Kara Jackson: Q&A

Kara Jackson (photo by Lawrence Agyei, PR)
by Kara Manning | 02/28/2024 | 10:00am

Kara Jackson (photo by Lawrence Agyei, PR)

At the end of 2023, as the year's best albums were tallied and assessed, Kara Jackson's powerful debut album, Why Does the Earth Give Us People to Love?, landed at the top tier of multiple music lists, lauded for its poetic, insightful lyricism and storytelling.

Jackson's magnificent songwriting didn't surprise anyone who was familiar with her extraordinary background — the Chicago-based artist was the third U.S. National Youth Poet Laureate from 2019-2020 and Chicago's Youth Poet Laureate in 2018. publishing a chapbook of her poetry, Bloodstone Cowboy, in 2019.

As a musician, Jackson's songs ring with poignancy and gritty candor, a fearless expedition through the throes of grief and tentative healing — often laced with dashes of bone-dry humor. She effortlessly aligns with songwriters such as Joni Mitchell, Tracy Chapman, Nina Nastasia, and Nick Cave who all bring a steely, no-bulls**t ferocity to the quietest of songs, with a tumble of truth and grace.

Jackson will embark on her first-ever North American headlining tour this spring — she's cheekily calls it the "No Fun" tour — and she'll be back in New York on May 16 to play Public Records.

Ahead of that tour, and as "Black History Month" segues to "Women's History Month" this week (although every month is Black and Women's history month) we've got a new FUV Q&A with Jackson, who talks about the songs from from her debut album, why it's so difficult to discuss grief, and why she's nervous about the trajectory of this country in 2024.

Your 2023 debut album, Why Does the Earth Give Us People to Love?, landed atop most critics' lists as one of the very best albums of the year — and it has also given you a very busy roster of shows and festivals. As a self-described introvert, how are you handling that uptick of attention? Do you have the time you need to retreat, write and have some normalcy?

I am handling the attention by trying to remain true to myself and all the unremarkable parts of being myself. I’m very resistant to this idea of being a public figure or a special person. After shows most of the time I just go to bed or enjoy wine in my hotel room and call my mom. Talking to my family always humbles me because they’ve known me since before I could even speak for myself.

"Dickhead blues" is an astonishing song, traversing multiple terrains in just over five minutes. It's wickedly funny, terse, breathtaking, and lands us, by its denouement, not quite where we expected. It's especially thrilling to hear you somersault through a line like, "Like coyotes in culottes/Clawin' for coffee in open-toed shoes." What was the impetus for the song and how did you build it?

To be honest I don’t even really remember the moment where I sat down and wrote "dickhead blues." The second part of the song (the “if I had a heart" part) was something I had come up with separately and I kind of stitched it together with the verses. I was definitely thinking about the blues, a feeling I think most folk singers have a relationship with. For this song, it was the particular blues that comes with trying to date and trying to put yourself out there, which is kind of like throwing yourselves onto a carousel of coyotes.

"Pawnshop" is a testament to your deep love and understanding of folk music, whether that's the legacy of Laurel Canyon, or something more contemporary. Why did folk music speak to you so vividly when you were a child and what lyricists did you admire?

I think I’ve always been struck by folk music because of its capacity for depth; these full, rich stories that unfold in a song. My mom works for a labor union and I learned some of my first folk songs in the context of protests, songs like “Joe Hill.” My parents also played a lot of Jim Croce around us growing up. There was always something functional about folk music to me; you can play it alone in solitude, but then also travel with your guitar and play for others. There was something so communal about it but also soul searching for an individual.

You have spoken eloquently about the effect of grief in your work, whether that's personal or the bigger scope of how grief is handled in American culture. Grief also stalks love and relationships. Are there particular songs on Why Does the Earth Give Us People to Love? that entwine both love and grief to you most powerfully?

I think the title track is obviously about the entanglement of grief and love. So much of the album is investigating where these feelings meet and how much they are inseparable from each other. Any time you love someone you’re signing yourself up for grief, but you’re also signing yourself up for love — and they’re both these profound transformative experiences that really enhance one another. Really physically losing someone, the grief you feel, is only a confirmation of how much love you have for that person.

Why is grief so difficult to discuss for so many in this country?

I think it’s difficult to discuss grief in this country because so many of us have not been allowed to know love. As bell hooks says in her book All About Love, we live in a loveless culture. Apathy is the way of my generation. Our love songs are transactional, casual, uninterested. We are numb at best, desensitized from the sense of loss in the world. And I really think it’s because we have made no time to feel, are actively denied that time in our daily work schedules. Love and grief are not urgent pursuits the way work is. “You have to work and find a job” we’re told by our teachers, our parents, our friends. Nobody every tells you “You have to go out and find love. You have to experience that.”

As a guitarist, your instrument often accompanies you in a stark, expressive way, as if in an intimate dialogue with you, a fellow narrator on the story you're telling whether that's on "rat," "lily," or in the simple lick in "no fun/party." What do you enjoy most about focusing just on the music of the song you are writing and your own guitar playing?

All of my songs generally start with just me alone, and my guitar is a skeleton for me that helps me build a foundation for a song. When I first started writing the album I would recorded the songs with just me and my guitar, and the vocal and guitar tracks served as the entry point for the rest of the instrumentation. I like writing this way because it allows the songs to stay true to how they were when I wrote them in my room, in a way.

I wonder if Black History Month, as a designation or celebration has ever had any meaning for you, whether past or present.

Obviously it's coming to a close, but I think Black History Month (and Women’s History Month alike) is a moment to focus on my people’s history and dedicate time to celebrating that history. It’s not the most symbolic month to me, although I do think it’s interesting that it’s the shortest month of the year. But it’s like New Year's Day or a full moon; a time to be intentional and thoughtful even for a moment. For me this year that’s looked like reading my favorite books. Two of my favorite writers, Toni Morrison and Audre Lorde, were born this month, so I’ve dedicated a lot of my time revisiting their works.

As we enter a rather fraught political year, what has been most on your mind about the state of the country? What gives you hope — or what do you worry about in 2024?

I’m nervous about the trajectory of this country. I’m not good at being optimistic but I’m finding solace in my ancestors a lot lately. There are some days where I think what my generation is faced with is impossible to overcome. But I think about the women who came before me, and how impossible things felt then. When has there ever been a year for Black people that isn’t fraught politically? We have always lived, married, worked, buried our loved ones, in times marked by uncertainty. There is promise in chaos. I am trying to pull something from the chaos of now and use that energy to imagine a different future.

- Kara Jackson
February 2024

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