KARA JACKSON DOES NOT KEEP 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 singer-songwriter, 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 wide-winged 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.”
I take the contradictions of the world seriously, and embrace them.
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.”
Why Does The Earth Give Us People To Love? is out 14 April via September Recordings Ltd.
● For fans of: Joanna Newsom, Moses Sumney, Nina Simone, Bill Callahan.
● When Jackson was 19, she was made the United States’ third National Youth Poet Laureate, during a ceremony at the Library of Congress. The title involved leading workshops and readings. “It’s important for me to incorporate my work into a teaching model,” she says. “I was really lucky to have had that experience.”
● Though she’s from Chicago, Jackson has visited Georgia nearly every year of her life, developing a deep love for the South’s idioms and cuisine, especially corn grits, which she references on …Earth “My auntie is gossiping, and my family members are throwing shade at one other,” she says. “That’s the communication I inherited.”
● Fashion feels a lot like music for Jackson: casual fans can appreciate the surface, but true heads can dive deep for hidden meanings. “I love how specific you can be in terms of what you’re communicating with fashion, down to the buttons and stitching.”
● Why Does The Earth Give Us People To Love?
Clear the ground for Lucrecia Dalt’s sci-fi boleros.
BECOME A MOJO MEMBER today and receive every new issue of MOJO on your smart phone or tablet to listen to or read. Enjoy access to an archive of previous issues, exclusive MOJO Filter emails with the key tracks you need to hear each week, plus a host of member-only rewards and discounts.