“I’ve Felt Everything!” Kara Jackson Interviewed
Kara Jackson is – simply – remarkable. She took piano lessons from the age of five, and taught herself to play guitar. A natural with language, she became a slam poetry veteran while still a kid, eventually becoming the National Youth Poet Laureate in 2019.
And then came songwriting. Applying the same fastidious nature to her music that she does to her writing, Kara Jackson quickly excelled. A true polymath, the Chicago based artist would build up her initial sketches on guitar, utilising long, flowing lines that pushed language to the limit. Then she’d drop past some close friends – Nnamdi, Kaina and Sen Morimoto, for instance – who would assist on the studio process, fleshing out those demos into something greater than the sum of their parts.
Out now, Kara Jackson’s debut album ‘Why Does The Earth Give Us People To Love?’ is wonderful. A deep, enriching experience, it dares to ask questions of its audience, opening the listener up to fresh avenues of conversation and debate in the process.
Travelling to the UK for a performance on Later… with Jools Holland – itself a sign of the impact her debut LP has had – Kara Jackson took time out to chat with Clash. She opens by chatting about Souls Grown Deep Like The Rivers – a new exhibition at London’s Royal Academy, it focusses on Black Southern artists – before discussing aspects of her own Southern heritage.
Along the way, we discuss Chicago, the creative process, and learning to share her inner-most thoughts.
The album is out now, and it feels like you’re truly put everything into this. How does it feel to share something like that with the world?
I think it’s a cocktail of everything. Honestly, I’ve felt everything. It’s almost like the stages of grief. It’s weird putting some of this out. Some of these songs I’ve had in my vault since 2018, 2019 – round about the time is put out the EP. In some ways it’s relief to put it out in the world, like I had been anticipating it. But it’s also melancholic, but I will never have the privacy again that you had when the songs were just their own. And it’s definitely a new feeling to me to have people react to those songs. It can be hard to be perceived and reckon with who you are in private, but also with your public self. Mostly, I just feel proud of the work, and of all the work we put into it. I’m so proud of my friends and my collaborators, I’m so happy to platform their work.
Your use of language is incredibly striking. Do words come first in your practise? Do you view these artifacts as poems set to music? Or does the idea of a song exist in its own space?
My process varies from song to song, honestly. Some songs it will happen simultaneously. It’s rare for me to have the words right away, I will say that. Most times I have to work towards that. I’ll have the melody, the form… but I won’t know what the words are. It can be frustrating, as I can’t really rush that process. A lot of it was just taking my time. A song like ‘No Fun’ – that was in my head for months, for so long, and eventually I came up with the words. But with ‘Curtains’ – that just poured out of me. Sometimes a song makes itself easily known. Once I had everything written, I’d recorded these rough demos in my bedroom, just me and my guitar… once I had that, I brought them to my friends, and that’s how the process with them started. I would have the guitar as a base-line, and the vocal, and we’d go to record clean tracks, and then build out from there.
Just to stay on your lyrics. What is it about Chicago and words? The city seems to enjoy facilitating these writers, poets, rappers, performers who use language in a unique way.
I do feel really lucky to have grown up here. Chicago is just historically the place to be if you like writing and poetry especially. For me, the high school I went to had one of the largest spoken word clubs in the world. My poetry teacher – Peter Kahn – is a really integral force in the poetic scene around the country… in terms of slam, or the festival Louder Than A Bomb. We have so many sites that are centred around words.
Even the hip-hop history, it’s so strong. The obvious names like Kanye, to some of my personal heroes like Noname and Saba. I always joke that it’s so cold in Chicago, so you spend half the year bundled up inside so you have to do something with that time. And that’s where you get good writing, and music, and art because… well, there’s not much else to do for six months of the year! It really is magical, though.
You are in touch with the Southern aspects of your heritage, how does that come out in your music, do you think?
The history of folk and country has its origins there. My dad grew up in Georgia, in this really small town called Dawson, and he grew up on people like Charlie Pride. Something that’s always really struck me about folk music, and what has always made me gravitate towards it, is the narrative in the songs, the stories. The original folk musicians were working class people, like farmers, making comment on their lives, and the conditions they were in. Critiquing working conditions. My mom works for a Labor Union in Chicago, and I’ve learned so many folk songs just from going to protests with her. Some of my favourite folk songs are protest songs. As someone who wants to articulate their life, their familiy’s lives, and where they come from… folk music resonated with me. And my family, especially, tell a lot of stories. I’ve internalised a lot of stories simply from sitting in a room with my mom, my aunts, my grandma. It definitely shows in my music.
Do you strive towards that narrative structure purposefully, or are some songs more centred around re-creating a specific mood?
In particular with this album, I wanted to flex that literary muscle. I wanted the sound and the instrumentation to work in tandem with the words. I don’t want to pigeonhole myself as a lyricist – I think sound is a language, too. I’m a huge jazz person, I love improv, so it’s a bit of both really. I love narrative songs – I’m a huge Joanna Newsom fan. I love songs that make you work, and you have to commit to. I’m a sucker for that. ‘Rat’ is my favourite song on the album, because I literally had to sit down and write a whole narrative arc for someone, from start to finish. So I do love doing that.
Was there a point where all these ideas began to coalesce as an album?
I think especially with the longer songs… a song like ‘Dickhead Blues’ starting from my bedroom demo, the trajectory of getting it to where it is now, adding all these things to it – that’s when I felt, woah, this is now materialising to what is in your head. It was a crazy moment, watching those ideas become tangible. And getting it mastered. That’s when it becomes real. Working on a song is really weird, because you don’t get to appreciate it until it’s mastered, and being played LOUD. That’s when it gets real for me, those two things.
What did this album teach you that your previous creative projects hadn’t? What did you learn about yourself through making this?
A lot, honestly. I mean, it coincided with some normal life things that force you to learn and adjust. Just being 23 is such a mind-boggling experience sometimes in general. I think with the album, something I really have taken from the process is trying to listen to yourself. In this industry you have to engage with a lot of people, and there’s a lot of different opinions on how you should do it. I’m someone who likes to be informed, and I like having information… but I really learned along this process to check in with myself. Going into future projects I’ve been inspired to say ‘no’ a lot more, and more audacious in terms of staying true to my vision, and trusting myself. I’ve also learned to slow down, not let people rush me, and not get pulled into someone else’s timeline. Letting things organically happen is where I’ve been rewarded the most.
Whenever you’re doing something for the first time there’s no way you can do something perfectly, or with the highest level of excellence. In some ways it’s frustrating, become your first album is a learning process. But if anything, it’s energised me for future work. I’m grateful for the opportunity to even get close to distilling my vision.
The album has really resonated with a lot of people – it feels like a real word of mouth success. What’s it like to be at the centre of that?
Honestly, I think I’m just so grateful for anyone who listens. I didn’t have any expectations going into it, I didn’t know what to expect at all. So to receive some of the reactions is just… I’m also grateful for the negative reactions too, as I believe critique can highlight certain things as well. But I’m happy for people to engage with it, and to enjoy it. Especially that when I was sitting on the songs, I was so nervous that people wouldn’t get it. I’ve been so surprised to see how it resonates with people. It’s scary, but the older I get the more I believe that fear and excitement are related! I’m just letting things go how they go.
‘Why Does The Earth Give Us People To Love?’ is out now.
Words: Robin Murray