Underneath This had the pleasure of interviewing Jen Kearney, a talented singer/songwriter from Boston, Massachusetts. Her most recent album, “Age of Blame,” showcases powerful vocals, poetic lyrics, and a wide range of musical styles. Below is some information from her biography at her website, followed by our interview:
What’s with the name “Jen Kearney & The Lost Onion?” “It gets asked all the time and is a valid question, so I’ll finally answer it” says Boston singer/songwriter, Jen Kearney. “Onions span cultures. If you look at recipes for most savory dishes made on the planet, onions are usually included in the first five ingredients on the list. They defend themselves to the death. When you cut them they make you cry. Onions are humbling. Onions are layered. They’re covered in paper and were used in the embalmed bodies of Pharaohs in place of their eyes. Onions have such soul and history and we can never lose either. They are also delicious.”
After 20 years of writing and recording music, Kearney has spent a lot of time experimenting with seasoning her particular style and flavor. Her latest album, Age of Blame is truly an amalgam of musical styles ranging from soul, R&B and funk- to rock, latin and jazz, while maintaining a singer/songwriter’s attention to lyrics. Her band stirs the eight cuts of the album through boiling points and gentle simmers that concentrate that flavor down to hit all points salty, sour, sweet and bitter.
You can find more information about Jen Kearney & The Lost Onion at the following links:
Please describe your path to becoming a musician.
Well, as a kid, there was a fair amount of music in my house and various people in my family played instruments or sang. My grandparents had a piano and I was pretty obsessed with it early on. I think I was 3 or 4 when I started playing around on it. I just played things by ear as most of my family did. We would all sing together on holidays and come up with harmonies. It was just around and I played to meditate in a way. I spent a lot of time listening too. My mom had some cool records in the house and I would walk to the store with whatever babysitting or odd job money I had to buy records and tapes as a young kid. I didn’t really decide to become very serious about making it my living until a bit later.
I love the origins of how you call your band, “Jen Kearney & The Lost Onion.” How have you decided on your album titles?
Thank you! Well. “EAT” came about because I had written a song about my grandfather and the album cover is a picture of him selling vegetables at the Haymarket in Boston. There’s a big sign above him that says, “EAT”. It just became the title because it looked and felt like it should be. “Year of the Ox” is a concept album that follows a bit of a story. The origin of the story came about after I wrote the song “Year of the Ox”. I thought of writing that song after eating at a Chinese restaurant and reading the Chinese Zodiac placemat. The rest of the album kind of progressed from there. “Age of Blame” is named after a song on the album and also has a bit of a theme running through it. The words at the end of the chorus of the song are: “This age of blame is over”. I know some people think the album title seems bleak, but its more about stepping up to the plate, purging a lot of baggage and no longer playing the blame game on a lot of different levels.
How does being based in New England influence the music you create?
I love having 4 seasons (although I may not say that after shoveling 3 feet of snow in January). I compile lyrics and music wherever and whenever I can, but I write a lot of lyrics at a desk by a window at home. When I mess around on the piano or guitar, I like to stare outside as well. I’m usually outside or looking out a window when I write, so I suppose as the visual landscape changes, the words and music reflect it.
Is your music feminist? If so, how so?
I feel like really good music smashes through any kind of barriers. The song “Too Far” on the current album is directly written to the unbelievably ignorant and medically unsound comments of Todd Akin a couple of years ago. I guess that’s pretty feminist of me, but I’m pretty sure a lot of men thought that Akin’s comments were ridiculous too. I am female, so that perspective must come out, but I mostly write without thinking about gender or gender roles. I just write what comes to me.
How do your social identities inform your creative work?
Humans relate socially for the most part. We’re pack animals, so I think social identities are important to us whether we admit it or not. I feel like music is a great connector and always has been whether lyrical or non-lyrical. Lyrical songwriting is really about trying to create that connection either by painting a clear picture or writing a bit more abstractly and leaving lyrics up for interpretation. I may be confessional to a fault in my songwriting, but making a real connection is the most important thing to me.
I first heard your music on the radio station, The River, Boston’s independent radio station. How do you promote your music? What do you think is the current state of independent music?
Oh! That’s very cool. The River is a really supportive station and I appreciate them for that! I promote my music mostly online through social media like Facebook, Twitter and Youtube. It is a lot easier these days to get your music out to a wider audience than ever, which is great. It is a lot harder to make money off of albums because people don’t necessarily want to or have to pay for music online. That part is tougher to navigate.
At least several reviewers (e.g., Mark Micheli, Peter Lavender, and Larry Katz) have compared your voice to that of Stevie Wonder’s! I can hear the connection as well. Has he been inspiring?
Well. That’s an amazing compliment. Thank you. Musical comparisons like that are always flattering. I think Stevie Wonder could inspire a 3 toe-d sloth to run a 5k. He’s amazing and has definitely inspired me. I think all musicians and artists are influenced by what came before them. It’s our nature. That said, I don’t entirely think that I sound “just like” Stevie Wonder. That would be impossible. That’s the cool thing about voices- they are unique even in their similarities. Every bit of music that I’ve ever listened to in any genre has probably shaped how I play, sing and write. I never limit myself to any genre when listening to music. I just try to choose wisely knowing it probably will influence me.
Who and what have been other significant creative influences?
I love so many styles of music and I’ve had so many phases of listening that there are too many names to name. I was trying to list them all, but realized that it would take way too long to answer this question. As a kid I listened to Motown, classic rock, classical music, jazz, pop, hair bands, new wave, metal, R&B, Soul, Funk. Everything from Pink Floyd to Fela Kuti- Elliott Smith to Ruben Blades has inspired me. The list is too long. There are some birds in my back yard that slay melodies and harmonies on a daily basis. I think all of it gets in the subconscious and stirs things up. When inspiration happens, I’m just happy to roll with it.
Your style has been described as R&B, funk, and soul. What do you make of these descriptors?
Those are very cool descriptors. I love those styles of music and I think a few more like rock and Latin have been thrown out there too. I embrace them all.
What is one quality that makes you distinct from other artists who may be similar?
I have no idea. I’m just being myself and I don’t like to compete or compare too much.
I very much enjoy your song, “I Don’t Feel” from your debut, “Bravery.” What is the story behind this song?
Thanks. That’s an oldie!
“Can I Get an Amen?” from your next album sounded especially soulful. What role does spirituality play in your music?
My friend, Eddy Dyer, wrote that song. It is a great one! I think music comes from a spiritual place. I don’t belong to any religion, but I reiterate that music seems to come from something bigger than us and connects us all.
What was it like to write such a personal song as “Grandpa?”
It was fun to remember my grandfather and write about him. He had a good outlook on life, a lot of compassion and an inventive spirit. He was the ultimate example of a self-taught person. I’m pretty sure he was made to drop out of school in the 8th grade and work. Somehow he found a way to build some pretty intricate things around the house and taught himself the violin by ear. I come from that mindset in that I didn’t read music or take formal lessons until I was about 18.
I love the poetry of the lyrics “But it’s hard/When you have to barter with the sun/For a number in this race that had no starting gun” on your song, “To the Moon” from your 2009 album, “Year of the Ox.” What is the meaning of these lyrics?
Thanks! The song is mainly from the perspective that humanity is pretty fragile and we’re definitely affected by the forces of nature. We run around this planet pretty fast and it takes effort to slow down and look around once in a while.
Your most recent album, “Age of Blame,” seems your most reflective and personal to date. What experiences inspired this record?
It’s hard to say what exact experiences inspired this record. I think any record is just that- a snapshot of that time in your life.
You have a great way of telling stories through songs. What is the narrative behind “Better” off this album?
Thanks again! “Better” was inspired by woman I met in the supermarket one day. She was at the entrance trying to talk to people on their way in and out. She seemed emotionally unstable and definitely agitated. People were nervously looking away and walking quickly by her. I decided to look her in the eye and say “hi”. This actually made her more agitated, so she followed me around the store angrily telling me a fair amount of her life story considering I wasn’t shopping for much. She got more and more passionate and started to preach from an imaginary pulpit in the flower section. I could see people hiding behind the freezer doors by the Ben n’ Jerry’s to avoid making eye contact with her. When I got home, I wrote a short story about the whole scene and the song came from that. Obviously I made up a fictitious name and embellished of other things, but she inspired it.
Which songs would you like to cover that you have not yet?
I’m doing a couple of cool tribute gigs coming up with some great musicians. One is a David Bowie tribute and the other is a Beatles tribute, so I’m really looking forward to doing different arrangements of those tunes.
What projects are you working on next?
I’d like to do a live album soon. I’m gearing up to tour a lot in the fall/winter and am writing for the next record.
What insights do you have for aspiring musicians?
I think the most important thing is to remain humble and open. There is always something to learn from somebody. Most of all just do what you do and trust that. Also, be careful of gas station sandwiches.