Photo courtesy of Keri Brooks, taken at the December 2015 Coffee Haus
Interview by Daven McQueen
Imagine a late autumn evening, or walking through a snowy forest, or sitting by the window and watching rain fall outside ― now set it all to music. That sound ― wistful and nostalgic, melancholy but sweet ― is the essence of Kristen Jones’s music.
If you made it to B-SIDE’s very first Coffee Haus back in December, you likely got to hear Kristen (or KJ, as she’s known to her friends on campus) playing the first set. During her first year at Brown, KJ has begun exploring the music opportunities at Brown: she’s part of Disney A Capella, she performed in The Beggar’s Opera, and she writes and records her own music in her free time.
How did you get into music?
When I was younger, you know, I always did chorus when I was younger, and I took piano lessons for six or seven years, mostly because my brother was taking them, my older brother ― I wanted to copy him. And I didn’t start playing guitar or writing songs until much later, but that’s how I started. Just doing chorus.
So when did you first start writing your own music?
I started writing lyrics in eighth grade ― that’s when I bought my guitar ― but I didn’t actually learn how to play the guitar or put guitar together with lyrics and write a song until my junior or senior year of high school. Like, end of junior year. Beginning of senior year was really when I got into it.
How would you describe your style?
Ahh…that’s a hard question! Um...acoustic...folk...pop, almost? I don’t know! I mean all of my songs are basically just me and a guitar and like, and lots of finger-picking and...vaguely sad lyrics. I think...yeah. Acoustic, folk, something like that would be the best description if I could pick a description for that.
What is your songwriting process?
Originally, when I first started writing songs, me and my friend would do them and we would try to write the entire song and lyrics first and then just add music later. And...that, I discovered, really doesn’t work for me that well because it’s just hard to come up with a tune after you already have everything written out. So what I do now mostly is I just fool around on the guitar until I find a chord pattern or a picking pattern that I like. Then I’ll record that quickly on my phone or something and just kind of start humming along or like, singing along to it, and whatever words come out of my mouth… just kind of end up being the lyrics sometimes. That’ll be like my first draft. It’s just whatever I can think of that fits the tune and the pattern. And then later on I’ll go on and edit that to actually make it sound good and make sense.
That’s cool. It’s really spontaneous. Do you tend to draw from personal experiences in writing your songs?
Yes and no. Some of my songs are very personal, like the lyrics are just very centered around what I’m thinking and feeling in the moment. When I’m writing a song will either take me months to get done or ten minutes, it’ll be really quick. The personal songs tend to get done really quick ‘cause I know how I feel about the situation. So yeah. Then other times, it starts with something more personal and then I can’t finish the thought so I just continue lyrics with whatever sounds pretty. Hopefully, they make sense to other people.
Who are your influences and how have they impacted your music?
Hm… that’s another good question. I’d say some of my bigger influences would just be artists that have a similar sound or what I would like to sound like. Like a couple of smaller artists like Hudson Taylor, which is an Irish duet, is one of my favorite, favorite bands. Gabrielle Aplin, Lewis Watson, Orla Gartland...a band called Aunt Martha is another one.
Oh, yeah! You played one of their songs at the Coffee Haus.
Yeah! I really ― I adore them! Even though they like...broke up...which is really sad...but I still love all their music! What do I draw from them? Sometimes I draw chord patterns from them! I don’t know if that’s plagiarizing or not ― I switch them up! I make them sound different, but I don’t know. I try to not copy the music that I listen to as much as possible just ‘cause I wanna be able to have my own sound and my own ideas. But from the artists that I look up to like that… it’s more just the feeling that you get from their music, you know, like when you listen to a song and you’re just like, “Oh, this makes me think of fall in New England!” Or like, “This makes me kind of bittersweet sad and I don’t know why!” And I try to take that feeling and put the same kind of feeling to my songs.
Besides those artists, who else do you listen to?
A weird range of music. Jon Bellion is one of my favorite artists. Um...who else do I even listen to? Let me check my Spotify right now to remember… I listen to The Kooks a lot. I’m listening to them right now, actually. Lumineers just came out with a new album, so I’ve been listening to that a lot. Two Door Cinema Club, I listen to, Daughter, Ben Howard, Regina Spektor.
I love Regina Spektor!
She’s so good. But yeah. I was really into pop-punk last year, but I’m trying to disassociate from that, ‘cause that was fun, but I need to move on.
Do you have a preference towards performing alone or with other people?
I tend to perform alone just out of convenience, because it’s very easy to just come up with a cover or song on my own and just go perform that. But I enjoy performing with other people a lot. I think being able to have multiple instruments or multiple vocals going, like having harmonies...when you write or sing a harmony and a song and you’re both in tune, it’s just like, wow… this is beautiful! And so yeah, there’s a bunch of people I’ve been meaning to perform with and I’m just...not good with timing and scheduling so I just end up doing stuff on my own. Which is fun, but...yeah. I prefer performing with other people if I can.
You were in a band during high school, right? Can you talk a little bit about that experience?
Yeah, I mean, it was… we like to call it a band. It was me and my friend, and I played guitar for us. And so we did a lot of acoustic covers of stuff, and that’s really why I started playing guitar and writing songs more, ‘cause we were like “Let’s make a band!” And I was like, “Okay!” And she was like, “You’re gonna be the guitarist!” And I was like, “I should learn guitar if I’m gonna be a guitarist in a band!” That kind of took over my senior year, and I ended up spending most nights, instead of doing anything else, like work or watching TV and stuff, just playing guitar and writing songs and stuff and working on that. And we did this project where we ― for the school ― where we were able to record an EP, which was really cool. Being able to go into the studio and work with someone, work with my friend who was a producer, and have that experience of figuring out what it’s like to be in the studio. And the experience there was very cool. And it’s very cool to hear...once you’ve recorded and they’ve produced a song and everything and you hear it back again, it’s like wow! I wrote that! That’s cool! That’s me!
Do you guys still make music together?
We do. Over winter break we wrote a couple songs and we actually performed at a local radio station which was pretty cool. It’s hard when we’re at school, especially ‘cause when we were in high school it was already hard enough to find time to sit down and write songs together. So when we’re home, we do hang out and do that, but I think a lot of the stuff I’m doing on my own is more of my focus nowadays.
So you mentioned that there were a lot of people that you wanted to work with at Brown. Have you worked with anyone since coming here?
I have played music with one of my friends, Olivia Langley, who’s an incredible musician. And we played a couple times earlier in the year, and since then we’ve been trying to hang out and it hasn’t happened. And today, actually, I might be going to play music with a girl who plays drums, so we’re hoping to kinda start hanging out and jamming and maybe making a band eventually. There are a couple other people I’ve talked to that it was not a set thing. We’re just like, “Yeah, we’re gonna play together sometime!” I overloaded my schedule this semester so I’m like, “Yo, are you free at like three in the morning on a Tuesday?” That’s my chunk, that’s what I’ve got.
You performed in The Beggar’s Opera in March. What was it like to perform such a different style?
It was...pretty scary at first, cause I just...I don’t sing opera, you know? But it was really fun! It was incredible to work with other musicians, people who were actually trained in opera, and just to get advice from them and see their technique and see what they do to perform and warm-up and everything like that. It was really fun. I really like doing musical theater and theater in general and I’m glad I did it, even though it was a bit foreign to me. And I probably won’t do an opera again, just ‘cause I ended up having the non-opera song in the opera but it was good. It was challenging, but good.
That’s cool. I missed your solo when I went, I was so sad. I had to leave early!
My friend Emily, she came and I saw her between the second and third acts, and I didn’t quite hear what she said, and she was like, “Oh, good job” and I’m like, “Thanks!” And then I came out for the third act and she was gone, and I’m like… “Yo, come back! Literally the only part you needed to be here for if you wanted to see me in this would’ve been like...just the third act!” And she ran back in, but it was funny.
How else are you hoping to develop and showcase your music while you’re at Brown?
That’s a good question. Now I know slightly more about how to record and produce because I’m taking a class on that right now. I wanna free up more time in my schedule so I can continue to write and actually play music with other people. Actually this semester my plan was to record, or write enough songs and record them to have an album out sometime in the summer. And because of my schedule I have only written like...two songs...which is not quite enough for an album. So hopefully by next year that will be done, and I can continue playing. And now that I’m more connected at the school and I’ve been here a bit longer I’m hoping to find new places to play. ‘Cause really, I’ve played at the Coffee Haus, and a concert or two, but I haven’t really gotten into the student culture of playing yet, and I’m really looking forward to doing that.
So you mentioned the EP that you did in senior year. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Yeah! There’s one my band released, and then there’s one I released solo later on. The one my band and I did was a bit more complicated, ‘cause… okay, on my solo one, a lot of the songs were just, I went in with my guitar and recorded them in one take, or maybe one take for the guitar and one take for my voice. You know, very simple, once, done, recorded, got them mixed and sent back to me and released them. And that was pretty basic. The one for my band was more fun I think. We used a lot of electric guitars and we learned how to play bass and like, helped with creating the drum tracks and everything like that. Yeah, it’s like I said earlier, it’s a very cool experience to go in the studio and be recording something and hear it put together. One of the songs on my band’s EP that I wrote was our most complicated track, and it had three or four guitar parts and bass and a couple vocals and drums and everything. And to hear it all put together at the end is just...very satisfying.
What was your band called?
Dibs on the Drummer! Abbreviated DOTD. We made shirts and everything, we sold them. Like forty people bought shirts, it was pretty cool.
You kind of answered this already, but any current or upcoming projects?
Yeah, hopefully an album. I have enough, I think, written that I can record for another EP, but I’d really like step up my game a little, get more out there.
What are your goals for your music?
What I’d like to get done is the album. My solo EP was a lot of just like one guitar track and me. And I’d like to make that a little more complicated. In one of the songs I just released on SoundCloud, my most recent one, I did that. I added two guitar parts and switched it up a little. And that was fun! It was cool to be able to make it more complicated. So I wanna make my tracks a little more complex, and I wanna move forward lyrically as well. I feel like a lot of my songs get stuck in the same place chord progression-wise and lyric-wise. They all start to sound the same. I really wanna be able to branch out and reach into different genres and different ideas more when I’m writing.
Any final thoughts?
Um… I don’t know. I really love writing and performing music, even if I don’t get to do it quite as much as I want to. And it’s been frustrating at times for me to perform music and do it, just ‘cause I didn’t start playing and writing till really late. And I taught myself how to play, so I’m not great technique-wise all the time, I just learn by looking up chords and listening to songs and trying to figure it out for myself. But it’s something that I love to do, and I’m looking forward to doing it for a long time and hopefully getting somewhere with it.