KJ Denhert: Closer to the Melody

Singer/songwriter/guitarist mixes interesting covers and a few originals on her latest Album No. 9

Singer/songwriter KJ Denhert is talking about all the reasons that her new album for Motema, Album No. 9, had to have that title, besides the obvious one, this being her ninth album as a leader. She mentions that she saw the check she wrote was numbered 909 and that there are nine songs and that her name has nine letters and ... I tell her she’s starting to sound like a exile from Lost. She laughs and admits that this talk of “nines” may be too much, or at least too much for me to absorb. And she readily agrees to talk about her life in music and leave the numerology to Hurley and company.

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KJ Denhert's Album No. 9
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KJ Denhert
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KJ Denhert

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Denhert was born Karen Jeanne to parents from Grenada. Introduced to playing music at a young age by her brother, Denhert taught herself to play guitar and sing without any formal music education. During the ‘80s, Denhert toured for six years as the lead guitarist and occasional vocalist with an all-female band called Fire, playing rock and top-40 music. After the group broke up, she got a day job and for many years balanced both her career as a financial analyst and her life as a working and recording musician. Initially, Denhert was a fixture on the folk scene, but her jazz leanings have become more and more pronounced.

In recent years, she’s led a working band of top-notch jazz and groove musicians, including Aaron Heick on saxophone, Etienne Stadwijk and Manu Koch on keyboards, Mamadou Ba on bass, Ray Levier on drums, and Koko Jones on percussion. Denhert has performed with the group at many clubs and festivals, including Umbria where she has become a festival favorite. She even recorded a live album from Umbria a few years ago.

Her new album features that group, along with Francois Moutin on acoustic bass on four songs. Throughout her career, Denhert has comfortably embraced different styles such as jazz, folk and reggae, and on the new album she seems to draw on different ones for each song. Album No. 9 is almost like a standards record, but the songs are different from the usual repertoire and the arrangements are very wide open and different for each song. Denhert struggles to answer how the songs inform the record. “It’s funny, the record is still informing me,” she explains. “When I listen to it, I’m still beginning to understand what was actually going on.” Perhaps the simplest explanation for Denhert’s present is her past, which reflects that unique diversity.

Denhert has strong roots in jazz, but is inspired by other roots music genres as well. In fact, Denhert admits that when she was growing up the artists who inspired her were two staples of the singer-songwriter era—James Taylor and Joni Mitchell. “Both of them had books that taught me how to play,” says Denhert. “James Taylor had a tablature book and Joni had books for the record For the Roses and that had all of her tunings. Once I learned those tunings, it gave me a little bit of a leg up on a lot of people that played Joni Mitchell when I was fourteen. I was an aficionado. It was like self-study.”

One skill she’s particularly proud of is her ability to look at a record and put the needle down exactly where she wants in a song. “It’s one of my skills that’s no longer useful, like knowing Morse code,” she says, chuckling. “But I would listen, play and put the needle down and with one listen, play and put it back and read the tablature. I don’t know many people who read sight read tablature—it’s like a binary code. It’s just numbers and lines. So those were the early days.” Nonetheless, that old-school technique enabled Denhert to thoroughly deconstruct the music of Mitchell and Taylor by the time she was just a teenager.

Those two artists were like her de facto teachers, in absentia. “Unfortunately, I didn’t study music,” Denhert explains. “I just loved what I loved and I was extremely discriminating as a kid. If you played Joni Mitchell and didn’t play the right tunings or didn’t play James Taylor’s hammer-on, I had no use for you. And that’s what all the boys were doing. They were all playing ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ and ‘Smoke on the Water.’ And I had nobody to play with, you know, so I just played at home and played for hours, every day. And that’s how it started. I wish it was more high-brow.” Ironically, Denhert returned to that song from Deep Purple for her new album.

Her performance of that hard rock classic “Smoke on the Water” is rollicking and funky. “Everybody in the world knows that tune, but I didn’t even know who did it,” Denhert says. “I had to look it up. I was working on ‘Shadow of Your Smile’ with Jeanne Ricks, a guitar player. We were trading solos and I was like, ‘Oh, check this out’ and I start playing “Choonk, choonk choonk…jigga a jigga” [sings iconic riff]. And she says, ‘Why aren’t you recording that?’ I thought, people will think I’m…well, anyway, it was a joke to me.” Later Denhert found herself at a music store and heard a 12-year-old boy playing the same song on a little acoustic guitar. “I swear it sounds like some ‘Twilight Zone’ story but it’s true and this all happened within two weeks,” adds Denhert. “So I brought it to the band and said, ‘Let’s give this a shot.’ The opening of the tune on the record is that very first session. It was so hip. It’s just one of those things, and you hear Ray say, “Rolling.’ He has this digital recorder and I said, ‘Throw the digital recorder on…” and I loved what Aaron played – I wanted to use more of it.” In the end, Denhert and her producer ended up using that raw first take for a low-fi intro for an effect akin to tuning in an old FM radio.

Listening to it for the first time since, well, whenever, you hear the lyrics in a different way in large part because of the delivery, a bit different from Ian Gillian’s original take. Denhert says that she couldn’t believe that she could connect to the lyrics, but circumstances brought the singer and the song closer. Of course, most of us of a certain age can only remember the chorus. “Yeah, I didn’t know the lyrics either,” she says. “I had to look them up and then when I read the lyrics, I realized that it’s a story song.” For those of you either too young to recognize the song or too old to recall it, the lyrics talk about the group going to Montreux and refer to “Funky Claude,” aka Claude Nobs, longtime director of the Montreux Jazz Festival. Deep Purple was staying at a hotel where Zappa was playing, and while they were at some concert, the place burned down and they couldn’t finish their record. See, that’s the cause of that damn smoke on the water and that fire in the sky.

The theme of making a record despite obstacles resonated with Denhert. “To me that [song] was like my story. I ran out of money every time I went into the studio. I was supposed to go to the Soviet Union for the first time and I booked the session on 9/9/09 because I was going to make money. And the tour got cancelled so then I was out the money for the studio, plus the cost of the musicians. And it just kept going on like that.” Calamity makes strange bedfellows indeed. Regardless of the origin, her rock covers are very interesting because even though they’re way overplayed songs, she does them so differently that it’s like she’s pulling a different meaning from them.

For instance, Denhert does an absolutely beautiful version of the Beatles’ “Help,” likewise, very different from the original, slowing the tempo down and creating a plaintive mood. Done this way, the song’s lyrics speak directly of a person in the throes of depression and vulnerability, very much in need of help. Minus the clanging guitars and high energy of the original, you hear the words as an intimate and personal plea. Yet, in the notes to the album, Denhert ties the song to the plight of those affected by the tragic events in Haiti, even though to a listener’s ears, the song sounds much more personal than universal—a song about depression, not a disaster.

Denhert says that for her that song cut both ways. “It’s absolutely about me and how I’m feeling,” she explains. “Here I am in St. Bart’s and I’m in this place everyone sees as absolute paradise. But [at that moment] everybody was miserable and then the Haiti thing happened. And then you feel stupid about the things you’re feeling miserable about. I couldn’t even get anybody to work on the music. I felt old and depressed. And I was trying to deal with it with that song. So it’s all of those things and it works. And it absolutely flows both ways.”

She also took on another song from the ’60s, albeit one without a rock connection. “I love ‘The Shadow of Your Smile,’” she says. “I have always loved it. When I was playing rock and pop in my youth, there was never a place or forum to play that tune. Even when I was, say, working at the 55 Bar [small jazz club in the Village], that was a song I really loved, [but couldn’t do]. It seemed really out of place. But I decided, ‘Who gives a, what’s the polite word … damn any more?’ We have so many unwritten rules of radio promotion, marketing and so much stuff that doesn’t even apply anymore. How long have I been thinking about that nonsense? I thought, ‘I love this song and I want to do it plain.’ I love arranging tunes, but this song didn’t need what, say, ‘Smoke on the Water’ did to make it interesting. For me, it needed its core melody and then you add a Francois Moutin [on acoustic bass] and that’s all. His phrasing and the rhythm that he plays, it’s so inspiring.”

Along the same vein is another ‘60s ballad, also done with an austere arrangement that showcases Denhert’s expressive vocal. “I had worked on ‘Alfie’—that’s another song that I love. I had seen Dionne Warwick and Burt Bacharach in Italy. I fell in love with this melody again. But I didn’t want a watered down sounding cabaret version, so I really did sit down with Etienne and piece through ‘Alfie.’ There’s a kind of support that I’m looking for. In some ways, it’s not anti-jazz, but it’s about making it real for me- not emulating any particular style.”

At least one of the songs on Album No. 9—“Choose Your Weapon”—could be described as a “message” song. It’s a powerful song about how we’re all drawn into conflict and are capable of doing harm. However, Denhert says that even though she has deep political and social beliefs, she’s a little uncomfortable using her music as a soapbox, although in explaining her logic she stumbles back up onto that preachy dais. “I actually don’t like protest songs,” she says. “At least, I don’t think that this is my strength. I am just too enamored with the music to relegate a song wholly to an issue. I think there’s the possibility to stray into self-serving with issue songs. I’m kind of a snob about issue songs. We get up and sing our little songs so we can sell our CD and then go home and feel like we’ve done something for the world. I don’t allow myself that luxury: Oh, because I sang this, therefore I’m a good person. I am a good person but I live in the United States of America, in a capitalist country, and I support capitalism not only through my voting but I live in a country that simultaneously advocates freedom and at the same time is responsible for the deaths of how many children in Iraq or Afghanistan and no matter what song I write, this is the country I am from. I’m really lucky being born in this country- even living under a system that is flawed I know that there’s no perfect system- I’d be more inclined to write about the emotional dissonance created by really seeing how much collateral damage goes on every single day.

“Yes, it’s so easy to only go to a fundraiser and I say ‘I bought this book’ and ‘I do pilates’ and there’s still children sleeping under tents. Would you let your children sleep under a tent and how many children would you let sleep under a tent? If they were on your street – would you do something about it? What if they were 10 miles away? I’m ridiculously analytical about everything in life. And most of the time I feel like people look at me like I have five heads!”

Getting back to the catalyst for this discussion, Denhert says that actually “Choose Your Weapon” started out as someone else’s song entirely. “I was in this songwriter’s group and this guy named Johnny B. (Witter) wrote this song that went ‘Choose your weapon or a war will choose a weapon for you…’ Those were his lyrics, but he was singing it with those blues changes. The song was so pedestrian in a way that I did say to him, ‘I think I might need to do something with that song.’ What I liked about it is what I hate about myself. It takes me three thousand words to say the most simple and basic idea. And what I liked about his song is that it really broke it down into something that anybody could understand. But he had it jammed up in the blues. I have never written a reggae tune and I have some friends who ask me over and over, ‘When are you going to write a reggae tune?’ I started playing with it and a lot of people said, ‘Oh, I just assumed that was a Bob Marley tune.’ I didn’t start out saying I was going to write a Bob Marley tune. I just started out playing “Chank… chank… chank …’ [sings reggae rhythm sound] and singing about how a weapon can be a microphone and the power of the pen. Johnny had these ideas but I sort of took it and put into something different. I think in reggae there’s so much room around the words that you can hear them and that’s why I thought this is a much better form. Then I had to get my band who had been playing my urban folk and jazz to play reggae in St. Bart’s. The first couple of times we played that song, it was kind of embarrassing. I said, ‘We will not do this and sound like a holiday inn band!’” The band clearly got into the right groove, because the song as performed on the album does indeed sound like a Bob Marley tune, no small feat for the composer or the band.

An accomplished guitarist, Denhert loves to fool around with arrangements and voicings, but she says that sometimes that technique can get in the way of writing a song that resonates. “I really try to hold on to melody. When I wrote ‘Chanson Baz Bar,’ something that I had been trying to do with my songwriting is write a melody first. As a guitar player or a piano player, a lot of times you sit down and you play some chords and think, that sounds good, now let me write a melody to go with it. And I’ve done that for a long time.”

Working quickly on deadline on the song “Let It Go,” about dealing with the give and take of a relationship demonstrated to Denhert the value of working from a melody first. “I was working with a German artist who flew over here to work with me and the next morning we had to have a song. And it was like, what can we write about, overnight. I had been writing melody before you write the chords. I found that to be really liberating and really important and I’m trying to do that more and more. I think that with the American songbook, melodies were so important. In rock music, that really wasn’t that present, with the exception of the Beatles which is why I guess I wind up covering so much of their material. I think [the Beatles longevity] is based on writing melodies and then the ways that you arrange behind that melody, you’ve got infinite room.”

An artist who plays for both jazz and folk/rock/singer-songwriter audiences, Denhert says that she has been embraced by the jazz community of musicians and fans. “At Umbria Jazz, I play public concerts everyday for anyone who cares to listen- which is just great,” Denhert says. “Meanwhile, I was hanging out with Dr. Lonnie Smith and Joe Locke, both of whom took a real interest in my career. Every single day, people would come up to me and say, ‘Oh, I went to Joe Locke’s concert and he said to come and hear you.'”

Denhert does see a difference between the two audiences in how they absorb the music and performance. “The Umbria Jazz audience is fun for me because they move; it’s still about moving and dancing. When I play to a singer/ songwriter audience, I’ll play a whole cadre of my singer/songwriter songs and people start crying. And I’m fine with that, but after we cry, I want to play ‘Choose Your Weapon’ and I want to play ‘What’s My Name.’ I want to have some fun. I can’t spend all my time mourning the state of the world. If I was really going to mourn, then I should dedicate myself to something like the Peace Corps. I should be in politics or I should be doing something more than just writing a few songs. I’ m an entertainer that thinks too much, with too many words.”

Until just seven years ago, Denhert lived a double life juggling a career as a financial analyst in trade marketing with Dannon Yogurt with her life as a creative musician. “I worked at the Dannon Corporation for 18 years,” she says. “And while I was there I headlined the Blue Note in Las Vegas. I did two years of my residency in St. Bart’s. I worked there so long that I had enough vacation to be able to spend five weeks on the road. Really, it was just like being a teacher in the summer, I would use my vacation to tour. I really have a sense that I built this to be exactly what I want. I just wrote and did what I like.” Wow, let that be a lesson to all those musicians who wished they had money to do what they dreamed. And to all those corporate types who wished they could explore their creative side.

But, always reaching to something more, Denhert has regrets of her own. “Sometimes I kick myself of not being a more schooled musician just from the standpoint of having a community, like this musician who came from Berklee and that one who came from wherever. Me, I have nothing. I came from my living room with Hubert Laws records playing over and over. I’m very much the neophyte among these musicians.”

Neophyte or not, Denhert is not staying still. “I’m working on three things. I’m playing with Jennifer Vincent on bass and Nicki Denner on keyboards. We’re doing a secret little thing taking my material and opening it up and I’m loving that. I think that’s probably the next thing I’m going to do. There’s also a singer/songwriter record that I’ve never made. I have the name for it—it’s called Intrinsic. The way that I play guitar is informed by James [Taylor], Joni [Mitchell] and Bruce Cockburn and I feel like there’s a record people would enjoy but I never get around to.”

Regardless of what record she decides to put out next, Denhert is clearly in firm control of her own career and artistic direction. “I have to write a book. Here’s the headline: I made all those records, including Album No. 9 with the money from playing the way I do. I have no debt. In this industry, I try to keep my ego really in check. People talk about getting me to the next level, but it’s not about bigger budgets. For me, it’s about getting closer to the art. For better or worse, my business sense is what’s bringing me closer to the art.”

For more information about Denhert’s other albums and her upcoming performances, you can check her website. If you are in New York City, you can see Denhert perform at Smoke Jazz (at 106th and Broadway) every Sunday at 7, 9 & 10:30 pm. Denhert also has been performing at the 55 Bar in the Village every other Saturday since 1997.

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