Interview with Karen Beth

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Karen Beth is well known among collectors but still a seldom discussed artist. She grew up in New York and in the late 60s she, like many other singer-songwriters, became part of the folk community in the Village.  She released three albums from the late 60s to mid-70s, where the first album The Joys of Life stands as an excellent representative of the introspective moody singer-songwriter style, and would have fetched high prices if released on a private label. The album feature some beautifully haunting music with great arrangements (with perhaps the exception of “It´s All Over Now” with some irritating horns) that partly reminds me of Astral Weeks, the first Janis Ian album or something on Richie Havens´ Stormy Forest label. If reissued and introduced to a wider audience I believe she could get the same cult status as for example Karen Dalton and Linda Perhacs. After the releases of the first album she left New York and moved out to the country and the musical direction changed, with the two following albums having more of a country- and folk-rock style. The albums contains the same high songwriting qualities and I think some of her best songs are on her last major label release New Moon Rising. Below is an interview done earlier this year that provide with a little bit more background to this interesting artist.

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Did you ever consider being part of a local scene? Were you playing in Greenwich Village around the time of the recording of your first album?

Yes, I was playing in Greenwich Village around the time of the recording of my first album, mostly at the Gaslight.   There were a lot of creative musicians playing there at the time, including Loudon Wainwright III, Karen Dalton, Richard Tucker, Steve Elliot, Burt Lee, Bob Rountree and Mark Waldrop. I suppose you could call it a "scene," but what it really was, was musicians & songwriters looking to play and maybe even make some money.  Bob Rountree played on my recording, The Joys of Life.  He played a very complimentary and interesting part on "Come December."

Your voice has been compared to Karen Dalton, Buffy-Sainte Marie and Grace Slick. Were you in any way influenced by them?

Not by Karen or Grace.  I did listen to a lot of Buffy in my early teens.  She created out-of-the-box music and lyrics that carried me to places I had never been, and her voice was so unique.  Her style of singing might have drifted into my subconscious, along with all the singers I had heard up until that point of my life. 

What were your influences at that time, lyrically and musically?

I grew up listening to folk music and classical so that's always been a part of me. I once wrote a song that was influenced by the sound of a clock tower that was nearby.  Nature influenced me a lot. Two of my biggest influences the years before The Joys of Life were Tim Buckley, Donovan and the medieval and renaissance era of western classical music.

How did you get a record contract with Decca? Did they sign you for two albums directly?

A couple of representatives from Decca Records were at the Gaslight while I was performing.  They came back another time to hear me.  They liked what they heard and offered me a record deal.  I was signed up for one album, and then recorded the second one.

Did you record anything else prior to The Joys of Life? Were you playing in any band?

Just home recordings.  I wasn't part of a band. 

Being on a major label like Decca, did they interfere with your artistic vision or did the albums turn out as you wanted them to be? Were there any differences between Decca and Buddah records?

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Other than the first song on The Joys of Life, "It's Over Now", which I didn't feel fit the tenor of the rest of the recording, I felt that the albums turned out as I wanted them to be. Not much difference between Decca and Buddah.

Was it studio musicians that did the backing on The Joys of Life?

Yes, and I have the producer, Milt Okun, to thank for bringing in those wonderfully creative studio musicians who caught the essence of my songs.  As mentioned earlier, Bob Rountree rounded out the ensemble.

The record made it into Billboard Top 200. How was it promoted? Did you do any national tours?

There was a lot of radio exposure, advertisements, positive reviews, and Decca had The Joys of Life available at the biggest retail and record stores of the time.  I did do some performances.

Alan Jarosz wrote lyrics to some of the songs on the Decca albums but he was never credited as a musician. Who was he?

He wasn't credited as a musician, because he didn't play music.  He was a poet.  We met in high school.  His poems had a very interesting rhythm and it was a beautiful ride setting "In the Morning" and "White Dakota Hill" to music.

Can you tell me how you come up with “Nothing Lasts”? Who did the arrangement on this one?

It was loosely based on a friend I had while living for a short time in Berkeley California.   There wasn't an arrangement per se.  It flowed out of the creative talents of the musicians.

Was the arrangement on the song “The Joys of Life” with the drums coming in on the second part something that was intended as you wrote it or something that evolved during the recording sessions?

It evolved during the recording sessions.

The song deals with making decisions in life and you sing “…in the battle for your mind there are two roads to choose, you must choose. You must make a decision now, which way to go. Do you know the way?” Can you please expand on what you meant with this?

Life is filled with decisions....small ones, big ones, meaningful ones, ones that you don't realize until much later how meaningful they were.  We're constantly making decisions.  Most of us don't have a crystal ball, and we feel our way through the decisions, some based on logical thinking, some on inspired intuition, some from guidance if we are open to listening.  Looking backwards, some of our decisions seem terrific, some questionable. They all occurred and they are part of the fabric of our lives.

I enjoy the eerie feeling on many of the songs on The Joys of Life album (e.g. “Nothing Lasts”, “The Joys of Life”, “Something To Believe In”), which is much created by the organ/piano accompaniment. Who played keyboard on the album?

I agree with you.  Much magic was added by Paul Griffin (organ) and Pat Rebillot (piano). 

On “Come December” you sing about Martha the gypsy. Who was she? Was she fictional or someone you knew?

I didn't write the lyrics to "Come December."  Karen Haber, another friend from high school, did.  I never thought to ask her how "Martha the gypsy" came about.  It would be interesting to know, though.

Why did you decide to leave New York after your first album?

I was always drawn to the country.  I wanted to live where there were more trees than people.

You changed producer (Milton Okun to Joey Bell) in between the Decca albums. How did this come about? Was it decided by the label or you?

It was decided by me.  I enjoyed switching things up, having different musical influences.  Joey Bell was and is an excellent and creative musician.  He plays guitar, bass and trumpet, and has a background playing rock and jazz.  Since I was coming from a folk and classical background, I thought his influence would expand my musical horizons.

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The Joys of Life and Harvest was released only one year apart but the feeling and atmosphere in the two albums are completely different. What was the major difference in recording the two albums?

Different times, different places.  I moved to the country and had a different outlook and perspective about life.  And I learned a lot from Joey's approach to music.

There is a big gap between the Harvest and New Moon Rising (1971-1975). Why is this? Did you record anything in the years between?

I actually don't know the reason for "the gap."  However, it must have been a time of "in breath."  Western cultures are focused on "out breath" times...times of production, of producing.  "In breath" times are vital and of equal if not greater importance.  It's a time of rejuvenation, of re-balancing, of deep internal transformation.  It's like deciduous trees in winter...they appear to be sleeping, but there's life underground.

The musical direction changed a lot from The Joys of Life to New Moon Rising with Harvest being an intermediate (going from a singer-songwriter genre to more folk and country). This musical change could be heard in many artists similar to you. Do you think this change was part of the general musical development of the time or was this influenced by anything more specific in your case?

I was part of the zeitgeist of the time, musically and otherwise.  As stated earlier, I moved to the country, and became deeply moved by, and connected to, nature.

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Can you please tell me how you ended up with John Simon as a producer for the New Moon Rising album?

I loved his work with The Band, and wanted to have a bit of that magic in my recording. 

How did you get to know Barbara Mauritz?

I never knew her.  I got permission to sing her song, "Flying."   It's a song that sounds musically like its name.  Loved it and still do.

Who was “The Jester”?

It was loosely based on someone I saw at a party, and as the song says, "he's me and he's you."

After New Moon Rising you never released anything else on a major label and there was again a big gap to the release of your next album The Edge of the Horizon. What was going on during that time?

Life, living, learning, exploration, evolution, glorious times, painful experiences, you know-- life on earth.

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Thank you Karen!