Interview with Kip Jones, Violinist, Vocalist
Kip Jones plays violin and sings along with his stringed instrument. Sometimes he wordlessly vocalizes, while at other times he sings in Korean. He calls his original music “traditional fiction” or “folk music from countries that don’t exist,” depending on the context. He performs as a solo act, in duos, and has even performed at the Friday Night Community Pool series at the Black Dog Coffee & Wine Bar in Saint Paul, where the emphasis is on free improvisation. His new CD is entitled Hallazgo. It’s an adventurous solo outing that effectively captures Jones’ facility with various world, folk, improvisational, and Classical music forms. This interview took place in the studios of KFAI on April 16, 2011, during my radio show, Rhythm and Grooves.
LE: I’d like to welcome into the studio, Kip Jones, a violin player, vocalist, and world traveler.
KJ: Thanks so much for having me. I’m glad to be here.
LE: Kip, you’re having a CD release party at Studio Z next Friday and Saturday
KJ: The name of the product is Hallazgo. It’s Anglicized version of a Spanish word that means Discovery. Like an archaeological discovery or when I bought a great thing at a market, and it’s really cheap. It’s a find.
LE: You are originally from Duluth, and you studied out at Berklee College of Music in Boston, and afterwards had a serious case of wanderlust.
KJ: It started right after I left college. I spent about a year traveling around the country by motorcycle, then went to India for half a year, met my wife and we spent two years in Korea and spent a year traveling in South America. It was during that last trip that all the songs on this particular project were written.
LE: So were you inspired by being in South America, or did other aspects of your travel come into your compositions?
KJ: I think like a lot of musicians there are certain projects that take a very short time to come to fruition. And there are some that take a very long time. For me playing and singing at the same time has been an especially long journey. I started doing this in college, but it’s very difficult to do the intonation on a violin. It’s obviously not static. I can’t put my finger on a key behind a fret and expect it to be right on a note. And so, learning the ins and outs of that relationship has taken a number of years, and it wasn’t until this most recent trip that I was able to begin composing for that platform, after years of doing essentially, exercises.
LE: And so now you’ve settled back here in the Twin Cities. You’ve been playing around town, with Patrick Harrison at the Red Stag occasionally, and you’ve played at the Friday Night Community Pool Series at the Black Dog in Lowertown, with Brian Roessler. You’ve been playing with other folk as well.
LE: Nice group of folks you’re playing with. And it seems you’ve brought your instrument along.
KJ: Both instruments. The one with the strings and the one with the vocal chords.
LE: You want to play something?
KJ: I’d love to play something.
LE: What will we hear?
KJ: A song called “Awaken.” The beginning starts out at the wailing wall of Jerusalem, and it finishes up with Sonic the Hedge Hog, dodging a whole bunch of stuff in the woods.
KJ: (Plays) [Ed note: For a video of Kip performing this song at a Duluth station, click here.]
LE: That was great. Were you using the same language for all of that?
KJ: All of those lyrics were in Korean. The lyrics more or less mirror the mood of the song. “Wake up, Wake up. We have but one life. Let’s live it and be excited.”
LE: You learned that when you were in Korea?
KJ: Two years of solid study and I still can’t talk about a lot of complicated things. But, I have a basic fluency in the language, and can at least get around the country.
LE: What made you decide to go to Korea?
KJ: My wife, at the time my girlfriend, took an ESL (English as a second language) teaching job there and left me lonely and bored, at least without any long term future plans here in the States. An opening occurred at her school and she was able to swing getting the school to hire me, and so I went over there and spent two very pleasant years living in rural South Korea with a small motorcycle, going to temples, listening to huge, giant copper bells ringing throughout the forest. That’s one of the coolest Buddhist meditations – a giant copper cast bell, maybe three and a half to four feet in diameter, maybe ten feet tall – must weigh two or three thousand pounds. They’ll take a tree trunk and slam it against this bell. And when you’re up close you’ll hear overtones. You’ll hear “gooong” [makes a low sound] just like a bell, but when you’re a half mile away, walking way in the woods, you hear “bhmmmm” [makes a sound like a foghorn]. It seems to shake the forest. It’s really a wonderful sound.
LE: You mentioned traveling throughout South America and India, and across the United States. You have a lot of compositions that you’ve composed yourself, and yet you’ve played with musicians in a bit more of a free form arrangement. How did your ability to interact that way and improvise – How did you develop that in terms of your travels?
KJ: I think that a lot of the greatest composers, or at least a lot of my role models have been people that exemplify both a quality in improvisation and a high standard of composition as well. The obvious example is Bach, whose compositions could be described as little more than transcribed improvisations for ensembles. To a certain extent, composing is sitting down with a blank sheet of paper and improvising on paper, and in your imagination and enforcing that, or offering it to someone else.
One of the first crowds I fell into out at Berklee College of Music were the free improvisers, who were the ones who had the greatest love for life. They would pick up their instruments and the first thing they would look for is something they had never done before. I don’t know, trying to keep themselves informed but also not worrying about playing the hip lick or playing the coolest tune that’s going around. I think Schoenberg is another good example of someone who was able to take a composition, but also.. he made the comment that composition is improvisation slowed down. And so while traveling alone, with an instrument, naturally improvising, playing to a rock or crowd, a mountain, or a bunch of people at a house concert, or something to that effect. Gradually these improvisations congealed into compositions that are on this record.
LE: In your travels, and as you performed in impromptu settings, was there any one in particular that changed the way you looked at things, or had a significant impact on the way you compose, or the way you play?
KJ: Any particular performance, you mean?
LE: Yeah, of those impromptu sorts of things.
KJ: Well there have been a number of really fun ones. I’m trying to think. The ones that changed the way I think about music. I don’t know, it’s tough to say. I feel like performing is something that, you just stand in front of a bunch of people and take your metaphorical clothes off, and stand there for awhile, and eventually put your clothes back on. Those experiences, I feel like my conscious mind is not so much engaged. I kind of turn it off, and let the songs do what they do. But, a couple of the fun ones. One was in Ushuaia, in Tierra del Fuego, we were staying at the house of Andrea and Ivan Shoemacher. Wonderful couple, really fun people, great cooks, had a really interesting fun group of friends – architects and painters and so on and so forth. We all met at a bar, hung out, drunk a whole bunch, had a fun time, and the bar closed and at two o’clock in the morning went back to their house for coffee. Made a couple of pots of coffee, I decided to give a house concert and played from maybe three until four. And our bus was at five in the morning. I played the concert, they loved it, we continued having great conversation and coffee at 4:30 to 5 in the morning, and they all drove us down to the bus station. We kind of went en masse. It had been this giant hang from eleven o’clock the previous evening. This was in the most southernmost part of the world. It was the winter solstice. It was dark, not like Alaska dark, but it got dark early and people were used to being out in the darkness. And this was one of the most fun solo performances.
I think another interesting one was at the Ecuador Ministry of Social and Economic Inclusion, which is probably as strange and unpredictable an organization as it sounds like. I had met a guy that worked for the group at a New Year’s party where I had played a couple of songs and it seemed to turn into a Cyndi Lauper singalong, though I’m not sure exactly how that occurred. He had asked me to come and play for his office the following Friday. And so I did. Originally it was going to be in a theater and all the folks that worked in the office were going to come down and listen. And instead, they all got let off early and twelve people were made to stay and listen to my show, which then took place in a small office. I think they had a good time under the circumstances, but everyone wished they had been relaxing with their families, not listening to this foreigner saw away on his instrument. (chuckles)
LE: It sounds like you made lots of contacts. Are you fluent in Spanish as well?
KJ: That came a lot easier than Korean. In Korean the syntax is different, you conjugate verbs based on social status. The list of potential difficulties is enormous. You know, my Spanish is pretty messy, but once again, I can get by.
LE: You don’t need a whole lot in order to get along
KJ: You don’t even need a lot to discuss some deep topics because there are so many cognates. It seems to me, anyway, it’s the more basic kind of nuts and bolts work that you have to learn and then the more difficult latin-based words, well, think of a word like inquisition. It’s the same in Spanish. Reclamation is the same in Spanish.
LE: Let’s talk a little bit about your upcoming CD release party. It’s a Studio Z in Lowertown, a great little space.
KJ: A tiny classical performance space. A wonderful place. The Zeitgeist folks have been extremely helpful and extremely courteous. It’s nice of them to have me, and I’m really looking forward to performing.
LE: You’ll do a solo set and then a set with a couple of other musicians?
LE: Okay, well can we hear something else?
KJ: Absolutely. This song is called the Mind of the Spirit and it is the very song that folks at the Ecuadoran Ministry of Economic Inclusion were forced to listen to for the first time. And now, anyone who’s tuned in, you’re not forced to listen, but I invite you to listen to “Th’Mind of th’Spirit.” It’s a theme and variations, with a bridge.
KJ: (plays) [Ed note: for a video of Kip playing this song, click here.]
LE: Thank you. That was Kip Jones performing live here in KFAI’s studio. Now, you have a website.
KJ: I do. Kipjones.net.
LE: Can folks buy your CDs at your website?
KJ: Not yet, but there’s tons of stuff on the website. I’ve made a couple videos leading up to the show. I’ve got a whole bunch of stuff for downloading on line. Some solo stuff, some from a project with a bass player friend of mine from Boston – Karl Doty – K2. Has some of the same musical spaces that the solo project inhabits.
LE: Thank you so much for stopping by. I look forward to hearing your concert.
KJ: Thank you so much for having me on the show.