The singer-songwriter from Fredericksburg, Virginia, drops a dance-floor-demanding tune from her new album, The Southwest Sky and Other Dreams.
When you listen to Karen Jonas’ new album, The Southwest Sky and Other Dreams, you might have a Proustian moment, too. When I first heard the song “Be Sweet to Me,” even just over my laptop’s speakers, it instantly transported me decades back to a homecoming dance in my high school cafeteria. A song with a similar kind of imperative beat and verve came on loud over the sound system and I immediately ditched my date to run find a friend of mine who could really dance.
Jonas’ new “Be Sweet to Me,” like a good call-to-the-dance-floor should, makes you want to be twirled and swung by a partner with as much rockabilly rhythm and guitar love as fill your own musical soul.
“I grew up singing in school and church choirs,” Jonas says. But music really clicked for her when she was 16 and her dad put Joni Mitchell’s live album, Miles of Aisles, on the turntable. “As soon as I heard Joni’s voice, I thought, I want to do that.”
Originally from Damascus, Maryland, and now based in Fredericksburg, Virginia (“a beautiful little historic downtown that feels like a movie”), Jonas grew up listening mostly to radio. “My dad played some guitar around the house in the evenings, so there are some James Taylor and Kenny Loggins songs that he plays that I hold pretty near and dear.”
She politely bristles just a bit when asked how she labels her music: “Ah the labels. I like ‘Americana’ OK, but some of the country people frown at Americana. I like ‘country’ OK as long as it isn’t radio country. I think of myself as a songwriter first, but our production doesn’t always fit that as a genre.”
She’s happier to talk about some of her musical influences: “I love the great songwriters: Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon. I can listen to them forever. For country, I like Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, and Dwight Yoakam.”
We caught up with Jonas mid-pandemic, as she successfully, if chaotically, juggled new music and four kids between the ages of 2 and 11 — plus a dog and two cats. “I’m really bad at keeping up with houseplants though.”
Cowboys & Indians: Tell us about the new song, “Be Sweet to Me.”
Jonas: I had an idea that “Be Sweet to Me” would be this rockabilly fun up-tempo tune with some lighthearted righteous anger. I wanted to give guitarist Tim Bray a chance to show off some of his best moves. We play lots of fun country covers live, and I wanted a way to translate that to this record. Boy, did he deliver! You hear the band here, same as at our live shows: Tim Bray poppin’ on that guitar, Seth Morrissey on bass, and Seth Brown on drums. EP Jackson and I produced The Southwest Sky and Other Dreams here at our home in Fredericksburg, Virginia. We captured the fun of “Be Sweet to Me” in a performance video. We filmed at OddBox Studios in downtown Fredericksburg, with our longtime one-man camera crew, Ryan Poe.
C&I: What’s your favorite moment in the song?
Jonas: I like the throwback tag to “peaches in the summer, apples in the fall.” I read an article about these recyclable lines — all of the millions of times they’ve been used. This song felt like the right place to put them. Musically, I love Tim’s rockabilly fun solos, of course.
C&I: What’s your creative process like?
Jonas: I write while in my head while I’m busy and then write it down later, usually. Driving, walking, cooking, cleaning. It puts me in a good brain space.
C&I: Speaking of good brain space, what have you been doing during the pandemic?
Jonas: Mostly I’ve been trying to keep up with my busy house of people here. The kids’ activities and schools all got canceled and don’t seem to be coming back any time soon, so it’s been a little noisy here at the Jonas-Jackson HQ.
C&I: How have you kept the music going?
Jonas: We’ve done some live stream shows, including a few we organized to benefit some local restaurants. I’ve also found that because I’m playing fewer shows, I’m playing guitar around the house a lot more. That’s been fun for writing and learning new covers that I love.
C&I: What’s been put on hold and what’s next?
Jonas: We got to play official SXSW last year, and we were supposed to again this year, but it was canceled due to the pandemic. And our first tour in the UK had to be postponed. We’re hoping to be able to schedule a few more outdoor shows before it gets cold. Then, you know, I guess I’ll keep writing and we’ll keep recording until we get this pandemic under control. First place I want to go when things are back up and running? New York City.
C&I: When things are back up and running again, what should we do when we’re in your town?
Jonas: You should go visit a restaurant called Juan More Taco; they’ve been delivering meals to the local elderly every day since the pandemic began. Amazing, right? And that puts you on Caroline Street, the main street in downtown Fredericksburg, so be sure to keep a mask handy and stop into the cute local shops, grab a coffee at Curitiba, and walk a block over to see the Rappahannock River.
C&I: Could we get a Feel-Good Playlist of songs or albums that lift your spirits?
Jonas: Shoot, I don’t listen to upbeat music when I’m feeling down — it feels too abrupt. I like a little melancholy to move through my mood, so I reach for stuff like this:
All of It Was Mine — The Weather Station
“Desolation Row” — Bob Dylan
Singing Bones — The Handsome Family
“Famous Blue Raincoat” — Leonard Cohen
“Desperados Under the Eaves” — Warren Zevon
“Blue” — Joni Mitchell
“Lost Highway” — Hank Williams
“Slip Slidin’ Away” — Paul Simon
“Ain’t That Lonely Yet” — Dwight Yoakam
“Look at Miss Ohio” — Gillian Welch
“Cover Me Up” — Jason Isbell
Photography: Images courtesy Big Hassle Media