Jen Kearney keeps it organic in theory
August 8, 2008
ASPEN Back in the late 90s, when Jen Kearney was playing in the rock trio Kearney Square named not after the musician, exactly, but after a well-known spot in her hometown of Lowell, Mass. she did not, presumably, require much background in music theory, or the ability to write out charts for her bandmates.Her latest project, however, is a different story. In Jen Kearney and the Lost Onion, the singer, guitarist and keyboardist is backed by a sizable horn section. The music often veers into complex Latin grooves, beat out by multiple percussionists. And several of the players surrounding Kearney come equipped with degrees from Bostons Berklee College of Music, raising the level of the musical dialogue from rock band to quasi-orchestra.Kearney didnt take any classes in the interim. Instead, she worked extensively with Yahuba, a percussionist who had studied at Berkeley. She listened to a lot of Latin music. And she did what she has done for as long as she has been into music namely, keeping her ears open.I rely on my ear a lot, said Kearney, who appears in a stripped-down duo for three nights, Friday through Sunday, Aug. 8-10, at Ruths Chris Steakhouse in Aspen. Im not a very good mathematical thinker. Im not against theory, but I approach music very organically.On the evidence of Eat, the 2006 album by Jen Kearney and the Lost Onion, those ears go a long way toward replacing classroom training. The album, featuring eight Kearney originals, is well beyond the rock trio form in terms of sophistication and arrangement. There are tempo changes, dense horn sections, and at times, a full immersion into Latin rhythms. With Kearneys Stevie Wonderish voice leading the way, it can sound almost like a soul symphony.Kearneys family has a long history of turning away from the academic setting for its music lessons. Her grandfather, a Sicilian-born violinist, was offered a scholarship to the New England Conservatory. But he had to turn it down to sell vegetables at Haymarket an open-air produce market in Bostons North End, said Kearney. Her grandfather continued to play, however, as did Kearneys mother, a singer, and her uncle, who played piano, guitar and clarinet. Come the holidays, the family would arrange Motown hits for four-part harmonies.Kearney herself enrolled in the music program at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. Her lack of ability to read music, however, left her lagging behind, and her formal education ended quickly.I cut my losses and went back to the street education I was getting: open mics, hootenannies, playing on the streets, in bars, she said.Kearney hasnt found the lack of a degree to be much of a hindrance to getting her ideas across. Its a disadvantage only is someone asks for a horn chart, she said. I cant do anything that complicated. But most bands dont operate that way, anyway. I can sing a part to them, and they can get it.From the sound of Eat, much of her education came from listening to vintage Stevie Wonder. She calls his influence huge.You certainly dont seek out to emulate anyone, she said. But if you listen to someone enough, its going to come out. And a lot of people have said we have a similar vocal range, so hi songs were easy for me to sing.And I listened to a lot of stuff I thought he might be into: old R&B and blues, and Latin stuff, which I know he listened to in the 70s.For her Aspen appearance, Kearney will be joined just by guitarist Carl Johnson; the dates were set up to piggyback on full-band dates in Denver and at the Boulder Fringe Festival.Kearney appears with the Lost Onion at least once a month in the Boston area, and has brought the group to dates around the Northeast. But making a full-time thing of such a big band is out of the question for the moment, so Kearney supplements her income with a day job: teaching vocal students.I know enough theory to teach somebody something, she said.
Jen Kearney performs Friday through Sunday, at 6:30 p.m., at Ruths Chris Steakhouse in Aspen.email@example.com