Karen Oberlin is an Eternal Optimist
[Editor’s Note: For reader’s interest, the dialogue of the original interview used as a source for this write-up has been added at the end of Patricia’s article. Enjoy!]
Karen Oberlin is the kind of artist who uses such terms as “visceral” and “connection” interchangeably. For Oberlin, not all stories are worth recounting, only the ones which prove meaningful and replete with integrity, whether they be a week or a century old; hence her daring career choices. Listing Joni Mitchell, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Costello and Mabel Mercer as her constant musical influences, she also cites Pharrell Williams as a potential candidate for a duet, for she profoundly admires his “great creativity, heart and musical prowess.” And with that genuine line, she demounts the cliché of jazz being an elitist genre, remote and recluse from all the other currents.
Oberlin’s most recent release “A Wish,” in collaboration with guitarist Sean Harkness, was nearly improvisation, an impromptu meeting which led to a visceral bond and bred the most sumptuous airs. And it seems that is the idea one retains of jazz, the cool and casual production of tunes, the instantaneous cohesiveness where the beat never drops. And while that is true, it is also the transformative confrontation with new and inventive musical patterns which feeds and nourishes it, at least in the minds of those most progressive, with the urge to express rather than define residing at its core.
And that is what Oberlin serves us up with in her latest record, an unclassifiable guitar-voice marvel which some will say is jazzy, others swingy or soulful, but ultimately, as Duke Ellington once said: “It’s all music,” a manifestation of the soul, authentic and noble. Oberlin delivers stories with languor and pensiveness yet with urgency and relentlessness for, despite her honeyed timber, her heart and soul never stay put.
Oberlin is also an optimist who believes life is a matter of resourcefulness and perseverance. “Don’t let anyone convince you to give up if that’s what you really want,” she says. “Be yourself and take your chances,” is her advice to aspiring artists, words of wisdom from one who follows her heart as the music calls and responds.
Q – How did your collaboration with Sean Harkness come about?
A – Sean and I had known each other from being in the same musical circles, and I admired his work… For a long time I had dreamed of collaborating with only guitar, and at an event, a benefit, we spontaneously played “My One and Only Love” together and it felt so good for both of us, not to sound silly, but there was a great and immediate connection and trust between us.
Q – You’ve been quite daring in your career choices, what would you say is the one constant in your production?
A – Thank you! I’d like to believe that I make interesting song choices, and that’s certainly among the most important aspects of what I do. The songs can be 100 years or 1 week old, but there has to be a meaningful story within the song in the music and the lyrics, and it has to have… integrity. And in this project, Sean and I had to share a visceral connection to the material, too, for our project.
Q – What are some of your musical influences? Who would you say has inspired you the most?
Although this evolves to some degree, I would have to say some constants are the great storytellers, like Mabel Mercer, Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Doris Day, Paul Simon, Susannah McCorkle, Marilyn Maye, Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman, Elvis Costello, Blossom Dearie… among others.
Q – If could do a duet with someone who is not from the jazz world, who would it be?
Wow, this could be a long list! At this split second I’m inspired by Pharrell Williams’ great creativity, heart and musical prowess.
Q – What, in your opinion, are the greatest obstacles to becoming a jazz singer? Would you say it is a harder a genre to make a name for oneself?
A- I think it can all be hard, no matter the genre… i think it just takes commitment to your creative heart and mind and a lot of per perverance. The music world is a challenge right now, more than it was when I started out, so you need to be resourceful and not be willing to give up!
Q – Any word of advice for aspiring artists?
A- Be yourself, take chances and don’t let anyone convince you to give up if it’s what you really want.