Most people would feel truly blessed to be able to earn a living doing something that they love. Karen Lovely certainly appreciates the opportunities that life has presented to her, particularly due the struggles she dealt with prior to starting her career.
“Singing is everything! Physically, I will go into withdrawal if I go too long without singing. It is catharsis for me, especially the live performances. One of the things I love about the blues is that it isn’t just a young & pretty music like pop. The blues community doesn’t shut out older people, we embrace them. It is music for people who really care about music”.
Growing up in Boston as the oldest of nine children, Lovely was surrounded by the voices of her mother and grandmother, who were always singing. “ My grandmother had old Victrolas and phonographs, so we would listen to records together. She also taught me how to dance the foxtrot, the Charleston, and other dances from earlier years. I would pick the record, wind up the Victrola, and we would dance together. The first song that I fell in love with was Billie Holiday singing “Pennies From Heaven”. The content qualifies as blues. It was my grandmother’s favorite song, so I sang it for her when she passed away”.
Lovely’s family lived in an ethnically diverse area in the shadow of the Mystic River Bridge, then known as the Tobin Bridge. She bought a lot of rhythm and blues 45’s, as that music was very popular at that time. Her musical training started with piano and guitar lessons while she honed her vocal skills in the local Catholic church choir, a religion not held in the highest regard at the time. But one event changed all that.
“When John F. Kennedy was elected President of the United States, it was a huge moment for my family, our neighborhood, and the city. It was remarkable that a Catholic became President. My family was always politically active. I was very aware of civil rights issues growing up. For all of it’s diversity,
Boston has some of the most ethnically intolerant neighborhoods. I was keenly aware of social injustice and also that I had a part in making the world a better place. My family always voted and I raised both of my children to do the same”.
The singer did some traveling, with stops in Los Angeles for nine years, London for a year, and time in Portland, Maine before settling in Oregon twenty years ago. Breaking out of an abusive relationship, Lovely spent a year living on the streets. “That really colored everything I’ve done after that. It showed me the best, and the worst, in life. It was an eye-opening experience that made me sensitive to a lot of issues. It led to my involvement in domestic violence advocacy and outreach. Ten percent of the money that I raised through crowd-funding for my latest recording, Fish Outta Water, was donated to RAINN, the nation’s largest organization that works with victims of sexual assault”. (https://www.rainn.org/)
“For each one of my albums, I write songs that specifically deal with social issues like homelessness, domestic violence, addiction, mental illness, and suicide. I am trying to not just raise awareness, but to also provide avenues for people to get help and to learn to recognize when people do in fact need help. I see homelessness in a different way due to my experiences. As an artist, I am blessed to have a platform to reach people, to help build a world of zero tolerance, to offset some of the darkness out there”.
“My music has pretty much stuck to social issues, not politics. But with the way recent elections have gone, I specifically chose to include some political songs on my latest recording. That is why I decided to work with producer Eric Corne. He is a great writer of that type of song – “Waking Up The Dead,” “Molotov Cocktail”.
Eric is Canadian, so he is looking at it saying, holy cow, did this really happen in the States? After the progress in recent years, it just exploded overnight. People need to research candidates and better understand the consequences of voting. I am disgusted that half of our country didn’t vote. And there are groups looking at just how much of our election was actually manipulated. We think of our country as a democracy but it is horrifying to realize how quickly the election process exploded”.
“Growing up, I watched Walter Cronkite, when journalism was revered. We are a bit naive, not used to fake news, so we got fooled. And the media doesn’t always show us what is actually happening. Right now, there are huge protests against Putin’ taking place in Russia, but we don’t ever see coverage of those protests in mainstream media. The protesters are trying to expose the corruption of their government. I saw a picture of an empty auditorium. There was a piece of paper with the name and picture of a journalist affixed to the back of each seat. They were journalists murdered during Putin’s government. Every seat had a piece of paper”.
The time she spent living on the streets had a profound impact on Lovely’s view of life and the world. She cautions that many of us are not too far insulated from being in a similar situation. “It is easier to end up homeless than anyone could ever imagine. Most of us know we are a paycheck away from living on the streets, unless you have good resources like family and friends. Many families are living paycheck to paycheck. I’m sure there are a few out there, but I don’t know any rich blues musicians. We struggle to get by like everyone else”.
“Situations of domestic violence cut across any social-economic bracket, across all considerations of race, religion, or sexual preference. It is not easy for women to uproot their family and move away. We don’t have all of the resources we need to do that. For me, it was a decision not to stay in an abusive relationship, so I left everything behind. My former partner had complete control over my financial life, so it took me a long time to work my way back. It took a year to save up enough to get my own apartment, which was hard on me and my son”.
“At the time, I was a working musician trying to tour. As a society, we have failed in a lot of ways to provide resources to take care of people. A large part of the homeless population are teenagers who have run away from home to escape physical or sexually abusive family situations. They think they are safer on the streets that at home. And I have lost several friends to suicide because they didn’t get adequate intervention. When you are homeless, you tend to be very quiet about it. Very few people knew about my situation during the year I was dealing with it. I was ashamed, embarrassed. And I felt bad as a parent that my son was going through it with me. That is why I work so hard to raise awareness for domestic violence and mental illness”.
Lovely has always wanted to sing. When she tried out for the choir, she hoped to get selected for one of the five spots that were open. All of the kids trying out would sing and the nuns would listen, then tap the shoulder of the students selected. When it came down to the last spot, Lovely was praying for divine intervention. “They kept walking by me without a tap. Finally, the torture ended. As is typical of my life, they gave a reluctant tap, which made me the happiest kid anywhere, but they immediately followed up with the comment that it was not because I was good, it was because I was loud! That comment stuck with me for a long time”.
“When I was living in London in 1988, my boyfriend and I were at a wedding reception for friends. As a wedding gift, I was asked to sing “Summertime”. I had been drinking champagne and was just drunk enough to agree to do it. The next morning, a guy that attended the reception called because he wanted me to sing in one of his clubs. So we did a trio thing for him. I was incredibly nervous, major stage-fright”. After that year, Lovely moved to Los Angeles and didn’t sing publicly again until 2007. As she got older, the thought of a singing career became a faint glimmer.
When her son became ill, Lovely unexpectedly got some life-altering advice. “ The nurse practitioner at the doctor’s office told me my son would be ok. But she was worried about me. So she invited me to join a womens choir she was involved with. That got me back into singing again and saved my life. I started going to blues jams, having so much fun that I stopped being afraid. I finally asked a club owner to give me my own show, because I was tired of doing jam songs. So, on September 29, 2007 was my first professional gig since leaving London”.
“I cut some songs in hopes of getting work as a back-up singer or in jingles. I was a forty-eight year old middle aged woman. Who is going to want to hear me? I did cover songs of older blues tunes as a demo tape. My keyboard player, Michael Vannice, was great friends with Dennis Walker, who produced Robert Cray. He thought Dennis could make it better, which he did. For the next record, Still The Rain, I worked with Dennis and Alan Mirikitani. They brought me so many great songs. That is how things got started. I competed at the International Blues Challenge and came in second in the band category. Then the album came out and got three Blues Music Award nominations. In one year, my life was totally turned upside down. It still just blows my mind”. Lovely was nominated for a Blues Blast Music Award in Female Blues Artist category in both 2011 and 2016.
Her Prohibition Blues album highlighted 1920 & 1930 blues songs from female artists. Lovely does workshops that cover the role that women played in that era to make blues a popular genre. On the follow-up, Ten Miles Of Bad Road, she switched to highlighting her own songs. “I wrote or co-wrote all but one song on that record. I intended to do the same for Fish Outta Water, but I didn’t have all of my songs ready. I like to learn something when I am blessed to work with really great songwriters. It certainly helps me perfect my craft. My next one will include more of my stuff’. Having worked with Dennis, Tony Braunagel, and Eric Corne on my studio projects has been a real education”.
Mirikitani had a big role in shaping Lovely’s music. “Al was a really good friend of mine and was involved in every album through Ten Miles Of Bad Road. Dennis & Al were two of the best songwriters I have ever met. Al was also a great vocalist, engineer and player, He was extraordinary, a genius. One of his songs we did was “Company Graveyard”. His lyrics were, “Ain’t gonna die in a company graveyard”. I was singing it as “Ain’t gonna die”. We talked about it. He said nobody lives forever. I replied that music lives forever. We were joking about it until he said ok, do it your way. About three weeks later, he passed away during a recording session. He is very much a part of everything musical that I do. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t miss him. Now I hear him through his songs”.
“I have been a writer my whole life. That is what I want to get good at. We can say so much with our songs. Too much of the blues is rooted in the traditional I-IV-V progression. What made the blues back in the day was it was simple music with so many layers of meaning. There were a lot of signifiers in the lyrics that meant one thing to a white audience and something else to a black audience. The level of sophistication in songwriting was pretty amazing. But it often seems to have gotten lost in contemporary writing. It is a dumbing-down of the blues in some ways. The song is king to me. Every song is a story. And I always have to tell a good story”.
Check out Karren’s website at: www.karenlovely.com
Interviewer Mark Thompson lives in Florida, where he is enjoying life without snow. He is the President of the Board of Directors for the Suncoast Blues Society and the past president of the Crossroads Blues Society of Northern Illinois. Music has been a huge part of his life for the past fifty years – just ask his wife!