Kate Jacobs is a world traveling downhome country girl who lives in Hoboken, New Jersey. She is a storyteller who finds her stories in all sorts of places and from all kinds of people.
Kate was born in Virginia and moved to Vienna, Austria when she was 11. She was a serious ballet student until college where she segued into modern dance, bringing her to New York City in the early 80s. There she danced with a number of choreographers while starting to write songs and skits and make films and produce her own multi-media theatrical productions. Eventually she started playing guitar and formed a band to play her original material. Later she sang in a girl duo, performing her songs and classic country covers with tight harmony arrangements. She played a steady Sunday afternoon gig at The Nightingale in the East Village for a couple of years. (Blues Traveler, The Spin Doctors, Joan Osborne, and The Holmes Brothers were all regulars in those days.) There she learned a lot about playing in pick-up situations with other musicians and ""more than I ever wanted to know about the 12-bar blues."" In time she tapped into the rich musical life of Hoboken, starting to play and record with Dave Schramm and James MacMillan. When her second album What About Regret came out, an editor at Hyperion Books heard a song from it on the radio and commissioned the lyric for an illustrated children’s book which was published in 1996 (A Sister’s Wish). She is currently writing a book of essays about gardening.
You Call That Dark
It took six years to compose and record the songs that make up You Call That Dark . They were accumulated in the midst of having children (she has two small boys) and getting married and growing flowers and cooking and tending to life in general. Recorded with Dave Schramm, who also produced, these songs are, as Adam Gopnik of the New Yorker wrote about Hydrangea, ""real songs, descending equally from pop and country and lit from within by some distant racial memory of Rubber Soul."" Billboard said of Kate’s work on Hydrangea that it, ""ventures effortlessly into jangly pop, gorgeous balladry, and complex, contrapuntal harmony—as if inspired by Alex Chilton, Joni Mitchell and Brian Wilson."" Similarly, the songs on You Call That Dark are melodic and richly harmonized with tight rhythm tracks and bright, warm, full guitars, organs and pianos. ""I had a wonderful time making this record,"" says Kate. ""We cut basics in Hoboken and did most of the rest in Dave’s Brooklyn studio, working for a few hours here and there when he was free and I could get a babysitter. We were loose about it—trying things out and throwing them away and starting over and then stopping to work on something brand new. I guess that’s why it took six years!""
Besides producing, Schramm performs on acoustic and electric 6- and 12-string guitars, dobro, piano, organ, xylophone and harmonium. The album also features James MacMillan on bass, Paul Moschella on drums and percussion, Andy Burton on Hammond organ, John Graboff on mandolin, Joe Ruddick on piano, and Mary Lee Kortes and Stephanie Seymour on backing vocals. On That Time of Year a 5-piece jazz ensemble with clarinet and banjo provide a klezmer setting for one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. You Call That Dark was mixed by John Siket and Gary Arnold.
Farmers and farms, mostly old and in disrepair, are the central theme of the album. As a fourth-generation scion of a dilapidated apple farm in upstate New York, Kate is keenly attuned to the losses of family farms and the rural landscape in general. In Helen Has a House, there’s Helen, a frail old lady living alone on her farm in Vermont: ""The sugar shack her daddy built is a perfect nest for winter""; What a World, What a God tells the plight of an ancient hardscrabble Irish farmer who ends up in the modern hospital where no one understands his Gaelic; there is an elderly mechanic in If It’s an Elm Tree who has a vast field full of junked cars and an enormous, lovingly tended elm: ""I met a man he’s fixing cars/For sixty years under the stars/He hauls them up into the tree/And they do sway there gracefully."" Pete’s Gonna Sell is about a neighbor upstate who recently was forced to put his farm up for sale, ""A field an orchard and a barn/A hundred year old apple farm.""
The other eternally recurrent theme in Jacobs’ writing is family. Your Big Sister is an emotional, irreverent pop song which she describes as ""a theory of greatness"" about first-born daughters (she is last-born). God Bless Ione is a rowdy thank-you to her father’s spiritual advisor who is loosely quoted as saying, ""Buddha Buddha Buddha is the quickest cure/Your western ones, I’m not so sure."" Meanwhile the opening song, Lavender Line, begins: ""A family is a bitter thing, you find as you go/A child may suspect, but a child does not know."" She is philosophical about life’s deep pleasures and inevitable sadness, singing liltingly in I Walk in Fear: ""And the joy that we find always comes as a surprise/While the pain was arranged long ago.""
Kate’s overall influences were absorbed growing up in an informally musical family: the Tin Pan Alley rags her father sang around the house, her mother’s Russian ballads, the gospel-based music of the Civil Rights-era, show tunes, pop songs. There was the ballet repertoire, and a lot of opera in Vienna. An obsession with Fred Astaire led to a deep appreciation for the songs of the Gershwins, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and Johnny Mercer. She didn’t hear country music until a friend from Texas played her Loretta Lynn in college. She loved the musical and narrative simplicity of those songs and found them strongly affecting and inspiring. ""It was the first kind of music I heard that I could figure out how to write. And there were only three chords.""
That style has served Kate well in the stories she has chosen to tell over the years. She’s learned more chords and adopted a looser approach to song form, but she still sticks to the facts and delivers brief narratives that speak volumes about the way we live. You Call That Dark is a new collection of indelible characters and pop hooks that will have you singing along, and wondering what ever did happen to Helen and her barn . . .
On Hydrangea, her third album for Bar/None, she reveals that the most compelling stories are her own.
This time she's found them in the attic of her parents' two hundred year-old farm house: in diaries and journals that survived the journey from pre-Revolutionary Russia to the Hudson Valley, in an uncle's paintings, and in her own head and heart. In an era when artists often choose between the relentlessly tortured or the breathlessly confessional, Kate takes a deceptively simple route. Hydrangea is a family history -- colorful, sad, funny, a wide-screen snow swept epic at some times, an intimate kitchen table conversation at others. With her lilting melodies and country-tinged rock, Kate's stories go down as warm and easy as vintage Dolly Parton, but they have an emotional and musical depth that gives them staying power. These are tales meant to be heard again and again until they might just feel like your own.
"I'm fascinated with stories," she told a reporter while she was touring in support of her first Bar/None release, The Calm Comes After, in l993. "The question I most frequently ask is, 'And then what happened?'"
Kate hasn't had to look far for some of the most remarkable tales she has turned into tunes. On the Russian side of the family, which fled their homeland during the revolution, there was a physician great-grandfather who numbered Anton Chekov among his friends, Leo Tolstoy among his patients, and a dying teenager named Elena as his secret admirer. Moved by the spirit and humor of Elena's diary (found in the attic, translated by Kate's mother) Kate wrote "Good Doctor." The American side of the family had been settled for three centuries in the Hudson Valley of New York. Among them was an uncle who went to Manhattan in the thirties to study painting with Thomas Hart Benton and George Grosz, then traveled to Spain to join the American brigades during the Spanish civil war and never came home. The paintings and letters he left behind inspired the bittersweet "Eddy Went To Spain." Then there are Kate's own stories, her own inspirations and concerns: gardens, birds, Dusty Springfield, love and fear, love and hope, love and ambivalence, and just plain love.
Kate wanted to be a dancer. She studied ballet in England and France, but when she got to Hoboken, with its big city views and small town music scene, she turned to songwriting. As she has said about her first album, "I decided to learn how to play guitar and see about the songs in my head. Somehow, the hymns and the show tunes and folk songs and operettas and bad country radio and dreamy ballet music have brought me here." Kate has a country charm that masks a more worldly background: she was born and initially raised in Virginia, but her family moved to Europe and she did most of her growing up there. In 1992 she found herself and her fledgling band on a stage in Piazza San Marco in Venice, representing American country music at a two-week long music festival. Although she knew she wasn't exactly the real thing, she was well-traveled enough and sufficiently borderless in her music and her life to charm the Venetians with her own very personal brand of Americana.
Kate's second album for Bar/None, (What About Regret) released in l995, attracted considerable critical acclaim. The Washington Post declared that Kate's songs "possess a haunting power and intimacy"; the Minneapolis City Pages called Kate "probably the most poignant storyteller in indieland." But her album, and subsequent tour attracted more than just critical kudos: a children's books editor from Hyperion was so taken with "A Sister," which she had heard on Vin Scelsa's "Idiot's Delight" radio show, that she offered Kate a book deal. Kate transformed the lyrics of "A Sister" into a subtle tale in verse form of a young girl with too many step brothers who longs for a sister. Bar/None released a five-song EP in 1996 in conjunction with the book.
Hydrangea was recorded, appropriately enough, in somewhat itinerant fashion in Hoboken, New York City, and New Orleans (where Vicki Peterson and Susan Cowsill contributed vocals and former Hobokenite Peter Holsapple added keyboards). Among the other players are Kate's frequent collaborators Dave Schramm (who dueted with Kate on "The Heart Of The Matter" from the "A Sister" EP and co-wrote several songs here) and James MacMillan whose experience with choral conducting came in handy: Children's choruses from two Hoboken institutions, the Mustard Seed School and the Hudson School, performed two songs inspired by poet Anna Akhmatova -- "a very Russian, intensely moral, lonely and passionate poet," says Kate --one of which provides the lovely, bittersweet conclusion to the winding journey that is Hydrangea.