A friend from long ago told Karyn Kuhl — who fronts the blues-influenced rock group, the Karyn Kuhl Band, and has helped define the Hoboken music scene since the 1980s — that “if Jimi Hendrix and Queen Elizabeth had a child, it would be you.”
The powerhouse singer, songwriter, guitarist and teacher explained, “this person knows me well. People who don’t know me see me wailing onstage, but really, I’d like to just be home in my pajamas with my cats, drinking tea and watching British shows on Netflix.” (Her binging on “The Crown,” “Downton Abbey” and “Broadchurch” is a reprieve from heavy focus on CNN and MSNBC).
Born in Bloomfield, where she had her first gig as a youngster at a local church, Kuhl said life changed when, at age 14, she saw David Bowie at Madison Square Garden playing songs from Station to Station. “I was a good Catholic schoolgirl up until then,” she said. “I had orchestra seats and ran to the railing at the front of the stage to see the Thin White Duke. It was all over after that. It was a spiritual experience and it changed me and I realized I can be who I really am.” At 17, she picked up the electric guitar; she moved to Hoboken at 22 and never left.
Kuhl acknowledged in our interview that it’s difficult to classify her into any single genre. And if you listen to songs from throughout her career, that becomes evident. She’s ’80s punk in her early days in Gut Bank; she’s psychedelic hard rock in her ’90s splendor in Sexpod, where she, along with close-knit band members Alice Genese and Tia Palmisano, displayed raw bursts of passion. Her powerful guitar and haunting voice have been a constant throughout her career as she further developed herself as a songwriter and musician, playing solo and then, in 2010, forming the Karyn Kuhl Band, whose members have changed over time.
Kuhl speaks in jazzy, dreamy tones on “Drunk on Beauty” from the band’s 2013 album, Songs for the Dead; and sings the blues about lost love, feelings of being lost, the sweet agony of longing and hopefulness on its 2016 EP The Stars Will Bring You Home, produced by James Mastro. Kuhl and Mastro’s guitars talk to each other eloquently, pulling you deeper inside Kuhl’s sound and heart. They are devastatingly good together. She looks back, longing for the one who got away on the title song, softly singing:
The last time I saw you, we sang a pretty tune
Sitting by the river, beneath the stars and the moon
That was just a long lost dream, I’m waking up, feeling mean
Given up on happiness and resigned myself to this ugly mess
The days, weeks, months and years have become a blur of endless tears, raining down from the skies so blue
Everything I do, I do for you
Every word I say, every note I play
All I do, every day, is pray the stars will bring you home.
Her raw pain is so familiar and tangible. I admire her for her bravery and boldness in dredging up these feelings in a song and showing a deeply vulnerable side of herself.
In “Conjuring You,” also from The Stars Will Bring You Home, you hear her humor and hypnotic intensity, along with an eerie and discordant guitar sound, when she wails about a person who has moved on: “You drove to the shore in your El Camino, waiting for instructions from Brian Eno … what else am I supposed to do but to kill my time conjuring you?”
She rocks out in her band’s 2018 single “Be Your Friend.” Negotiating for more than just friendship, while operating on the pretense of something that’s not romantic, she makes it clear with her tone that her goal is not about sharing conversation. Her seductive voice could sway the most resistant lover.
She’s even disco, singing Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” at a few shows. She admits that in the late 1970s, when disco was punk’s enemy, she used to wear a “Burn the Disco Down” button to CBGB. But the times they are a-changin’.
“How could you not love it?” she says. “It has everything — the sleazy element and darkness, but also the feeling of elation, happiness and letting yourself go. It makes me feel good to see people dancing when I dance, because so much of my music is sad.”
She makes a Sinatra classic “It Was a Very Good Year” surreal and hypnotic with bass and rhythm elements from Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.” She sings “When I was 21/It was a very good year/It was a very good year for city girls/Who lived up the stair/With all that perfumed hair/And it came undone/When I was 21” with so much mystery, convincing me that her 20s were more interesting than those of Frank Sinatra or the song’s composer, Ervin Drake.
You can hear her electrifying guitar and insightful and passionate lyrics Jan. 12 at 10 p.m., when the Karyn Kuhl Band — including Mastro, drummer Jonpaul Pantozzi and recent addition to the band, bassist Larry Heinemann — will perform at Fox and Crow in Jersey City.
“We love playing at Fox and Crow,” Kuhl said. “It’s an artist-friendly, supportive place for music. We’ll do two sets, probably acoustic and electric. We are a diverse band with so many different styles.”
She added, “one time we toned it down, the owner asked us, ‘Where’s the noise?,’ so we will probably do it all.”
When she first moved to Hoboken, it was largely a working-class town with a mix of artists and musicians. She misses the robust music scene of the ’80s and ’90s when she played at Maxwell’s.
“Every great band played there in my 20s when people came out to see live music,” she said. “That time period was very different than now. People don’t go out as much. Now every bar has multiple TVs and SantaCon draws the biggest crowd of young people in Hoboken.”
She still described the local scene as “vibrant,” though most of the local performing opportunities are at Jersey City clubs like Fox and Crow, FM and White Eagle Hall.
Over the next few months she and the band will record a new EP that will feature a deluxe version of “Be Your Friend” and her most political song to date, “It’s Over,” along with about four other songs.
“My last few songs recently moved away from personal music and have a more political tone,” she said. “It seems like I am evolving out of and getting really tired of just the personal songs.”
She said “the last two years have been difficult, and my recent songs are a response to what’s going on. I’m getting some anger out and also expressing hopefulness.”
Regarding her songwriting process, she said that “when I pick up the guitar and start playing, things would come out, usually when I really needed to get to a better place.”
She said she loves Joni Mitchell’s vocals, especially when she was younger, remarking that “Joni Mitchell’s kind of pain, hopefulness and redemption … that’s where I am coming from musically.” She referred to writing a song as “a spiritual calling out to help yourself.”
After discussing the theme of repression of women’s sexuality and gender stereotypes present in “Downton Abbey” and another top pick in her Netflix gallery, “Mad Men,” she said that “it really makes you see what a slow go it is to make changes, but they are happening. It’s what I am saying in my song, ‘It’s Over.’ We may be pulled back right now, but you can’t stop time, you can’t stop evolution, you can’t stop the people’s revolution. We are going to move forward, even though now it feels awful.”
She added a hopeful thought: “While the lunatics have taken over the asylum in an extreme way right now, we outnumber them.”
When we discussed her musical influences and heroines — which include Television, the Rolling Stones, Patti Smith, the Jackson 5 and X, in addition to Bowie and Mitchell — she clarified that “my new hero is RBG” (Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg). “When I am onstage I belt it out, but really in life I am a soft-spoken, shy, introverted person.”
Kuhl said that when she saw a documentary on Ginsburg, “I decided that she was my role model for how I wanted to be in the world, for how I want to stand up for myself and take care of myself … I love the way she negotiated for long-term goals, making sure she stayed calm and said what she needed to say in the best way possible. It’s really hard for women to our own power and, for me, I am not loud and aggressive so it’s amazing to have a new role model at age 57.”
Since 2001, Kuhl has been teaching in Little RocknRollers, a music program she created for infants and toddlers at Hoboken’s Guitar Bar, Jr. and Little City Books. “I play acoustic guitar and the kids play little instruments. They are adorable beyond belief,” Kuhl said.
Kuhl also plays drums in Psych-O-Positive with Hoboken- and New York- based artists; she describes it as a psychedelic cave punk group. Embracing her new position as drummer, she said that she thought initially it would be less pressure because “you are not the frontperson so you don’t have to interact with the audience, sing, play guitar and be funny. You are back there behind a drum kit, people are in front of you and you think it’s a safe place to be, but actually you are the person that is driving the entire thing and you have more control than anybody, and it’s a very powerful place to be.”
She said that when she was younger, she thought other people would serve as the foundation as she performed onstage, “holding her up, but drumming is completely the opposite, and the drummer is the foundation.”
Kuhl also plays with Bitchface, perhaps my favorite band name ever — a badass supergroup punk rock band of women in their 50s. Band member Cait O’Riordan lives in Ireland, Syd Straw lives in L.A. and Vermont and Linda Pitmon is busy touring, so they haven’t played recently.
In addition to catching the Karyn Kuhl Band on Jan. 12 at Fox and Crow, you can see her play in a rare solo acoustic show at Cowgirl in New York on Jan. 29 at the Tuesday Night Music Club: A Songwriters Listening Room, hosted by Emily Duff.
Though she likes to venture out to listen to other bands and to view art in New York’s museums, she considers herself a homebody. “I turn into a completely different person onstage than in my day-to-day life. I don’t want any attention. But once I get onstage, I feel more like who I truly am than anywhere else. I guess that’s why I keep doing it. I get completely immersed in it. Like when you are in flow, that state when you are completely connected to your spirit, your soul.”
She added, “you go beyond past, present, future and you are not thinking about anything. You are not worrying about anything. It’s kind of ecstatic.”
For information, visit karynkuhl.com.