For fans of Kate Jacobs's carefully written songs, it would seem obvious that she had never intended to be anything but a singer-songwriter. Her first training, however, was in ballet, a love she would eventually leave behind for a different kind of career in performing arts. Still, a connection exists between Jacobs's love of music and love of dance: her songs, lyrical, expressive and precise, carry the same poetic motion as that of a well-trained dancer. Richard Skelly in All Music Guide wrote, "Guitarist, singer and songwriter Kate Jacobs has an angelic voice and a unique gift for inventing characters and telling stories within the format of the four-minute song."
Jacobs was born on January 11, 1959, in Alexandria, Virginia, and initially wanted to be a ballet dancer. Her father was in the foreign service, and Jacobs moved to Austria when she was eleven. When she reached college age, however, Jacobs was forced to make a choice: whether to dedicate her life to ballet or earn a college degree. "I wanted very much to be a ballerina," she told Triste. But, she added, "It was clear that I was never going to dance Giselle, so I decided to go to college." Jacobs continued to dance, but her artistic output slowly shifted toward that of music. "I could sing and write," she told Triste, "and basically morphed from a performance artist to a folk singer over a number of years."
Jacobs's musical roots ran deep. Her father sang old Tin Pan Alley songs at home, and her mother, drawing from her Russian heritage, sang ballads. At church she heard civil rights songs and saw performances by folk singers like Elizabeth Cotton and Pete Seeger. "My sisters and I were groupies of Fred Astaire," she told Triste, "and used to memorize all those great movies." Her disparate musical tastes included standards written by Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and Johnny Mercer, and popular country music by artists like Loretta Lynn.
During the early 1980s Jacobs moved to New York City. At first she continued to work in modern dance, but by 1987 she had started to write down the songs she was composing in her head. She told Courtney Muir Wallner in an interview on the WestNet website, "I decided I could actually learn how to play an instrument, play guitar, and tape these songs." Jacobs worked with another female singer for a short time, specializing in close harmony on classic country songs, and for two years she played a steady afternoon gig at the Nightingale in East Greenwich Village, sharing the stage with future notables like Blues Traveler, Joan Osborne, and the Spin Doctors. Jacobs also formed a band to play her songs, and they were invited to perform at Carnival in Venice for two weeks.
After returning from Italy, Jacobs and her band entered the studio to cut her first album, The Calm Comes After. When she finishing the recording, she was approached by Bar/None Records, who offered to distribute the album. Eventually Jacobs signed with Bar/None, and the label reissued the album with three more tracks. She told Triste, "The Calm Comes After was recorded really fast for one thing and ... had much more of a country feel. Apparently it's a real heart-break record, which I wasn't really aware of when I recorded it." Jacobs followed in 1995 with What About Regret.
In 1996 Jacobs received a phone call from Andrea Cascardi regarding "A Sister," one of the songs on What About Regret. Cascardi was an editor at Hyperion Books, who felt that the song would make a good children's book. Jacobs agreed, and began working with illustrator Nancy Carpenter to turn A Sister's Wish into a book format. Jacobs recalled to Lisa Marie Crouch in the Northern New Jersey Record, "I started churning out poetry at a young age and made little books." She added, "Everybody dreams of being an author. But I wasn't pursuing that—I was making records—and to have this book appear ... was magical."
In 1998 Jacobs released Hydrangea, an album built from family stories. One of her uncles had volunteered for the Spanish Civil War during the 1930s and never returned, inspiring "Eddy Went to Spain." "Good Doctor" was drawn from the diary of a young girl who had been a patient of her physician grandfather in Russia. Years later, Jacobs's mother found the diary in the family attic, inspiring Jacobs to tell the story. In a segment on National Public Radio's All Things Considered, Will Hermes noted that Jacobs "is a singer-songwriter who builds vivid scenes and characters inside twangy three-minute pop songs that brim with ache and swoon, and archives the sort of sleight of hand narrative compression that marks the work of the best modern storytellers."
Following Hydrangea, marriage, children, and other interests intervened, and Jacobs did not release another album for six years. In 2004 Jacobs released her fourth album, You Call That Dark, recorded near her home in Hoboken, New Jersey, and in Brooklyn at producer Dave Schramm's studio. Even though the album was produced in the city, You Call That Dark centered on the rural theme of farmers who often find it hard to cope with the changing world around them. Jacobs also focused on family. "The great tenderness and empathy in these songs is a gift to the listener," wrote Thom Jurek in All Music Guide, who felt that the album was, "in its quiet yet unflinching way, simply stunning."
While Jacobs has continued to actively promote her latest album with live performances, she balances her life as an artist with that of her role as a parent. In 2004 she toured solo and with a band, in both England and the United States. She has continued to release her albums on Bar/None, pleased that the label permits her to compose and record at her own pace. This measured method of working has allowed her to build a significant body of work filled with careful observation and deep emotion. "Kate Jacobs can sing about loss and regret with the best of them," wrote Daniel Durchholz in the book MusicHound Folk, "but her ability to occasionally express contentment, happiness, and love truly sets her apart."
For the Record …
Born on January 11, 1959, in Alexandria, VA; married; children.
Released first album, The Calm Comes After, 1993; signed with Bar/None Records; published children's book A Sister's Wish, 1996; released What AboutRegret, 1995; Hydrangea, 1998; and You Call ThatDark, 2004.
Addresses: Record company—Bar/None Records, P.O. Box 1704, Hoboken, NJ 07030, website: http://www.bar-none.com/. Website—Kate Jacobs Official Website: http://www.katejacobs.com.
The Calm Comes After, Bar/None, 1993.
What About Regret, Bar/None, 1995.
Hydrangea, Bar/None, 1998.
You Call That Dark, Bar/None, 2004.
Walters, Neal and Mansfield, Brian, editors, MusicHoundFolk, Visible Ink, 1998.
Record (Bergen County, NJ), May 17, 1996, p. 018.
"Kate Jacobs," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com/ (August 16, 2004).
"Kate Jacobs," Triste,http://www.triste.co.uk/ (August 16, 2004).
"Kate Jacobs," WestNet, http://www.westnet.com/1995/09.05/c090595.txt (August 16, 2004).
Addtional information was obtained from a review on All Things Considered, National Public Radio, October 13, 1998.
—Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.
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