Kara Jackson: “If I can’t find the humour, I’d crumble”

The new Poet Laureate of indie folk on finding her balance during the most whirlwind year of her career so far

If there’s one word to describe the unique sound of poet turned songwriter Kara Jackson, it’s truth. Navigating her way through the truth of love, grief, and everything in between – all equipped with a vital sense of humour. 

“Things can be really hard, and heavy – but they can also be humorous, and those things can exist at the same time,” she explains. “We have a culture where it’s not encouraged to be romantic, to be open and vulnerable in those ways, so a part of me is trying to grapple and work through some of these issues, while also trying to work through a general disposition to be loveless, and bitter. I am trying to grapple with my own negativity around love. And that’s where the humour comes out too.”

What transpired, is the debut album, Why Does the Earth Give Us People to Love? The title poses a rhetorical question, but also one she seeks to understand, and in turn, to help her fans make sense of too. “It’s been really cool to take my personal experiences and extend them to somebody else who maybe needs my words to represent how they’re feeling. It’s a duty for me,” she says. 

We caught up with the rising star in London, in the midst of a European tour, bringing all of those words – and truths – to her fans. 

Kara Jackson - pawnshop

Let’s go back to the beginning – when you were a kid, did you always want to be a performer? Were you one of those children that would get the family to sit around and watch you play?

I was definitely in that category. I was shy, so it took my parents a while to know that I could sing and that I liked to do that. I would always sing with my older brother because he also plays instruments and sings, so we’d always make up songs and sing around the house. I was also in piano lessons at a young age, so I just always wanted to make music in some capacity.

Is there a through-line between the songs you would write with your brother as a kid, to the material you’re putting out today?

That’s an interesting question. I feel like I’ve always been resourceful in terms of sounds and noises, I have always appreciated sounds even if they’re not traditional ones. I have always tried to make something out of nothing, whether it’s just hitting stuff on the table, or making up stuff as I go along. I grew up loving The Who and loving classic rock, and they have this one song where they couldn’t afford cellos, so they were just singing “Cello Cello Cello” from the back, and I always loved that, and the way people just made something out of nothing with music. I’ve always had to go out of my way to be a little resourceful and a little thrifty. 

There’s such a rich history of music in Chicago, ranging from Sam Cooke to Herbie Hancock. Did growing up there inform your sound?

Oh yeah definitely. I’m really lucky to have grown up in Chicago, we have such a rich art scene in general. It’s where slam poetry was invented, and we have the jazz showcase. My dad is a really big jazz connoisseur, so the first live music I ever saw was jazz. I saw Herbie Hancock when I was younger. Those experiences definitely informed me. The city does have a musicality, in a lot of things that people do. Even just getting on the train, people would be blasting music, or people just drumming in the street and stuff like that. It informs everyone because it is visceral and you can’t ignore it. You can’t ignore people banging on a drum in the street. It was a fun place to grow up as an artist.

Kara Jackson - lily

You mentioned The Who and Herbie Hancock. Have you always had such diverse and eclectic influences?

Yeah definitely. My friends are always accusing me of being an encyclopaedia of music. I definitely dabble in a little bit of everything in my own musical tastes, I don’t discriminate. 

Do you remember the first time you went on stage? You bear so much of your soul through your music, so much of you comes out of your songs. Was it daunting, casting your mind back to those early performances?

Yeah, but I still get very nervous. I’m learning so much being on tour now – each show is another learning opportunity. I’ve been playing my guitar and singing in front of people since I was 12. I would primarily do covers of other people’s songs. I did a lot of Beatles covers, and Joan Baez. I am thankful for those moments now because I didn’t realise at the time how that was like training, active practice for now.

You were a National Youth Poet Laureate – did it feel like a natural progression to go from poetry to performance?

Totally. There’s a lot of overlap. When I was taught poetry, and the formalities of a poem, you have to pay attention to the musicality and the sounds, the consonants and the vowels. I got into poetry when I was a teenager and that’s when I started taking it seriously. I was doing it for fun, just to express myself because I was 15, and a girl, so there were so many emotions. I was definitely processing my feelings. I was good at it, I guess, and so I joined the slam team in my school, and it just kind of took off in a way that I didn’t expect. It took me away from music for a while, but music was definitely my first love. It lends itself to poetry though. Some of my favourite music is folk music and rap music, which are both lyrical forms.

Do you recall a moment where you thought… I’ve made it. I’m doing this for a career. I am a musician, this is what I am going to be.

I feel like I’m stumbling into that moment now, this period of my debut album. It has been so unprecedented to see the reactions and see people engage with my work. Playing these shows live and seeing people be familiar with the songs… The album has been a revelation for me, especially as a Black woman. I feel like I’m always having to prove myself. There’s not a sense of security, ever. I look at people like Beyoncé and people are still questioning her greatness and her authority, so for me I’m always trying to remind myself that this is my job and this is my career. This is what I actually do. 

Kara Jackson - dickhead blues (Live)

This is your voice, this is all you know. But for us, as audience members, we’re hearing something very original. Do you ever stop and think… there aren’t many artists that sound like me? You don’t hear many songs that sound like ‘Dickhead Blues’.

That’s just my lane. I’ve always been a little blunt about things – maybe much to my mum’s dismay. So a song like ‘Dickhead Blues’ is just how I talk and speak. It’s been interesting reckoning with the fact that people aren’t necessarily doing the same thing as me. I’ve always known I’m off the beaten path and I’ve never really fit in exactly. Growing up I was always a bit different to everyone else. 

Your music really resonates though. You say you feel like you don’t fit in at times but does your support make you feel comforted, that you’re not alone?

Yeah definitely. I’ve been really touched by people who have reached out to talk about what the songs mean to them. Processing grief, and being able to articulate that, is a hard thing for people to have the words to talk about, and I’ve always been someone who has tried to figure out how to talk about these things that people don’t really want to talk about over lunch. It’s been really cool to take my personal experiences and extend them to somebody else who maybe needs them, or needs my words to represent how they’re feeling. It’s a unique thing, but it’s a duty for me. 

Do you feel that when you play live? Are you an artist who thrives on the live experience, and sharing moments with an audience?

I love performing. I love singing, so it’s been fun to sing songs and present them in a different way too. I’m touring by myself, it’s just me and my guitar, so it’s almost more vulnerable singing the songs on stage. But it feels cool to connect with the audience in that way, where it’s just me and them. It feels really nice.

Grief and heartbreak feature prominently in your work, but your lyrics can be quite funny. How have you navigated your way around writing comedy into your music, without veering too far? 

I’m just like that as a person. I’m very serious about a lot of things, I do care about a lot of issues, but I feel like those experiences necessitate a certain level of humour. If I can’t find the humour, I’d crumble at a certain point. Also, I grew up with a family who use a lot of idioms, who are always making fun of each other, so I’ve always had to have a humorous tone even as I approach the serious stuff. That’s just an intersection I’m interested in. Things can be really hard, and heavy – but they can also be kinda humorous, and those things can exist at the same time. 

Kara Jackson - no fun/party

Not to simplify, but your songs are often about love. They feel real and uncomfortable at times. Is that how you perceive love, as problematic and complex?

I feel like love has always been really complex for me. Especially beyond my own personal experiences, just observing other people’s relationships, and being a girl having to console my friends as they deal with different stuff. I do feel it’s something that’s fraught and really hard for a lot of us. In America especially, we have a culture where it’s not encouraged to be romantic, to be open and vulnerable in those ways, so a part of me is trying to grapple with stuff and work through some of these issues, while also trying to work through a general disposition to be loveless and bitter. I’m trying to grapple with my own negativity around love. That’s where the humour comes out too – trying to find my own way to get into love, and still have an open heart, despite all of the sourness around it all. 

So what’s next for you? Have you started writing the second album already?

I’m working on some stuff, yeah. I have a lot of shows going until the end of the year. I’m here in the UK and Europe this month, but I’m trying to flesh out some newer work and different ideas too. I’m taking my time. This year has gone by so fast. It’s so weird that the album has only been out for almost six months, but it feels like it’s been forever, honestly. I’m still trying to process that. It’s still new and I’m trying to let it be new, before I completely move on. But I’m definitely starting to think about what’s next.

It’s a whirlwind of a year – especially being on tour and travelling around the world. Do you ever just take a moment and think… this is really cool?

I’m really trying to! I feel like some of the stuff I’ve done this year has just felt so fast. You just blink and it’s over. I’m keeping a journal, and every night after a show I write about it so I have something to look back on and can think, this is what I was doing in 2023…

Kara Jackson plays The Workmans Cellar in Dublin on 10 September. Find tickets here.