By Christopher Treacy & Kara Jackson
The buildup to the release of Kara Jackson’s full length debut, Why Does The Earth Give Us People to Love?, out this past Friday on September (also home to Rick Rubin, Rex Orange County and Adele), said it all, snagging high profile press and creating anticipation that traversed all the various lines between audiences. Suffice to say, people have been excited about this record and talking about it since it was teased last year. Why? Because it’s inarguably striking. She just doesn’t sound like anyone else.
A 23-year-old queer poet from the Chicago-adjacent area of Oak Park, Illinois, Jackson’s disarming honesty often detonates like a bomb in her songs. When she exclaims, “Damn, the Dickhead Blues,” you feel the thud. It clears the space around ground zero, and yet it’s delivered with unnerving calm. She’s witty and angry, vulnerable and grieving… clever, but at a loss. As she ponders the question that the album title posits, she processes the cancer-related death of a friend in 2016 and frames the whole set in painful disappointments, both romantic and otherwise. By underscoring the human predicament that the title alludes to, she draws an unshakable parallel between love and loss that’ll keep your brain busy for the foreseeable future.
Musically, Jackson is tossing a salad of acoustic soul, but she does it with a firm folk footing and plenty of country-blues accents. With friends and collaborators KAINA, NNAMDÏ, and Sen Morimoto helping her shape the sound of the album, she emerges with something that is both organic and modern, achieving an uncanny balance with progressive arrangements that keep us guessing – she rarely lands where we’d expect. Therein lies the singularity of her sound. If she never made another record, Why Does The Earth Give Us People to Love? (preceded by the 2019 EP, A Song For Every Chamber of the Heart) could stand alone as a definitive statement. It’s hard to believe this is just the beginning.
Your gift for wordplay – particularly for metaphor – is all over this album. When and how did you initially become aware of this talent?
I think my ability to write metaphor has definitely been sharpened over time from spending years writing poems. There was definitely a natural inclination there. I come from a very wordy family and a lot of my relatives are writers in some sense. My dad is an English major. So there’s a sense that figurative language has always been something I have been taught to pay attention to. I think my love for writing and language also explains my love for rap music, which is another source, I think, of metaphorical virtuoso.
When you approach making your music, do you feel as if being a poet impacts your songwriting? Do you approach songs as poems that you then go about setting to music?
I think the poetic form impacts my songwriting process in terms of acting as a foundation. I have a basic need for language that excites me in my work and writing poetry for the page has made me learn a lot of general things about what makes any kind of writing successful. I think my songwriting process is a little less formal than when I’m writing a poem, in the sense that I can allow myself the liberties of cliché in a song, and not everything is subject to be as striking as it maybe would need to be in a poem.
The songs on Why Does The Earth Give Us People to Love? don’t fit into standard verse/chorus format. Instead, they often rely on refrains (rather than choruses) to achieve song-like patterns. Some of the songs come across as suite-like. When you were writing, did you already have ideas about the arrangements?
For some songs I think I had an idea of what I wanted them to sound like, but nothing necessarily set in stone. While I was writing I would build a skeleton of maybe how I wanted the song to sound, but when I started working with Nnamdi, Sen, and Kaina, a lot of our process was very experimental, taking those skeletons and kind of expanding on them.
The album title forms a question, which could be meant rhetorically. It’s an existential debate. There’s a futility to being locked into this pattern with other people, and it seems to repeatedly beat us up. In the process of writing the album, did you have any important revelations about answering the question? Do you think that being queer informs your viewpoint regarding this?
The title of the album is ultimately a question that ended up kind of guiding the album in its entirety. All the songs, in a sense, are led back to that question. Whether it’s the frustration of dealing with love and broken men or the heartbreak inherent in grief, all of these experiences have kind of led me to ask why. There’s a very real curiosity there in terms of just why we were all put on earth together, and then answering that question becomes a task of togetherness. I don’t think that question can be answered alone, and some my pursuit to answer it becomes a larger pursuit of making myself vulnerable to others.
There’s some rage articulated throughout this collection of songs, but the delivery system is deceptive. It comes in a disguise, often calmly expressed. It lures us in, unsuspecting. Were you aware of this as you were making the album?
I’m not sure if this is necessarily intentional I just think I’m used to pulling from rage as a productive force, and thinking of rage as an important tool that gets us closer to demanding what we actually deserve out of life. On the album, I don’t think rage is in disguise, I just think it doesn’t need to be dressed up as loud. I want anger to be something complicated and something we can curate to be useful and generative for ourselves.
There’s plenty of soul on the album, but you’re not giving listeners those standard cues, which makes the result that much more compelling, surprising, and fresh. It reveals that your musical instincts are uninterested in cliché. Were there artists that you were listening to while you were making this album that you feel informed your approach?
Believe it or not, I really relied a lot of Brandy’s Full Moon while writing this album. I was particularly inspired by the way she seemed to invent a whole new way of vocalizing. Even in a genre that was popular at the time, Brandy deviated from the foundations of RnB and emerged as this force of her own. I am really inspired by the way artists like her, and Missy Elliot (especially in her work with Timbaland) dared to be different and to try new things sonically and visually. My approach toward my first album was also largely inspired by Joanna Newsom and Fiona Apple’s abilities to kind of create sonic landscapes, songs that make you learn their terrain and make you work for their wonder. That’s the kind of physicality I was trying to embody within my own work.
With your collaborators who helped you sonically shape the album – did y’all try some things that just didn’t work in the end? It’s always interesting to hear about some of the roads artists go down in the process of creating.
We definitely tried a lot of stuff and some ideas ended up being kind of silly. I remember one night Sen spent probably a good hour trying to sample the sound of his chanclas hitting the floor. At one point we had all gone to take a break but Sen was still in the studio, hitting the floor with these sandals. I hate that we couldn’t use any of those sounds for the album because he worked so hard!
Listening to the finished album, what are your favorite parts? Are there musical sections or particular lines that are the most satisfying to you?
I really love how the background vocals shine throughout the album. There’s this sense of collectivity and warmth whenever the force of all of our voices appears. I also love Macie Stewart’s string parts in “Rat,” which is probably my favorite song on the album. The way her violin becomes almost a character in that song is almost exactly how I imagined it… only probably more magical.
Christopher Treacy has been writing about music and the music industry for 20 years. He’s contributed to The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, and Berklee College of Music’s quarterly journal, as well as myriad LGBTQ+ outlets including the Edge Media Network, Between the Lines/Pride Source, Bay Windows and In Newsweekly. He’s the Managing Editor for CQ and lives in Waitsfield, VT.
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