Kate Jacobs is a writer and singer of distinctly literate pop songs. She has released 3 albums on the Bar/None label, most recently the critically acclaimed Hydrangea. Now, working with long-time collaborator and Hoboken neighbor Dave Schramm, she has recorded a fourth: You Call That Dark.
NPRís All Things Considered described Kate as a ""favorite author,"" saying that she ""builds vivid scenes and characters inside twangy 3-minute pop songs that achieve the kind of sleight-of-hand narrative compression that marks the work of the best modern storytellers."" You Call That Dark continues in that vein, with another finely-wrought collection of short stories.
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 Kateís work on Hydrangea that it, ""ventures effortlessly into jangly pop, gorgeous balladry, and complex, contrapuntal harmonyóas 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 Daveís Brooklyn studio, working for a few hours here and there when he was free and I could get a babysitter. We were loose about itótrying things out and throwing them away and starting over and then stopping to work on something brand new. I guess thatís 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 Shakespeareís 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, thereís 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 Itís an Elm Tree who has a vast field full of junked cars and an enormous, lovingly tended elm: ""I met a man heís fixing cars/For sixty years under the stars/He hauls them up into the tree/And they do sway there gracefully."" Peteís 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 Jacobsí 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 fatherís spiritual advisor who is loosely quoted as saying, ""Buddha Buddha Buddha is the quickest cure/Your western ones, Iím 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 lifeís 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 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 childrenís book which was published in 1996 (A Sisterís Wish). She is currently writing a book of essays about gardening.
Kateís overall influences were absorbed growing up in an informally musical family: the Tin Pan Alley rags her father sang around the house, her motherís 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 didnít 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. Sheís 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 . . .