It’s Juliana Finch and Jess Klein! Jess Klein is an incredible songwriter-singer-performer, who has toured the world with her unbelievable music. She’s been in the game long enough to know that creative cycles are normal and natural, and she approaches her process with a kind of ease that can inspire us all. Jess just finished producing an album that’s coming out in the fall titled In the Arms of a Song.
Do what you can to find Jess Klein and listen and have a good cry. In the meantime, enjoy this episode.
Over a career that spans two decades and has won her a devoted worldwide fan base, Jess Klein—who possesses what Mojo magazine calls “one of those voices you want to crawl up close to the speakers to listen to” has pursued a remarkable creative evolution that’s seen her dig ever deeper for resonant emotional insights, while continuing to refine her eloquently melodic, effortlessly accessible songcraft.
The Rochester, NY native began writing songs as a college student in Kingston, Jamaica. Jess spent eight years soaking up the live music culture of Austin, TX. Bootleg (2015) Jess’s live, full band album captures the dynamism of Jess onstage, backed by some of Austin’s top players. Jess was named a 2015 Finalist in the highly regarded Kerrville New Folk Competition.
In 2016, Jess and her husband, songwriter Mike June moved to tiny but vibrant Hillsborough, North Carolina where she recorded 2019’s Back to My Green.
Klein has performed to rapt audiences at the Newport Folk Festival, Winnipeg Folk Festival, Fuji Rock Festival in Japanand packed houses in notable listening rooms like Joe’s Pub, NYC, The Borderline in London, Club Passim in Boston and Fogartyville in Sarasota, FL. She has appeared on Good Morning America and NPR’s All Things Consideredand toured across the US, Europe and Japan on her own and with such artists as Arlo Guthrie, John Fullbright and Carlene Carter.
Jess’s new album is currently in production and due out shortly.
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This is Artist Soapbox. Through interviews and original scripted audio fiction. We deliver stories that speak to your hearts and your minds.Juliana Finch:
Hey soap boxers. It's your pal, Juliana. I am so excited that I got to talk to my friend, Jess Klein for today's episode. Jess is an incredible songwriter singer performer, who has toured the world with her unbelievable music. She's been in the game long enough to know that creative cycles are normal and natural. And I just really love the way that she approaches that with a kind of ease that I hope this episode will help you realize in your writing process. Now Jess just finished producing an album. That's coming out in the fall called In the Arms of a Song. So at the time of this recording, it's not out yet, but you'll be able to get it very soon and she's starting to tour again, like a lot of us are, so I hope that you'll be able to catch her live and in person and get to see her unbelievable work. You can find email@example.com on YouTube and Instagram. She is Ms. Jess Klein. That's M S J E S S K L E I N. You should do whatever you can to find Jess and listen and have a good cry. And I know you will enjoy this episode. Hello, Jess Klein, thanks so much for joining me today. Thank you for having me. This is one of those fun situations where I get talk to somebody that I used to see in real life a lot. but we're talking on, on the internet about 10 miles apart from each other. Yeah, that's fine. This is normal now. Yeah. How are you doing?Jess Klein:
I'm doing pretty good. I feel. Got a lot of, um, exciting sort of creative stuff that I'm doing. And then the world is not making me happy. I played a show Friday night and I sang my songs about the world and it made me feel better.Juliana Finch:
Yeah. I always find that those times when I least want to play. Yeah. Is the time that I most need to play. Like once I do that show where I'm like, God, I really don't wanna get up here and do this thing tonight. And then after it, I'm like, thank goodness I did that thing. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know that feeling. Yeah. So you're, you're writing again and playing again and working on stuff. How is it feeling.Jess Klein:
It's good. I actually, I just finished an album a couple months ago, so I haven't been like actively writing songs recently. I've been doing a lot of journaling and sometimes that turns into something and sometimes it just keeps the flow going from my mind to the paper, but I have been loving, performing a lot. It just feels really good to just sing and like, Let the sound out and that feels good. That feels like, I feel like I'm starting to remember why I do this.Juliana Finch:
yeah. And I'm, I'm glad you brought up your album because I think something that. It doesn't get talked about a lot when starting out as a songwriter is that, you know, there's a time to write and prepare and then a time to record and then a time to go perform those songs that you've put out. Yeah. And it's, it's this long process. By the time you're done making the album, you do need kind of a break. There's sort of a natural break that happens with writing new stuff. and you shift into this other gear of like focusing on performing the songs, is that your usual experience? That's certainly what happens to me.Jess Klein:
It definitely, I feel like, yeah, like I kind of need a break from all that soul searching and digging stuff up and, you know, tweaking language. And it's just like a really different part of the process for me than the performance part. And they both are equally important. And, um, a friend of mine songwriter named Ray Bonneville called. He called this time when you're not actively writing, he called it fueling. And I, I just always really like that, cuz it's like, you're just kind. You're just doing other things you're like absorbing life experiences or you're just sort of observing or whatever it is that you do when you're not writing. It's it's like an important part of the yeah. Of the cycle. Yeah.Juliana Finch:
It's still an active part. It's not actually this like inert thing that it feels like sometimes.Jess Klein:
Yeah, exactly. I mean, for me, you know, often, I mean, it's, it's a little different if I'm trying to write for a specific project, but often. I will be surprised by the strength of an idea that will come along. When I wasn't trying to write, it'll just suddenly be like a wave of emotion. And it's like, now I need to sit down and put some words to this, or. You don't always have to be sort of like banging down the door every day, trying to get to the ideas. If you've trained yourself to receive them, like they're gonna come back.Juliana Finch:
Yeah. Talk more about that process of like receptivity, like you've been at this while. And so you probably kind of live in it subconsciously a little bit at this. what was it like to develop that skill? Because I think there's a difference between I'm sitting around and waiting for inspiration to strike. Yeah. Which, which maybe is not very effective usually versus this, this receptivity that you're talking about.Jess Klein:
I guess one of the things that I do, and I don't, it's like a chicken and egg situation, but I tend to like really observe human nature and take note of other people's habits and emotions and stuff. And also, I would also sort of naturally do that on a large scale. Like, what is society doing right now? Or different parts of society doing and act, how are they acting? To me, that's sort of like the, putting the soil, like putting the right soil in the garden of, of writing or songwriting because I'm watching my fellow humans. Like, I'm always just sort of like watch watching them, myself, like, what am I feeling today? To me, that's sort of a step that lays the groundwork for writing to happen. Yeah, like you said, like it's not passive really, but it's, I'm not trying to force it into anything. It just sort of eventually I'll have like a, a clearly formed like thesis about what I'm observing and then it can be kind of put into words. There's a lot of mixed metaphors in there, but, um, yeah. we got, we got it. It's like the garden and the you're building a house and it, yeah, it's really interesting. I mean, I think, I feel like it's taken me a long time to be okay with the part where I wasn't producing something actively. Like, I think that I felt like I had a lot to prove when I first started out and I mean, first start out, like probably all through my twenties and thirties, I felt like I had had to constantly be proving something like, I can still do this. I'm gonna write one that's as good as the last one. Or, you know, Yeah.Juliana Finch:
Like, cuz I think every time you write something that you really like, there's a, there's this like voice in the background. That's like, that's it. That's the last one.Jess Klein:
That's all you get. Yeah. Yeah. And I mean. If there's anyone listening that's sort of older or is starting out and is a little older, like to me, things sometimes come more slowly now, or it does take longer because I'm not personally living in the kind of drama that I was when I was younger and right. Everything was just sort of like at 10 all the time, emotionally for me in my. and, you know, so that's also something to sort of note in your, in your sort of life, lifetime of creativity and, and writing, you know, I think it's okay. If it takes longer to create your sort of work, when you're older, it's gonna have, it's gonna have that depth of experience behind it.Juliana Finch:
Oh, totally. I think that's like a great reminder too, because yeah, the stakes are not as high on a daily basis, you know? Yeah. Not everything is like a pop love song. right in your life. right. I was recently rereading, you mentioned that you journal and I've, I've journaled since I was a kid and I actually keep almost all my old journals and, and I'll go back through to, to find stuff to write about sometimes. Yeah. I'm like, well, let me see if there's a little seed of something in here. That'll set me off and rereading my journals from my early twenties recently was a very humbling experience. not just in terms of like, you know, my skill or lack thereof writing, but just, yeah. The drama like, oh my gosh. Not, not to belittle any 20 somethings that are listening, but just to tell you that, like, Extreme emotion does chill out eventually for most people. yeah, I could. You couldn't pay me to go back and be 20 again. I would not do it. No. How do you use journaling in your life?Jess Klein:
You know, well, it's interesting now that we said all that stuff about being younger and everything being dramatic and then being older and things aren't as dramatic. Like I still need to journal almost every day. cause of the way my emotions are. I have to kind of, I mean, not, you know, it's not all the time, every, you know, all the time, but if there's a lot going on in the world or in my life, I typically, my typical process is like, Definitely at night before bed. And then sometimes during the day I just sort of have to have like a brain dump. I have to let all the feelings have words and be out of me and onto the page. And then it's like, I can do something with them further if I want, but if I didn't, at least it's not rattling around inside of me. Yeah.Juliana Finch:
Yeah. So that is a resource that like you come back to for song ideas.Jess Klein:
Do I come back to, that's a really good question. Like I, I had put this question up on social media, I don't know, six or eight months ago. And I was like, you might have been one of the people that responded, but I was like, do you save your old journals? You know, and go, and all these people were like, you have to save them. You have to go back through them. There's gold there. Almost never do that. I mean, maybe I sh maybe I should, maybe I will. And maybe I should. And I mean, I know a lot of people do. I think, I often feel like if I got through that, whatever that was, I just wanna move on. But yes, you know, it is, that's definitely a tool that a lot of people recommend. Yeah.Juliana Finch:
But it sounds like your approach is too, which is that the journaling itself, the process of doing it. Yeah. Is the thing that's like that writer's muscle in shape and also like keeping you on kind. A plane where you're receptive to stuff. And so maybe you don't actually need to go back and read it because the process is the thing. And not necessarily that you're using it to generate ideas. Yeah. Um, I definitely know, like, you know, I have a meditation practice and I also journal and if I haven't done either of those things for like a week or so, I definitely feel it in my, you know, I feel squirrly yeah. yeah. In a way that I don't, if I'm consistent with that.Jess Klein:
Yeah. Like I think of writing an inspiration often. You wanna keep your muscles sort of loose and warmed up for me, that practice is the journaling. So that if it, if an idea, when an idea strikes, I'm sort of warmed up and I'm used to writing.Juliana Finch:
I like that you said the phrase like used to writing because it is a thing that can to use the muscle metaphor again, that can kind of atrophy if you don't do it regularly. Even if you are very experienced and you've released a number of albums and you've toured nationally, you know, it's not just a thing that happens to beginners. It's a thing that everybody needs to do.Jess Klein:
Totally, totally. I mean, for me, it's like, yeah, if I don't, if I haven't been writing for a while and then I'm like, okay, I'm gonna try and dig in here. And. You know, work on an album. It takes weeks and weeks for me to get to the point where I feel like I'm creating something I might save. And that doesn't mean all the other things weren't valuable, but it just, it is it. Yeah, definitely muscle that you have to warm up for one way or another. Cause to me, it's like layers need again, this is a total mixed metaphor, but it's almost layers have to get peeled off and all that stuff you've been, you know, living with and living through and the sort of periphery of your life and you know, this annoyance and this other thing over here, it's like all sort of has to get honored somehow and then put aside, and then you might get that. To me, I always have to go through that to get to like the deeper core. That feels like a compelling thing. That is a song that's like the core of the song.Juliana Finch:
When you're getting through that, are you doing that through writing songs that you then don't keep? Or usually what, what does that look like?Jess Klein:
Yeah, it usually looks like songs where I have an, you know, it's sort of like, oh, you can kind of hear something in there. Like. If I were to, so producer that I've worked with a lot, I often will play him things that I'm working on and get his feedback. Cuz I trust him to tell me like, think you can do better or you know, whatever. And often it'll be like, it'll be like, that's pretty like, you know, and to me it's like, it can feel really powerful in the moment. And then if I go back and listen to it, it's like, I didn't totally get to the heart of the matter there. Like there's something there's something deeper or better I could do with that. And so that song probably won't be kept because if I'm aware that there's something deeper to get to, I'd rather try and find the sort you know, deeper and more compelling thing typically.Juliana Finch:
And then having that as a starting point is like clearing the path for that other song that needs to happen.Jess Klein:
Yeah. And sometimes it's really annoying. Like I, I did. I'm part of a. Well, I've been pretty lazy about it lately, but, and part of a song gang, which is, you know, like weekly, this songwriter friend will send out prompt and we're supposed to complete a song around that prompt, that phrase or whatever, by the next end of the next week. And at some point while I was writing for this last album, the prompt was greatest hits. And so I wrote this whole story song about this guy who follows his favorite band and he is. Kind of lost in the rest of his life, but when he sees them on stage, he'll follow them anywhere. Cuz they're just speaking to him, you know, and I played it for my producer and he was like, And I thought it was really great, you know, and then I played it for him and he was like, you know, this is a really good narrative, but there's like one line in there that I think that you could write a whole other song around and when oh, wow. And he, and he told me what the line was. I was like, oh, okay. That's the really good idea. But I was also really annoyed cause I was like, I don't wanna have to fucking write this, you know, another song, like I wrote you a song, you know, I wrote. But, you know, I made myself do it and I now that's the title track of the new album, because it was, it was way more compelling. It was personal, first of all. And it was like about my life as an artist kind of. And, um, so I mean, I don't know. It's like sometimes I just feel like it's such a strange thing to be an artist or to live as an artist or creative person, cuz it's like, I don't know, you're just really just signing up to do more work. Like it's just, it's not, it's never done, you know, it's sort of like, I mean, it does go in phases. It's incredibly satisfying. It's incredibly personal. It's incredibly crazy making sometimes, but I don't know. It's just, obviously for those of us who write or create, it's just like, we, we just have to do it. It's some kind of. It's to me also, it's like cleansing. I feel like it, it's a way to cleanse my, my soul somehow.Juliana Finch:
Yeah. And I think there's also an interesting thing about this. This thing we do, which is that a lot of us who are songwriters and performers specifically. We have this sort of introversion that's necessary to be a writer in some ways. Yeah. And then the performance part requires doing extroversion, even if we're not identified as extroverts, you know? Yeah, totally. And so there's this like balance of, of how can I honor the really interior parts of the process that are, that necessitate me being alone and having quiet time and being really reflective and then turn around and translate those feelings. And this is something that you're so good at when, when I see you live of like taking that internal life and externalizing it in a way that an audience can access that also. And like when people see a Jess Klein show, they're like powerfully overcome by emotions, you know, I've seen, I love going to one of your shows and watching an audience watch you because you're just really externalizing that process. And I think the part of it that is a skill is to do that and really give it to the audience. Sometimes if you're too internal, you're just watching somebody stare at their shoes and have their own feelings. And they're not actually like letting the audience in yeah. To that process. So there's like an interesting balance that I see when I watch you of you're really showing people, you know, that internal process and you're letting it be theirs also like letting them have yeah their thing. So how do you like protect your interior life when you, when you're up there on the stage? Like putting your heart out there? That's it.Jess Klein:
Thank you. That was really kind of to say. Yeah, let's see. You know, a couple things came to mind when you were saying that one was that I didn't always protect. I think like my inner life, there was a time when I was living in New York city. I was writing and then recording this album called city garden. But I, I didn't, it was like I was putting so much, I was somehow putting so much out in the performances that I didn't someone. And then I've kind of trained myself to see the stage as like a safe place where I, I get to decide what happens. It's my choice to how much I let out. I don't really know how to describe what the shift was that I made, except that it just started to feel more about empowerment than exposure. like, it just was like, I started to. Look at it as I'm gonna feel good if I give my all to this, because these are my words and why wouldn't I just stand up there and, and sing them. Like, I really believe them and like use my voice and my body and the things I say to the audience to just embrace like the whole of who I am. I mean, like there's parts of me, I think that only ever come out on this stage. I dunno. mm-hmm which is probably not uncommon. It just feels more and more like, uh, I don't know, maybe it's just been getting older or maybe just finding, like finding more security and safety in my real life, relationships and situations has helped. It helped me know that what I do on stage is my choice. And it's not like this desperation that maybe was driving me when I was younger.Juliana Finch:
Yeah. There's definitely a difference between I would say like early career when you're getting up there and you're like, I hope people like me. Right. It's not that we don't hope people like us, you know, in what we're doing, but yeah. You get up there and that's your space. Yeah. And you're inviting them. You're inviting them in, not the other way around. Exactly.Jess Klein:
Yeah. That's exactly it.Juliana Finch:
I think that's really powerful and it's, it feels really good to be on a stage doing that, but I also think it feels good in the audience to see a performer like that. The audience also feels cared for. if the person, if the person on stage seems like they feel safe and confident, then the audience is like, good. We're in good hands. It's we're gonna have a good time, you know?Jess Klein:
Yeah. I think I totally agree with that. I like to see performances where the, yeah, I like to see that. And I mean, I guess I've, I've started to think of it. Like I wanna be up here giving people permission to feel what they feel. And the only way I know how to do that is just to do it myself.Juliana Finch:
Well, I wanna shift gears a tiny bit to talk about whether your experience of writing has changed based on living in North Carolina. Now you moved here from Austin a few years ago. Yeah. And we moved, we moved to this area around the same time. I think 20, I moved in 2016. Oh yeah. That's we moved? Oh yeah. So we, we came here at the same. and I wonder if, if you notice anything about your process being influenced by place at all? Mm.Jess Klein:
I think that I've had to sort of, I mean, I prefer living here. Like our life is much better in most ways, living here, but creatively. I've had to sort of figure out what works I've had to be more proactive in terms of figuring out what works for me. Versus I think in Austin, I was so like submerged in a culture of songwriting that it was, I didn't even have to think about it that much. It was just like, I could go out every night and see someone who would write at least pretty good songs, you know, mm-hmm if not great. And here, you know, the music scene is sort. Split up more, you know, there's Durham and there's chapel hill and there's Carrboro and there's Raleigh, and I've had to sort of figure out more proactively. I think what worked for me and part of that for me, was getting back in touch with my producer from Austin, cuz I knew that he would give me the feedback I needed. I was having trouble finding like the sort of feedback from another songwriter that I would trust fully maybe with my work. But other than that, I, I think it's given me like a, maybe a broader range of sounds to draw from. I mean, I, I don't know, you know, listen to a lot more maybe gospel influence stuff since living here. Yeah. Um, and bluegrass, for sure. So like you can't, you can't escape it, you know, living here and, and, and also just the sort of there. I mean, it's pretty broad strokes, but there's like just like a sweetness and a softness here that I don't associate with Austin, which was kind of has that. I don't, you know, whatever, whatever Texas is it. I mean, there, there are a lot of really cool people in Austin and people can be very friendly. But if you think about the landscape it's harsher and I think mostly just like, as a human being, like, it's just easier to live here. that makes any sense. The climate is easier and the, the cause of living is easier and people are friendlier and the pace is a little slower andJuliana Finch:
yeah, that, that is great. Cuz it ties into something that I feel like I talk about a lot just because I'm pretty passionate about it, which is that like this idea of struggle being idealized as part of artistic process. And we have this, like this idea of the starving artist, which I hate. Yeah. And I think it can torture us. We can torture ourselves, you know, of thinking that we're supposed to be like struggling, but I don't do very good work when I'm struggling. Something else I've noticed as I've gone on further with my work is like, actually, if I. Can afford groceries and rent and I feel emotionally stable. I wanna sit down and play guitar more, you know? yeah, totally. It's actually better. Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. And so like prioritizing being in a place where you feel cared for. Yeah. However, that means by the environment, by the relationships, by the house that you're in or whatever yeah. Is actually like really beneficial to the creative process, I think. Yeah,Jess Klein:
absolutely. Yeah. You know, we do, we really love, we love to read about the struggles that made this person, who they are, you know, or made this person write this thing or whatever. Um, but yeah, I don't know. I mean, I guess I feel like it sometimes takes me longer to complete something now that my life is good. mm-hmm but I also think I'm not like the love and the comfort I have just to like go. Yeah. I don't think, I don't think that. The myth of the tortured artist, like is sustainable.Juliana Finch:
Mm-hmm yeah. Like actually I'd like to be medicated for my mental health issues. I am better when that happens. Yes. Yeah. So when you're in a period of time, when you're not writing, it sounds like you have a pretty good handle on and have like befriended that place a little bit more. How are you, how do you care for your creative process when you're, what does it feel like? Do you recognize when one of those periods is happening or maybe once you're in it, and then how do you take care of yourself during that time so that you don't have, you know, that thing that we talked about a few minutes ago of like, oh, that's gonna be my last song that I've ever written.Jess Klein:
Yeah. I, you know, I feel like that shift only, maybe only happened to me really recently. I think that because maybe because of the pandemic or whatever, I've just finally learned if I'm able to rest, like, I'm just, I'm just gonna rest. Like, that is a good thing to do for my creative muscles for my body. And I think. It can kind of open up, like I said, like we were talking before about receptivity. It's like just allowing myself to see what inspires me just in terms of listening. It's almost like if you, yeah. Like if you think of finishing an album as a completion of a cycle, then it's like, you're just like born anew and it's like, oh, what, what could be inspiring to me now? I can just, I can just allow my mind to be totally open to what just, what am I drawn to? Like one thing I've sort of been drawn to kind of off and on in recent years, but feels really prominent to me now is like my ancestry. I'm really interested in my connection to my ancestors like that. You know, they were Russian Jews and they escaped, you know, persecution and death to come here. And then they built a relatively safe life and I've reaped the benefits of that. And that is a big part of how I define like my motivation to do activist things or to like speak to, I hate to say like social issues or something, but just like the shit we have going on, like the repression and everything. I've just had the time to just be like, what is drawing my interest now? And this is something, this is like an idea that's really inspiring me right now. So I just, because I'm not in the midst of like an intense cycle of writing. I just have the freedom to just sort of wander, you know, mentally until I stumble on something. That's interesting. And that's exciting to me. yeah.Juliana Finch:
I love the, this like reframing of that time as just like wide open possibility. Cuz that does feel exciting. Yeah. And like, oh, it's okay. If nothing is happening right now, because that means anything could happen. Totally.Jess Klein:
Yeah, totally. That's right. And I mean, I feel like it's so, especially. For people in creative careers, it's like a big stumbling block for me is when I'm like, well, when is, when am I gonna hear back from this person about this opportunity? And when am I gonna hear about whether this is a possibility in my job, in my career of art, but all that time that I might, you know, spend wondering when is someone else gonna step in and tell me whether or not I can do this career thing. That's time when I get to be instead, I could be just like, Hmm, what would I like thinking about, you know?Juliana Finch:
Yeah. Yeah. I love it. Well, Jess, this has been so awesome. Thank you so much for talking to me today. My pleasure. Thank you. Y'all Jess's newest album In the Arms of a Song is coming out in the fall. And I can't wait to hear it. And if Jess is coming through your town, you definitely need to go catch a show so you can cry in a really great way. And can't wait to see you play live again, Jess.Jess Klein:
Thank you. Likewise. I love The Other Girls I just love that song so much.Juliana Finch:
Oh, thank you so much. I appreciate it. Yeah.Tamara Kissane:
Established in 2017, artist soapbox is a podcast production studio based in North Carolina. Artist soapbox produces original scripted audio fiction and an ongoing interview podcast about the creative process. We cultivate aspiring audio Dramatists and producers, and we partner with organizations and individuals to create new audio content for more information and ways to support our work. Check out artistsoapbox.org or find us on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. The artist soapbox theme song is ashes by Juliana Finch