Analogue Music | Karen & the Sorrows

Karen & the Sorrows

By Matt Conner

I figured the direct approach was best.

The music of Karen Pittelman and her backing band, the Sorrows, is a wonderful refresher course on classic country leanings given new fire and flavors by an artist steeped in the genre since childhood. Yet it's likely if you've heard much about Karen & the Sorrows in the last few years, it was likely related to her identity first and foremost.

Karen & the Sorrows are often pitched as a "queer country" act, and I didn't want to be guilty of the very thing that turned me off. Namely, in highlighting Karen's music, I wanted to honor the musician and her thoughtful approach to her craft instead of getting caught up on labels. "Queer country? How novel!"

When I had the chance to sit down with Karen in recent weeks, I wasn't sure whether to steer clear of the subject entirely or address it head-on. I leaned toward the latter and I'm glad I did. It turns out that Pittelman's thoughtful approach isn't limited to musical circles.

In our latest Analogue feature, Karen & the Sorrows talks all about her childhood soundtrack, the making of her new album, Guaranteed Broken Heart, the fears of taking the creative reins after a recent band lineup change.

Analogue: I guess I'd love to begin on a subject that you might want to avoid. Basically, all of the talking points around the band are about identity and the music comes a bit later. I was curious if you were ever tired of being referred to as a queer country artist and not just a country artist?

Karen Pittelman: On the one hand, that's a part of who I am. I am always up for talking about who I am and where I come from. I also think it's important for be open because people need to see themselves reflected back in the music and there are a lot of queer country fans out there. That's part of why I did all of this organizing work in the first place, so people have the space to listen to the music they love that also reflected back to them their own identity. All that feels just as important now as it has all along.

"I really tried to fight it honestly. I was in a punk band. I was trying to not write country songs, but every once in a while one would bubble up to the surface and I would ignore it."

Just as a woman, it's so rare that anybody is going to talk about your music without talking about your identities. At least I'd rather have it be on my own terms and censor my own politics. I think a lot of people will say, "I want you to just talk about the music itself," and I would love it if we lived in that world, but we don't. So given that we don't live in that world, at least let's shape the narrative ourselves and talk about the truth of our lives and be out there for other people who need to see themselves reflected back in the music.

That said, I'm always real excited when people want to talk about the music, too. It doesn't mean I don't want people to listen to the music. [Laughs]

Analogue: Well, let's go there and get a better idea of your background. I was curious about the childhood soundtrack for you.

Karen: My mom was always playing a lot of '70s country/rock. I remember one night sitting at the kitchen table with my mom and she was playing Roseanne Cash's Seven Year Ache, just the first side of that album on repeat. When you're listening on vinyl, that takes real effort and commitment on her part. She had to keep getting up and putting the needle back. [Laughs] That's an early memory for me and the way that song mixes pedal steel with this more indie rock sound was deeply formative for me, I think.

My mom was also listening to a lot of Eagles. People really hate on them a lot, but I love the Eagles. [Laughs] I like that sound. I like that moment where country was crossing over. I'm not a purist. And also, I think, it's not a very defensible position to be a country purist because the whole genre is so constructed. Purity is a weird and suspect notion as it is, but that aside... [Laughs] I like those moments when country was crossing over. I like Kenny Rogers. I like Olivia Newton-John. I like John Denver. I like all the things that made people mad. I loved the soundtrack to Urban Cowboy. I was listening to that a lot when working on this album. s

Credit: Jeff Fasano
Credit: Jeff Fasano

From my dad, I got a more classic country background because he ran a company when I was growing up that made compilation albums only sold on TV. That's something that doesn't exist anymore, but it was a big thing when I was little. It was called Heartland Music and he was making albums and commercials with some of the greatest country stars.

In the '80s there was this moment where the radio format changed and people like George Jones couldn't get played in the same way they could before. They started working with my dad to reach their fans. So he would be flying back and forth from New York to Nashville to make commercials with George Jones or Tami Wynette or the Oak Ridge Boys or Don Williams. He was forcing me to listen to them a lot. I was also a daddy's girl, so I wanted to learn it to try to impress him. [Laughs]

All of that sunk in as a kid even though, in my room, I was also listening to the Cure or Bob Dylan. I wasn't wearing a country music badge while I was growing up but it sunk in there.

Analogue: Were you keen to follow that vein as an artist?

Karen: I really tried to fight it honestly. I was in a punk band. I was trying to not write country songs, but every once in a while one would bubble up to the surface and I would ignore it. Then I split up with my partner and my heart was just trashed at the time and these country songs started happening to me. I really didn't know what to do. I was like, "What do I do with these? I'm not in a country band and I don't want to start one." [Laughs] But the songs kept coming.

Finally I was playing a show with a couple other bands and one of the bands—my ex-bandmate Elana's band was playing and she played pedal steel. I was just like, 'You're a clown if you don't ask her to play a song with you.' It felt like the universe was knocking on my door. It's not like pedal steel players are everywhere. There are a bunch but it's not a common thing to be playing a show as a punk band with one. So I did and it all came together from there.

The first time I was working on a song with her, I also asked a fiddle player from another band to sit in and work on a song with me. I just had such a feeling of joy. I'd never felt that happy before. I had to keep doing it. It was more like I tried to fight it but I just couldn't.

Analogue: I'm glad you brought up Elana, because she's now left the band along with your drummer, correct?

Karen: Yes.

Analogue: How did that split affect you and even form you moving forward into a new recording?

Karen: This literally happened so that I could continue. It never occurred to me for a second that I could or would stop. The songs are still coming and I have to keep making them. It's hard to be in a band with your ex, and Elana and Tami have been super-supportive of me needing to go along my own path. There's only love there. But it was hard to go on a new path and scary to not be playing with both of them. I'd been playing with Elana since the beginning of the band and Tami almost since the beginning. Other people have come and gone, but I needed to make the music that was in my head.

It's a totally different experience, especially to go into the studio and have it be so open, as opposed to the past where we were going in with the live version that we'd arranged and worked on together for a long time. Now I got to do whatever I wanted. It was scary at first, but then it was really exciting and then it became addictive. [Laughs]

Analogue: I love that as a descriptor. That's very interesting. So you're definitely through the other side better for the experience?

Karen: Yeah, definitely. I feel like I made the album I really wanted to make, for better or for worse. These are the sounds that were in my head. [Laughs] These are the ways the songs wanted to come into the world. I think that's really amazing to actually do that and to step into the role of producer, which I hadn't done in the same way before. We were bringing in songs before that we'd build around a structure we'd already created as a band. That's a different process than really producing something, when you ask questions like, 'Who are the musicians I want to play on this? What do I want this to sound like? What are the reference tracks I'm giving them?' I really stepped into that power and, once I did, I loved it. I loved it so much. [Laughs]

"That was a real moment for me. I realized it didn't matter what anybody thinks about me. I was going to get the music made."

Analogue: Was there a moment in the studio where it went from the frightening exercise that you described to this exhilarating position?

Karen: I think it happened in the pre-production. One thing that made a big difference, too, is that I was working with the same engineer I've worked with on all of my albums, Charles Burst. He also stepped into the role of drummer for this album, too. He is amazing. He's such a good listener. We have a really strong relationship, so being able, when you have an engineer who really hears you and wants to make what you're saying happen, that makes such a difference, especially as a woman.

It's so rare for me anywhere in the studio or playing gigs—anywhere in the world of music—I'm so used to saying everything three times before someone even acknowledges that I'm talking. To be able to work with somebody like Charles who really listens and really gets me, I already had such a good foundation but that's great.

One moment, though, that really hit me was the first practice for the string band. I'd never had a string band before either. That was really new for me. But the songs were like, 'We want a string band.' I couldn't have hated it any more because it didn't sound right with the electric.

So I stocked all of these amazing old time bluegrass musicians in New York City and brought them together. We were having the first practice and when I was walking home from that, I thought, 'I don't know these people. They must think I'm so weird.' I was just dancing around, telling them all my theories of how I wanted a song to sound. I was being my true self, which is probably my really weird self.

Then I realized it doesn't matter. This is how the music will get made. [Laughs] That was a real moment for me. I realized it didn't matter what anybody thinks about me. I was going to get the music made.

Analogue: You keep coming back to serving the song and even speaking for it, saying what it wants. Has that always been a rudder for you or is that a recent guide?

Karen: I've always written by myself. I don't share that with anyone. That's my favorite part. [Laughs] But the songs come to me with certain requirements that I wouldn't be able to compromise on. However there's a lot of room between that and the final arrangement, so I try to bring them to Elana and the band and leave as much room for conversation about how they would come together. If it really felt like it didn't fit the song, I kept that veto power. That's definitely different than being able to serve the song in whatever way it wants. It's another thing to say, 'All right song, what do you want to be? If I can afford it, I will get you that. If you want a dobro, I'll get you a dobro!' [Laughs]

VISIT: Karen & the Sorrows