It’s an era of pop sensations jump-started on YouTube with marriages played out on Twitter, I know. The notion of a straight-up commitment to songs is quaint, the idea of poetic lyrics is overly hopeful, and the strategy of ignoring commercial appeal is… foolish. It’s an era when deciding to major in English instead of business is the act of a dreamer.
Love live the dreamers, I say. Folks like singer-songwriter (and long-ago English major) Jennifer Kimball.
Kimball has just released her first recording of new songs in over a decade, Avocet. It’s a truly original recording, a unique collaboration with Alec Spiegelman of the indie band Cuddle Magic, and a set of songs with the power to haunt you from daylight to sleep.
PopMatters interviewed both Kimball and Spiegalman to better understand why we can’t stop listening to Avocet.
The Story of Jennifer Kimball
Jennifer Kimball is the most accomplished songwriter and pure singer of the moment that you might have once loved (even if you don’t know her name) and then forgotten about. In 1981 she met Jonathan Brooke during their freshman year at Amherst College in central Massachusetts, where they started harmonizing and, eventually, playing duo gigs in the area. Lit degree in hand, Jennifer spent some years working on book jackets for Little, Brown after graduation. But the music was growing.
It didn’t happen overnight, but she and Brooke kept singing and—eventually signed to Elektra Records as The Story—released two acclaimed recordings in 1991 and 1993. Kimball wasn’t writing the songs and was thought of as the harmony singer, but, ooh, what harmonies.
It was the early edge of a time when women were starting to make a bigger splash in the music industry. The Indigo Girls (another harmonizing duo) were making great records. Shawn Colvin was singing back-up for Suzanne Vega, and both were making cool, independent sounds. Tracy Chapman, also out of the Boston scene, had led the way to the pop charts for women singing real songs with real stories. Soon there would be Sarah McLachlan, The Cardigans, Fiona Apple, Lisa Loeb, and Joan Osborne. In 1997, the first Lilith Fair Festival would bring all these acts into a kind of moment.
By then, The Story was history but Kimball’s first album as songwriter and lead singer was in the works. Veering from the Wave came out in 1998, produced by drummer Ben Wittman and featuring Duke Levine on guitar, both from her days with The Story. It was something different, however: quirkier, more poetic, more rife with jazzy twists and turns, more… Joni-ish. Like Mitchell’s great albums, Veering from the Wave seemed like a travelogue in search of love (“Kissing in the Car”). A song like “Take One Step” can tell you what’s special about Kimball: a poetic story-song of flirtation set in Newfoundland and in a jagged version of waltz time—“Let my hand go in yours / Don’t look sideways / Don’t look sideways”.
Indirection, rhythmic complexity, poetry, and Newfoundland? Were she a novelist she’d be two-time National Book Award nominee Howard Norman. As a part of the music industry, though, you were supposed to move more product.
There was no more recorded work for eight years (Oh Hear Us in 2006), and then silence for more than a decade. In the meantime, Kimball was busy with the stuff that artists turn into songs: love, marriage, motherhood, reading, family, and the nicks and dents that the years provide.
Still, Music Throughout
Not that Kimball wasn’t making music. For one, she married Ry Cavanaugh, the musician behind Boston’s superb Session Americana roots/ rock/ folk collective. Their musical lives intersected with a who’s who of that genre and that town, including guitarist Levine, Rose Polenzani, Patty Griffin, and Aoife O’Donovan.
Both Kimball and Cavanaugh were connected briefly with Wayfaring Strangers, Matt Glaser’s like-no-other band that mixed folk, jazz, klezmer, and bluegrass. Kimball formed a band with Cavanaugh for a while (Maybe Baby), she sang harmony for all sorts of talented folks (Lucy Kaplansky, John Gorka, Kris Delmhorst, Tony Trischka, and lots more), and she even put together a project, Wintry Songs in Eleventy Part Harmony, to record some seasonal material.
But there’s a good argument that Kimball was saving up her stories for something special, for the right moment.
“I didn’t need to make the record,” Kimball says. “It’s almost impossible to sell a CD these days.”
“I’ve never been that person who has to put out a record every two or three years,” she admits. “I’ve always been impressed by those ‘90s singer-songwriters who can do that and have a nice career. There have been some nice role models—women of my generation who are in the forefront of music like Shawn Colvin and Patty Griffin.”
Why a new record now? “I do it because I love it, but also because I want people to hear these songs.”
Sometimes, too, the recording process itself is a catalyst. And that was certainly the case with Avocet. It started as a surprise birthday present from Cavanaugh to Kimball—a recording session at a top Boston studio. “The session introduced me to Alec Spiegelman and drummer Dave Flaherty,” she explains, who she knew from their work with the avant-pop band from Brooklyn, Cuddle Magic.
Spiegelman found himself in that first session because he had fallen into the Session Americana circle. “They are like my cool older musical uncles in Boston—an incredible collective. I was privileged to gain their notice at some point and enter the orbit of collaborators. I was invited to that birthday session along with Dave Flaherty, the drummer from Cuddle Magic, Kimon Kirk on bass from Session Americana, guitarist Duke Levine, and producer Billy Conway who was one of the two drummers in the band Morphine.”
After the first session, Kimball had whet her appetite. It was time to really make a great record. “I feel, now in middle age, like I really have something to say. And I think my writing has gotten better. I wanted to make the record and work with Alec. I fell in love a couple years before with Cuddle Magic and the music they make. I don’t like to make distinctions between styles of music.”
“I think,” Spiegelman says, “they wanted someone to bring some of the Cuddle Magic aesthetic to the project, I guess. And I think they were looking for someone who was a little outside of Jennifer’s musical orbit.”
Kimball talks about choosing Spiegelman to reimagine her songs and those first recordings as if she were still inside the excitement of it. “I know that he is a musician with huge ears and a monster player. He has an incredible sense of humor and still a gravitas. I’ve always been drawn to people like that. It was a leap of faith—we’d never even had coffee together.”
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Folk Music Meets the 21st Century
The result is a recording that dodges easy comparison or explanation. Kimball’s songs are extremely literate and lyrically interesting; their melodies and harmonic progressions avoid cliché at every turn, managing to be beautiful and lush but still quirky; and Spiegelman’s arrangements bathe the songs in stuttering, modern drums patterns, shivering and delicate woodwind parts, chamber-pop use of vibes, cello, and keyboards. It’s a brilliant combination of fresh ingredients. It’s a musical meal with flavors you barely know and, then, crave more of.
“I definitely made two aesthetic choices in the development of this record.” Spiegelman explains. “One was to learn the idiosyncrasies of Jennifer’s voicings and her musical quirks, and the other was opening up the possibility of using other instruments and hiding the origin or her quirks.
“I had a desire not to reharmonizes or rearrange anything or in any extreme way to add what wasn’t there I wanted to bring out the existing elements while removing evidence of where they came from.”