Interview: Karen Jonas on Motherhood, Music, and Joni Mitchell

Interviews

Singer-songwriter Karen Jonas released her third album, Butter, earlier this year. I caught up with her and her guitarist and producer, Tim Bray, before a show at Washington, DC’s Pearl Street Warehouse. In a wide-ranging interview, we discussed topics ranging from musical genres to discrimination against mothers to arts in the schools, as well as Karen’s personal background and influences.

Jonas came to my attention as an artist local to my region; I live in Arlington, Virginia, and she lives about an hour south, in Fredericksburg, as does Tim.  Both Jonas and Bray grew up in the area: Bray is a lifelong Fredericksburg resident, while Jonas grew up Damascus, Maryland, located in nearby suburban Montgomery County, just outside of the District.

I asked Karen how she got involved with music when she was growing up.  “My dad played guitar,” she said. “I sang in choruses at school, and started playing guitar when I was 16. I started writing songs right away, so that was what I wanted to do all the time.”  Performing was a natural step, and followed shortly after.

Jonas’s musical hero was, and continues to be, Joni Mitchell.  “The first Joni Mitchell record I heard was Miles and Miles,” she told me.  One of things Karen admires about Mitchell, she said, is that, “She’s just so versatile.” Karen described Mitchell’s songwriting as “serious, but she also has fun. There’re some jokes in there.”

I asked Karen and Tim how they met. Tim answered, “I was going to go hear another band, and it was hot, and I was running late, and I popped into a bar that I never, ever go to, and she was playing by herself, and I thought it was amazing.” Although he “got to listen to her set [and] told her how great I thought she was,” Tim says, “that was kind of it.” Later, in what Tim calls “a happy coincidence,” they reconnected.

The issue of musical genre was a big part of my discussion with Jonas and Bray. Her second album is titled Country Songs, and if you search for her on Google, a sidebar will claim that she is a “country” artist. Neither Karen nor Tim feels comfortable with the label. Tim joked, “If you had a stack of $100 bills you could give us each one for naming all the artists that are on the country charts right now, [and] I don’t know if we’d make one.” Karen said, more seriously, “Country isn’t where I come from. I didn’t listen to it growing up, and I still don’t to very much country music.” She added, “There are a few artists in any genre that I listen to. It may be just one album from them, but I listen to it over and over. There are a few country artists I have fixated on their albums here and there but it’s definitely not my primary listening.”

Jonas prefers to classify her music as Americana. “I don’t like to get too caught up in it, but we’ve heard lately that we have some jazz and ragtime and blues influence on the new record in addition to the country sound, and I think that all fits well into an Americana genre.”

Jonas keeps up a full-time schedule of shows, more than 200 a year, while raising four children, ages nine, seven, two, and nine months, with her husband. I asked Jonas how the music industry can be more supportive of parents, particularly working mothers. “The music industry,” Karen told me, “is a hard industry for anyone to navigate whether you’re parents or just somebody trying to make it.  There’s certainly no easy way unless you make it big and fast, and that’s pretty rare.”

While the music business is tough for everyone, Jonas has encountered additional challenges as a working mother.  “I’ve played through two pregnancies, there’s just things that people discount me for because they know about your family and your personal life.  ‘Well, she couldn’t do that because she’s got kids and she’s six months pregnant, or she’s got a baby, so let’s not give her this opportunity.’ Or maybe, ‘We can’t count on her longevity, because she’s just going to go raise her babies and not make music anymore.’ People really give don’t give mothers, especially, those opportunities.  Women really need a voice in the industry because there are a ton of women out there who have had babies, obviously and still what write songs.”

One of the songs on Butter, “Mr Wonka,” addresses this discrimination. “‘Mr. Wonka,’” Karen explained, “is a story about a guy that we had a deal with sort of in the works, and I had to let him know that I was pregnant with my third baby, just because it seemed like good business practice, before we signed the papers, as far as timing of things, it was relevant.  He sort of disappeared for a week and came back. He said ‘Yeah, we made some other plans. It’s not going to work out.’ I think that was a pretty direct opportunity there we lost, just because I was on the third baby, now I’ve got four, and we’re still going. It was unfounded.”

I asked Karen if her kids are taking an interest in music. “They just see what I do as a job,” she answered. At their young age, she said, they “gravitate toward all kinds of things.  I don’t know if I want to pigeonhole any one of them into being musicians just because I am. I’d say they’re all artistically inclined.”

Do you think schools do enough with music and the arts, I asked? “Oh, no!” Karen exclaimed. “I wish they did! I wish that they had some stronger programs available for kids.  It puts a lot of pressure on parents to buy into extracurriculars that will support arts, or have more things available for them at home. Which is fine, but not every parent has the resources to do that. It would be great if schools would support that, because I think it’s really important that kids’ creativity is supported.”

Finally, I talked to Jonas and Bray about music in the Northern Virginia area. Tim jumped in, saying “Our challenge is that we play 200-plus shows a year.  So we really don’t get a chance to see many artists. If I have one or two Friday nights off a year, the last thing I’d do is go hear music.” They were able to recommend two acts they’ve worked with, though, blues-rock band Revelator and upcoming country artist Jason Morningstar, who has a song on the new Cody Jinks album [For our review of this album, click one of these bolded words.]  Check for her tour dates, and album info, here: http://www.karenjonasmusic.com/

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