Karen Jonas

Interview: Karen Jonas — “Summer Songs”


The dog days may be drawing to a close but the sun and sand live on in Karen Jonas’ latest EP, Summer Songs, which was released on August 20 alongside “Gumballs,” a collection of the singer-songwriter’s poetry. Co-produced by E.P. Jackson, Summer Songs features an Americana take on Don Henley’s “The Boys of Summer,” which is the perfect slice of nostalgic apple pie to send off the season and carry the listener into the fall.

I recently sat down with Karen Jonas to discuss swoopy steel, completing the creative circle, and embracing the slow language of emotion.

Americana Highways: Your new EP Summer Songs has that feet-on-the-dash season of the sun vibe to it. On the EP, you also cover one of the greatest summer songs of all time, Don Henley’s “The Boys of Summer.” As a songwriter, how do you capture a vibe like that – one that reminds people of a particular time or place – and have it translate to the listener?

Karen Jonas: I love Don Henley’s recording of “The Boys of Summer” so much, all 4:47 minutes of its synthy 1984-ness. When I hear it, I feel an incredible sense of nostalgia, and a melancholy juxtaposed with Wayfarers in the summer sun. We wanted to maintain as much of that feeling as we could, while updating the sound to Americana. So we featured a more shuffling drum beat, and swapped the synth for a warm, swoopy pedal steel guitar. I hope the result is a modern take that honors the original.

AH: The EP is dropping in the summer of 2021, but the songs were written and recorded well before that. So, with that in mind, what does this collection of tracks remind YOU about when you listen back to them now?

KJ: These songs have definitely traveled some miles with me, most of them first hit my notebook about eight years ago. Then, earlier this year, as I was writing a collection of poetry and reflecting on that time, these songs started to make their way back into my brain. I collected them and sat with them for a month or two, editing them mercilessly, until I felt like they met with my current songwriting standards. It’s that focused editing process, some of it in the studio with co-producer E.P. Jackson, that really sticks out to me, because I’ve never attempted anything quite like it.

AH: As the listener, all we experience is the end result of your creative hard work. The songs as they appear on the EP become what we know, but for you, there is an entire process involved. In the future, as you look back on this time of writing, recording and promoting Summer Songs, what do you think will become the most memorable thing for you? What will you carry with you through the rest of your life?

KJ: Yes! The album creation and release is such a process. I love the studio time, then working with artists and videographers, then making plans with a release team. It’s all so creative and exciting. For this EP, I think I’ll remember the way the third track on the EP, “Thunder on the Battery,” came together in the studio. The demo felt like a soft acoustic love song, but I had this vision that the production would create the tension that underlies the lyrics. Co-producer Jackson and drummer Seth Brown made bold choices with the drums, creating this suspenseful verse and crashing chorus. Then Seth Morrissey (bass/harmony), Tim Bray (electric guitar), and Tom Hnatow (pedal steel) really built on it. It was really inspiring to see my idea come to life with these great players.

AH: Getting music out into the world is easier than ever these days because of the direct line to listeners, but cutting through all of the noise and having people actually listen is the biggest question mark in the equation. Do you think the experience of releasing music in 2021 is vastly different than what artists experienced in the 1970s, ‘80s or ‘90s? Would you rather be where we were or where we are now?

KJ: Ah, that’s a tough one. I’m a fool for nostalgia, so I’d like the think that in the ‘70s or ‘80s, everything was better and easier, but I suspect it probably wasn’t. It does seem like a committed, dedicated artist would be able to find a home on a label and release records (real, actual records!) within a funded music industry sphere. But I’m sure the reality was far more complicated. And, for artists that weren’t on a label, there wasn’t as much opportunity to release records. Today, we all have access to the tools we need to create and release music on a fairly professional level, and that’s pretty amazing.

AH: What does songwriting do for you as a person that being a listener can not accomplish? Other than scratching that creative itch, does it benefit you in other ways – sometimes in different ways at different times?

KJ: Songwriting, to me, is rooted in self-expression and catharsis. Just the act of creating the song, whether anyone hears it or not, helps me to process my experiences. Then, when you send it off into the world, you’re saying, “I have felt this way. This is what that feelings sounded like, to me. Do you feel it too?” And, some people maybe do. Completing that circle is extra rewarding.

AH: As you look back over all of the songs you have written, is there a particular lyric that stands out as the one you are most proud, and if so, why?

KJ: Our debut album, Oklahoma Lottery, really kicked off my fascination with very specific storytelling that also paints a broader emotional picture. The title track tells a dust bowl story that also related very personally to a divorce I was going through. It ends with lines, “there’s no work to be done until the rain starts to fall/ so you pack up your old jalopy and drive.” I still love this vignette songwriting concept, as you can tell by our 2020 record The Southwest Sky and Other Dreams and this new Summer Songs EP.

AH: What part of the songwriting process comes easiest to you and what part do you struggle with?

KJ: Songwriting always seems natural to me, I love the way words and melodies work together. But it can be challenging to find the time to sit down and focus on it. Once I have something rolling, I’m pretty committed to completing it.

AH: Music can touch people in profound ways, often in ways that the artist never intended. What do you hope people take from your music and where would you like to see it impact listeners most?

KJ: That’s a tough one. I guess I hope people are inspired to value feelings and stories a little more – their own, and those of others. There’s so much efficiency in the world, sometimes we just gloss right over the inconvenient, slow language of emotion. I believe that the more empathetic, self-aware people there are, people who appreciate art and stories, the better the world will become. Because people who truly empathize will be moved to be helpers, in whatever way they can.

AH: We mentioned your cover of “The Boys of Summer” earlier. Is there a different set of expectations – both personal and perceived – when you record someone else’s song as opposed to performing it live? Are the stakes higher?

KJ: A little bit, I guess. I tried to just approach it like we would any other song, as a song that we should get really comfortable with and then emote the best way we know how, starting with the drums.

AH: Time machine question. If you could jump ahead 10 years and get a glimpse of what your career looks like a decade from now, would you take that journey? If not, why?

KJ: Definitely not!! That takes all the fun out of it.

Celebrate the summer with Karen Jonas by visiting www.karenjonasmusic.com

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