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Kate Jacobs - The Triste Interview

Kate Jacobs Kate Jacobs has spent a large part of her life travelling, but now lives in Hoboken, NJ. She has often used her own family's roots as the starting points for her songs and the studio album, "Hydrangea", contained several moving songs about her family in tsarist and post-revolutionary Russia and in pre-War Europe. Triste caught up with her for a chat at Worden Arts Centre, Leyland in late 2000 to discuss this album and her career. After finishing the tour Jacobs scaled down and took an extended break to bring up her new-born child. In 2004 she returned with the album "You Call That Dark" on Bar-None records and is due to tour the UK again.

Triste: I believe you spent quite a long time travelling around in Europe when you were much younger and that you initially wanted to be a dancer?

Kate Jacobs: Right. I wanted very much to be a ballerina. I did that until I got to the point where you have to choose basically between putting your heart and soul into ballet or going to college. It was clear that I was never going to dance Giselle so I decided to go to college. I kept dancing though and got interested in modern dance choreography which led to me doing Performance Art and multi-media work.

Triste: Was that in England?

Kate Jacobs: That was in the States in New York. I was England when I was doing the ballet. My father was in the foreign service and we travelled a lot. But in the context of these performance pieces I started writing and performing songs and it was so obvious to me that was the easiest and most expressive way I had of getting things across. I could sing and write and basically morphed from a performance artist to a folk singer over a number of years.

Triste: Were you a natural singer as a little girl? Were you a bit of a show-off?

Kate Jacobs: No, but we used to sing a lot in our family. My father and sister used to sing all the time, so I would think we just grew up in a very musical, singing household.

Triste: So having decided that singing was the thing for you how did you decide to become a full-time singer-songwriter? How does that change take place? Did you set up a band and play gigs or did you go to folk clubs and open mic sessions? From being a "singer" in your head how do you take the next step on from that?

Kate Jacobs: I guess it's different for everybody, but for me it was a gradual process. I suppose it came from my performing arts background. I didn't have the nerve to stand up as myself as a songwriter and say, "This is me and these are my songs". So the first thing I did was to create a wacky sort of theatrical persona of a singer-songwriter and told stories that I made up and made a character out of it?

Triste: So it was an ironic take on singer-songwriters?

Kate Jacobs: It was totally ironic, but I gradually got away from that. I started doing it in a straighter fashion until it it's the way it is now basically.

Triste: Do you still play any of these early songs now, or were they totally throwaway?

Kate Jacobs: No I don't. I wouldn't say they were totally throwaway, but they were much sharper, more country.

Triste: Early on in your career you were chosen to play at an Italian Music Festival basically representing US country music. How did that come about?

Kate Jacobs: That was a sort of one off. This guy was in New York from Venice looking to book various bands - R'n'B, Rock and Roll, Dixieland, everything - for a festival. I think he was only over for three days, so he was in a hurry. He ended up talking to a friend of mine and he was looking for a country act and she said, "Get my friend Kate". He came down to see me and he didn't really have a clue. I told him that we weren't really country - and he said, "You're country enough for me - sign here on the dotted line". It was great. I worked up a load of covers - things like Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton songs. I wanted to be a little truthful in my presentation. It was fun.

Triste: That was playing with a band, but it wasn't the same one you play with now, was it?

Kate Jacobs: It was, more or less. I had a new drummer, but it was a band with Dave Schramm in. It was the first time he started playing with me. He took his lap steel over. He can play really great country.

Triste: He's quite a talented musician in his own right.

Kate Jacobs: Dave's very talented. That's how I hooked him to be in my band. I asked him, "Do you want to go to Venice for two weeks". And ever since then he's been hooked.

Triste: How does that fit in with his own situation? He's got his thing going with the Schramms and you've got your own thing?

Kate Jacobs: Obviously his own thing takes priority, but he plays with me and records with other people when he can. Well actually he doesn't do that much with other people. Dave is someone who could have been a session player, but has chosen not to, because he's so particular about what he does. I'm very lucky to have him as a collaborator really.

Triste: You're playing solo over here on this tour, I presume for reasons of economics. Do you play solo or with a band over in the States?

Kate Jacobs: I usually play with a band.

Triste: How does it compare? Do you prefer the freedom and flexibility of playing solo or do you like the camaraderie of a band?

Kate Jacobs: It's difficult to decide. I really like playing solo. You can take your time to gab and you can do them more dramatically. I feel I can tell the stories more explicitly, but with a band behind you ticking away you feel that you've got to keep up. On the other hand with a band you have so much more fun and the sound is fuller musically. I'm not a fancy guitar player. All I do is basically strum, strum, strum. It's great to have beautiful things happening musically and background vocals.

Triste: How did you get picked up and get your first deal back in 1992, 1993?

Kate Jacobs: We came back from Italy and the band was really tight as we had been playing together for hours every day. So I went to the studio and recorded an album practically live and really fast. That was my first album and I put it out myself. I was in Hoboken. New Jersey and a local label Bar None sort of knew these songs and they approached me and said "You've got your own record, can we distribute it?" And that turned into a licensing deal and then that turned into a contract.

Triste: A DIY attitude to putting out your own material can often pay off if you're good enough and prepared to work at it. If you're not prepared to support your own thing, why should a record company? How do you rate your early albums in retrospect?

Kate Jacobs: The Calm Comes After was recorded really fast for one thing and, as I said, it had much more of a country feel. Apparently it's a real heart-break record, which I wasn't really aware of when I recorded it. Many people have come up to me and told me that they'd juts broken up with so-and-so and that they had loved listening to the record. I wrote this record when I was going through that - it was a phase in my life and you often end up writing about what you're going through - so it came out as a heart-ache record.

Triste: Your latest album Hydrangea is based around stories about your family. Was this first record much more of a "personal".

Kate Jacobs: It's got a lot more of my heartache in it, but I don't think of myself as a confessional writer. I like to use narratives, but the first album is, I suppose, on more confessional lines.

Triste: And the second album, What About Regret, continued this development?

Kate Jacobs: Yes, it's got more narrative songs. It's probably got some of my best songs on it. I don't know if it works better as an album, but in terms of individual albums it's got some of my favourites.

Triste: The song "A Sister" was from this album. It was later used as an EP and a children's book . How did that happen?

Kate Jacobs: A woman who worked for Hyperion, a Disney Company, heard me playing live on the radio in New York and she called me up. She told me she'd heard e playing the song and thought it would make a great children's book. She hooked me up with an illustrator and asked me to give it a happier ending.

Triste: Were there a lot of changes?

Kate Jacobs: Very few. I expanded a few lines in the middle about her life? At the end it was more of an existential up-in-the-air ending, but emotionally? It's okay. The illustrations are beautiful.

Triste: Was it aimed exclusively at children or was there some thought of a cross-over for adults?

Kate Jacobs: It was for four to eight year olds.

Triste: I don't know much about the reading abilities of four year olds, but was the language too complex?

Kate Jacobs: I think it's more the kind of book you have read to you and you look at the pictures.

Triste: Changing topics slightly, how would you describe yourself as a writer? Are you a natural or do you have to work hard at it?

Kate Jacobs: If I have a idea it comes pretty easily.

Triste: What about writing to order? When, for example, you've got to write half a dozen songs to finish off the next album?

Kate Jacobs: I've never had that record company pressure, so the songs come along at their own pace. It's never felt hard because I've never had the pressure.

Triste: So the albums are pretty organic in construction?

Kate Jacobs: Completely.

Triste: Even Hydrangea, which even if there is no concept, does have a unifying theme running through it?

Kate Jacobs: Yes.

Triste: You said once that when you take true stories and change them into song that they lose their value as archives. What do you mean by that? For example the songs "Eddy Went To Spain" and "Dear Doctor".

Kate Jacobs: Simply that they aren't true anymore - they're not the letters. These are songs about how I feel about my family. It's not a valuable piece of history anymore, it's just a piece of artwork.

Triste: I agree with you about the value of primary source material, but isn't there a certain truth in a well-written piece based on archival material. Take "War and Peace"; it's set against the background of the Napoleonic conflict in Russia, but it could be said to be "true" in some degree because of the creative input from Tolstoy smoothing over the edges and selectively cutting out things. Reality is often messy and a piece of art emphasises certain things and perhaps sharpens the focus on the events taking place.

Kate Jacobs: That's true I suppose. I just want to make it clear that when I'm using stuff I'm expressing my version or take on things. That's not to say this is how it was, because I don't know, but it's my subjective view.

Triste: How far are you prepared to alter the raw material for your songs. To take a trivial example you've got your uncle Eddy sitting under an olive tree. Was that incident made up to fit in with the song?

Kate Jacobs: Actually that was the story that was told to me. Now whether he sat under a tree or not I don't really know. There was a retreat and he was injured and he had to drop out, so he sat under a tree with Doug Taylor and waited.

Triste: I'm sorry to go about this, but I'd like to take this a little further. When would you choose to use a more artistic image rather than reality. Say he had been sat under a bus shelter rather than a tree, would you have changed that?

Kate Jacobs: I probably would, but for me, the great delight in writing something about a true story is the opportunity to pick out the details that are the most evocative and using them. You hear a lot of detail and the part about sitting under a tree is the one you use. That's the one that works best. There's always something there to use. You really don't have to make it up.

Triste: The downside about writing songs about your family is that you must get people coming up to you and prying into personal details of your grandparents or your uncle.

Kate Jacobs: Actually, they don't ask about my family. What they do is make connections with their own family. They tell you that they know someone who did this or someone who did that - something that connects them. Often people will say "Your family is so interesting, mine is so boring". I tell them that I've been lucky that all these stories have been handed onto me. I haven't needed to go looking. Everybody's been talking about them for years.

Triste: So there's a strong degree of storytelling in your family with people keeping diaries and journals from the earlier part of the last century. Passing the story on seems genetic to some degree. Is that the same on both sides of the family?

Kate Jacobs: Both sides are prolific letter writers and journal keepers. What to me is so remarkable is the amount of things that survived from Russia after having to leave. The documentation we have is so cool.

Triste: The central charcter in your song "Dear Doctor" is a real girl called Elena who was a patient of your great-grandfather from eighty-plus years ago and yet her diary survived. To take something like that from Russia and have it survive is a strange thing. When you're fleeing you probably only have a couple of suitcases, so it must have been very important.

Kate Jacobs: It was very important. That's fascinating to me as my great grandfather was a very successful doctor. I didn't know him, but my mother, who grew up with him, told me that he was a very proud, critical and forceful and a difficult kind of man. Elena's mother must have given him the diary when she died.

Triste: She obviously read through the diary and saw what it was about and seen that the one person who really ought to have the diary was your grandfather rather than themselves.

Kate Jacobs: It's amazing that he kept it. My mother had it in the attic in an old battered suitcase which was full of wild things. That diary, which was a beautiful thing was in there. That's so incredibly moving to me.

Triste: Did your mother translate the diary into English?

Kate Jacobs: Yes, the whole diary.

Triste: What time period does it cover?

Kate Jacobs: It covers a few years; she goes into hospital, she goes back to Kiev and then goes back to hospital again. It's really something I should pursue publication of as she's such a wonderful writer. She's really funny and precocious. She tells about going down to the wharf and seeing the Empress with two of her daughters and paints a great picture of pre-revolution Russia.

Triste: Is there a tradition of medical vocation in the family.

Kate Jacobs: Yes, on both sides.

Triste: Did that never appeal to you?

Kate Jacobs: No. There was some degeneration from doctors down to folk singers.

Triste: Back to the album Hydrangea. You use children's choirs on the record. What inspired you to do this? It's quite a high-risk strategy and could be seen as being twee.

Kate Jacobs: It never occurred to me that people would think it twee, but some people certainly did. I was in Vermont with my boyfriend visiting his daughter who was at a beautiful all-girls camp and they were singing camp songs around an open wood fire. They sounded great like birds singing and I really wanted that sound on my next record. I just think it's just a beautiful, natural sound. I suppose there are lots of connotations of using children's choirs, but to me it was just another colour in the palette.

Triste: Did you use a choir from a local school?

Kate Jacobs: I went to a couple local schools in Hoboken. I told them I was making a record and wondered if their choir would learn a song and record it with me and they said they would.

Triste: How do you manage to record a children's choir?

Kate Jacobs: the choir directors taught them the material. I did nothing. They just showed up at the studio and knew it. I had to pick a few soloists. It was really fun. I might do it again even if people think it is twee.

Triste: It does help to tie the record together. I know it's not a concept album, but it does work with the children and all the family ties. I notice that a couple of songs from the album were released earlier on an EP in different versions.

Kate Jacobs: The EP was really just to tie in with the book coming out. Bar None said I needed to put something out. I don't think these versions are very good. The only thing I really like is "The Heart Of The Matter" - that's cool and weird. Everything else I don't like.

Triste: I like it because it's a lot more stripped down and basic - there's more guitar.

Kate Jacobs: We had to make it quickly. But I don't listen to it a lot. Everytime I hear it I think "Eddy's too fast".

Triste: Who are your heroes? Are they writers like Tolstoy, Dickens and Chekhov or songwriters like Dylan or Joni Mitchell?

Kate Jacobs: I never really thought about songwriting until I started doing it. I didn't listen to that much pop music as I was growing up. I was into ballet and I used to read a lot. The songs I used to sing at home I learned from my Dad and were old folk songs, old army songs and a lot of Tin Pan Alley. My sisters and I were groupies of Fred Astaire and used to memorise all those great movies. But I would say overall my heroes were writers.

Triste: I notice that you don't do many cover versions.

Kate Jacobs: I don't you know and I should. I'm so stupid. There are a million great songs out there, but I'm not that kind of singer or guitar player. I just feel that some people really play guitar well and have an encyclopaedic knowledge of pop songs and I don't. It's not in my bones. It's not what I do.

Triste: I was looking through your web pages and was quite surprised by how narrow US radio stations were in terms of what type of music they were prepared to play. I suppose you have to find a niche and cling to it?

Kate Jacobs: Totally. I have a really tough time with some aspects of the folk community in the states, where they perceive me as either pop or alternative rock or alternative country. All these stupid categorisations. For example on a folk radio station they'd say, "This has got a prominent acoustic guitar on it, so we can use it". I think that's so ridiculous.

Triste: So how are you generally perceived in the states?

Kate Jacobs: I started out as appearing to come form out of the rock world as I was playing with Dave Schramm and a band and my booking agent is a big indie rock fan and at first I didn't have connections with that straight folk world. In fact I found it hard to bridge it. In New England they had so many folk clubs and I had a really hard time getting radio play and getting gigs. I had a much better time on the indie rock circuit which encompasses a lot of very acoustic music. With these country-folky-rockers I can get away with it, but the real pure folkies - they're a pain in the neck.

Triste: So these battles are still being fought. I thought that was all over 30 years ago when Dylan went electric at Newport.

Kate Jacobs: I heard Pete Seeger talking about this and he was the one who ran up to the guy at the soundboard and said "Turn that shit down!". He apologised for it later.

Triste: What are your plans for the future?

Kate Jacobs: Take a break and start work on the new record. I like having these trips to England as they are so manageable - it's very focussed over here. The States are so big and I've been doing it so long I've got tired.

Triste: How does your profile in America compare with your profile over here? Some Americana acts are big over here but not known at all in the States.

Kate Jacobs: I'm not big anywhere.

Triste: Do you play similar sized venues over there?

Kate Jacobs: More or less. I play folk clubs and rock clubs. If I play to a hundred people and they listen then that's great. I like that size when I'm playing solo. It would be hard to do what I do in a larger venue. I could do the band thing but I would lose so much.

Triste: Have you any desire to have a hit single or a profitable cover? It would certainly help the bank balance.

Kate Jacobs: It's not something I work for and obviously my songs are not very coverable anyway. If it happens it's great but I've got to a place now where I've got a home and a baby and it feels good. I don't care about that anymore.

Triste: I suppose it's a trade-off.

Kate Jacobs: There are people I know who are a lot more successful but I don't think they're any happier - they have to work a lot harder and get stressed. I just feel okay.

Triste: How much touring have you done in the States?

Kate Jacobs: I have done a lot, but not recently on account of the baby. But I've done a lot of miles all over the place and I really enjoy it.

Triste: It must be very different with the baby?

Kate Jacobs: I'm more selective and generally do a lot less, but that's okay. I feel you've got one life and you've got to figure out what you want to do. I want to make a record, play in different to nice audiences and a have a good family life. All very manageable.

Triste: It's a matter of balance.

Kate Jacobs: With having a baby it's very hard to find any fault with my life at all at the moment.



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