Photograph of Jen Appell courtesy Dennis Gatz
How does one capture in words a creative force such as Kansas City's Jen Appell? A singer-songwriter, collaborator, performer, activist, poet and open mic host, Appell's music explores "the space where humor and tragedy skate a teetering, uncomfortable line." In recent years she was, along with Kristina Ning, half of the folk duo Not Sisters. Since then she has helped stage theater productions and art installations and contributed to a comic book focused on the history of redlining in Wyandotte County, Kansas. We're delighted to share an interview with the artist herself about all these topics and more.
Please introduce yourself. Describe your music for new listeners.
Some moments demand to be reckoned with. This is why I make music.
Classical piano training, musical theatre and Yiddish folk songs are the roots from which I grow. My sensibility for movements within pieces, vocal expression and chord progression stem from these roots.
I write. I compose. I perform. I collaborate.
I am a beautiful mess of a guitar player.
I sing with mad abandon.
I create in the space where heartbreak and “go f**k yourself” coexist with wit and whimsy.
I create in the space where humor and tragedy skate a teetering, uncomfortable line.
Every song is a flash encased in amber.
Every song is a mantra.
Every song is a lesson I continue to learn.
Last year you debuted a rock musical "Arc of Joan." What was that process like? What attracted you to want to create a musical?
So, “Arc of Joan” was originally staged as “Joan the Maid” at The Next Space in Kansas City in 2003. The original production was co-written with Michael Andrew Smith. Over the course of a year and a half, we created and produced a staged production with about 20 of Kansas City’s finest actors and creatives. The production had two bands: one representing France, the other England. It was loud, bombastic, cacophonous. Sold out every performance.
The reimagined version that I produced at KC Fringe 2017 was far more intimate.
After the birth of my twin daughters, I took about a decade off from performance. When I got back into the scene, my goal was to get my chops back by performing older, established pieces from my songbook. The songs from “Joan the Maid” resonated deeply with audiences. It was natural to revisit the material.
The version I presented at KC Fringe 2017 was pared down to the bone… the music.
I enlisted a small, but mighty army of strong humans (Athena Louise Hyacinth, Kaelynn Elise Wi, Dexter Melton and Angela Penrose) to help me stage the show. Aside from large scale video projections, the story of Joan was told exclusively through the songs and scant narrative dialogue. The show was really a workshop. The audience was invited to participate in a Q&A every night. Each performance was its own unique experience. No two were exactly the same.
Musical theatre is in my blood. As a child, my parents co-directed musicals at local synagogues, my mother commanded the stage and my father commanded the music. I used to sit on the piano bench with my dad and turn the pages. So creating this piece was a natural fit. I tend to write music with a theatrical quality, each song is a journey.
What's your creative process as a songwriter, either solo or as a collaborator?
I draw inspiration from my life. And, quite often, heartbreak and isolation is the seed from which the music grows. For me, some songs gestate for years and years, and others spring forth with an urgent determination. Sometimes a melody gets stuck in my head, sometimes the words come first. I don’t have a specific formula I just follow where the muse leads.
What music are you working on now?
I am currently composing a soundscape for “Weaving the River” an immersive art installation inspired by the history of the original Quindaro settlement in Kansas City, KS. The project is a collaboration with Justin Border, Jillian Youngbird and Meghan Cochrane Rowswell. We are debuting the installation at the Quindaro Symposium (http://www.freedomsfrontier.org/pages/Quindaro_Symposium) in April 2018.
The soundscape incorporates dozens of elements including the Allen Chapel Choir, natural sounds collected at the site of the original township, voices of the community and rhythmic elements. Some of the tracks are pure, others are deeply distorted and manipulated. The end result will be a sonic narrative of the past, present and future of Quindaro.
And because the muse has taken up residency in my brain space, of late, I am back to my roots and writing more piano based music. My plan is to record the new material later this spring and release in the summer.
What inspires you about original music in Kansas City?
Kansas City is ripe with talent. Any time I hit an open mic, I am floored by the variety and heart of the musicians. I love that this city has a true community of supportive and creative minds. There is a generosity of spirit that is unparalleled. If I’m stumped while working on a track, I have a dozen or so go to contacts that will graciously help: whether it be with a thoughtful fix or an “attagirl”.
Photograph of Jen Appell courtesy Dennis Gatz
Jen Appell's recommendations from the Johnson County Library catalog:
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. Stunning, tragic tale of two-egg twins forever changed in the blink of an eye.
Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins. So… this book may single handedly be responsible for my love of beets. Seemingly disparate storylines cleverly and humorously weave together… simply delicious!
The City of Lost Children. Didn’t really know what I was walking into when I saw this in the theaters so many years ago… but the story, the imagery have never left me. Dark, foreboding and yet whimsical. Plus, Ron Perlman!
Young Frankenstein. This movie still holds up! So ridiculously funny. Gene Wilder was a GENIUS!
Selling England by the Pound by Genesis. I love progressive rock and roll. This album holds several of my favorite Peter Gabriel era Genesis songs. Tony Banks keyboard work is masterful. First three tracks... on repeat!
3 Feet High and Rising by De La Soul. If I could only choose one desert island disc this would probably be it.. Some of the between the track humor is dated but the tunes… magnificent!
Radiohead, Radiohead, Radiohead (well you can probably skip Pablo Honey, though) Any of it, all of it. I LOVE this band, like LOVE LOVE this band. I have at 3 love songs that I willingly admit were inspired by Thom Yorke. Oh and you should probably watch "Meeting People is Easy" an insightful documentary about the release and tour supporting "Ok Computer".