Against the grain
Singer-songwriter Karen Joy Brown finds her calling and celebrates a new album
Karen Joy Brown possesses a rare, touching beauty, both sonically and physically—her elongated features and graceful manner bring to mind a white crane standing elegantly alone in a Japanese painting. Brown’s singing voice is singularly heartfelt and soulful, delivering her original lyrics with moving emotional honesty.
“God, what a fabulous junkyard,” she sings in the title song of her new record about living this life “between heaven and hell. … Never seen so many models and makes / Just a fabulous junkyard we’ve come to love so well.”
Fabulous Junkyard, the subject of Brown’s upcoming CD-release party, is an inspired and inspiring collection of eight sometimes poignant, sometimes lighthearted, original songs, and a lovely, reworked cover of The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby.” Brown is accompanied by local guitarist Amos Clifford (he’s also resident facilitator at the Sky Creek Dharma Center) and ex-Chicoan Matt McCabe on guitar and synthesizer.
But the 35-year-old singer-songwriter’s decision to play music for herself came a little later in life. Brown moved to San Jose from upstate New York, where she was accustomed to the closeness of her Pennsylvania-Dutch-descended relatives living nearby in colonial, family farmhouses.
“It was like the movie E.T.,” she said. “All the houses were all the same in the court we moved into. There were no big trees, and you had to drive 40 minutes just to go anywhere.”
It was, therefore, a relief to Brown when she moved to Chico in 1990 to study Spanish.
“Chico felt so much closer to where I came from,” she explained. “There’s more of a sense of history, and more trees. And seasons!”
Brown received her B.A. in Spanish from Chico State University, got her bilingual teaching credential, and proceeded to teach Spanish for five years at Pleasant Valley High School.
“I really liked it,” Brown said of her time teaching. “I really like high school students. I love that they’re crazy, unpredictable, more real.”
In one of her classes she was teaching at the time, Brown and her students were reading Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, a book about following your dream. Brown, as a result, came to the conclusion that she was “putting too much creative energy out into the teaching,” and wanted to become a full-time singer-songwriter. She had been playing, singing and writing her own music in private since she was in high school, but her public performing experience up to that point consisted of 10 years of playing contemporary worship music for church. “I got really tired of playing other people’s music that I didn’t really like that much.”
Brown quit her teaching job five years ago (she still substitutes: “You know—money?") and started at ground zero, as she puts it, to establish herself as a singer-songwriter.
“I had no idea what I was doing,” Brown admitted. “My friends told me, ‘You should play in coffee shops.’ I didn’t know how to book gigs; I had no experience. I had zero connections. But I knew how to play, how to write songs.”
Brown began to read all the books she could get her hands on about how to get started in the music business.
Now, five years down the road, she has built up a steady rotation of venues both locally and in other California cities like Benicia, Santa Rosa, Redding and Lodi.
“I pretty much don’t do it like the books tell you to,” Brown said with a laugh. “For one thing, they fail to mention that some things aren’t in your control. They didn’t mention the politics of the music business.”
But Brown’s joie-de-vivre-in-spite-of-it-all is apparent, as she describes what she hopes to come out of her upcoming CD-release party.
“I just want to play music, have fun, mingle, sign ridiculous things on people’s CDs.”