Karen Jonas is tired of the circus filled with clowns whose smiles mask their dishonest hearts, the sideshow barkers whose sleight of hand appears to be magic but whose illusions mask empty promises, and the ringmasters who orchestrate the madness. On her third album, Butter, Jonas celebrates life in her own circus — getting up early in the morning with her children, staying out late making music — even as she playfully, and defiantly, opens the tent flaps wide on that other circus and exposes its seediest characters.
Every night after she put the kids to bed, she headed over to Wally Cleaver’s Recording Studio in her hometown of Fredericksburg, Virginia, to lay down tracks for this new album, which she co-produced with Jeff Covert and Tim Bray. “We went into the studio with this collection of songs I wrote over the past few years, during which I dealt with some frustrating interactions with music industry folks and also gave birth to my third and fourth babies. Both themes make regular appearances throughout the album: the retro-domestic mama in the title track, the bliss of ‘My Sweet Arsonist,’ the longing of ‘Gospel of the Road,’ and the shady business characters in ‘Mama’s First Rodeo' and 'Mr. Wonka.' We put on our producer hats and spent 15 months stopping in the studio a couple of times a week after I put my kids to bed, chipping away at this quirky collection of recordings about my own personal circus.”
The songs on Butter range over every musical style from rock and jazz to ragtime (“Oh Icarus”), gospel-inflected pop, and Western swing. “Yellow Brick Road” couches a defiant riposte to the music industry and the often-empty promise and allure of doing music a certain way. The rim shot of the snare opens into a Dustin Brandt’s soaring B3. Tim Bray’s funky guitar riff, reminiscent of the chords on “I Fought the Law (and the Law Won”) and which the song resembles musically, float under the organ and Jonas’ vocals wind around them in a song that would have made Jeannie C. Riley proud. “Butter” is a slow-burning, fiery jazz torch song, just right for smoky lounges. Jonas’ sultry vocals ignite the tongue-in-cheek vamp about a June Cleaver-type mom who can rock the kitchen as well as the stage of the local clubs. “'Butter,'” says Jonas, “is about a retro-domestic mama who’s got everything under control. That’s not always me, but every once in a while I can find the balance between taking care of my kids all day and making kickass music at night, and everything goes smooth as butter.”
The aching pedal steel that opens “My Sweet Arsonist” weaves under Jonas’ vocals and Jay Starling’s piano in a lush, yet spare, song that mimics early morning passion and the sweetness that lingers in the moments after burning down each other with love. “Sing me a love song, and hold me tight/your tongue in my mouth, your hand on my hip set me on fire/and when we’re done and tired and the passion of our bodies turns into/peacefulness/you’re still my best friend.” “The Gospel of the Road,” whose musical structure recalls the Zac Brown Band’s “Sweet Annie,” rides a soaring lead guitar riff down the ambivalence of the comforts of home and the call of the road; no matter that the singer has “a little house to call my own outside the city,” this dream of making on the music is chasing her, and “it shines like silver, it’s pure like gold/It rings like church bells for the gospel of the road/It sticks like honey, but it bites like cold/and I love you baby, but I have to go.”
The Western swing shuffle “Mama’s First Rodeo” skitters with a nod-and-a-wink that reveals the singer’s knowing I-won’t-be-fooled-again approach to the music business: “I’m gonna call your bluff…/Don’t try to bullshit me, darling/don’t pretend like I don’t know/Don’t try to bullshit me, darling/this ain’t mama’s first rodeo.” The album closes with a suite of songs — “Dance with Me,” Mr. Wonka,” “The Circus” — that focus on the shady business practices of the music industry, its carnivalesque nature, and the peace that comes with living in the midst of a circus of your own making. The slow, balletic “Dance with Me” flows into the din of “Mr. Wonka,” which flows into the spare piano and vocals of “The Circus.” Jonas says, “I wrote ‘Dance with Me’ while I was still hopeful, and I wanted the song to sound like a starry night.” Of “Mr. Wonka,” she says, “We met a man who talked a big talk, he leaned in close, he used impressive words like ‘heretofore’ and ‘gestalt.’ He said he admired my ‘artistry’ and was going to help my career. I nicknamed him Mr. Wonka. He backpedaled hard when he found out I was pregnant with my third baby, and our deal fell through. I wrote 'Mr. Wonka' in disappointment, and I wanted it to sound like a drunken circus.” “The clarity of ‘The Circus,’” she says, “follows the din of ‘Mr. Wonka.’ It’s about waking up one morning and realizing you aren’t where you belong, that you’re fighting the wrong fight, and that it’s time to go home.”
Butter cuts like a knife through the fat of the music industry and gets close to the bone with honest storytelling about ambivalent emotions, passion for music, and celebration of life and love. Jonas’ vocals fuels these songs with their bare emotion, and her range and phrasing mirror the range of musical styles on the album. Butter melts into our hearts, clarifying the beauty of the little things that make up the everyday-ness of our lives.
We have the first listen here to the full album: