Jess Kauffman: Window to the Soul

I was blessed enough to befriend Jess Kauffman before I even heard her sing. I had a job where I worked with wonderful, young women and men and she was magnanimous enough to make time to volunteer at various workshops and weekend endeavors. I quickly learned how giving, gracious and all-around good she was. What I hadn’t yet discovered was her mesmerizing musical mastery.

Since she had supported me at my worksite I wanted to answer her altruistic attitude. One numbing night in a comfortable coffee shop in Athens, Ohio I witnessed the power and persuasion a performance is supposed to permit. Steaming cup of coffee in hand, that wasn’t what warmed me the most – Jess Kauffman’s music made me melt. I felt and found meaning in her folk music that has followed me ever since, and that was four years ago.

Jess plays music and performs from a place inside of her that heals the holes that you have. Her voice is smoky and significant – she is a sympathetic storyteller that not only sings but shares something about herself – her success and her solitude, her delight and her darkness. Her music made me feel as though I had just found a forbidden fortune, something I’d been foraging for but couldn’t find. She held the key to the capability of music, even in a coffee shop. She unlocked her soul and shined like a golden gift.

Since then I have found some other folk singers that dig their way into my deepest depths and blanket me in their bareness, like Alexi Murdoch, but listening to Jess perform for the first time was a reaffirming moment I knew that music was meant to be something more than words and melody.   She materialized that it could be a mirror and meaningful, and that a singer should do more than sing, but seduce you to see and share their soul, even in a room that only seats 30 studying students. What I wonderfully witnessed that night, sitting at a small table sipping strong coffee, was my first soulful singer. Jess now performs with the group Duke Junior & The Smokey Boots, and I reunited with her to get responses for some questions I’ve been waiting two years to ask:

Sara Fincham: When did you know – some people know that they’re outgoing or good in a crowd or a performer, but when did you know that you had soul, and then when and why did you decide to share it (and thank you for doing so!)?

Jess Kauffman: I’ve always loved to sing, but I was always pretty shy about it. I sang in choir at school, but was afraid of the spotlight. I never tried out for solos, never sang in front of anyone by myself. When I started playing guitar and singing, it was just a hobby. I only really played in front of my friends when I got the nerve. They were all very supportive, but I just assumed it was because they were my friends and were obligated to be nice to me about it.

A few years ago, one of my best friends made me promise her that I would play at an open stage night before she graduated from O.U. Reluctantly, I did it. I only played four cover songs, but I was a nervous wreck the entire time. Afterwards, I felt pretty good about it; it wasn’t as terrible as I had imagined.

A few months later, I started playing out at the open stage nights more regularly. But feeling comfortable with performing on stage took a long time for me to achieve. I still get a little nervous every now and then. The first time that I played my own song, I knew that this was something that I wanted to do… something that I really enjoyed. For a long time, I just sort of went along with things… I didn’t really know what I wanted or what I really enjoyed. I tried to blend in, but playing music helped me to establish myself, helped me to be more confident and define what I wanted and what I enjoyed, and suddenly, I wasn’t so concerned with blending in.

SF: Was it important to you to also learn an instrument to accompany your voice so you wouldn’t have to rely on somebody else, a band, and when did you start studying musical outlets other than singing?

JK: Yes, this was extremely important to me. In doing this, I discovered a lot about myself. I know that sounds cheesy, but it’s true. Playing and singing on my own, I was the one who decided what songs to play and how I wanted them to sound. I decided what music I liked and what I wanted to say. I feel like if I would have started with a band first, I would have faded into the background and would not have felt confident enough to speak my mind.

Like I said, I’ve been singing pretty much my whole life, in one form or another. But when I got to college, I didn’t have a choir to sing in anymore. At first, I didn’t think it was a big deal, but after a little while, I realized how much I missed singing. In late 2005, I got a guitar and started teaching myself to play. I’ve now been playing for about four and a half years.

SF: Were you one of those kids who was always singing around the house, did you always know you wanted to do it and were good at it, or was it something that you discovered you liked doing?

JK: One of my favorite toys when I was young was this little plastic tape player that had a microphone attached to it, so you could play a tape and sing along with it into the microphone. So yeah, I’ve always loved singing. I just never thought that it would become such a big part of me. I always knew that I liked it, but figuring out if I was any good was a different story.

SF: Was music a big part of your childhood/growing up, did your family play music a lot in the house when you were little, and how important was it to a younger you?

JK: My dad used to play guitar a lot and sing when I was a little girl. He has a really nice voice… I’ve always thought so. He never really played in front of anyone else though. He used to just sit in his office and play by himself. I really liked it; I started listening to the music by the artists that he covered because it reminded me of him singing. But other than that, I never really got that into music because I wasn’t really exposed to music that I really enjoyed; that came later, when I got to college.

SF: Who were your musical influences growing up and has that changed since you’ve gotten older – are your influences more encompassing/were they a specific genre of music, or were they well rounded then and now?

JK: Well, first, I have to mention my dad for this. He was the first person I ever saw singing and playing a guitar. When I started playing music, I was listening to all kinds of different music. I was really into all the old female jazz singers like Etta James, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald. When I first started writing, I was just getting more into folk music and old country music like Hank Williams, Bob Dylan, and Woody Guthrie.

I think my influences are pretty well rounded these days. Some musicians I’ve been listening to lately are Gillian Welch, David Rawlings and Eilen Jewell. My influences and the artists I listen to are constantly changing. I’m always looking for new music. Listening to different genres of music can sort of “wake up” different parts of my brain and help me to be more creative with the way I write and play songs. Another thing that has been great about playing out is getting to listen to and meet other musicians that I otherwise may not have discovered.

SF: Is performing a big part or passion for you – how important is it that you share the music that you are making?

JK: Performing is definitely something that I’m very passionate about now. It’s funny; I never would have thought that I would say something like that… never thought I would enjoy being on stage, but yes; it’s a very big part of me now. Especially as a songwriter, it’s important for me to share my music with people. There’s nothing quite like the feeling that comes along with writing a new song and performing it for the first time. And now that I’m performing with a band, it’s a completely different animal all together. Making music with other people is such a great experience.

SF: Is this something that you’d like to see expand – would you like to travel and go bigger with the band, or are you happy having success in a college community (even though you’re going to be playing with Loretta Lynn, which is a HUGE deal!)?

JK: I would love to see this expand! I’m going to play music for as long as possible, in one form or another. We’re (Duke Junior & The Smokey Boots) already starting to expand a little. We’re traveling a little more, playing bigger shows and bigger venues now. Personally, I want us to take this as far as we possibly can, but if that doesn’t turn out to be very far from we are right now… I will still love what we’re doing. Starting out in Athens has been wonderful. Had I started playing music in any other town, I honestly doubt that I would still be playing music today. This town has given me so much support and so many opportunities. I’m not sure that I would have gotten that anywhere else.

8.) Does it bother you, or let me rephrase – do you ever think about how your music is much more meaningful and vulnerable and just all around something that should be listened to, yet it’s hard for you to be heard, yet songs on rotation on the radio sometimes I feel like really don’t include more than the same 20 words repeated over and over and really do nothing to improve the world, but get played to the point of making me want to puke, and yet real musicians who have heartfelt music, like yourself, have a hard time getting heard? (and this made me have two more questions…)

JK: This is definitely an interesting topic. For a performer who’s just starting out, it’s usually a little more difficult to be heard; especially since, from time to time, I’m still playing at bars and joints where the music is just in the background. It’s a nice surprise when people are attentive and actually listen to what my music is saying. It is a little frustrating hearing the music that is being so heavily promoted over the radio and on television, when I know so many amazing musicians who write incredible music and (pardon my language) work their asses off to be heard, but may not ever really get the recognition that they deserve.

It’s a little heartbreaking, but I love playing music and most of the musicians I know love it to, so not being on the radio is not really a deterrent. There will always be pop music and music that doesn’t really mean anything, but there will also always be people out there who really love music, who seek it out and appreciate it. Like I said, I was fortunate enough to start out in a town that absolutely loves music. Though I’ve definitely had some low points in my music career, I’ve also had a lot of support. I try to take all the other stuff with a grain of salt. I enjoy the music that I’m playing and writing, that’s why I continue to play and write; that other people may like it as well is just a very welcome bonus.

SF: Before I make the assumption in the previous question I should ask has it been hard for you to be heard and how do you define success?

JK: For me personally, that I’m playing out at all is a big accomplishment. I’ve done more with my music than I ever thought possible. At times, it has been a struggle to be heard. I don’t think a lot of people realize how much work it is to be a musician. I put in a lot of time at open stage before I played an actual show, at which point, I started playing every show that I could get.

Forming that band was also a very exciting time for me. I’m extremely proud of my band and the music that we’re making. We’ve been performing together for about a year now, and it’s been a really great year for us. Putting out an album was a big milestone for me. We released our debut album, Bag of Bones, this past January.

I guess my definition of success is that I’m happy with what I’m doing, which I am. However, though I am happy with what I’m doing now, I’m never completely satisfied. I believe that is part of being a good musician. If I was completely satisfied with myself as a musician, I would never feel the need to get better. For me, being a musician is somewhat of a rollercoaster. It’s a constant internal struggle with feeling adequate verses inadequate; believing that I’m a good musician verses a lousy one. Regardless of all that though, I’ve found something that I really love to do and so every opportunity that I have to play music is another chance that I have to do what I love doing.


Jess Kauffman

Duke Junior and the Smokey Boots

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