With a very impressive back-catalogue of nine releases to her name, Jess Klein comes highly recommended as an artist and singer-songwriter bearing great gifts and insight. This highly accomplished musician and wordsmith, recently sat down with Lonesome Highway to share her thoughts on life, the universe and everything after. She was joined by her husband and fellow musician Mike June who is currently accompanying her on their European tour.
LH: Life on the road versus recording – how do you split your time?
JK: I really love to be in the studio because you feel like the sky is the limit. I am working on an album right now and you go in thinking that it will be really stripped down, just me and my guitar mostly; then as soon as I got in we started bouncing ideas around and suddenly it becomes a much bigger soundscape. It is like a cool fantasy world to live in but then I also get very antsy if I am not playing for people. It’s like I can’t get my fix of a real live spontaneous experience. When we are in Europe I really love being on the road whereas at home the drives can be longer and it doesn’t feel as special.
LH: Do you have your own studio?
JK: Mike is currently building a studio…
MJ: When we lived in Texas we had a one room apartment so when we moved to North Carolina our first priority was to get some walls…! I have a love/hate relationship with recording. I love the end product but it can be so tedious, almost like anti-music. I have all these great ideas running around in my head but putting them down shows up all you’re your limitations. It can be very hard being in the studio and keeping it spontaneous. Playing live gives me that chance to be spontaneous and to have that feeling that pretty much anything can happen. That is why we play music I guess.
LH: So, it comes down to balancing the recording process with the need to tour again?
JK: We both decided to take a few months off this year but then I start to forget who I am and what my purpose on the planet is… Especially when I look at social media and watching everyone else’s experiences and it starts to feel like, ‘I could be doing that’ – so I don’t have a good sense of what is coming in two months; it’s whatever I’m doing now that is my experience.
LH: You haven’t got exhausted with the whole touring thing yet?
JK: A couple of years ago I really got burned out and we had to make a couple of changes as to how we did it. We had to let our agent go because he wasn’t doing a great job and it can be really hard to make it work.
MJ: It’s hard when you have to ask people for money and I would prefer to have someone else doing that part for me. Last night was my first gig for a while and it felt a little strange. I had lost a whole tour because of the problem with our booking agent but it was kind of good in that I had previously been playing almost 200 gigs a year in the States and don’t know if I really gained anything career wise.
JK: You have grown a lot as an artist…and as a performer and a player. However, career wise you can drive 600 miles to play to a handful of people.
LH: I suppose it depends what you define as success? The fact that you can both keep doing this career as professional musicians can be seen as a success in itself
MJ: I tour a lot with Jon Dee Graham and he’ll complain that he is ‘barely makin’ it; what you makin’? For me, I get to travel around the world playing music with my wife, so it is a great experience. For example, we got engaged in Paris which was very special…
LH: It’s a real bohemian lifestyle and people would be envious of that.
JK: I find that when I’m at home I am a real homebody but I actually find it really freeing when we are moving on the road to keep things lean and we only have so many things with us. I don’t like packing but when we’re moving it is great to keep things simple.
MJ: If we didn’t tour then I might never leave the house. I’m just at that age when I’m not much into the social life!
LH: Speaking of not leaving the house, how does the writing process work for you?
JK: I’ve learned that the writing process can change. The last few records were all done in Austin Texas with this same group of people so you always had a sounding board. But then we moved to North Carolina and I went to a town I had never been to and didn’t know too many people so I didn’t have the structure with me. My initial response was that I would sit and try to write everyday but it doesn’t work like that. It has to flow and you have to trust that if I go live my life then the songs are gonna come. I sometimes use my phone to capture ideas at the time they appear.
MJ: Living with Jess makes me ashamed to call myself a songwriter as she is up first thing in the morning working on stuff whereas I am waiting for the inspiration to come…My last record, Poor Man’s Bible, I poured over every part of that for almost a year before we went to the studio. This new stuff, I had just an EP come out on Friday, Election Day and I decided to not think too much about what I was writing but just go back to having fun and keeping it simple. I think this is a progression for every artist who starts out wanting to prove that you can do something really big and I think that doing that with Poor Man’s Bible made me comfortable with myself.
LH: What comes first when you write, the lyrics or the melody?
MJ: Usually it’s always words for me first but it can be a guitar riff, sometimes the song just goes in my head and I have an idea how I want it to be but when you sit down and start pounding it out, it can sound totally different.
JK: Early this year I had a repetitive strain injury in my arms and hands which was really terrifying. For me it had almost always been melody first but I couldn’t play the guitar as much as I normally would so I had to compose just in my head and sing it into the phone and wait until my hands were able to play. It was interesting in that my first thought was ‘oh my God, I can’t play the guitar the way that I want to…’ but then I had to roll with it and it just works its way through you. I don’t think my guitar style has changed but I was so nervous when I returned to doing shows after taking the time off. I changed my guitar (a Martin J-21) and found that when I played, it was the one time I was not thinking about my hands, so it all worked out fine!
LH: Getting paid as a professional duo; can you make money anymore from the recorded product or is it live performance?
JK: Honestly it is a combination. I think that I make half of my money on the road from merchandise sales. If I’m not on the road then it is harder.
MJ: I signed my record deal last year and the budget that my record label gave me was only quarter what I had spent on my previous record by myself. They send me statements every month about how much I owe them or how much they have lost on me! They’re sweethearts but what can you do? Even a band like Los Lobos who have been around for almost 40 years and have made so many great records were chatting amongst themselves as to whether it was even still worthwhile continuing to make records. The cost of making them is so high and then services like Spotify don’t pay the artist anything. As a listener, you can have all the music in the World for just $10 a month but that doesn’t pay the artist. Any other business would revolt against that... Even using Kickstarter to fund your record ends up with 15% of the money raised going to them.
LH: Looking at the arc of your career and that first album that received great media acclaim, you had the experience of being on a big label before doing it all for yourself
JK: I would have to look at my files to see who now owns Rykodisc, maybe Warner Bros., but I was not with that label for very long. I made two albums with UFO also but I found myself feeling that I can do this better on my own and hiring the people I wanted for myself. If I’m failing, then it’s because of decisions I am making on my own now.
MJ: Having been on both sides of the fence, previously as a booking agent, at our level then to be doing it for yourself is the best option. A lot of the people working I the industry are just not very good and can let you down. Do they have your best interests at heart?
JK: I feel like we have both been through enough now to just do it yourself. I feel like I know what questions to ask before getting anyone involved now.
LH: You must have built up a decent network of people over the years that you can trust?
JK: I think it is important to be able to ask for help – no man is an island!
LH: You are quoted as saying ‘my motivation in making music is to connect with people and in doing so, to connect with myself, which is the hardest and the scariest part…’ How vulnerable do you feel on stage?
JK: It’s not that playing in front of people has ever really been hard. I feel that there is a difference between putting on a show and giving yourself over to the performance and connecting. I feel like the thing that I have been working on over the last 4 or 5 years is going a little on faith and being completely open. When I am on stage, you have to have a purpose and I put all the love I could into these songs and I really want for people to be able to act off that. I can’t control how they receive it but the intention I go in with is to share the love in my heart as I have crafted it.
LH: You are a very giving performer and the audience just believe it. This is what makes it special
MJ: You have to play to the people that are there and not the people who aren’t. I remember playing a gig in Clarksdale, Mississippi to zero people. I am just rockin’ it, by myself, thinking this is good practice, just get into it, when 2 guys come in at the end and one turns out to be Danny Boyle, the movie director, who liked my stuff and wanted to buy some CDs. I didn’t know who he was right then and I’m saying just keep your money, you are on vacation so just have a CD… Then in North Carolina I was playing to 8 people on a Sunday afternoon and decided not to let it be one of those ‘I don’t want to be here’ moments; I do a strong set and it led to me getting my record deal out of that…! Play to the people that are there.
JK: I don’t want to overblow the importance of art but I feel because this is what I do, I look to art and music to give me permission to open up and feel my feeling. I believe that there is good in this world and it is like a sacred transaction when I go onstage and it can’t just fit in a box. It means something to me to be able to give to other people.
LH: Do you write from the personal or the observed experience, or is it a mix of both?
JK: Some of the songs are very personal. When I was younger it could be pretty scary to try and figure out the answer to something by the end of the song and present it in this neat package. Now I’ve grown up!
MJ: I made a conscious decision a couple of years ago to stop writing songs about things that everyone else writes about. I started to turn my attention to the outside and look at religious and political issues. It’s what I think about, it’s just who I am… I want people to get along and to see that this world is so much better than we give it credit for. If I am angry and I want to write songs against the establishment then that is what I do. The Folk Alliance and the American Music Association used to say they don’t want any political issues here. However, It is really personal for me…
JK: The other night he was dreaming and shouted out in his sleep ‘you can’t lie to the American people’…!!
LH: When you travel do you find differences in the audiences you play for?
JK: I think the difference is that there seems to be a more embedded cultural appreciation of the arts in Europe. In the States people come to see us feel that way but it seems more of an uphill climb.
MJ: A couple of years ago I did a tour and was playing house concerts in Texas and in San Francisco where the political views were different and the culture and perspective was so varied. You meet people in small towns that give you a different view of why people feel isolated and on the outside of things in America.
Travelling then to Europe is a real education. Taking in refugees is so much talked about in the States but people have never seen it. Then we are here and on the day we got engaged, what is in my head is; ‘I’m going to ask this woman I love to marry me today’ and the first thing we see when we get off the highway is a refugee camp on the outskirts of Paris and you see people living on the street dividers. And you see that this is the reality of it. Getting that perspective is a whole new education.
Being on a small level lets you be able to sit down with people and really listen with real communication. A big change with music now is that a lot of house concerts end up with your fans becoming your friends.
Jess Klein talks of her career as a twisting journey and says that she is tired of all the anger and cynicism she can sometimes encounter; ‘I say, get out there and do something’.
This is a good note on which to bring our conversation to a close. There is so much to recommend in the sublime talents of Jess Klein and her body of music is waiting to be discovered by those of you who like to visit the realm of accomplished writing and sensitive soul-searching.
Her husband, Mike June, is a very engaging person who was really interesting to spend time with. Together they make a great team and in trying to bring light into the lives of those that they meet, both Jess and Mike lift the collective spirit to an elevated place where our awareness and appreciation of the arts can be heightened.
Interview by Paul McGee