Monday, August 21, 2017

PREMIERE: Karen and the Sorrows -- "The Price of the Ticket"

I have been a huge fangirl of Karen and the Sorrows for, like, a while. They started playing around town shortly after I moved back after college and the intersection of queerness, Jewishness, countryness, and -- by complete coincidence -- sharing a high school alma-mater-ness obviously made me feel seen and heard. I'm very happy to have graduated from starstruck dork to starstruck stalker to still-starstruck friend and I couldn't be more thrilled that the band is getting the press it deserves from outlets like American Songwriter and Billboard. Once the dust settled from the all-day Another Country fest that Karen settled, she was nice enough to answer some questions from little ol' me. She also helped me write and record a song that you can find over on Patreon!

I'm also honored to premiere "The Price of the Ticket," a song that does a deep dive into white privilege and how that masks Jewish identity. It exemplifies all of the major themes of the album and what I'm trying to do with this blog in general.

For our readers' benefit, they should probably know that we happened to go to the same fancy prep school (though we weren't there at the same time). While it wasn't very conservative when I was there, it's not exactly an ideal campaign stop for Bernie. So what's a nice Jewish girl doing in a radical queer country band?

When I was there, it was much more conservative, despite a few progressive teachers that helped put me on my path. Still, it was always pretty clear to me who I was supposed to become: either a doctor, a lawyer, or an investment banker; married with two kids to a man who was also either a doctor, lawyer, or investment banker; and a dedicated donor to the alumni fund. So I guess I fucked that up.

You've written Classified: How to Stop Hiding Your Privilege and Use it for Social Change, a book about using one's wealth and/or class privilege for radical change. How do you feel this relates to your music?

One of my favorite poets, June Jordan, said that you can’t write lies and write good poetry. I knew this meant that I'd never write anything good until I could tell the truth about my own life. For me, that meant confronting the contradiction between coming from a wealthy family and my social justice values. I did this by learning to organize where I came from, working with young people with wealth to move more money to social change, and committing to redistributing the bulk of my own inheritance through activist-led funds. I don't know if my writing ended up being any better for all that, but it has allowed me to to bring my full self to the table in everything I do. And country music is definitely a genre that demands that of you—it's all about truth telling!


I know that you and Elana met through other bands. Could you tell us a little bit more about those projects and about how Tami came into the picture?

I was singing in a punk band back in 2009, but I'd been secretly writing country songs and obsessively dreaming about the pedal steel. Elana was in the country band The Low & the Lonesome and we ended up on a bill together at a big show The Shondes were putting on. I decided it was the universe sending me a sign, so I got my band to include one of my country songs in our set, and I asked Elana to sit in. After that, there was really no going back! Elana was sharing a practice space with Tami's band Dolly Trolly and luckily I managed to lure them both into starting The Sorrows with me.

The Names of Things was really more about interpersonal relationships. I know you began writing some of the more political songs on The Narrow Place, like “The Price of the Ticket," well before 2016. What prompted you to write them? Do you feel that the impacts of the songs have changed now that we're in the Upside Down (a.k.a 2017)?

Songs usually come to me in little pieces of a melody or a lyric floating up from the back of my brain or sometimes from a dream. And, not to be too weird about it, but the songs tend to have their own ideas on what they should be about. So while my experiences and the places I come from, the people I love and my political beliefs always wind up in there in one way or another, the songs often resist any master plans I might have for them. I certainly didn’t set out to write a bunch of songs about Moses and the story of Passover, but somehow that happened! 

I believe that now is an urgent moment to resist. But I also believe that has and will always be true—it has always been an urgent moment to resist. I hope that the things I make can help contribute to or at least help nourish and sustain my communities in that resistance.
New York is a pretty welcoming space for Jewish people and queer people (most of the time.) Have you received flack for any of your identities on the road?

I wouldn’t say flack, but there are plenty of times when I’m more on-alert thinking about my band’s safety or the safety of those in our audience and the violence that always surrounds us, both on the road and at home in New York.

I do have a good culture clash story, though, about the time we were playing a show in New Hampshire in Elana’s hometown in this beautiful little chapel. I was about to start singing “The Price of the Ticket” and Elana was like, you should tell them what it’s about! Which I definitely wasn’t planning on doing, but Elana seemed to think it was a good idea... So I start talking about my grandfather and our Passover seder and family melodies and Jewish immigration and whiteness and the James Baldwin essay the song is named for. And everyone in the chapel is just staring back at me like I’m an alien. So I ask: is anyone else here Jewish? Everyone just keeps staring politely but blankly at me. Except for one woman. She is raising her hand and pointing excitedly at the man next to her, saying, “My husband! My husband is Jewish!” Meanwhile, her husband looks like he wants to crawl under his seat and never come back out. That was pretty awkward.
The Another Country festival raised $1000 for the Trans Justice Funding Project, an organization you helped get off the ground. Could you describe your role in the organization and what you do? 

I co-founded the Trans Justice Funding Project together with Gabriel Foster, TJFP’s Director, in 2012. TJFP is a community-led funding initiative that supports grassroots, trans justice groups run by and for trans people. We make grants annually by bringing together a panel of six trans justice activists from around the country to carefully review every application we receive. We center the leadership of trans people organizing around their experiences with racism, economic injustice, transmisogyny, ableism, immigration, incarceration, and other intersecting oppressions. And every penny we raise goes to our grantees with no restrictions and no strings attached because we truly believe in trans leadership. 

For TJFP's first three years, I volunteered as Administrative Coordinator, doing things like building our database and getting our grants out, until we were able to afford to hire the fabulous Marin Watts to take over for me. Now TJFP is staffed entirely by trans people of color and I just cheer from the sidelines, help get the word out, and help raise money.

I know that you've been busy putting the album and festival together, but do you have a sense of how making The Narrow Place has impacted your songwriting?  

I hope with each new album my songwriting gets stronger! For me, it’s really all about the writing. That’s what I love most. I already have a bunch of new songs in progress, so I’m excited for when I’ll have time to start working on those!  

You can preorder The Narrow Place at the Sorrows' Bandcamp. And obviously I will have way too much to say about it when it comes out this Friday the 25th.

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