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Column from web archive November 6, 2008

Kirsten Jones

More mad miles than money

About five years ago, singer-songwriter Kirsten Jones was in New Zealand, on holiday from her work as a major-label account executive in Toronto, when she took a sea kayaking trip that would change her life.

The leisurely paddle on the open water took an abrupt, dangerous turn when a storm blew in, leaving the novice kayaker and her friend struggling to return to shore for some three hours. When they eventually made it back, they were informed that the lethal stretch they’d been out on was known locally as the “mad mile,” which provided inspiration for a song.

“That song ‘The Mad Mile’ is definitely about that experience, and about life in general. On that trip to New Zealand, I decided to quit my job and do this,” she says, gesturing around the suburban Toronto recording studio where work was underway on her forthcoming record, also titled The Mad Mile.

The connections to the New Zealand trip don’t end there. Jones, an ebullient Virginian who relocated to Canada at 22, says she listened to the Jayhawks’ Rainy Day Music throughout that trip. Not so coincidentally, the Jayhawks’ Gary Louris is at the mixing board, producing The Mad Mile.

How did she hook up with Louris, who, aside from his own work, has produced or written with the Dixie Chicks, Kelly Willis, Maria McKee and the Sadies? Simple. She wrote and asked him.

“People said to me, ‘You should send it to a bunch of producers,’ but in my mind I thought, I want Gary Louris to produce it. It took me a year to send him something, just to put it in the mail. I thought, oh yeah, right! All I did is look up his management company and sent it to them. He is one of my all-time idols for songwriting. The Jayhawks were hugely influential to me, as were a number of artists he has worked with – Kelly Willis, Maria McKee, the Dixie Chicks. There was no one else I had in mind. I had to get to him before I could move on and try anyone else.”

For his part, Louris says he was drawn by both the quality of Jones’ voice, which he likens to Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines, and the caliber of her songwriting (he ended up co-writing with Jones, too).

“It is fun for me to work with someone who can really sing,” Louris says during a break from recording. “It is difficult to have to finesse things sometimes. I was looking to do something where the songs were mostly there and with someone who can really sing, and she had both those going on.”

The audacity of Jones’ effort only really comes into focus when you consider that she lured Louris north of the border without the support of a record label. And like a certain audaciously hopeful presidential-elect, Jones has turned to the internet to enable that dream. On an adjunct page of her website, she has posted demos for the record and opportunities to sponsor, ranging from Life Preserver ($15) to Cruise Ship ($10,000) categories. There’s even a caricature of Jones in a canoe, paddling toward her goal of $75,000 (as of this writing, she’s about one-tenth of the way there). In return for sponsorship, donors can receive everything from a download of her demo to listing in the CD credits to the chance to host a private “house concert” by Jones.

“I made a conscious choice to make this record without a label; I did not even look into that,” Jones says. “I am interested in shopping it to a label (once it is complete), but I knew what I wanted to do with this album. Maybe I am being naive in thinking a label wants to take my record and put it out, but I hope they do,” she laughs.

She studied other artists who had used online solicitation to support record production, and mentions Jill Sobule as one who had done a fine job of engaging fans to support the creation of the album. “I want to be where music is going. I want people to hear my music just like everyone else, and using technology to do that makes sense.”

For his part, Louris is intrigued by Jones’ strategy. “Any way you can do it so you are not totally begotten to a record company is a good thing. Any way you can make money legally to fulfill your vision and make the music is great,” he says. “I think it is making people feel a part of the project and being somewhat altruistic in a way. I think it is great when other people can feel part of making a work of art.”

Jones’ strategy is informed by her own stint in the record biz. For seven years, as she worked on her music on the side, she toiled as an account executive, selling albums to retailers such as Wal-Mart and the Canadian department store Zeller’s. “I met a lot of my favorite artists through that time, and it just got to be painful to meet Sheryl Crow and shake her hand and say, ‘I’m an account executive.’ I wanted to say, ‘I’m a singer-songwriter!’”

When she would attend concerts by artists she admired, she would be reduced to tears, but not simply because she was moved by the music. “I would be really upset. I couldn’t figure why I was so upset. I couldn’t pinpoint it, but it was hard. It was difficult to see other people doing what I wanted to be doing. I said, ‘I can’t do this anymore. I can’t bawl my way through another Sarah Harmer concert.’”

Four and a half years ago, she walked away from her job with the label and turned to music as a full-time occupation. She released her first disc, Drive-In Movie, in 2005.

“I just knew I had to quit. I knew it would mean starting from the bottom again and kind of doing everything from scratch. Some people call it gutsy, some people called it stupid. But having worked in the music industry, I knew what it meant. I knew I would be struggling for a certain amount of time, and it is an undefined period of time. But I couldn’t not do it. I just had to do it.”

Back in the studio, Louris and engineer Denis Tougas (who has worked with Harmer and Kathleen Edwards, among others) are at the board. Blue Rodeo’s Bob Egan lounges on a couch, waiting for his turn to add some pedal steel. On the other side of the couch, Jones’ sidemen – bassist Mitch Girio, guitarist Kevin Zarnett and drummer Gary Craig – run through takes of a composition of Girio’s (the only non-Jones composition being considered for the album) titled “Norma Grace”. A take breaks down, and the players dissolve into studio cross-talk. Louris, who is scheduled for two six-day strings of all-day sessions, calls for another take: “Less talk, more rock,” he intones through the intercom.

Craig plays a unique shuffle variation on his toms as the other players fall in with understated empathy to the song, a spooky character study delivered in Jones’ bell-clear voice.

She’s a freaked-out fugitive, running from her past,
Races with her guilt and always comes in last,
She used to be a farm girl way back in the day,
When her I think of her now I wonder how she got this way?

Through take after take as Louris toys with different feels and alternate ways to end the song, Jones’ vocal never falters, notwithstanding the hours they’ve already spent on the track and the many hours and days left to go. Outside the vocal booth, her enthusiasm for making The Mad Mile and her online initiative is just as unwavering.

“I am thrilled to do it this way. So much creativity springs from having so little time. You have to dig in. It is interesting watching people come up with stuff on the fly,” she says.

“This is so the way of the future, people getting heard for once rather than the record company deciding. People can pick what they want to listen to or invest in. I’m really excited by that.”

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