The Story's Jennifer Kimball Makes Folk Music for the New Century

by Will Layman

14 July 2017

Photo credit: Sid Caesar Photography courtesy of JenniferKimball.com 

A Musical Meal


[Avocet is] a brilliant combination of fresh ingredients. It’s a musical meal with flavors you barely know and then crave more of.

Kimball—mostly—knew what was on. “I was very turned on by this process,” she confesses. “He never said that by the end I wouldn’t have very many instrumental tracks on the record. I would sometimes correct him, explaining that the key note in the chord is the 11 or something. I was so moved by his attention to that kind of detail. I put my full trust in his ears to create the arrangements.”

This is clear from the very start of Avocet. “Reedy River” begins with a few clarinet lines slowly intertwining around a harmony that could have come from a guitar… but there’s no guitar. Syncopated brushes against snare drop from drummer Dave Flaherty, and then some electric guitar (no folkie strumming, thanks but no thanks), and finally Kimball’s merlot voice—creamy but with an edge. Horns will find places to play quick flourishes, but nothing distracts from the tone poem of words: a pair of people along a riverbank who are bound together (“We threw our shoes along the steep bank / And rushed from winter into June”) but who are no more in the heat of passion than the water itself: “They don’t rush the way they once did / And neither do we towards each other”. It’s an adult moment and a love song of a different kind.

Most of Avocet is decidedly more funky, but in a new way that threads different musical styles into something fresh. Spiegelman understood from the start of the project that he was seeking a special combination. “We tried to find something groovy and exciting but within that basic folk music frame.”

Generations Find Each Other

The key to much of this recording is in Flaherty, the Cuddle Magic drummer.

“What I know and love about playing with Dave,” Kimball gushes, “is that he doesn’t sound like any other drummer I’ve played with. It’s a complete and utter joy. Locking in with him is a whole other thing.”

SONG: LOVE AND BIRDS

“Love and Birds” is a great example, opening on a super-funky groove that somehow incorporates bass clarinet, flute, electric guitar, and saxophone—as well as thumping electric bass. Flaherty plays straight 4/4 time that is stuttered and syncopated, derivative of ‘90s hip-hop rather than ‘90s folk or pop or even funk. It has a precise, insistent, off-kilter groove that remains unpredictable even upon repetitions. (That this thumping, modern tune also appears to be about memories of Kimball’s mother—a singular, independent woman compared to an avocet, a curious water bird with legs and beak of spindly grace—is perfectly fitting.)

How did Flaherty come up with such a killer groove? “He does something here that we also do in Cuddle Magic,” Spiegelman explains. “You’re not doing your job on a song if you don’t create something novel for it, some way that the beat is unique and has a relation to the lyric and the vocal melody. In a song like ‘Love and Birds’, Jennifer was already playing this very rhythmic, rocking-out pattern, and I wrote a bass line that was contrapuntally interesting relative to the existing vocal melody. Dave was negotiating in between those elements to come up with his part.”

The blending of generations could’t be clearer. Kimball notes, “These guys are all around 30, and they’ve had a chance to branch out. There is an intense precision to the way Dave plays, a focus. But it is never without emotion or feeling.” It’s like Joni Mitchell made a record with A Tribe Called Quest, to our ear.

You can hear it on “Saturday Day”, for example. Flaherty’s drums are, essentially, the instrumental hook, leading the band from the bottom up. “Dave is a fan of hip-hop and other music that really explores what a beat can be,” Spiegelman notes. He does the same thing on “I’ll Build You a Barn”, where the drum groove—almost entirely kick drum and snare in impossible-to-emulate syncopation—has a tribal quality that matches the lyric (borrowed, says, Kimball, from poet Mary Burchenal): “I’ll build you a barn / To hold all of us / The door will swing wide / Swing wide enough for everyone”.

With wise lyrics and grooving arrangements that simply couldn’t have been created 20 years ago, the music itself does seem wide enough to hold lots of listeners. “I think about the generational thing a great deal, in terms of how the music business has changed since the last time Jennifer made a solo record,” notes Spiegelman. “The way I think about making records—and a singer-songwriter record particularly—isn’t the same as how others might do it. Maybe some things are characteristic of my generation. But I was so excited to work on this record because Jennifer is a special kind of songwriter. Many songwriters of my generation don’t do what she does: she writes from her own, odd world of lived experience and musical experience. There is unexpected stuff that only she would come up with.

“Maybe what makes it work is that we’re the same kind of quirky weirdos across a generation,” Spiegelman concludes. “We found each other.”

Stories of Middle Age, Transformed

Lyrically, Avocet is intimate in ways that take some time to appreciate. “Someone to Read To” is a song that performs a brilliant flip. A story about the pleasures of reading to someone at night (we presume, at first, a child), it then has the narrator promise “I’ll be your someone to read to at night”. That is, the reader promises to become the audience down the line. Kimball feel that this song “is like the center of the record. It’s a love song about being content and being thankful for being able to read to somebody. I have some friends I wrote it for. It’s not sexy, but comforting. It’s about accepting things in middle age. And, yes, it’s also something about reading to a child or to an aging parent.”

Spiegelman found a way to keep “Someone to Read To” gentle while still letting Flaherty do his thing. “We took the voicings Jennifer had been playing on the song and turned it into a lead sheet and gave it to the band, and then the guitarist came up with a West African-sounding ostinato.” Spiegelman’s overdubbed flutes are like the words of the lyrics, “ris[ing] and swirl[ing] in the salty night air”.

“Love and Babies”, a dreamy anthem to the stir that every parent feels deep inside, is another song that surely would have sounded very different on another album. The lyric is full of gentle wonder: “With hope’s little hand wrapped around your finger / No beginning nor end has joy / Know it now, now is love”. The arrangement, however, tacks a different direction, driven by an off-kilter groove with a martial quality. Kimball explains: “That started as a little guitar thing, nothing to write home about. I wrote it on a tiple, a Spanish instrument with ten strings. The whole arrangement is Alec. Dave Flaherty had come up with a pattern on electric vibes, and Alec was playing the pump organ. The chord structure and vocal harmony were already in my head, and I kept it there over the elaborate, bouncy new landscape.” Add to that what sounds like a short, electronically distorted flute solo and you have something singular.

“It’s really refreshing to hear a new version of that you wrote,” Kimball elaborates. “I don’t need to hear another strummy-strummy acoustic guitar record, especially if it’s me playing.”

The most folky-strummy song on Avocet is “All Truth is Bitter”, a delicate song about a difficult break-up (“Then I lied to the dog / I’ll be back, I said / And he stayed, good dog / Cocked his head”). “That is her playing a retuned ukulele,” Spiegelman explains, “with fascinating voicings. And those are the precisely the notes that the winds are playing as they take over the song. But that is also a song where, the way she sang this was so sneaky and arhythmic that I didn’t want to remove the strumming.” As the lyrics turn from the second chorus into the bridge (“And the truth is / That she loved me / More than anything else in the world”), Spiegelman allows drums (a cool pattern of snare roll-and-hit) and horns to take over, giving way eventually to a fantastical instrumental passage combining flutes, electronics, and barely audible roll that builds, builds, builds tension until it simply gives way to the ukulele again, and the voice lying to the dog at end.

Finding an Audience

Where does Avocet find its audience? Will fans of The Story know to seek out the latest from the duo’s more retiring member? Will folk and Americana fans get excited about a record that mostly ditches a big Taylor acoustic a flurry of bass clarinets? Will the word spread from Boston outward, reaching New York and an industry insider or two?

Smart stories of love, community, heartbreak, aging, and even death are not supposed to land you an arena gig. But with music this original and spry, and with a voice as sterling and assured as Jennifer Kimball’s, critical acclaim ought to be on the way.

Like the bird it’s named after, Avocet is beautiful, fleet, unlike any other. Your ears give it flight.

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