place. Now out of personal turmoil, Arnett has written an edgy album that frames her personal life changes in the context of the tense goings-on in the country.
It begins with the moody and ominous trepidation of “Dark Water” and addresses the soul of the country in “This American Life.” Arnett zeroes in on the dream we’re brought up to believe but the broken promises and inequalities we later learn. Arnett concludes “I’m still believing in this American life” with a weariness that sums up the anxiety of our times. It feels like a state of the union.
On the day she began mastering her debut album, Kari Arnett is sitting outside with me at a pizzeria off Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis.
If “This American Life” is an assessment of where we are in the moment, “Blood and Bones,” a song she wrote as an outsider looking in on humanity, feels like a moral call to arms.
“We are all made of blood and bones,” she says in the context of teaching our children and leading by example. “Children grow up and learn to hate, to love, to act accordingly in the world, I guess I wrote it from a perspective of, ‘Hey, watch what you do,’ because the kids of the world see everything, they hear everything, and they mimic what they see hear.”
Arnett’s plea places it in a historical and spiritual context against the backdrop of the country’s sacrifices and ideals. “When will ever learn/we didn’t come come this far to watch the world burn,” she implores. “I hope we will see the light, maybe one day we’ll get it right.” If you get tears in your eyes, it could be because it evokes the feeling that maybe it is different this time –just maybe the country is at a tipping point.
“I would like to hope at the root of it all, that most of us, humanity as a whole, would like to see good in the world, and that we want the best for our future, our children, etc. However it seems like everywhere you turn or read or see on the news, social media, you see really bad things–shootings, people hurting each other, poverty….and I want to remind people that we are all connected. We are all family in a way.”
As the muffled noise of the traffic passes by, Arnett talks about how the album’s title is a reflection of how drastically her life has changed in the past year. “I’ve been digging deep these days,” she says with a laugh, likening recent times to a giant dust cloud swelling up and exploding only to leave her wondering what happens next.
Her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. After seven years, she and her husband decided to end their relationship. Arnett, who has become part of the Minneapolis roots community, has announced that she’s moving to Nashville next year. Many of the songs on When The Dust Settles are about starting over. And when Arnett mentions the closing track “When You Were Mine,” she admits it’s hard to listen to because it’s so personal.
But it the song “It’s Only a Woman” I find myself coming back to with its clever vernacular:
“He said, “Girl you better know your place, before I go repeal and replace”
I’m tired of walking alone afraid
And I’m mad as hell in this day and age
That this is where we are today….
But what do I know I’m only a woman”
“I also was assaulted in my early twenties and felt forced into silence,” she reveals, giving more context. “Something I see all too often in the industry and by women as a whole is being afraid to speak out. Because often we get labeled as “difficult” or “hard to work with” or some other label.”
Somewhat reluctantly, Arnett put herself out there to do a self-funding campaign. When an outpouring of funds came in the first day, Arnett says she had the best Valentine’s Day ever as she left for the Folk Alliance with friend and singer Sarah Morris.
A self-described country girl from Wisconsin, Arnett moved to Minnesota in 2014 and instantly loved it.
“I would say there isn’t the biggest Americana scene here,” Arnett reflects on a scene she says is very vibrant. “There is a small group of us. We make sure we keep our community alive. I feel that’s something very special about Minnesota–the community is truly a community.”
As a young girl, she carefully watched her father who played in a country and western band and wrote all of his songs. She fell in love with an eclectic blend of genres. Inspired by seeing PBS specials of Crystal Gayle and Dolly Parton, she said to herself “I want to do that.”
Arnett soon found she had a gift of hearing something and then being able to play it. “Can’t you hear that note?” she reminisces saying to her mother. “And I’d go find it and play it.” To this day Arnett says she has to reach for her voice recorder to put down all of the melodies that come to her.
It was her mother’s illness which marked a turning point in Arnett’s life. She made her daughter promise she would pursue music seriously and go for it. “So I said, ‘Okay. For you I will.” Around the time a friend asked if she had anything recorded and invited her to record in a ranch house on a Wisconsin farm.
With instruments recorded in rooms on separate floors, Arnett found herself upstairs alone in a booth playing guitar. Some of her bandmates were in the basement playing drums and bass.
The separation resulted in an expansive sound that felt like it matched the landscape of the material of songs like “Heavy Heart” and “Lake Michigan.” The former, named by American Songwriter as one of its finds. The open expansiveness of the sound was a credit to producer Chris Middlesteadt. The isolation and solitude of “Lake Michigan” was framed by Middlesteadt’s fiddle and mandolin and was what Arnett calls personally a heavy song for her.
“Sometimes I feel it’s important to let a song breathe and allow the space,” Arnett says of what she learned. “I lived on Lake Michigan at the time so I think it was important for me to portray where I was in that moment. It was like a refuge. Anytime I felt I needed to go away, I would go there and sit and meditate.“
Arnett resided in a small community, Two Rivers, Wisconsin, a town she says that would miss if you blinked. The goings on in a small community also informed her writing. In “Lake Michigan” she sang about her own relationship and the collective struggles around her.
“You got a hole in your heart you can’t replace
But everywhere I go I see your face
You try to cover it up with whiskey and lust
But nothing is ever good enough”
The song derived from Arnett’s observations of seeing people who were, as she puts it, drowning in everyday life and living for the weekend just to get through. “I’m a very observation focused person,” Arnett offered. “Anybody who writes, that’s what we do. We survey what’s going on and write about that experience.”
It was reflective of her own despair. Arnett started to feel the weight of struggling to find a job without many options and feeling like she was not contributing to society.
“You try so hard and you want to better yourself and grow,” she reflected. “Then you start to see America for what it really is. You’re living in this community where they’re almost hindering their people. It’s really important to see that dynamic.”
“Wisdom sails with the wind and time, Lake Michigan you’re far behind.”
Arnett wrote “Lake Michigan” as she was witnessing the destruction and breakdown of her own marriage. She could see it was not a pattern that was not healthy for either. When her husband got a job in Minneapolis and the couple moved, Arnett thought “maybe we could leave that chapter behind us and start over and let that wash away over us so to speak.”
The relationship was complicated by immigration issues that befell her German-born husband. The couple often found themselves apart. She wrote “Concrete and Honey” about someone she knew with PTSD but it’s laced with the isolation she experienced visiting Germany. The line “When I went back to where I came from” is about her longing for home. She calls concrete the hard truth and the honey what you want to believe.
“I feel like when you go into marriage you don’t take it lightly,” she reflects. “It’s such an ebb and flow in relationships. Sometimes when someone’s gone a lot it takes a lot of work to try to fix things. I think both of us realized we didn’t want to have that continuous pain in our lives anymore. None of us wants the other to suffer through that. We made the adult decision to move on as best you can.”
Just as Midwestern Skyline captured a point in time, Arnett now seems ready to step on a bigger stage. The beauty of When The Dust Settles is how producer Danny O’Brien captures different dimensions of Arnett. Arnett has a beautiful and powerful voice that fills a room one moment and then sounds like she’s having an intimate conversation with you in another. The musicality of the band accentuates Arnett’s diversity of emotions. Jay Scabich’s electric guitar gives “Dark Water” a panaoramic landscape with Haley Rydell’s fiddle and vocals underscoring the tension and build as Arnett grapples with her inner torment. Later, Scabich’s slide matches the scathing sarcasm of Arnett’s words in “Only a Woman.” Alexander Young’s subtle processional drumbeats, overlaid with Ben Cook-Feltz keys and Aron Fabrini’s pedal steel, gives “Blood and Bones” the mournful but soulful tone it deserves. And when Arnett concludes with “When You Were Mine,” Rydell’s fiddle intuitively follows Arnett , communicating a kind of reverential distance that never overtakes Arnett’s most personal moments.
The fully developed band sound that wraps “Dark Water,” the title track and “Only a Woman” hint that it’s not out of the realm of the possible to envision Arnett soon playing these songs in theaters (and dare I imagine arenas someday.)
When the phonograph needle drops at the beginning of “One More Chance,” it’s almost nostalgic and a tonic for the noise around us. It’s a reminder of a time that was free from a world of incessant and negative chatter. When Arnett talks about social media, she thinks we’re letting it ruin us. “We’ve become the comments section thinking that our opinions are the answers to all of life’s problems.”
A few days before she leaves for Americanfest, Arnett is busy and getting ready, in her words, to throw her new music out to the universe. Arnett will be playing two nights in Nashville but first has some stops in the Twin Cities to sit in on KFAI, the station that bills itself as “Radio With No Boundaries.” On Womenfolk with Ellen Stanley, she gets to play an acoustic version of “Blood and Bones” before Lucy Wainwright-Roche calls in for a live interviews. Arnett follows tracks by the Wailin’ Jennys, Amanda Shires and Neko Case. It doesn’t seem incongruous. Arnett feels like she has earned a place under the Americana tent.
The next day she is back on air spinning desert island discs. It reminds me of a comment she made to me earlier about water. Arnett says our feelings are like fluid like water. They change all the time.
“I’ve always been drawn to water,” Arnett says living in the land of lakes. “I’m a Pisces if that means anything. I go there almost every day. It’s just part of my process to sit and meditate and let all the worries and thoughts for the day just settle. I feel every time I look into the water and waves are crashing it’s like a meditative state for me. It’s like my center.”
(Kari Arnett will appear with Becky Kapell and Mary Bue to celebrate the release of When The Dust Settles September 20 at the Cedar in Minneapolis. Visit her and get your copy at kariarnett.com)