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Karen & the Sorrows Cast a Queer Country Spell

by Lindsay Myers

Guaranteed Broken Heart marks Karen Pittelman’s most singular album yet, with herself squarely at the helm. The result is a sophisticated album of classic crooning and instrumentation with a backbone of steel.

I had the opportunity to ask Karen a few questions about it.

One of the first things I noted about this album is that you produced it yourself. Was that a role you played on your previous albums? How has your confidence and vision grown as a producer? I feel like it takes a real clarity of vision to self produce and I’d love to hear how you came to that decision.

This is the first time I’ve listed myself as producer, though technically I did produce the other albums. But for those, I was going into the studio with my long-time bandmates, and the core arrangements of the songs were already set based on how we had been playing them together live. I was still in charge of all the logistics of making it happen, of taking care of everyone, bringing in guest musicians, and working with my long-time engineer Charles Burst. But I guess I didn’t feel like the Producer with a capital P.

For this one, I was on my own for the first time, and I really stepped into that role in a new way. I’d definitely built my confidence and vision over the years and I felt like now I was ready to say exactly how I wanted these songs to sound and to hold out for that sound till I got it. I was arranging everything and choosing all the musicians, and I just tried to trust my vision and trust what the songs were saying they wanted. I also spent a lot of time obsessing over and researching the producers of my favorite 90s country songs and listening over and over to those tracks to try and learn how they did it.

photo by Carol Litwin

On your new album there is both a huge range of expression and yet it still feels tight and cohesive, it strikes me as an album that still believes an album can be more than the sum of its parts, what do you see as the themes connecting these songs? Was there a particular moment or thought that was a lightbulb that brought it into focus?

Thank you so much! I still love the album form and the idea of telling a larger story even if we’re in an era that’s all about streaming singles.

I could see as I was writing the songs that an arc was emerging about love and grief, about denial and coming to terms with loss, and, really, about country music itself and how it can pull you through. So it was more of a gradual evolution than one lightbulb moment, though that’s often how it is for me when I’m writing a group of songs.

We are a queer outlet and that’s a part of your identity as a human and musicianship – how has that changed or evolved? How do you see your own queerness and art changing together? Any thoughts about the genre writ large?

I think it’s my queerness that pushes me to organize and build community, to refuse to accept the way country music is as a given and to try to create space to tell a different story from the margins. Queerness means more to me than just my sexuality. I want to be the threat to the status quo that the mainstream has always imagined us to be. I’m not interested in visibility for visibility’s sake. I’m in it to fight for institutional change.

New art can be scary! Do you have any fears around this release? How are you speaking to those?

On the one hand, I feel really excited and proud that I made something that’s so true to what’s in my head. On the other hand, it’s super scary because I made something so true to what’s in my head! One thing I’ve learned over the years, though, is that, at least when it comes to art, feeling afraid is usually good for me. It’s scary to be vulnerable, to tell the truth, to take risks—but I think that’s often where the best work comes from too.

I don’t often like to ask about specific songs because I think they should stand alone but I found the intimacy and lyrics of “when people show you who they are” incredibly moving- a lovely balance of straightforward writing and more abstract moments. Anything additional you’d like to say about that song specifically?

That song is a special one to me, so I really appreciate that. I actually had to record it twice. The first time I gave it all the string band trimmings, but when I listened back later, I knew it wasn’t right. It didn’t want all that.

So we did it again with just guitar and banjo, dobro coming in only for the solo, and the vocals in pretty much one take. At first I tried to do the tracks separately because I didn’t think I could get all the musicians together again at the same time. But the computer kept crashing every time we tried to record the acoustic guitar. The song was mad at me—it wanted to be played live! At that point we were just cutting vocals, so my engineer Charles and I were working in a studio with just one tiny little booth. But the song wanted me to squish Ross, George, and Cole, the three musicians, into that tiny booth, so that’s what I did. Some songs can be very particular, but I’m grateful to them for coming to me, so I try to just do what they tell me!

What do you most want to talk about regarding this album/tour? Any thoughts that don’t seem to fit anywhere else?

I want to talk about the secret queer messages in the album art! My friend, the amazing artist Amanda Kirkhuff (https://www.amandakirkhuff.com), painted me for the cover, and one of the things I love most about her work is the way she combines fine art with queer culture. We were thinking together especially about this Caravaggio picture, which by the way is also queer as fuck because he is painting his lover here! Well, I guess there is some disagreement about that in the art world and sometimes he is just referred to as his “friend,” but I think it’s pretty obvious when you look at that gaze: https://www.caravaggio.org/boy-with-a-basket-of-fruit.jsp

I wanted to create something that had clear country references—big women-of-classic-country hair, denim, the flowers, the guitar, the bandanas—but that also had a second layer of queer meaning. So all of those flowers are ones that have been used to symbolize queerness: pansies, violets, purple roses, and green carnations. And of course bandanas have a whole other meaning in flagging. I spent a lot of time thinking about what I wanted to flag for eternity—it’s an oil painting, so that will last forever!

Guaranteed Broken Heart goes on sale everywhere on Friday October 18, 2019. If you’re in the NYC area don’t miss their big album release party – find out more at https://www.karenandthesorrows.com/

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