Singer-songwriter, Jeff Karoub, has spent a life immersed in roots music in various forms. His father played for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and Motown Records and Karoub has inherited those musical genes. He recently released a new album, ‘Pieces Break’, which is a melodic collection of soulful folk songs. Read the full review here.
Jeff, your songs are fascinating reflections on change, time passing and the legacy we leave behind. ‘Pieces Break’ is a highlight from your recent album. Can you tell us the ‘story’ behind it?
This song came to me, appropriately, in pieces. First came the part, “What does the water wash over, and what does it forget?” and I was inspired by the Detroit River and surrounding Great Lakes waterway, to which I often go to wander and ponder, and the countless ships, stories and people those freshwater seas have carried or claimed over the millennia. The second part about pieces breaking “in such perfect shapes they’re better left apart” came just as I was falling asleep — perhaps “in between a memory and a dream,” as Tom Petty so describes it. The lyrical pieces, at first, seemed like separate songs but as I added music they grew to be complementary or at least two sides of a coin. I sought to strike right at the themes of what we leave in the past or cast aside, and the ramifications of those actions as we move on.
While it wasn’t inspiration per se, it was certainly affirmation after the fact when I read this quote from Kansas journalist Roy Wenzl: “The ground beneath our feet is filled with the bones and the stories of millions of creatures that came before us.” Wenzl writes about how we all go through our lives sleepwalking and missing what’s happening and not thinking about the people who came before or the places that have come and gone. I live and work near where Motown rose before decamping to California. Lots of musicians stayed and kept making music, of course, but the world wasn’t necessarily hearing them anymore. The music never ceased, even if the hit-making machinery around it did. In my day job as a journalist, I’ve interviewed many of them and the stories are worth hearing and remembering.
But back to that idea of fusing two seemingly disparate ideas: once I realized they belonged together, I wanted to go beyond merely having an A and B section. As I layered the harmonies, I had a notion that I could sing both sections over the top of each other — washing over each other, if you like — in the final verse. On a multi-track demo, I tried it and I soon couldn’t imagine it any other way. When it came time to record it for the album in Amherst, Massachusetts (just down the road from the home of Emily Dickinson), I lay down the vocal parts and asked Putnam Smith, a great friend and phenomenal songwriter himself, to add a third voice. He also contributed some beautiful lead guitar and co-producer Garrett Sawyer delivered some heavenly Hammond B3 organ — an element I suggested because I’ve long been inspired by Petty’s longtime keyboardist, Benmont Tench. ‘Pieces Break’ proved to be a high point of the sessions and the heart of the album, and I knew early on it would be the title track.
After that momentous session, I returned to Michigan and was playing it for another friend and guitarist, George Luckey, who has gone on to do some great lead work on it live. He said he had to listen to it many times before he realised it just had two sections. It felt, to him, like it contained so much more. The positive feedback encouraged me to send it to DJs as “the single.” Among those offering raves was Dan MacDonald, who hosts shows on two radio stations in Windsor, a Canadian city on the other side of the Detroit River and a border town where I spent a great deal of time playing music growing up. Dan said the song, “…carries strength in its honest fragility. The vocals carry the kind of wisdom that comes from years of experience and deep introspection. It’s storytelling and picture painting through song.” I can’t ask for more as a singer-songwriter, whose goal is to share what I’ve discovered with receptive ears and hearts.
Despite coming together in an uncommon way for me, I trust ‘Pieces Break’ sits well within my body of work, which I like to call “rhythm and roots” to reflect the place I come from and the grooves it’s produced. I find myself drawn to themes of time, the ever-present battle of staying in the present while we “beat on, boats against the current,” in the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Speaking of the future, I’m excited to be playing a series of shows in and around Detroit in the coming months, including a special show with Putnam and his new duo, The Early Risers. I’m also planning a return to favoured venues in the Chicago area, and I aim to play in the U.K., where I’ve derived much inspiration over the decades. I’m particularly heartened by the musical, mutual admiration society between Detroit and Liverpool in the 1960s, as well as Britain’s appreciation for Americana, roots, folk, and other monikers to describe a big tent that holds so much but rallies around a preference for authenticity over artifice.
Sometimes the pieces break
In such perfect shapes
They’re better left apart
What does the water wash over?
And what does it forget?
If I was never here — and we never talked
Would it matter much?