INTRODUCING KARA JACKSON, SOUTHERN FOLK’S EMERGING POET LAUREATE
KARA JACKSON does not keep a count of how many tattoos she has – or, if she does, she’s not saying. “I know it’s more than how old I am,” the singersongwriter, 23, finally tells MOJO on a snowy Chicago morning, laughing. “If I disclose it, my parents will kill me.”
She does, however, serve as their willing tour guide, especially for the ink that represents favourite musicians. There’s the widewinged moth Joanna Newsom held on the cover of Ys, then one of Pete Seeger’s banjos on an arm. There are two for Donna Summer and two for rockers Paramore, plus “Silver Dagger,” for Joan Baez. A Daniel Johnston illustration even peeks from a sleeve on her left arm. That’s seven, and Jackson is just winding up. “They may not be up to other people’s standards of, ‘What does that mean?’” she says. “But I just think they’re cool.”
These tattoos double as something of a musical map for the unpredictable interests of Jackson, a self-professed emo kid who also loved the country and blues she heard through her dad, a native of small-town Georgia. (That’s where she fell for Southern rap, too, via her cousins.) And as the United States’ former National Youth Poet Laureate, she writes with flashes of the elegant intricacy of Newsom, emotions coiled into evocative phrases that dazzle as they arrive via her honeyed voice. Jackson’s debut LP, Why Does The Earth Give Us People To Love?, funnels it all into 13 spellbinding tracks of warped symphonic folk. They’re poignant reflections on getting hurt and carrying on.
Jackson spent six years writing the labyrinthine title track. The first half – a crawling waltz, her warm voice rising like springtime winds over acoustic guitar – was fast and easy, if incredibly painful. Soon after one of her best friends, Maya-Gabrielle, died from a rare cancer in 2016, the Chicago teenager penned the title’s question, chasing it with a subtle excoriation of religious platitudes about loss. The end section, though, required space and time, a critical distance for her to move beyond mere mourning. Above winsome strings, she dreams of singing with Maya again, of keeping their teenage dreams alive.
“Everyone is so concerned with individualism,” says Jackson. “But grief makes apparent how urgent loving is. I have to remind myself that we were put on this Earth to be in community with other people.”
Time and again, …Earth plunders the fault lines of relationships, Jackson searching for meaning in the messes we make of each other. What value, Jackson seems to ask for a brilliant hour, can she find in the frustrations of existence? “I take the contradictions of the world seriously, and they always show up in my work because it’s my ethic to embrace them,” she says. “These songs are dealing with layers.”
Those layers include meeting sadness with smiles, loss with love, or bad romantic partners with a perfect anthem called Dickhead Blues. If you can make space on your body and in your music for Pete Seeger’s banjo and Donna Summer’s Bad Girls, what can’t you reconcile? “I’m someone with ADHD, so I think of a lot of things at one time,” says Jackson. “I’d much rather be multifaceted than have one answer. I’d never be satisfied with one answer.”
“I take the contradictions of the world seriously, and embrace them.” KARA JACKSON
SONNY ROLLINS, now 92, is usually reserved these days. But he told 39-yearold tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis, “When I listen to you, I listen to Buddha, I listen to Confucius… I listen to the deeper meaning of life. You are keeping the world in balance.”
Lewis, predictably, was moved. “I feel blessed. He’s one of my heroes,” Lewis says today, battling a loud smoothie-maker in his local New York café. “What else do I need in my life after that? The few times we’ve talked, he never wants to speak about himself, he’s like, ‘I’m interested in what you’re doing’.”
Lewis, a minister’s son from Buffalo in upstate New York, has spent the past decade or so on an academic and spiritual quest, finessing a fat-toned tenor sax sound, comparable to Shabaka Hutchings or Kamasi Washington, and a lyrical quality that runs through his ever-changing catalogue. “I try to make music from the heart and lean on melody. I get closer to finding my artistic voice with every album.”
Much of Lewis’s latest album, Eye Of I, pitches his broad tones against Chris Hoffman’s treated electric cello and Max Jaffe’s drums. But it ends with Fear Not, a scorching trade-off with former Fugazi rhythm section The Messthetics. “I’ve always tried to make every album different, like a clarion call of, Here’s where I’m at,” says Lewis. “Eye Of I is about enlightenment, introspection, the way we perceive things. I’m always trying to make the music sound like it’s searching for something, for other answers. There’s no stone left unturned – I’m trying to peel the paint off the walls when I play.”
Ever since 2014’s meditative Divine Travels bumped up his profile, Lewis has oscillated wildly between releases. Yet it was 2021’s jazz-gospel-folk-blues mosaic Jesup Wagon, his tribute to early 20th century agriculturist George Washington Carver, that brought him to a wider audience.
“When I made Jesup Wagon I was reexploring my old childhood experiences,” says Lewis, as heady and philosophical in person as he is on record. “Those song titles are not random! I read all his correspondence, his complete works – the bulletins he used to pass out on the Jesup Wagon [Carver’s mobile classroom he used to educate farmers]. The cover was something he actually drew. It was very thoughtout. I was peeling back the layers of my psyche to get to the centre of things.”
A self-taught clarinettist, Lewis has a degree from Washington DC’s Howard University and a master’s from CalArts, where he studied under Wadada Leo Smith, Charlie Haden and Joe LaBarbera. The learning bug hasn’t left him. “Right now, I’m working on a PhD on Philosophy and Creativity at the University of the Arts. [The Roots drummer] Questlove picked me to get a scholarship. I’m really getting into metaphysics, semiology,
Roland Barthes… no rest for the weary.”
For all his studies, Lewis is ultimately seeking transcendence through sound.
“I got a lot of schooling, but jazz is a lived experience. That’s why we all like
John Coltrane. He was an objectivist and a subjectivist – there was data but also feeling and intuition.
You’ve gotta have a good mix of both.”
“I’m trying to peel the paint off the walls when I play.” JAMES BRANDON LEWIS