Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit
Kara Jackson by Parri Thomas 10 Web

Love is as love does

04 December 2023, 09:00

Kara Jackson, the incredible talent behind Best Fit's 2023 album of the year, tells Sophie L Walker why folk music offers an authentic space to connect with the stories and emotions that bind us together.

In her book All About Love: New Visions, bell hooks wrote: “To be loving is to be open to grief, to be touched by sorrow, even sorrow that is unending.”

The debut album of Chicago singer-songwriter Kara Jackson is negotiated out of that old pact between love and loss; it bears the weight of those unwelcome lessons and endures despite it all like a flower rising from cracks in concrete, a defiant act of humour. Why Does The Earth Gives Us People To Love? – that central question around which everything orbits – is not a manifesto of grief as much as it is a receipt of her love.

Jackson’s tools are simple. Her voice, exceptionally rich at a low simmer, belies her twenty-three years; when you listen, you feel like she knows, heavy with the kind of experience we call ‘soul’. Her guitar is more of a light sketch, shaded with only occasionally with meandering piano and strings which seemingly creates more space for Jackson than they take up. And then there are her words: the sharp, funny, devastating things that seem to find her like iron filings to a magnet.

Her words were famous long before she set them to music. In 2019, she was National Youth Poet Laureate, her crown after a series of accolades including the Literary Award granted to her by Patricia Smith. Following the release of Jackson’s chapbook, Bloodstone Cowboy, Smith said of her: “She plucks at a tangled lineage, brashly personifies virginity and moonshine, chronicles the machinations of ‘her black’, and generally slaps us lucid with daring narrative that can’t be anyone but hers. Baby girl did not come here to play. She came to reign.”


The strength of Why Does The Earth Gives Us People To Love? lies in her restraint, the careful choice of words that get under your skin, linger in your head for days. Allied to music, they take on an elevated meaning. “Some people get high to be recognised / Some people roll dice to be recognised”, she begins on the record’s opening song, keys meandering up the scale like an absent-minded daydream, before she arrives at a simple truth that, when she unfolds it, strikes you with the weight of a piano falling from the sky: “Some people take lives to be recognised / Some people gon’ die to be recognised.”

It's said that the secret to cultivating presence is slowness; to take your time with your words, to move with purpose. Having spent time with Jackson, you understand what they mean. She takes her time as we stroll around The Serpentine Gallery together, pausing to read about what interests her in a way most only pretend to. In the bookshop, she talks about the particulars of bell hooks – whose teachings had a direct influence on Jackson’s record – Audre Lorde and Toni Morrison, her voice deep and slow like molasses running off a spoon.

Kara Jackson by Parri Thomas 2 Web

She's here in London to play a sold-out performance at Pitchfork Festival; two nights ago she played Pitchfork Paris. The applause at her London show stretched out longer than the we might have instinctively let it, caught a second wind that teased a bashful smile on Jackson’s face. People are paying attention.

“I’ve always been an introvert, but I feel like since the album has come out, I’ve been more introverted, honestly,” she tells me. After shows, she prefers to be alone. “Sometimes,” she admits, “I just want to blend in and be normal.” There’s a sense of visibility following the release of the album that borders on over-exposure: “I didn’t know if it was gonna reach anybody. I’ve had to start considering myself as a public figure, in a way, which is strange because I’ve been so used to just doing my own thing and just being a jokester on Twitter, or whatever. People interact with me as their perception of me from the album.”


Jackson has had to navigate presumptions and combat comparisons that are as baffling to her as they are ill-fitting. “The weirdest part about putting my album out is people’s random opinions about it that just feel based on nothing. I’ve had so many comparisons to Frank Ocean, and I don’t know why. Someone commented on ‘no fun / party’ and said something like, ‘The Frank Ocean production style needs to end’ – and no hate to Frank Ocean at all, but I’m so confused.

"Or, people always compare me to Tracy Chapman, which I think is lazy. She’s someone I respect, but my songs don’t sound like hers at all. I feel like the way people engage with Black artists who are women is so different. The standards and random formalities are so ridiculous: looking a certain way, talking a certain way; ‘We don’t want to hear your political opinions’, or, ‘Don’t bring race into it all the time’. But people do project a lot, and that is the nature of the game,” she says shrewdly. “Also, you know, I feel like people are just really unwell these days, on a mass scale. People are looking for places to put their hurt, and that’s fair. Times are hard.”

Why Does The Earth Gives Us People To Love? is a space Jackson created to put her own particular hurt when the rest of the world seemed to have no room for it. Her childhood best friend Maya-Gabrielle Gary died in 2016 after a brief battle with a rare muscle cancer, and is to her that this album, this question, is dedicated. It stands as a monument to their friendship, the eighteen-year-old girl with discontinued dreams and the young woman left behind, searching for connection in a splintered world that callously keeps turning when it feels like your own has ended.

“Maya was an aspiring musician, also,” Jackson shares. “That loss informs my own relationship to music. It never feels like an individual or singular effort – it feels like I’m doing it on her behalf, as well. I think a part of my determination to get the album out was to honour her and memorialise her in this artwork. It gives me a sense that I’m extending her life and bringing her with me.”

Kara Jackson by Parri Thomas 8 Web

Jackson’s first memory of Maya was in elementary school. She struggled with sharpening her coloured pencils and Maya, in a gentle act of patience, showed her how to do it. It was Maya’s dream to perform. Jackson speaks calmly of her, as if she never left, but her voice takes on the rough edges of frustration when she tells me about her “beautiful voice”, a gift wasted.

“When I look back on those times, I’m like, ‘Can it be true that she was so talented?’ But everyone who knew her also validates the fact that she was talented beyond her years. She would write so many songs, and we’d send them back and forth to each other. She was definitely a better singer than me,” Jackson says solemnly, “and I would bow to her and let her lead. She would have to convince me to sing because I was still figuring out my voice. It was so low, and I didn’t know what to do with it, but Maya’s was this sweet soprano. To this day, her voice is one of the most beautiful things I’d ever heard. For a long time, I was so angry that people wouldn’t be able to hear it.”

As teenagers, Jackson felt the two of them couldn’t have been more different. In 2021, she tweeted: “maya was always the pretty hopeless romantic + i was the ugly cynic and she was always trying to get me to be optimistic about something. i am still bewildered by the fact that such optimism was robbed from us and yet my cynicism as allowed to remain.”

She reflects, “Maya was always having to tell me that I can’t let my opinions ruin my relationships with people. I think in absolutes a lot: it’s either right or wrong. She had a certain wisdom about her that I found comforting. But as I’ve gotten older, without her, I’ve learned to understand the inherent contradictions of being human and more so, the contradictions within myself. She was sweeter, but we’d also talk a lot of shit,” she laughs. “There were plenty of people at her wake that I know she did not like!”

Maya’s hard-headedness manifested itself more with music. She refused to listen to anything contemporary; she preferred the old stuff. The only artists to slip through the net were John Mayer and Amy Winehouse. The pair shared an obsession with The Beatles and the British Invasion bands, going so far as to begin a classic rock Tumblr page. Maya’s favourite Beatle was John; Jackson’s was George. “It’s crazy how much we knew about them for two Black girls in the Midwest,” she says. The first songs Jackson would ever perform live were covers of The Beatles in the art gallery of her friend’s mother, interspersed, when she felt brave enough, with some works of her own. They shared a dream of starting a band together, the future stretched out before them in all its endless possibility.

"Folk music is the music of the regular person, the everyday person. It amplifies the people who don’t get anthems, or put on pedestals every day. That’s who I want to represent."


It was all interrupted by a text message in the summertime. “When she told me she really downplayed it,” she recalls. “I don’t know how you downplay cancer, but that’s just how she was. She was like, ‘Oh, hey girl! By the way, I have this cancer thing going on. My ribs are weird, or something, but it’s fine.’ Because she was so calm about it, I think I didn’t appreciate the severity of what she was trying to tell me. Things got bad over a span of months. I was like, ‘Wow, cancer is so crazy like that.’ She didn’t want anyone to worry about it, though, which is so silly in retrospect, but she was very much resolved about it until the end. She approached death very gracefully. To see that at such a young age was jarring - but also very inspiring. At eighteen years old, she was telling us, ‘Guys, you need to let me go because I don’t want to live in this state anymore’. It’s still magical to me that even in those moments, she could have been so nurturing.”

Jackson comforts herself with her belief that Maya left at the right time. She never saw the Trump administration, the pandemic or the global erosion of civil rights that have stained the world without her. “For a while, I couldn’t listen to Carole King or The Beatles,” she reflects. “She would always come to my house and play all those songs. I listen to them fondly now, but there have been weird moments where a song will come on in a public space and I know that’s her communicating. Sometimes she will appear in my dreams, but most often she communicates with me through songs. There are certain, personal ones that come on which are beyond coincidence, and that’s her way of announcing herself. I feel comforted that I don’t see her all that often in my dreams, honestly. At first, I’d be frustrated that I never saw her, but then if I did, I’d worry that she’s not done with the earthly realm.”

A clairvoyant told Jackson that she could see her ‘spiritual counsel’, a host of older women and men who don’t speak, and one woman who is vocal – far younger than the rest. Jackson usually approaches such things with caution, but she felt comfort at the thought that those we’ve lost still have a handling on our lives. “I believe in spiritual timing, and I believe that things happen for a reason,” she tells me. “There are so many moments in my life that couldn’t just be up to me – like my career. Music is something I feel I was called to do. I always wanted to do it, of course, but it felt like there was a gravitational pull compelling me to, you know? Art and songwriting are supernatural acts because sometimes, I write a song and I wonder if it was me writing it in the first place.”

Kara Jackson by Parri Thomas 7 Web

As Jackson has toured Europe with Why Does The Earth Gives Us People To Love?, she has found herself retracing Maya’s steps. She studied in France, Germany and Belgium, and so Jackson has tapped into a newfound communion with her by visiting the places she once had. There are pictures of Maya in Paris, stood before the Eiffel Tower; of her riding the train in Germany. “It’s a weird, full-circle moment walking through cities and seeing the different tourist sites and knowing that she also stood in the same places,” she shares. “I got to open for Corrine Bailey Rae in October, and that was really emotional for me. It was a lot to process, opening for her, because one of the first songs Maya played on guitar was ‘Put Your Records On’. I feel like I’m collecting all these things to bring back to her when the day comes.” Until then, Jackson is the custodian of Maya’s guitars and journals.

Though Jackson feels comfortable sharing her memories of Maya, to sing the album’s title track is something she hasn’t managed in her performances. Its rings out like a burial hymn, stretching out into a vast expanse, empty save for Jackson herself. It evokes the Western approach to grief which is experienced in isolation, felt alone. “I’ve buried old and young / I’ve watched them lower a saint / We’re only waiting our turn / Call that living?”, she searches. It seethes with the injustice, blinded in disbelief: “Why does the earth give us people to love / Then take them away from our reach?”

When I ask her why the song is omitted from her setlist, she says, “It’s not something that I’m really opposed to doing, but I think the reality of it is that it’s always more difficult than I think it’s gonna be. People want to hear it all the time, and it’s been difficult for me to figure out how to give it to them and not feel like I have to give up so much of myself. I really don’t want to cry on stage, or whatever. I’m not comfortable with that extent of vulnerability yet.” Her friends, Kaina, Nnamdï and Sen Morimoto who co-produced the record with her were delicate about their approach in recording that song. “They kinda didn’t want me to do it over and over again and relieve things, so that was the only song on the album I wouldn’t be present for all the time. It’s a fragile song for me, but I’m glad it lives on the album. I’ll definitely get round to playing it one day when I can confidently feel like I can get through it from start to finish.”

Kara Jackson by Parri Thomas 4 Web

Jackson shared in a previous interview with The Guardian: “There’s not a lot of room to be a grieving artist”, following the death of her grandfather from Covid-19. The lack of empathy from those demanding more of her is a reflection of how our process of grief has been corroded by capitalism, where compassionate leave is a series of finite days doled out to you so as not to interfere with your delivery of a service or product. The collective, necessary element of our grief is lost. Jackson urges us to be disturbed by the warped mindset of feeling fulfilled only when you have achieved something alone. Grief, she argues, is not something to be conquered at all because it’s evidence of our love.

This lack is entrenched in our music. “I think about how the popular music of our time feels so disconnected from so many people’s real lives,” she considers. “Look at the Top 40, and everyone’s like, ‘I’m rich, I have this, and you don’t have anything.’ It’s weird, like, we’re in a recession. Why are all the biggest songs about all the designer shit you have?”

Jackson’s music, at first, was met with caution. “I feel like my label was very nervous about my album; they made me feel insecure about my songs because of their length, or because I can’t market them on TikTok, or whatever,” she recalls. “It’s been interesting to see the reception in real time, though, and know that people have engaged with these really thoughtful things that I didn’t think anyone was going to give a shit about. I feel like something is happening. People are hungry for something real. We’re on the verge – if not in the thick of – a folk resurgence. People are getting into the earthiness of their music. Because as much as I love hip-hop and pop music, I think people are becoming really alienated from the same message. It’s like, ‘Hey, I’m with your bitch!’, or whatever, and that’s all there is. People want real stories from straight-up real people. The cult of celebrity is dying. In 2020, people got really fed up: when people were dying, celebrities were complaining about how bored they were in their mansion. People want something real."

KJ parri

In the Black experience, Jackson tells me, their grief has always been conflated with transactional entertainment. “It’s particularly true in the United States,” she shares. “There’s our history with minstrelsy in the United States and people expecting Black folk to exist for amusement. Even in our death, people would watch lynchings for entertainment and bring their children. I think in every facet of our lives, we’re performing. But I also refuse to be the kind of artist who stays silent just to make people comfortable. My friend McKinley Dixon, he also has struggles presenting his stories of loss,” she shares, “and I feel like Noname’s most recent album [Sundial] articulates it in a better way than I ever could, this idea of voyeurism from a white audience. I’m very lucky to have a community of Black artists and friends where we can commiserate together and lean on each other – it’s something I think I really needed.”

Jackson is the daughter of country people, and her roots run deep in southern soil. Her music belongs unquestionably in the lineage of Black folk music: a tradition that has been carefully preserved in the face of deliberate, systemic erasure. “Long before I understood the value of it culturally or politically, I just loved it. There’s something of the earth in it, really digging into your own humanity. That’s what folk music is, the realness of it,” she says. Her mother works for a labour union and Jackson grew up absorbing songs of protest, which is inextricably linked to the ethos of folk itself. “I think about my own family history, like my grandma, her parents were sharecroppers and my other ancestors were slaves, and the early folk songs really lament on the realities of what was in front of them,” Jackson shares. “I’ve always just been really attracted to the way that people use it to capture their real life.”

Though grief is central to Why Does The Earth Gives Us People To Love?, so are the trappings of the twentysomething experience - dating and its disappointments - which she details with incredible wit that anyone will feel pangs of recognition to hear. “Every man thinks I’m his fucking mother,” she sings, relishing every syllable on “therapy”. Coupled with “dickhead blues”, her songs are canonical coming-of-age stories. “I’m sharper than a jewel / What kind of miner does that make you? / When I’m the gold and you’re just a fool”, is one such line that casually executes the lover who let her down.

Kara Jackson by Parri Thomas 5 Web

She gravitated towards poetry in the first place because it was a way for her to amplify the ordinary. Folk music felt, to her, like a natural expansion of that intention. “Maybe you weren’t getting Renaissance paintings of farmers, but you have a painting of them in poems,” she reflects. “Poor people might not have had generational wealth, but they had a wealth of culture – artistic and creative wealth. I think that’s really important to me: folk music is the music of the regular person, the everyday person. It amplifies the people who don’t get anthems, or put on pedestals every day. That’s who I want to represent - I don’t want to represent this impossible, deified person who doesn’t exist.”

When I ask Jackson how this year, this album, have changed her life, she tells me: “I’ve prayed more than ever.” Growing up has given her a certain kind of grace, and more than that, gratitude. Already, Jackson has appeared on Kevin Abstract’s latest album Blanket alongside MJ Lenderman on the tender closing track “My Friend”, her name appearing in spaces beyond that which she carved for herself. For now, though, she is studying; she is watching and learning. “I’ve forgiven myself a lot more, and I’ve learned to accept my limitations as strengths,” she shares. “I know that I don’t have to prove myself to anyone. I’ve always been concerned with the doom of life, but I’ve never felt more optimistic.”

Why Does The Earth Gives Us People To Love? is out now via September Recordings. Buy it on Bandcamp.

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